On Making Sense of Critiques

Let’s be honest: taking critique can be tough. It’s something every writer needs to learn how to handle, and it only happens with experience.

 

Sometimes I go in to a critique knowing that there’s something—an exchange of dialogue, a transition, rushed action—I need to work on. It’s encouraging when readers agree it’s an issue without my prompting them. I trust myself as a writer more because I’ve identified a valid problem. Simply hearing my readers put the problem into their own words can get me closer to a solution than I would have reached on my own.

 

Other times, I learn that readers aren’t connecting to the part of the work that means the most to me, or that they don’t understand what the piece is trying to be about. That stinks, but when I accept it, it always makes the piece stronger.

 

There are two important things I’ve learned recently:

 

  1. You can recognize the issue a critique presents, without agreeing with the proposed solution.
  2. Sometimes the reader isn’t the right one for your piece.

 

Some of my critiques have given me great ideas for how to remedy issues in my manuscript. Others have clarified where the problems lay and I’ve decided not to use the suggested solutions, because they were not aligned with the larger purpose of the novel.

 

This is not a decision that can be made emotionally or reactively. It’s not about whether or not the critiquer was “right”—it’s about what best serves the novel.

 

I usually still change something, since there was something disengaged the reader. It may be a sign that I need to rethink what I believe the novel is trying to be about.

 

The farther I get into my current novel, the more I understand what it is—not just what I want it to be. In the years I’ve been working on this manuscript, some elements have stayed the same, but become sharper. Others have changed dramatically. The more willing I am to let go and let the thing move on its own, the faster I make progress toward a more cohesive and more engaging novel.

 

As far as point 2, consider that my novel falls into the category of “foodie fiction.” Early on, I had a reader suggest I cut a scene in which the main character is cooking a meal. This reader thought the scene went on too long and wasn’t important for the rest of the story. In fact, it is a pivotal scene in establishing the character, and one I’ve gotten good feedback on from my first round of submissions.

 

Was the scene not right for my novel? No, the novel wasn’t right for that reader. And that’s okay. It wasn’t the kind of thing he’d read before, and he didn’t connect with it. That doesn’t mean much of anything other than that.

 

By learning to make better use of critique, I am gaining confidence in my ability to identify and fix issues in my writing. My novel doesn’t need to be for everyone. It does, however, need to be the best version of itself for its audience.

Editing On Purpose

I’ve been editing my first novel again recently. This is not news.

 

What is news is the conversation my writers’ group has been having recently on how we incorporate feedback in our revision processes. Those who have responded use different methods I won’t get into here, but there’s a similarity at their core: these writers edit with intention.

 

Each critique in our group consists of a conversation that lasts forty-five minutes to an hour. Within forty-eight hours, each member strives to send written feedback—the notes composed before the conversation, for the most part—as well. This means that post-critique, a writer can have eight documents to compile and make sense of. It’s a gift to have this volume of consistent feedback, but using it can be a challenge. So how best to go about it?

 

One way is to organize the critiques by concern, that is, consider all the comments on dialogue together, then those on character X, then those on character X’s relationship with character Y, and so on. Then the writer can pass through the manuscript once per concern with focus and intention.

 

When I was editing my novel earlier today, I took this advice to heart. There were a couple things I knew I needed to fix, but then I ran out of steam. I started reading through the manuscript just looking for something, anything to fix. I didn’t know what I was looking for, nor did I have an idea of how I would remedy it. I started to get discouraged.

 

So I stepped back and returned to my critiquer’s notes. I identified something I agreed needed to change and went in and worked on that. Then, onto the next note. There will be a time later to read through the whole and see how all the pieces work together, and I’m sure there will be more to do then. Isn’t there always?

 

With this technique, I got a lot more done in a lot less time, plus I’m fired up to do it again. As with any goal, having a plan—even if it’s one you’ll deviate from—is worthwhile. And at the start of a new year, when everything seems fresh and possible, making the most of the moment is a great practice to get into.

 

 

The Frightening Reality of Revision

Yesterday was Halloween, which means today is Day One of National Novel Writing Month. Having completed the challenge last November and CampNaNo in April, I’m not participating this time around. Instead, I’m engaging in something perhaps even more terrifying than trying to write 50,000 words in a short month with a long weekend: I’m editing my first novel for the jillionth time.

I have been working on this novel since my five-year-old was this big:

IMG_2909

They say the first novel is one to throw out, but I’ve been encouraged to keep at this one, and I’m glad I am. I made a bunch of large-scale changes when I finally revised it in September. I felt good about them as I wrote, and I was thrilled that I finished before the stroke of midnight on October 1.

But as this month has passed, I’ve grown skeptical. I haven’t allowed myself a single peek at the revision in thirty-one days. What’s really in there? Did it work? Did it fail? What still needs reworking? Will I be able to see it?

Now, I dive back in. I’m nervous, but I’m reminded how far I’ve come over the last four and a half years of working on this thing. I have beta readers waiting for the revision December 1, and I’ve set myself the reward of ordering a 2016 planner when the new revision is complete.

So today, my thirty-day challenge begins. Once I’m in it, I think I’ll be more excited than scared. But I’m going to have a bowl of fun-size Kit Kats by my side, just in case.

Cleaning Creative House

Summer is drawing to a close, and even though only one of my three kids is in school, it feels like we’re in a transition period. My response to this, creative type that I am, is to go head-on into finishing a bunch of stalled projects and planning to start new ones come the change in season.

I am an avid/obsessive knitter, and this week I will be finishing up a Christmas stocking, a purse, a dress, and a sweater. I may sew some shorts and a pincushion, too. You know, for good measure.

I have tried to reflect on where this creative burst is coming from (last night I stained two end tables that had sat incomplete in our living room for the majority of the last year). Part of it is that the change of seasons does something to my mind, which likes to compartmentalize—this happens here, then that, then we’ll be ready for this other thing. I recognize life doesn’t work that way, and that the changes often bring us much more exciting experiences than we would have come up with on our own.

Still, I like to have a plan. If you don’t believe me, you could ask my kids. My four-year-old asked for a calendar for his birthday. My two-year-old regularly suggests what he’d like to eat at his next meal, finishing with, “Is that a good plan, Mom?”

A good plan is one that gets the job done, but that allows flexibility for real life to happen. A good plan means there’s a realistic goal and a reasonable amount of time to accomplish it—with the understanding, of course, that something entirely different might take place instead.

For me, a good plan gets the juices going, gives room for me to produce, without causing upheaval in the rest of my life. At this point, it means completing what I’ve started, seeing something (somethings, rather) through to the end, so that my mind, my plate are fresh and clear.

I have a plan to edit two novels in the remainder of the year. I’m hopeful that one, if not both, will be ready for beta readers by New Year’s Eve. But then, something else might take me on another path. And being willing to follow it, if it’s promising, is the best plan I can manage.

Editing, When You’re Four

The other day, my four-year-old overheard me telling my husband I have a lot of work to do to edit my latest NaNo novel. Always helpful and convinced he can do anything (and be the best at it), he piped up, “I’ll edit it for you, Mommy.”

I said sure and thanked him for his help. A moment later, he spoke up again.

“What’s editing?”

Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? I have 50,000 words that I’m sure aren’t in the right order, and most of which probably won’t even stay on the page. If there are strict rules to editing, I haven’t figured them out. It’s a layered process of cutting what isn’t helping the whole and adding in other pieces to make each line sing. It’s push and pull. It’s frustrating. It’s hard to know when you’re finished. But it’s a necessity.

Before editing, all I have is a first draft. That’s something commendable, for sure, but the “first” part sticks out to me. It will probably be months before I can put “final” on this draft. Often, the time goals I set are too ambitious. But every time I sit down to work on it, I get a bit closer.

Sure, there are days it seems that handing it off to my little guy might not be such a bad idea. What I really need, though, is his attitude—that I can do anything, and because this novel is mine and mine alone, I am going to be best editor for it.

What Lauren Oliver Learned While Writing a Novel

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Oliver on her experiences as an editor, a writer, and the founder of literary incubator Paper Lantern Lit.

 

In October of last year, I heard Ms. Oliver speak on a panel at the Boston Book Festival. She discussed her writing honestly and humbly, and I left inspired, encouraged, and wanting to know more. I’m excited to share our conversation here, as the newest installment of this publishing-professional-turned-novelist interview series. Grab a pen, because you’re going to want to take notes.

New Author Photo

 

Before you were a published author, you were an editorial assistant at a YA imprint. What did you learn there that fueled or challenged your own path to publication?

Before I worked as an editor, I was writing long and structure-less books tedious in their description and characterizations. Working for a commercial YA imprint actually taught me about story for the first time—about the need for tension and resolution, about the way that the components of narrative work.

 

You still work with authors as one of the founders of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary incubator. How does working with other writers’ work encourage your own writing? 

I just like being immersed in the field. I have a great macro sense of the industry because working at PLL requires it, which helps, I think, to keep my antennae up. And working with creative people inspires creativity. As humans, we’re emulators and sponges: we absorb the attitudes of the people around us.

 

PLL develops ideas and then pairs them with talented writers to craft manuscripts. How does this method relate to the way you write? Do you always have an outline first?

I don’t. I very rarely begin with an outline, although I always do develop some kind of outline to work from or within ultimately. Otherwise I end up reverting to kind of meandering ruminations about the nature of people. Nobody wants to read that.

 

I was fortunate to hear you speak on a panel titled “Fiction with a Twist” at the Boston Book Festival in October 2014. There, you remarked that you’ve gotten tangled up in reactions and sales of your books, and you intend to spend time becoming a better writer. Part of that will entail becoming a student again, enrolling in graduate classes. What in particular are you looking to retrain in yourself, and how?

I just want to get better. I want to get better, and I want to be able to separate what I’m doing from my expectations of its commercial success in order to take more risks and push my boundaries.

 

You said at the festival that you read very broadly. Are there certain genres or titles you intend to study as part of the “retraining” process?

No, although there are books I’ve been meaning to read or re-read—Chris Adrian’s short stories, for example; Love In the Time of Cholera; Wolf Hall—so I’ll tackle those. But I’m always reading so widely and with such voraciousness, it’s not so much a question of my reading habits as it is my writing habits.

 

Do you have a single writing process or a different procedure for each of your audiences (middle-grade, young adult, and adult)? What did you try to figure out what works for you? Are you satisfied with your process, or do you intend to change things as you “retrain” yourself?

My writing process is the same, roughly, in that I always write my way in to the world and the characters before thinking overall about structure. I am trying to get even more granular on a sentence level, to read everything out loud in revisions, to be merciless about what I cut. And I’m trying to get smarter about research and the way I use it.

 

At the festival, you said you always feel you are attempting to do something you’re not quite qualified to do. Do expect that to change? What aspect of writing will always be a challenge, and what do you think you are capable of mastering, or at least improving upon?

I hope it doesn’t change, honestly. I hope I’m always stretching myself and trying to be ambitious when it comes to my work. If you’re not attempting to grow, what’s the point, really? I think that progress probably looks like punctuated equilibrium—I might “master” an element of storytelling for a period of years only to have a completely and revolutionary new feeling or response or reaction subsequently that leads me to become a neophyte again.

 

It was encouraging to hear you say that writing is a calling—you simply have to do it—and that you are looking to restore the joy for yourself in that. In which part of the journey of writing a novel do you find the greatest joy? 

I mean, there is a joy embedded in the daily practice itself. There is joy in getting a sentence right, in getting a character right, in nailing down a detail. The joy and the difficulty are intertwined, I think.

 

I can’t wait to read your next novel, Vanishing Girls, due out March 10, 2015. It will be your tenth full-length book published. What did the experience of writing and publishing the other nine contribute to making this one what it is?

I think it’s obvious from the evolution of my books that over the course of my career I’ve become increasingly interested in things I tended to dismiss at the start, like detailed world-building and the way structure informs story and vice versa. I’ve tried to refine and distinguish the characters’ voices in Vanishing Girls, and that preoccupation is even more evident in my next book.

 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thanks for having me!

 

Where can readers find you online? (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)

All of the above! All of my info is on www.laurenoliverbooks.com, including information that directs you to my social media.

 

Thank you, Lauren!

New Year’s and All That

Here we are, at the dawn of 2015. I must be intimidated by multiples of five, because that number feels so much more dramatic than 2014 did. It sounds like a Year Something Happens. And maybe it will be. Or maybe I need to take the significance of dates less seriously.

My family is young yet, and we are still establishing our traditions. On New Year’s Eve, I brought up the topic of resolutions, and was surprised to find that not only my husband, but also our four-year-old had something in mind. My husband has a plan to get more sleep, which I am totally behind. My son has resolved to play every day, but also to work . . . hard. Our two-year-old was on board for the playing part, but didn’t mention the work. Good goals all around.

My goals are more plentiful and strongly influenced by the nesting impulse of the third trimester of a pregnancy. I intend to complete a revision on my first novel in the next two months, before our next child is due. In September or October, I’d like to run another half marathon. And in November, I want to win NaNoWriMo again, this time with a middle-grade or young adult novel. In the meantime, I’ve compiled a sizable reading list, which prompted a satisfying bookshelf reorganization (see nesting, above). I want to edit my NaNo novel as well, but haven’t set a solid goal for that work.

I would love to see something I’ve written get published this year. But having experienced the process of submission and rejection last year, I am more comfortable with the time it will take to produce writing of real, honest quality. I am getting close; I am on the way. I hope that with more experience, my writing and editing will become more efficient, but I realize that will only happen with practice.

So this year is about continuing the journey I’ve been on for the last four years. Or perhaps better, the journey I’ve been on my whole life.

This year, I will read. I will write fiction. I will write cards to friends. I will edit. I will participate in my writers’ group. I will continue blogging here. I will keep building my freelance business. I will do what comes naturally and I will challenge myself. I will keep moving forward.

I will be a writer.