Critique to Inspire

I’m one-fifth of the way through my fifth draft! That has to count for something, right? It’s totally a milestone everyone should celebrate, isn’t it? Four solid chapters out of twenty! Woo hoo! We’re coasting now!

Just kidding.

In many ways, this week has felt the opposite of celebratory. In “grading” my scenes last week, I got a little depressed. Why? The voice is off. All. Over. The. Place. And voice is a nemesis of mine.

It’s so intangible. When organization is off, you outline and physically move sections around. When voice is off, you go sentence by freaking sentence “listening” as hard as you can for something impossible to pinpoint. Sort of like thumping a watermelon. Is that the right thump? Is that what’s it’s supposed to sound like?

Yeah, there’s a lot of that uncertainty: Is the voice off in this sentence? Is it better or worse now that I’ve changed it? Does it match the earlier chapter where the voice is working? Because it is working there, right?

Um, yeah. Is it telling if I admit I’ve been a little grumpy this week?

But then I stumbled across something amazing. It was a comment I discovered in the margin of my fourth draft — a comment written by a writer friend of mine who read through that draft last summer:

Just a random thought. I don’t know Wendy well enough to decide if this scene is believable. And in her previous POV sections we don’t get a deep enough penetration into her emotions and thoughts for me to feel that she’d be into a summer fling. . . . I just keep going, yeah right.

Maybe you could make it more clear somehow that she’s shocked by her own emotions, the intensity, the vibrant, thrumming, living, singing aliveness of it all and have her yearn for more because she’s never had this. Ever. And she wants it. Bad enough to throw caution to the wind . . .

Go deeper into her POV. Let us live through her emotions, not just her surface thoughts.  Fearlessly write what she’d feel. Make me believe.

Today’s post is in many ways a thank you.

This comment is beautiful. It challenges me to do better by inspiring me to want to. I love the line “Fearlessly write what she’d feel. Make me believe.” It’s been running through my head all week.

Besides, what’s not to love about “the vibrant, thrumming, living, singing aliveness of it all”? Of course I want my story to be all those things.

Thank you, Leisha, for fearlessly writing how you felt while reading my draft. You are the epitome of constructive criticism, as I’ll be gushing to my students the next time I’m trying to define it for them. Constructive criticism, I’ve now decided, points out weaknesses in ways that motivate the writer to make them strengths.

Voice might be a weakness in my fourth draft, but by the end of this fifth draft I’m determined that the voice will be vibrant, thrumming, alive and singing.

Sometimes the most important thing a critic can be is inspiring.

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The Right Second Opinions

Two weekends ago I got to experience a different culture: that of quilters and sewers. All it took was standing in front of the quilting fabrics at JoAnn’s, staring discriminately at the choices, and piling potential bolts of fabric on my shopping cart.

Okay, fifteen bolts of fabric. It was a little excessive. I admit.

But just by doing that, the other shoppers around me assumed I was a fellow crafter. I couldn’t believe how often other women started conversations with me, asking, “Do you think this fabric would make a better pillowcase for a nine-year-old girl or a fourteen-year-old girl?”

“Nine-year-old, definitely,” I said.

“And I can’t figure out what contrasting fabric to use for the border.”

“I’d go with something teal,” I said, pointing out the teal in the main print.  “That would really draw out the other colors, too.”

They wanted second opinions and assumed I was qualified to give them!

(Well, until they took a second look at my huge pile and asked politely, “Is all that for the same project?” Then they realized that I’m actually insane.)

It got me thinking about the shared culture of a common craft.

When I want a second opinion on my novel, I ask other novelists to read it. Sure, asking my parents or siblings or friends is nice, but only another novelist will give me the feedback I really need.

I remember early in our marriage asking Hubby what he thought of a sewing project I was about to start. I held up the pattern for him and held up the fabric and said, “See, it’ll look like this picture except with this print.” But he couldn’t see it at all. He told me directly, “I can’t. I’m just not good at picturing how something’s going to look.” (This is the reason I am in charge of planning all home projects, like basements and landscaping, etc. He supplies the labor.)

That might have been the first time it dawned on me that you have to get the right opinion for every project — the opinion of someone who’s able to see all the factors of what you’re aiming for.

I mean, there are just so many pieces to keep track of and “get right.”

For example, in a novel, in any given scene you have to have a sense of the voice, the setting, the characters, what the characters are doing, what the characters are saying, what the characters are feeling, what you want the reader to feel, what the stakes are, how the stakes are escalating, how the scene bridges from the previous scene to the next scene, how it all plays into the overall arc of the novel, how it plays into the individual character arcs, etc.

Ack! There’s so much that can go wrong. The pacing, first of all, can be too slow or too fast. The scene can make the mistake of describing all those details instead of showing them as they happen. The scene can work on a technical level but be emotionally void. The scene can be fun but not fit the novel right.

And only fellow crafters — used to the frustrations of all those possibilities themselves — are going to see those things and be able to point them out to you. They’re the people who can tell you if your fabrics and threads match.

Right now I’m working through notes that a couple of writer friends sent me, and they say fantastic things like, “I lose sense of this character through these chapters,” or “Your main plot arc gets lost in all the individual character arcs here,” or “This character’s POV is working well because I know what he’s thinking and feeling, but I don’t get that at all with your other character: I have no idea what she’s feeling.”

Those might sound discouraging, but strangely I feel the opposite way about them. I’m so excited to have the missing factors pointed out to me so that I can quickly go through the scenes and add what’s needed.

It’s nice that your mom or your spouse likes your novel, but find a fellow writer, someone with at least the same level of experience as you if not more, and have them give you the real scoop. Maybe you were hoping to appeal to fourteen-year-olds and they’ll tell you it’s definitely for nine-year-olds, and that might be hard to hear, but that’s how it goes.

I have my set of writer friends for manuscript advice, and for advice on applique I turned to my neighbor who sews. I call my dad for fix-it problems, my mom for cooking and parenting. It’s good to have the right opinions around.

What do you think? Who do you turn to for what projects? Who’s your hotline for the best second opinions?

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Phone a Friend

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?

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Authors Confess: How to Survive an Editor’s Critique

Last weekend I participated in a full-novel critique with five other writers, and we joked afterward about how it’s so helpful and yet it feels like thanking people for “bruising and battering” you, as one of my fellow critiquers put it. It’s just one of the many reasons that writing requires a thick skin.

I’ve often heard my published friends talk about the similar scenario of getting feedback from their editors. And I still remember listening to Stephenie Meyer at a book conference describe how she cried when she got her first single-spaced ten-page critique from her editor listing all the things that were “wrong” with her Twilight manuscript. It’s rough, even when it’s an editor who’s already given you the biggest piece of flattery: loving your ms enough to buy it in the first place.

So I asked some of my author friends this week,

How do you cope with that notoriously tear-inducing editor’s letter?

Jessica Day George, author of the Dragon Slippers trilogy, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, and Princess of the Midnight Ball:

I rant and rave and tear my hair and scream, How am I supposed to do that? Did she even READ the book? That’s my favorite part! And then I go complain to my husband, and while I’m talking I realize, Oh. That DOES sound better. Yes, I can see why she wants to make that change. I suppose I could try it. . .

It’s the same thing every time, I will never learn!

Bree Despain, author of The Dark Divine:

Whenever I get feedback from my editor/agent I let it sit for a day or two. At first some of his suggestions seem impossible to do, or I just plain don’t agree with them, but I always make sure I mull it over for at least a day before responding. Usually, after thinking about it, what seemed like an impossible idea suddenly feels exactly like the right idea to make the story better. However, if after a few days of pondering, I still feel like the criticism isn’t right, then I discuss it with my editor. 9 times out of 10, after we talk it out, I discover that my editor doesn’t want me to change something in the story, he just wants me to clarify it or make the motivation behind it stronger.

Heather Dixon, artist/novelist, whose first book Entwined debuts winter 2011 with Greenwillow:

Shannon Hale, author of ten novels including Goose Girl, Book of a Thousand Days, and Actor and the Housewife:

I read a writer’s advice early on never to respond to an editor’s letter the day you get it. It’s so easy to get defensive and try to explain, “But what I was trying to do was…” That doesn’t matter. I respond with a quick, “I got your letter! Thanks, it all looks great. I’ll be in touch.” Then I spend a couple of days (weeks) digesting it. It’s invaluable feedback, what a reader who isn’t as frighteningly close to the story as you thinks. I always take her advice very seriously and will revise 2-3 times before sending her a fresh copy to look over again. We go through several editorial rounds before copy editing.

So there you have it!

And sure enough, the same was true with the feedback I got on Saturday (except that it was like having FIVE editors — sheesh!). When I read their written comments that night, all I saw was how much they “hated” my manuscript and how my mad writing skills had failed to win them over. Then, after I’d given it a few days’ worth of thought, I reread the exact same comments and discovered that actually they liked my manuscript and that I’d succeeded at most of what I’d focused on for that draft, and their suggestions had to do with what I should focus on next to, you know, make it even better.

Yep, same critique, but what a difference a few days and a little perspective make!

Any of your own insights to share?

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In the Morning

I woke up thinking about my novel this morning, puzzling it out, trying to come up with solutions for the issues my critique group noted on Saturday. Solutions didn’t jump up and down waving their hands like anxious students or anything, but it was still nice to have those moments of contemplation, to have this creative work-in-progress of mine be the first thing on my mind as I woke up.

It reminded me of the way Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet is sometimes summed up:

If when you wake up in the morning you can think of nothing but writing, you are meant to be a writer.

It doesn’t happen to me every morning or even all that frequently, but I find myself happy about the fact of it when it does happen.

And it made me want to go hunt down my copy of Letters to a Young Poet that I read in college. I flipped through it this morning to revisit some of Rilke’s advice that I’d highlighted as a grad student. Unfortunately, since it’s a translated work, the wording of the quote varies widely depending on which edition you read, but here is a quote from mine that stood out to me this morning:

Always trust yourself and your own feeling . . . ; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development.

It seems like morning contemplations are just that: “silent, undisturbed development” — a space to let one thought roll over another without the pressure of sitting in front of a computer screen and trying to force words from your head onto the page.

I still remember my advanced writing teacher in college showing us that the standardized writing process — prewrite, draft, revise — leaves out the important step of “incubate.” I like that step a lot.

As I said, this morning solutions weren’t exactly forthcoming. I don’t know how I’m going to revise those tricky first 60 pages that keep causing problems. But I’m going to let the problem keep simmering and take Rilke’s advice to trust myself and my feelings to eventually lead me to insights.

What do you think? How/when do insights come to you?

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Tangled in Plot Holes

Sometimes it’s possible to love something to death. Like kids do with their favorite things.

My two-year-old’s blanket, for example, is forever having to be mended. He bites it and drags it around the house and stretches it out with his feet and uses it as a tent and a cape and all kinds of things. So fairly often I have to get out the sewing machine and stitch the squares back together where the seams have broken apart.

A couple nights ago, I woke to the sound of him crying. I went in the boys’ bedroom and saw that he was still in bed, still with his blanket around him, so I patted his head, said, “Shh. It’s okay. Go back to sleep,” and returned to my bed to do the same.

Two minutes later, he was crying again. This time I looked more closely and discovered that because of the holes in his blanket, he’d gotten tangled in it. His head had gone through one hole and each arm through another until he had no idea how to free himself.

And okay, it was kind of humorous. I felt bad for the kid and immediately helped him get untangled, and I vowed to sew up the holes the next day now that they’d become dangerous, but I also laughed about the “hole” thing.

Anyhow, the analogy for the day is that I think this happens to us as writers. We love our manuscripts so much that maybe we aren’t really capable of untangling the plot holes ourselves until somebody helps us out. Right now I’m reading five manuscripts from writer friends of mine, and next Saturday the six of us are getting together to help each other get untangled.

Last time we got together, the feedback I got sounded something like this:

  • “I’m a little worried about this part you have in the middle because it just feels kind of thrown in. I want to get more of a sense that it’s part of the world you’ve created, so I think you need something like it in at least one other place in the book so that the one part isn’t just a convenient plot point.”
  • “This particular character doesn’t seem to have a purpose right now. You should probably either cut her out or give her a reason to be in the story.”

There was plenty of positive stuff, too, but this kind of constructive criticism really helped me know where to sew up the holes in the next draft.

When I re-sewed my toddler’s blanket, I stitched a seam and then held the whole blanket up to the light to check for more holes. Having a critique group who knows what to look for is a great way to hold your manuscript up to the light and see where the holes are.

So, as crazy as it sounds, I’m super excited for Saturday the 27th. It might seem like they’ll be tearing me apart, but really they’ll just be showing me the holes I couldn’t see on my own. And that will give me a chance to fix them.

What are your thoughts on critique groups and soliciting feedback? What experiences have you had with it, and what recommendations would you give others about it? What kinds of comments have been the most helpful in untangling your plot holes?

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