I’m not a big game-show person, but I remember watching one or two episodes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire when it first started, and of course I remember the lifelines:

  • Ask the audience
  • Fifty-fifty (eliminate half the possible answers)
  • Phone a friend

When you’re stuck, what better thing to have than helpful options for getting unstuck?

The past month, I’ve been very stuck. I knew what was wrong with my draft and what I needed to fix, but I didn’t know how to do it. I thought about fixing the little stuff — the easy fixes — but I know both as a writer and a writing teacher that it’s not worth it. You have to tackle the big problems first. After all, in solving the big problems, you might take the piece of writing in a completely different direction, making the smaller problems from earlier no longer part of the equation at all.

And the funny thing is, I’d already used two of my lifelines. I’d had five other writers read the manuscript and become my audience, and they gave me useful info. I’d done freewrites focusing on the process of elimination, asking myself which parts of the novel needed to stay and which needed to be cut (and I did cut 4,000 words just from the beginning).

This week, my final lifeline saved me.

I met Holly five and a half years ago at the beginning of grad school in Louise Plummer’s creative writing class that focused on young adult novels. Over the next two years we took multiple classes together and exchanged our writing frequently. She became one of six entries on the acknowledgements page of my thesis:

To Holly my friend and fellow writer, who talked me out of the novel that was going nowhere, who spent hours critiquing my drafts of this one, and who cheered for me at every step.

Since graduation, we’ve sent gobs of emails back and forth, lamenting the struggles of being a writer, encouraging each other’s progress, and occasionally doing the harsh job of pointing out what’s not working.

So I asked Holly to read my draft and call me once she was through.

The phone call ended up being an hour long (sorry about your cell minutes, Holly!). Good thing we didn’t have the game show’s thirty-second limit.

Once she’d finished describing her reactions as a reader, I quizzed her on the “what ifs?” I’d been struggling with.

“What if the part that seems like ‘just a convenient plot point’ is really there because the main character is struggling with X and needs to experience Y in order to gain trait Z?”

And soon both of us were going, “Ooh, but what if I/you did this?” and “What if I/you added more of that element throughout?” and “What if I/you had the main character actively pursuing trait Z so that she’s not so passive?” and “What if I/you changed it so that the danger is more gradual instead of sudden so that it can escalate?”

Okay, actually my generous use of “I/you” makes it sound like some of these were my ideas. Actually, it was pretty much Holly, and I lamented more than once, “I feel so dumb. I’m the writer. I should know my own story better. These are all so obvious that I should have figured them out a long time ago.” And Holly generously said that every writer needs the phone-a-friend lifeline.

By the time we hung up, I was thanking her profusely because I had a solid page of notes with specific ideas on what I should do to improve the story.

It’s one of many experiences that’s made me question the prevailing wisdom that gets handed down in creative writing classes and workshops. We’re told that the author should remain silent throughout a critique and that those giving feedback should stick to impressions of what’s working and what’s not, avoiding the taboo of “prescriptive” feedback that steps on an author’s toes by giving suggestions for change.

I do understand the reason for those “rules.” I’ve seen an author waste the reviewers’ time by defending himself and arguing against the feedback; I’ve also seen reviewers so set on a certain suggestion that they steamroll everyone else, ignoring the author’s expression that clearly says that’s not the direction she wants to take the story in.

BUT, I think when both sides are professional enough to avoid those extremes, a discussion-style critique is far more invaluable than the traditional method. Discussion allows you to combine what the author knows about the story beyond the text with what the reader wants from the text.

So my advice for the day is that everybody needs that one writer friend who can tell it to you like it is, who can encourage you to keep trying, and who can provide just the right insights when you need them most.

What do you think?

Leave a comment!

4 thoughts on “Phone a Friend

  1. I so agree. I always get more from a critique if the format is open to discussion. I also think that the professionalism and openness comes with time, familiarity, and trust.

    I’m excited for you and your reviews. Maybe I should phone a frind. Happy writing.


    1. That is very true, and I think “time” is the biggest of those factors: time spent as a writer. You can always tell the newbie writers by how defensive they get about criticism. A more experienced writer tends to dig deeper into the criticism and ask the reviewer questions about why it’s not working.


  2. I like being able to ask questions and brainstorm with people. I often have to talk through things before they make sense.

    As for critiquing, the first time I ever went to a workshop, we were asked not to speak when it was our turn. And a couple of people in the session wasted almost my entire time arguing about an issue that had nothing to do with what they were arguing. Finally the teacher said, “I assumed it was a magical thing. Can we move on?” But still, I felt so frustrated because it wasn’t at all important.


    1. I totally agree. It’s so frustrating when the time gets wasted by going in a fruitless direction. And I’m just barely learning how valuable it can be to brainstorm with people. I should have been doing that sooner!


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