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.

I Wrote a Manuscript, Now What?

As an editor, I’ve recently joined a couple of online platforms that are focused on helping authors find the resources they need to bring their stories to the world. I was already a contractor on Elance, which is now part of Upwork. Now you can also find me on Reedsy and Pronoun. I’m grateful to be involved in communities that help writers get access to the guidance they’re looking for. I meet fascinating people as an editor, and I love the breadth of stories I get to work on.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of authors who have completed manuscripts and are looking for help with next steps.

Zack Morris Time Out: Let’s take a minute to recognize the considerable milestones these authors have achieved. Not only have they completed their manuscripts, they are ready to share them with a stranger, investing time and money to get feedback, with eyes toward improving their work. This is a big deal.

Time back in.

It’s not across the board, but I’ve noticed a theme often enough in the proposed work: authors are ready to take next steps, but they don’t know what those steps are. They are ready to pursue publication, but they’re not familiar with the industry’s landscape. They know they want to get published, but they don’t know how traditional or self-publication works. Basically, they ask me to do whatever it is that needs to happen for their book to be published.

On one hand, this makes sense, and kudos to them for going out and asking questions to figure out how the whole thing works. On the other, I’ve sometimes gotten the impression that authors—who have already achieved so much!—want to hand their work over and have someone else sort it all out. There are lots of sites out there that explain the various means of contemporary publication; there are societies, conferences, workshops. To my mind, this is work that needs to be done before approaching an editor.

I get that feeling of wanting someone else to just finish the thing already. There have been more times than I can count that I want to send a finished-but-not-yet-read-through revision to my agent to let her identify what still needs to be fixed . . . and then tell me how to fix it. Or to send it to editors and have them see that I could eventually get this thing into shape, if they’d take a chance on me. In my right mind, I know this isn’t really what I need. Rather, I need to persevere and accept that this thing is going to take a while, and the hard work is on me.

My main concern with some of the projects I’ve been approached with recently is that the authors don’t have specific and realistic expectations. They haven’t done their research and haven’t clearly defined, for themselves, what they want to achieve with their work. This isn’t a decision I can make for another author. It’s based on how much the author wants to put into it and how much they are willing to endure to accomplish their goals.

If these goals aren’t set, there is a greater possibility that these hard-working, passionate people are going to be disappointed and discouraged from further pursuing the work they love. And nobody wants that!

So what’s an author to do about it? Well, there are blogs to read (like this one!). There are websites to follow, authors to keep up with on Twitter and other social media outlets. Get involved in the community you want to be a part of. It’s a fascinating place, filled with all kinds of people, all kinds of stories.

And when you know what you want from your work, when you have an understanding of what it’s going to take to get from point A to point B and you’re ready to tackle it, find an editor who shares your passion for good stories, for hard work, for the satisfaction of giving something your all. It will be an investment of time and money, but it will not improve not only your manuscript, but also you as a writer.

You’ve gotten this far. Keep it up. Watch a classic underdog movie for motivation: Miracle, maybe, or Rocky or A League of Their Own. The good stuff is worth fighting for. And what you’ve been working on? It’s good stuff.

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.

Update and Pitch to Publication Announcement

The writing life is happily busy these days. While I clearly haven’t been writing blog posts, I have been at work on a number of other pursuits that have me feeling creative, productive, and artistically encouraged.

After four years of its being on my shelf, I finally read On Writing by Stephen King. I was, frankly, terrified of this book. (I know, Stephen, I know, drop the adverb.) I was going to seek writing advice from someone as successful at King? Really? I didn’t expect to be able to assimilate a word on the page. Turns out, the book is incredibly accessible, and honest and encouraging to boot. My copy is underlined and dog-eared, and won’t be spending too long on the shelf before I break into it again.

Earlier this month, I published an article with Verily about my experience with miscarriage and a few seemingly minor changes everyone can make in the way we speak to help those who suffer such losses to acknowledge the pain for what it is. In a day, it had over a thousand shares, and now it’s over 9K. I’m amazed and humbled to see how working at my craft has affected so many other people. Practicing writing by reading, editing, writing fiction meant that I could communicate my story in a way that resonated with readers. For the first time, writing really feels like a gift. There isn’t an endpoint on the journey of being a writer, but this is a milestone I will treasure.

In addition to caring for my three little humans (the youngest will be four months this week!), I have also been editing my CampNaNo project from April and reading a ton. The novel is not finished, not even close to the polish stage, but I’ve been making time for it, and it’s exciting to see it coming along, even as I chuck pages and pages out at a time.

I also start half marathon training today. The schedule I have is almost the same as my writing schedule, as to which days are on and off. It was a totally subconscious move, but I guess I’ve found my groove. I’m a little concerned about how I’ll fit it all in, and still have the hours I need with my kiddos, but it will work out. In both pursuits, I have family and friends supporting me, and I know from experience that engaging in activities that grow my artistic and physical dimensions make me a better mom—as long as I don’t let the scheduling get out of hand.

Both finally and simultaneously, I am about to embark on the first Pitch to Publication event at WriterPitch. I’m participating as an editor. It works like this: Writers submit queries for their finished manuscripts, along with a list of five editors they’d like to work with. Editors then get to select the authors they’d like to see more from. We see partials, then work together to determine who works with whom. After a month-long editing period, the manuscripts are off to agents and then to publishing houses, if things are ready to go. It’s the whole process in a matter of months, which promises to be challenging in a good way. I’m looking forward to it!

So much on my plate, and so many things to be grateful for in this artistic life. Here’s hopes for a fruitful summer! Stay tuned—another editor/author interview is in the works, too!

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.