I’m a newbie at the writing game, but I’m a lifelong reader. I always check out the acknowledgements page, which means I’ve read thousands of heartfelt thank-yous to critique partners and beta readers, usually along the lines of “they read this story when it sucked, so you don’t have to.” I knew before I ever put finger to keyboard that getting feedback was important, but as Justine discovered with conflict and Michaeline learned regarding revision, I had no clue what that actually meant. I had a vague idea that I should ask a few readers for comments and they’d tell me if they liked the characters and spot mistakes in the details. I imagined the contemporary romance equivalent of the online comments on the new Sherlock – the train carriage belonged to the wrong tube line, and the photographers in the press pack were using the wrong lenses. As Justine would say: Oy!
Thank heavens for Jenny Crusie and the McD Romance Writing Program. Jenny showed us the dos and don’ts of giving actionable feedback (more on this next week). We practiced critiquing one another’s work, and I had a lightbulb moment or twenty. Here are a few of the things I discovered about my WIP:
- My heroine was … meh. She got what she wanted without a struggle, so her journey wasn’t interesting and her happy ending wasn’t cathartic.
- My hero was … not meh. He was so obnoxious in the first scene that he wasn’t redeemable, and some readers thought he deserved an immediate demise, not a happy ending.
- The beginning was about the heroine’s goals, the end was about the hero’s. Either of them could own the story, but not both. I needed to choose one protagonist to take the reader with them from start to finish.
- I left an important sub-plot unresolved.
- My characters weren’t fully developed, so the reader couldn’t predict how they might behave under pressure.
- I didn’t provide external support for my characters’ internal emotions – more descriptions of body language would have given depth and credibility to my characters’ reactions.
- Sometimes I didn’t anchor my scenes with enough physical description, so the reader was left floating.
- In an attempt to make the narrative pacy and avoid boring the reader, I took out too much back-story, so the reader had no idea how or why the characters had become the people they were.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The feedback identified the gaping holes between the great story that was playing in my head and the patchy one that was coming across based on what I’d written. Luckily we talked a lot in class about how to receive critique – go for a long walk or hit the chocolate stash, but don’t touch your manuscript until you’ve had time to let it sink in. Don’t over-react. Don’t tell your reader she’s wrong – even if you’re right, something tripped her up and that’s helpful to know – but don’t make changes that don’t feel right to you. Use the information you glean to build up a picture of what needs to be changed, and then figure out how to do it your way.
I also discovered that not all feedback is equal. Not everyone will get what you’re trying to achieve, and if they don’t, they’re not your reader no matter how experienced or smart they are. It takes time to find people whose comments ring true once you’ve digested them, who’ll care enough not to pull their punches but who’ll find a constructive way to get their message across. They could be writers or readers or ideally a mixture of both, because they’ll likely see different things. It’s a good idea to be on the look-out for them because the best ones are worth their weight in diamonds, and bad ones are worse than none at all. I’m incredibly thankful for my McD classmates and a couple of friends who’ve turned out to be gems.
I learned the difference between a critique partner and a beta reader. I’m not sure whether this is the accepted definition, but for me the distinction is reciprocity. I’d give and receive critiques from a critique partner, which means they’re fellow writers like the 8LW. I’d receive feedback from a beta reader, who might be a writer or an industry professional or a reader who loves stories like the one I’m writing. Fellow writers and industry professionals will be more likely to talk about craft issues such as POV or conflict, while you can expect bookworms to focus on character, plot and pacing. I’ve heard some writers say that critique partners provide feedback on a partial manuscript and beta readers get involved when a draft is finished, but I don’t get that distinction.
Just as there are a range of tools in the writer’s kit, there are times when a particular reader or type of reader will be invaluable, but that’s yet another thing that each writer has to figure out for themselves. Some authors like feedback chapter by chapter. In general I prefer to wait until I’ve finished a complete draft before I ask for input, and even then I don’t want my readers to suggest solutions, but if I get stuck or I’m worried about something specific then I’d break that rule. I’d probably ask the 8LW to brainstorm as Kat described in this post.
I should have included finding a group of trusted critique partnters and beta readers in my list of positives for 2013.
Where did you find yours (or where do you plan to find them)? How do they fit in to your writing process?