Last week, Jeanne discussed critiquing manuscripts for newbie writers, and yesterday Justine talked about revising (and revising, and revising!) the opening chapters of the first book in her historical romance series. With both of these posts on my mind and no less than three (three!) revisions of my own to complete, from minor tweaks in one story to major revisions in another to something in between on the third, today I’m thinking about the best way to bridge the gap between getting back comments from a trusted critiquer and putting a revision plan into action.
We’ve discussed a lot of the steps I’m going to suggest here at 8LW in the past, and much of the way the Ladies approach critique work is based on the guidance Jenny Crusie* gave us while we studied with her in our McDaniel writing program. But with so many of us knee deep (or eyeballs deep) in the critique and revision process, let’s revisit some of the basics, ICYMI (or ICYNAR – in case you need a refresher).
Assume the Best. You’re good people. You mean well. Odds are, you’ve picked critique partners who are also good people and who mean well. In the words of Paul McCartney (because when isn’t it appropriate to quote Sir Paul?) in his song Little Willow, “No one’s out to break your heart, it only seems that way.” Planting this thought firmly in your mind and returning to it often will help you receive the words of your critique partner in the way they were no doubt given: as a gift to help you make your book the best it can be.
Take a Deep Breath and Step Away from the Computer. As you read through your critique comments, keep an open mind and let the suggestions and impressions permeate your brain space. Then close the computer or turn over the red-lined pages and walk away. Run away if you must. Pet a cat, shout at random passers-by, scream unto the heavens if you must. And then, this time following the advice of an overplayed Disney song, let it go. Jenny Crusie recommends at least a 24-hour timeout. I recommend longer (often days, but my mind likes to percolate slowly, like an old-timey coffee pot). Come back to the comments and start plotting
your revenge, er, your revision, only after you’ve moved past any intense emotions the critique inspired and are able to look at it from a calm, collected, and logical persepctive.
Pay Attention to the What, Ignore the How. Experienced critiquers know it’s our job to point out there’s a problem in the story/scene/page, not to prescribe or even suggest how to fix it. But we can all get carried away sometimes, and the urge to revise the work of others can become too great. If your critique partner has done that, bless her heart (and not in the southern way that’s really a curse), and then disregard her suggestion. Recognize, or at least entertain the possibility, that there is a problem in the area she’s highlighted. If, after careful contemplation, you agree there’s a problem, come up with your own solution.
This is not to be confused with brainstorming, in which-especially during the first draft, but sometimes also in revision-you reach out to someone to help you troubleshoot an issue. And if you agree there’s a problem and cannot come up with a viable solution on your own, consider setting up a brainstorming session. But come prepared to do the hard work, to shoot holes in others’ suggestions, and to have them shoot holes in your ideas. And then, when the session is over, you still have to make the final decision. It’s your world. You created it. You broke it. You fix it.
Interpret Ambiguities. As we’ve already discussed, your critique partner is probably a good person. She might even be a nice person. When she has to say something tough or that she knows you won’t want to hear, she might couch it in fuzzy, ambiguous terms. Or she might know there’s a problem, but be unable to identify exactly what it is. This could lead to a comment that baffles you. You should always be able to ask clarifying questions of your critique partner, but prepared for her inability to better articulate it. At those times, you’ll have to dig deeper to figure out whether your own gut is telling you the same thing hers told her-Houston, we have a problem. A vague, hard-to-define problem.
There are some phrases in particular that, whether they come from a critique partner or an editor or agent who reads your work, should be an immediate red flag**. These include: I just couldn’t connect to the story/character; I didn’t care about what happened; the story didn’t draw me in; it’s just not strong enough for me to buy/represent. These are especially telling if they are given in the absence of more concrete suggestions, or are accompanied by compliments on the premise or the writing itself. And it probably means you’ve missed opportunities to make the reader connect from the very first page. What to do with such nondescript critiques of your work? Well…
When All Else Fails, Ask Why. No, I’m not suggesting you ask yourself why you chose this fresh hell of writing, or why you dared show your work to another human being who would only bring you down. Instead, when your critique partner’s/editor’s/agent’s comments inspire more questions than answers, or you’re trying to take your writing up a notch, or you want to make sure your pivotal scenes (opening, turning points, climax) are packing the punch they need, ask why of your characters.
Why does this thought/memory occur to her now? Make sure it connects to the NOW, and make sure that connection is on the page.
Why does he notice this color, scent, or sound in the moment? Make sure it’s on the page.
Why does something cause emotional pain, laughter, crying, fear? Make sure it’s on the page.
Why is the character lying, obfuscating, hiding something? You know what to do. In this age of close POV (first and close third being the POV in the majority of books published these days), even when you’re trying to hold back information to create an air of mystery or future discovery, you have to give the reader enough information to let her know there is a why behind the behavior.
As experienced writers know far too well, there are a lot more steps in the revision process then I have the time or space to list here. These are just some rules of the road to get you started. Some general principles to keep you from tearing out your or your critique partner’s hair. And, I hope, some words of wisdom to help you weather, appreciate, and even, dare I say it, anticipate your next critique.
What other rules or guidelines do you have for critique partners or yourself when embarking on this harrowing journey?
*If you want a master class in receiving critiques, you might want to pop by Jenny’s blog and read several of her posts of the past few months as she’s worked on her upcoming novel. This post about decoding critiques is a good place to start.
**This is according to Jennie Nash, who is a book doctor/book coach extraordinaire, is a published author herself, and has worked in the publishing business for 25+ years. I tell you this to reiterate the point: these words are red flags. Ignore them at your own peril.