She’s All That

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

It’s time to give props where props are due. This, to my supportive and enthusiastic wife, Ryen.

She’s all that. And more.

The more is something I never would have guessed when I met her twenty years ago at that Hillel dance in college. She was such a cutie then, cute as a little button. And exactly my type, with her long, long blond hair, her great smile and bright blue eyes and thin, petite body. Features that she’s kept to this day. I have to admit, what grabbed me first were her looks.

I knew she read a lot, but I also knew she read the kind of novels I didn’t read, like…historical romance. And she watched a lot of television, which wasn’t really my thing, since I had just come out of film school and was buried in the Gigantic Technicolor Epics of World Cinema.

Her background, however, would sneak up and save me.

Years into our relationship I began working as a development executive in Hollywood. Soon I was reading two screenplays every night after work and fifteen to twenty on the weekends. We got married, and I realized that if we were going to make this relationship thing work we were going to need to find a way to reduce the workload. The way I had it figured, if we split that “weekend” read between us, with the two of us reading Friday night and all Saturday day and night, we’d have Sundays off. I gave her screenplays to read and asked her for a verbal synopsis, or pitch, of each screenplay. If the screenplay was good, or if the subject matter seemed appropriate for the film company that employed me, I would read it myself. Before long she became my “ghost reader.”

And we had Sundays off.

What surprised me, however, was that she was really, really good. From the start. No learning curve. Her sense of dramatic escalation, plot, character and dialogue stood out as something exceptional, something I rarely saw, even though I was surrounded by people whose job it was to analyze and develop story for films.

When I wrote BOULEVARD, Ryen read every word, sentence and chapter behind me, every night. She found the subject matter disturbing; this wasn’t the kind of stuff she liked to read. But she got it. She knew where I was going and what I needed to do to get there. And when I pulled punches she caught them. When I skirted the darkness she turned me around to face it.

I’ve never encountered anyone with such a natural sense of plot. And I think a lot of it came from her total immersion in television as a child, combined with her addiction (and that’s what it was – I bet you didn’t think I could get the word addiction into yet another blog!) for historical romances. Both forms of storytelling adhere to specific formulae regarding primary plot development, subplot development (usually a romantic plot-line), plot points, and standard three (sometimes four) act structure. Ryen didn’t know any of this. But she knew all of it. She knew it so well she didn’t have to think about it.

And so I’ve discovered that my wife is not just a supportive mother to our two young boys, whom she home-schools. She is not just a sensitive and understanding partner who endures the dramatic mood swings of an over-anxious writer. She is not just the perfect cheerleader to my occasional touchdown pass, or the chummy grade-school coach who’s there to pick me up when I fall. The girl is all that. And more.

Was it fate, then, that the young girl I met at the Jewish dance would turn out to be the brilliant, natural story editor I would need in order to find success as a novelist twenty years later?

I need her now more than ever. As I drown in the research of my second novel, as I write and rewrite scenes and chapters that will never see the light of day. I depend on her to review, organize, and focus my thoughts into coherent lines of plot and real-life characters whose dilemmas demand real-life empathy.

But don’t think it’s easy. She’s got her opinions and, by God, she’s always right. If you think it’s tough receiving criticism from your friends, try getting it from your wife. All…the…time. I put my foot down recently when she suggested that I correct the spelling of “labridoodle” in my bio. “It’s spelled with an ‘a’,” she said. “Labradoodle.”

“It should’ve been spelled with an ‘i’ to begin with,” I insisted. “It’s a made up word anyway, for a made up dog, a Disney dog, a dog that consists of parts of dogs that should never have been combined. Labridoodle is cuter and it’s the way I choose to write this silly new word to describe our silly new dog.”

But she won’t let it go. For my labridoodle “win” I have to give her a two-page rewrite on the sex scene I’m writing for my next book, because the scene reads, “too cute, too silly, too…Disney.”

We spent most of last weekend tearing apart my next book’s plot, again, and rebuilding it into a story worth telling. It was a painful and humbling experience. She took the inspired mish-mash I had and gave it direction. I would lend her out to every writer I know, but I’m afraid she’d kill them. She delivers brash bullets of truth. She tears my heart out and feeds it to the demons she keeps in her tote bag, with her sharpened pencils and antibacterial hand gel.

The girl’s an ego-killer. But she wouldn’t do it if she didn’t care, if she didn’t want my work to be the best it could be. And, shit, it works. She’s got something, man. Something that eludes me. I’d be a fool not to listen.

So, Ratis, who do you turn to when you want an honest, intelligent perspective on your work? Who watches your “blind side?” Is it your editor? Spouse? College professor? Another writer? A workshop?

17 thoughts on “She’s All That

  1. Brett Battles

    Steve, as I’ve mentioned before, you’re a very lucky guy. Ryen is wonderful on all fronts.

    As for me, I don’t have a Ryen in my life who could do that for me. But what I do have is a fantastic editor who never let’s me get away with anything!

    Reply
  2. Karen in Ohio

    Actually, since Labradoodle is a combination of Labrador and poodle, Ryen is spot on, and so is the silly name.

    Stephen King says his wife Tabitha is his best reader and editor and gut check, and Dick Francis’s wife did so much to help him that she could be considered a co-author. We have an elderly author friend who has typed all of his more than 30 books with two fingers; his wife has always cleaned up his prose and been as much a part of his writing as his typewriter and then computer have been.

    What a gift she has. And what a good husband you are for acknowledging it in a public forum.

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  3. karen from mentor

    Glad your wife is a keeper. And that she’s kept you as well. šŸ™‚ Twenty plus years is nothing to sneeze at.

    I recently had five readers of my WIP. I got feedback, really great feedback from all five of them. The first four said that they loved it and that it was a great read and a page turner, but each had some small thing to offer that I hadn’t thought of. I went back through with an eye to the comments of the first four and found a lot of things that I could make better, clearer, stronger.
    The fifth said that after 1/2 hour of reading that she was out of her comfort zone and stopped reading. (I’m assuming it was the sex, I didn’t ask)
    I told her to put the mss back into an envelope and mail it back to me and not think another thing about it. And LET IT GO. That told me more than anything else that I have learned so far as a writer. That I can accept criticism of my work, use what I can from it, and not obsess about what I can’t change. So I seem ready to face the harder challenge of publishing houses and the myriad rejections that I will inevevitably receive.

    The fruit of my womb is my hardest critic. She WOKE ME UP recently to tell me that one of my characters couldn’t be a forensic pathologist because he was two years too young to have had enough schooling. That was GREAT. That she cared that much to research a detail like that……oh, and by the way? She’s impatiently waiting for the rewrite. The crowd says AWWWWWWWWWWW.
    Karen šŸ™‚

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  4. toni mcgee causey

    Wow, Stephen, *I* wanna marry Ryen. šŸ˜‰

    Actually, one of my toughest critics is my husband, who has to patiently listen to me talk about the story and the various plots. He catches the missteps in story and rhythm and logic early on. He’s rock-solid on story development (lots of TV and movies for him, too) and he’ll catch a logic error and make creative suggestions I wouldn’t have thought of. (I took him to a local writers’ reading group and by the end of the night, all of the writers were gathered around him, telling him where they were having problems in their stories. I briefly considered renting him out. šŸ˜‰ )

    I have a couple of writing buddies that I’ll send sections to–particularly at the beginning of a novel, just to see if I’m accomplishing what I think I’m accomplishing. Two in particular were invaluable on the last book because I was writing it in a compressed time-frame and they sped up the process for me. My editor is tough but fantastic. And I always show about four or five readers (some who are fans) the draft before it’s going in for copy edits–they catch stuff everyone else missed.

    I know there are writers out there who don’t show their work to anyone. I think I’m too used to the workshop structure I had in college to go without any response. Once I feel solid on a piece, though, I’ll generally dive down into the cave and disappear and just write.

    Reply
  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Brett – it’s funny the additional things that come from an editor, the nuances. I’m lucky that my editor also has great instincts.

    Karen – thanks for weighing in on the Labridoodle debate. I hope someone’s keeping score…

    Karen from Mentor – And the publishing houses aren’t going to tell you why they send that little rejection notice, either. Except in a form letter. I agree, it’s always best to work out the kinks after receiving constructive criticism from friends, relatives, other writers and readers before taking it to the publishers. The fruit of your womb sounds great, sounds caring. I can’t wait until I can let my boys read my work. They’re going to have to be in their late teens before that happens, however. Sometimes I wish I was writing the next Harry Potter.

    Toni – I’m down with you on all that. I actually had six readers for every draft of Boulevard. A few were writers I’ve known for twenty years or so. The others were readers. Then a couple LAPD cops read the last draft or two. I didn’t have an editor then, until I sold the book. Then he came in for the final touches. I’m treating the second book differently – it’s just my wife for feedback – she’s taking the place of those early six – and myself. I feel more confident about my writing, now that I’ve had the opportunity to work with my editor on the first book. Before I turn it in to my editor I’ll give it to three or four SFPD guys for feedback. Then I’ll get my editor’s notes. It does seem to take a village, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I seem to have a different set of beta readers for every book. For THE HARROWING it was an intensive critique group in LA called the Westside Writers Group – different set of people now but one of the founders was Ray Bradbury!

    I certainly would never have published so fast without their amazing help.

    Then I had a very small critique group for THE PRICE, two college friends and my sister. Again, invaluable.

    For BOOK OF SHADOWS, several author friends have given me amazing notes: Laura Benedict, Brynn Bonner, Sarah Shaber and Rhodi Hawk.

    And I do a lot of spitballing with my NC mystery writer pals: Margaret Maron, Mary Kay Andrews, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, and Brynn Bonner.

    THANK GOD we have so many people so willing to help.

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  7. Alli

    My brother is my best critic. We were the worst of enemies as kids but are the best of friends as adults. My brother is writer also, and we use each other to bounce ideas and problems off and to critique each others’ MS’s. In fact, we work so well together we’re planning to write an MS as a team!

    I also have a couple of pubbed authors who help me out with plot problems and read sections of the MS and give valuabel feedback.

    I have a nice little team of cheerleaders willing to share their knowledge and passion and help me achieve my dream of becoming a pubbed author. I am very lucky, indeed.

    Reply
  8. Lisa Hendrix

    I have been blessed with two critique partners over the past years. Sheila Roberts (LOVE IN BLOOM, St. Martin’s Press) and R. Scott Shanks, Jr. (APOLOGY, at http://writersweekly.com/contest/1stsummer08.html ). Sheila always kept me honest about the time I put in, Scott drills right to the source of story and keeps me pointed the right way. Plus it’s good to have a guy’s VP when writing heroes.

    Reply
  9. Louise Ure

    I still call upon Jude Greber, the woman who taught me to write, as my first and best reader. She keeps me honest.

    But Stephen, I want Ryen to be writing her own book now! She sounds like she’s got the chops. She’d be a natural.

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  10. Pari

    Stephen,
    I really enjoyed your post and would love, love, love to meet Ryen!

    My readers now are my critique group. I’ve written about them before — all published, all in different genres and all trusted critics and friends who’ll tell me the truth in a kind enough way that I can hear it.

    My agent is also someone I trust very much with content. I always listen to what he has to say even if I don’t take all of his suggestions.

    And I DREAM of having an editor someday who’ll "keep me honest" too.

    Reply
  11. Pari

    I realized my last post was weird. Let me clarify; I’m in a critique group and those people are my first readers.

    I don’t even have the excuse of it being too early in the morn here . . .

    Reply
  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Louise – Ryen will have her own writing career someday, I’m certain of it. She’s always written, but has had a tough time setting the work down and saying "this is done." She does have her hands full home-schooling the kids, which has become her primary focus. But it won’t be too long before she has something done that we can shop around town. Maybe two or three years down the road.

    Pari – very cool that you have this group of writers who offer criticism. I think we all have that, now. All the writers who gave me input on Boulevard are screenwriters, so I kind-of missed the perspective coming from authors. And so, my first few drafts read a lot like a screenplay. I read a novel a week for about two years while I was writing, hoping that, through osmosis, the craft of novel-writing would descend upon me. It did help a lot – Updike, Walter Tevis, Jim Thompson, Steinbeck — helped steer me in the right direction.

    Alex – I find it wonderful that you and so many others have had a sibling to perform this duty. I look at my boys now – two years and two days apart – and I think of the kind of creative relationship they will have going forward. They both want to write. Noah also concentrates on art (goes to classes) and Ben focuses on piano. Maybe we’ll all do a multi-media musical one day. (Maybe a circus?)

    Thanks Alli and Lisa for your feedback as well!

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  13. karen from mentor

    Stephen,
    I do have to say that I stapled two pages of a six page sex scene together and asked her not to read it until after A) I’m dead or B) she’s the age I am now. LOL
    (she’s 20)
    She was fine with that…..although she told me once it’s published, all bets are off…..

    this was a great post

    Karen

    Reply
  14. Paula

    i just loved the blog…it is so true and touching..
    it makes a mother proud…as you Steve are talking about my daughter.
    She is so into reading, as a young teenager i could not tear her away from her books, as
    she was always reading.
    We were always reading in the family. Books i talked about when she was very
    young she still remembers, and they were not childrens books, not at all, some were
    on the adult side. very adult re someone memoirs.
    I am very glad she is of great help to you.
    thank you Steve

    Reply
  15. Rob Gregory Browne

    Late to the party, but just wanted to say great post. I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t show his work to his wife until it’s already in print. Don’t know why. Probably because hearing her say she didn’t like something would be too devastating.

    Doesn’t bother me if a critic doesn’t like a book, doesn’t bother me if an Amazon review is unkind, but if my wife were to not like it…. sigh.

    Thank god she knows how to lie.

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  16. Allison Brennan

    Wow, what a fantastic testimony. I’m going to have to fight Toni for Ryen! This story sounds a lot like Stephen and Tabitha King’s relationship. She’s his first reader and best/worst critic.

    I had a crit group before I was published, but when I started writing three books a year I couldn’t give back to them, nor could I expect them to keep up with my schedule. I write to deadline, so I don’t have any down time to send the book out.

    Fortunately, my editor and I have a symbiotic relationship and she’s both my first reader and my best/worst critic. She’s made me a stronger writer. But it’s my second editor (long story) who gets my book after revisions and asks me the tough questions that ultimately makes the book better.

    I do run scenarios by key people–Toni and my former crit partner Karin Tabke–who both never pull punches and are brutally honest. In fact, I sent Toni the prologue of my first supernatural thriller because it sets up the "world" and three of the main characters and it had to make sense. I’m so glad I did, because she really picked out the rough spots and asked me questions I hadn’t even thought of!

    My husband has read all my books, but only after they’re published. I’ll brainstorm with him, but he always wants to be too nice to the characters and never put them through the ringer. He’s good to run complex scenarios by looking for holes.

    Reply

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