O Me of Little Faith

You may recall that I finished my last manuscript of 2008 right before Christmas. It’s called O Me of Little Faith and is a book for Zondervan about my personal struggles with faith and doubt. I haven’t yet turned it in to my editor — my official deadline is still a few weeks away — because I had given it to several people to read. My first “audience.” Scary.

A few are family members who have done this before (including my wife, who is the first reader of all my books). But for this book I enlisted several “outside” friends so I could have some fresh eyes and get fresh feedback.

What do I look for in this first group of readers? Primarily, I want people who I think will read the manuscript carefully. Someone who will do more than just read it and say, “Sure, it was good. I loved it! You’re awesome.” I love those types of readers too, of course, but feedback and commentary is what strengthens a manuscript. So I sent it to several really smart people from a variety of backgrounds. A couple were professional editors and writers. One is a licensed psychologist. One is a federal prosecutor.

Once the manuscripts come back to me — hopefully dotted with commentary — I go through the process of revising the original based on those comments. A lot of the time I’m just making grammar corrections and fixing typos and, at my wife’s request, easing back on the self-deprecation. (She thinks I exaggerate it and, like a crutch, rely on it too often. She’s right. I’m such an idiot.)

Usually I’m pretty open to these comments, because I trust the readers so much and tell them I want them to be honest — which is kinda the point of the whole exercise. Occasionally, though, I’m resistant, because I’m the proud daddy of the manuscript. No one likes to see negative things said about their literary babies.

But one of my readers had a big problem with an illustration I used to open the chapters about the causes of doubt and the power it receives from our circumstances (context). That illustration was about how, during the semester of 9th-grade biology during which we studied dissection, a few other guys and I had dissected a fetal pig waaay more than we should have. Like, we removed its nose and tail and rolled a couple of eyeballs around the lab table. I felt bad about it — still do, to be honest — but the nature of the metaphor was that the amputated nose and eye were really freaky and disgusting at first, but after awhile they became less so. The further removed they were from their context, the less weird they were. Less sickening.

Or something like that. I’ll be perfectly honest with you and admit that I chose that illustration mainly because I thought “Ravaging the Fetal Pig” would make a wonderfully quirky chapter title. I can’t tell you the exact chain of thought, but I may have come up with that title and then thought, “Now, what metaphor can I glean from that story, and how might it work in my book?” The federal prosecutor called me on it, though, and suggested that the illustration just wasn’t working — it was suggesting something different about context and distance and familiarity than I wanted it to suggest. And the pig story was distracting anyway.

It made me stop and think. Was the story there because it was the absolute best illustration for the thoughts I wanted to convey in that chapter? Or was it there because 1) it was a weird story that could result in a compelling chapter title; and 2) I could marginally connect it to the subject of the chapter.

That, friends, is bad writing. So I spent part of Friday working on a new illustration for the chapter, which resulted in having to retitle the chapter in question. The pigs are gone entirely. I submitted it to the prosecutor — and he thought it was infinitely better.

Writers talk a lot about the pain and necessity of editing their work. Sometimes it’s just the small stuff — fixing typos and making sure your subject and verb agree. Both other times it’s big stuff, like a chapter title and a lynchpin illustration. Sometimes you have to get rid of those, even if you once loved them. Some writers and journalism professors indelicately describe this process as “killing your babies,” because it’s difficult to give the axe to something you love. Something you’ve spent a lot of time crafting. It’s difficult to step away from the beautiful words and phrases and admit that they’re not as strong as you thought they were. But if you have the intestinal fortitude to less loose a round or two of literary infanticide, then your work will be stronger.

I’m hoping that’s the case here. Thanks, Federal Prosecutor, for telling me my fetal pig illustration wasn’t as clever as I’d previously thought.

Have you ever had to destroy something you loved and start over for the sake of improvement? (Please note: I’m only speaking metaphorically here. No Old Yeller stories, please.)

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