Feel Good Feedback from a Writing Coach

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...
William Faulkner’s work space. This is not what my workspace looks like. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever send something in to a professional writing coach or editor for a development critique and get a warm, fuzzy feeling from their response? I haven’t. But I did just read Brian Klems’ Confessions of a Story Coach on Writer’s Digest and it did make me feel better about my writing.

The part that warmed the cockles of my heart? “… we almost always suck at assessing our own work.” I know, it’s silly, but one of the things that bothers me is letting my writing out the door for others to see and then looking at it a few months later and realizing how deficient it was. It’s always nice to get a reminder from a pro that at least this isn’t an uncommon failing. More practically, it felt good to realize that I do (I think) finally get many of the other points he hammered on.

One of the interesting bits was his distinction between concept and premise. It isn’t one I’ve made, or for that matter, have any of the professionals I’ve worked with. In Fantasy Stories that Inhabit the Setting, I went on about premise, although in Brian’s terminology, it was really concept that I meant. I’m not sure I can train myself to refer to it as concept, or that it really matters, if so many other writing pros call it premise, but the contrast he makes was interesting:

Concept is the centerpiece, the notion, the Big Idea, that imbues a premise with compelling energy.  Concept is not story, premise is story.

A story about two people falling in love… that’s the beginning of a premise.  A story about two people falling in love in a nunnery, or during Army boot camp and one is the drill instructor, or one is a ghost… those are concepts.

Berbigão-comum // Common Cockle (Cerastoderma ...
Berbigão-comum // Common Cockle (Cerastoderma edule) (Photo credit: Valter Jacinto | Portugal)

Seems like he muddles “his concept is not story” at the end but, regardless, it’s a worthwhile point to make and his calling out premise/concept as a key element of good craft makes me feel like the boy in the classroom praised by his teacher (“Mom, after twenty years, I finally figured it out!”)

Brian’s post is a good piece on a writing coach’s perspective on what makes a story work. It’s short, to the point, and worth a look.

As a bonus feature today: what is a cockle? The main definition appears to be shell and comes ultimately from Greek but more directly from the French coquille (as in Coquille St. Jacques, very yummy! And low-cal, too, in some alternate universe.) The shells of my heart? Somehow warming the cockles of my heart is, what, piercing the shell? But there’s another meaning, from The Free Dictionary:

5. (Engineering / Mechanical Engineering) a small furnace or stove cockles of one’s heart one’s deepest feelings (esp in the phrase warm the cockles of one’s heart)

I’m guessing somewhere along the line a small engineering stove was named a cockle because it looked something like a shell (we engineers are found of such slang, although it is often off-color. Don’t ask what we call a large power cable.) So warming the cockles is lighting the furnace in your heart, an interesting image, I suppose. But then someone on ChaCha claims it comes more from the fact that some shells (cockle’s main meaning) are heart-shaped and thus the linkage. I like the furnace tie better but I couldn’t really find anything definitive after thorough research of the topic (a la, the modern High School student’s research: “I looked around the web for 10 minutes, really 5 minutes if you don’t count the recipe for Coquille St. Jacque I looked up.”)  The closest I got to a real answer was on Glossologics.

Who knows, maybe it is a bit of both: the furnace was named a cockle because it was heart-shaped and hard, like the shell. Heart shape -> heart + furnace -> the warmth of love, together you get “warm the cockles of my heart”, a phrase known by all and understood by not too many. I’m sure it sounded fresher the first time it was used but I have to wonder if it really made any more sense to audiences, even then.

WordPress actually suggested I tag this post with “cockle”. I almost did until I realized there are probably zero people following the cockle tag and it would just clutter up my tag cloud, more of a cockle chiller than a warmer, really. And it also recommended I tag “Nancy Pelosi” so maybe I just confused the hell out of WordPress.