Listening to Critiques

(What? A non-political post?

Why, yes. Because despite the chaos surrounding us all, writing is still my job, and I still love doing it, and today I’m going to write about it.)

Like most writers, I’ve got an uneasy relationship with critiques.

As a writer, you understand, when you’re writing with publication in mind, that other people are going to read it. (That’s the point, after all.) And you know they’ll have thoughts about it. And in this day and age, when it’s easy for them to share those thoughts, you know that people are going to say stuff publicly about your work. Back when I thought I’d self-publish the book that later became THE COLD BETWEEN, I sent it off to betas and said “Be as honest as you can, because people are going to eviscerate me on Amazon either way.”

Oh, naive me.

Critiques are a different thing than reviews. Reviews are written by readers for readers; even negative reviews can be informative. (I’ve bought a lot of books based on the content of negative reviews.) Critiques, on the other hand, are a way for you, the writer, to discover potential weak points in your manuscript, allowing you to correct them before letting your baby bird fly.

A lot of us get critiques not from professional critics (such as editors), but from family, friends, or fellow writers. For those critiques, there tends to be a common denominator: most readers want to identify a problem by telling you how to fix it. Which sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s the way any reader thinks about a part of a story that’s not working for them: tell it to me this way instead. (Writers in particular are fond of doing this.)

The trouble is, for the very reason any book with a critical mass of readers will get some negative reviews, you’re likely to get contradictory advice from your critics. And if you try to make every change suggested, you’re going to end up with a Frankenbook made up of a germ of your original story and a bunch of unfamiliar things that other people wrote.

The only way to get anything useful out of a critique is to figure out the underlying issue.

This isn’t always easy. If someone writes you a critique and says “You need to make a joke here,” it’s not clear if they’ve been disturbed by pacing, tone, or lack of character development.

And this is the hard bit. Because you, as an artist, must sit down with this piece of your work and allow for the possibility that there is actually something wrong there.

It’s easy to say “That’s silly. This isn’t the time for a joke. [Critic] doesn’t know what they’re talking about” and dismiss the whole thing. But every reader’s experience is a true one. Your critic may not have articulated their issue in a helpful way, but they have given you valuable feedback on their reading of your story. And it’s worth your time to take seriously the very real possibility that they’ve pinpointed something that needs improvement.

This is something that takes a lot of practice–or at least it did for me. I was probably in my mid-20s before I could hear a critique of a piece I loved and not have the knee-jerk response of “Hmph. What do they know?” I gave a short to a friend of mine once, and after a few paragraphs he said the beginning was slow. I told him to trust me, and he finished the piece, and said that he loved it–but his initial response was just as valid as his final one. Moreover, he was right: the beginning of the story was filler, and my ego got in the way of my seeing that. My reader may have loved it in the end, but he properly identified a major flaw.

fixable flaw. That’s the other thing to remember: your non-professional critics are not taking random potshots at your baby bird (unless they are jerks, in which case: new critics). Unless they’re pointing out something systemic about the plot, they’re showing you something you can change to make your work better and stronger. They’re doing you a favor.

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

I have, on occasion, chosen not to make corrections based on critiques. I think a long, long time before I do this. I can only think of four major bits of feedback where I chose to hold my ground, and I’ve had a lot of critiques at this point. But all four times, I spent a lot of time working to understand what the reader was saying, what they might have been responding to, what the cost to the story would be to make a correction that would work for that particular reader. I chose with my eyes open. I still don’t think, in any of those situations, that I was wrong–or at least, I don’t think the story would have been better told with those changes.

This is the thing about critiques: you have to be receptive, and you have to recognize that your readers’ experiences are valid. But you need to have enough of a sense of your own story, of the way you’re using prose, of the precise response you’re going for, to decide when to listen and when to ignore. And if you’re going to ignore, you’ve got to have enough self-awareness to know why you’re doing it. If you’re ignoring because you get where they’re coming from and you’ve decided it’s okay with you that they’re uncomfortable–even if it means you’ve lost them as a reader–you’re probably coming from the right place. But if you’re inclined to ignore feedback because your feelings are hurt and you want to shrug off everything that critic has said, you probably owe it to your story to take a break, step back, and consider the possibility that your critic has hit on something important.

Past a certain point, quality of writing is a subjective assessment. Not every story is going to work for every reader. With critiques, you’ve got to learn how to be both objective and subjective: objective enough to really listen to what your critics are telling you, and subjective enough to know when to ignore them.

It’s very possible no writer has ever hit the balance quite right.

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About Failure

I have an agent.

I am not sure I can adequately describe the feeling that comes with those four words.

A year ago, I was struggling to put together a query letter for a book that doesn’t even really exist anymore. I was agonizing over single words, and tone, and worrying that I wasn’t adequately representing what I had produced. I was, hesitantly, pulling together a list of agents to whom I could possibly send this query. I didn’t have my genre nailed, so I targeted genre-spanning agents, and came up with a grand total of 28. That seemed like both a huge number, and a depressingly tiny one: a narrow, narrow funnel to the traditional publishing world, yet an awful lot of dashed hopes.

I solicited feedback on the query letter. I got amazing assistance from the loveliest, most talented people I know. I got some comments that just plain puzzled me. I drafted, and redrafted, and learned.

I told myself I didn’t have to send it. If I couldn’t face the idea of rejection from professionals, I could bypass that step and deal with Amazon and self-marketing and trying to make myself visible to an audience beyond my friends and family and small number of Twitter followers. I could still be published.

You’ll notice what I started with there: If I couldn’t face the idea of rejection from professionals. For me, skipping the agent search wouldn’t have been because I had reservations about the traditional publishing model, or wanted the absolute control that comes with self-publishing. For me, skipping the agent search would have meant giving in to fear.

And if I ended up with 28 rejections – self-publishing would still be there, still be possible. If 28 people rejected my book, I would not have to abandon it.

So I jumped.

When I was in high school, I auditioned for a production of “Godspell.” Because I was overambitious, I chose a song that hit a sustained high A at the end. I was nervous as a cat, and as a result had possibly no stage presence whatsoever; and although I didn’t do an awful job on the song, I swooped up to the A. I spent that night lying awake in a cold sweat, replaying the audition, contemplating failure, not daring to think about the possibility of success. And when I didn’t get the part, I felt deep embarrassment that I had tried at all.

The query got me partial requests and full requests. And rejections. Some of them were lovely. People wrote personal notes. People used words like “talented.” I got more compliments from strangers who did not think they could sell my book than I usually get from people I actually know.

For about a week, I thought about quitting writing entirely. It’s easy to say, from this side of it, that I overreacted; but I wasn’t being melodramatic, or expecting people to beg me not to deprive the world of my amazing undiscovered talent. During that week, writing hurt. It was what I had always turned to when life was difficult, when I needed to process something horribly painful – and it hurt to write. I had to face the idea that the one thing I’d ever really wanted to do, the one thing I thought I might actually do well, I might not be able to do well enough.

I know, I know: well enough for who? There is only one proper answer to that question, and the fact that I became so despondent speaks, I think, to the horrifically large size of my ego. It’s easy to make fun of myself about it now. At the time…I have been through things in life that were more painful, but not many.

The request for full from this agent came while we were on vacation in Acadia. Now, Acadia is beautiful; but it was rainy, and alternated between horribly humid and dreadfully cold while we were there. We spent time in the hotel room, streaming Star Trek for Emily on the iPad connected to the hotel’s flaky wi-fi. And one evening, while I was idly scanning my email, there it was.

It wasn’t my first request for the full manuscript – the first had resulted in one of the aforementioned lovely, complimentary rejections – but this agent had been one of my early queries, one of the ones that seemed like a good fit. More than two months into my agent search, after the roller coaster of emotions I had been on, after promising myself that I would remember this was the business side of writing, and did not say anything about my character, I had hope.

To be clear, this agent rejected the book I queried as well…but she left a couple of doors open. Here’s what I learned about myself: despite my fear of failure, despite my sneaking suspicion that I am somehow a fake in a world of people doing the real thing, I will jump at an opportunity to keep writing.

I rewrote the book. The sequel became part of it (my agent’s suggestion), and now, one first draft and some revisions later, it has become its own object, independent of both of the originals. (Those of you who beta’d for me will recognize parts of it; but apart from the players and some of the setup, it’s pretty different.)

A month ago, after reading the finished first draft, she told me she wanted to sign me officially. I cried for five solid minutes. (Thank goodness for email; I could not have said a coherent word.)

As a kid, when I thought about writing a book “someday,” the process went something like this:

  1. Write book
  2. Find agent
  3. Publish book
  4. Goto 1

The reality of it all, for me at least, has been much more complicated, and is likely to get more complicated as I go. For one thing, I am still revising – quite a bit, this time with the help of my agent’s editorial feedback – and as is usual for me, it’s hard to step back and see the whole work at this point. And there’s the sequel issue, of course: I have germs of ideas, and about 4,000 sketchy words, but assuming this first book goes anywhere I would really like for there to be a second.

All of those stories I made up when I was little, all of the fragments of overwrought teenage nonsense, all of the abandoned stories and characters and bits and pieces I’ve scribbled in journals and on computers and blogs and iPads over the years – they are all in this book, and they will all be in the next one, and the one after that. Published or not, agented or not – they were all real writing, and they are all a part of me. All of those failures, private and public, have brought me here.

I have an agent. And I have so much more to do.

First Drafts and Revisions

The first thing I realized as I was reading through the first draft of my current work-in-progress was this:

Finishing* one book does not, in any way, guarantee that I’ll be able to finish another.

What it does guarantee is that when I hit plot frustrations, moments of insecurity, and the absolute certainty that I will not be able to salvage the thing no matter what I do, it will all feel familiar. I have more than one memory of a pit opening up in my stomach as I scribbled edits on my printed-out pages: this critical plot point isn’t working. This event happens at the wrong time. This character would never say that. I cannot write my way out of a paper bag.

Of course all of these (except perhaps the last one) proved wrong, at least based on my subjective judgment. I have a plot that hangs together, my characters stay true to themselves, and I have wrestled the timeline into a sensible series of events.

But there is no rule of law, or rule of physics, that says because I got away with it once I’ll get away with it again.

Of course, I forget what kind of shape my finished novel was in after the first draft was done. There was a whole chunk of plot that wasn’t there at all. There was a whole POV I was resisting. Because I decided as I wrote who actually committed the crime, there was a lot of inconsistency and missing information in the first part of the story. And of course there were the typical first-draft issues: repetition, things dwelt on too long, things glossed over inappropriately. Not to mention a whole host of secondary characters I knew almost nothing about.

I’ve made this analogy before, but it really is very much like writing software. You start with a general goal, and you sit down and start writing code. As you go, you begin to realize the uglier details of your particular problem. Familiar tricks won’t work in this case; you need to try out some unfamiliar ones. There’s boilerplate you could use, sure; but in most cases it’s verbose and inefficient. Getting the program to work is only the first step, but that’s where you start. Your first pass may result in a program that solves the problem, but it’s going to be messy, ugly, and unsupportable. So you comb through it, and you start cleaning it up, and as you do your understanding of the problem becomes more refined, and you circle back, repeating your steps over and over until you have what you want.

Or maybe that’s just how I write software.

It’s certainly how I write a novel. My first draft (and I’ve grown so used to using NaNoWriMo for this that I’ve started referring to planned work as “my November novel”) is a frantic rush to get the idea on paper, as fully as I can. First draft revisions are where I start working through the plot – or, in both cases, actually adding to the plot. At some point I get a structure that’s more or less what I want, that gets at all the points I want to make.

That, I found, is the easy part. It’s not so bad, getting to a point where I can read through it and say “Yeah, with a little work this might be OK.”

Or, with a little work, the whole premise might completely dissolve.

I’ve been writing my whole life. I have finished first drafts of four novels. Two will never see the eyes of other human beings; I love them, but they were learning experiences. One has gone through multiple revisions, and is more or less where I’d like it to be.

And one is sitting on my iPad, in sprawling, unselfconscious, first-draft form, politely waiting its turn.

Some writers, I understand, sit down and make detailed outlines. By the time they start writing, they know every scene and every plot twist. I envy those people, but I’ll never be one of them, no matter how long I practice. My ideas are never crisp and clear. I start out with one scene, maybe even one conversation, and I start thinking “What if…” To find out “what if,” I have to write, and wander down some blind alleys before I can look back at what I’ve got and see the real path. My current first draft has got an awful lot of blind alleys, and I’m not feeling entirely confident that I’ll be able to wrestle it into something consistent.

Of course, there’s only one way to find out.

(*Finishing is a subjective term, of course.)

Deadlines

When I was a senior in high school, I realized how truly horrible I am at time management.

I was editor of the yearbook, thanks to the urging of the yearbook advisor, who was also my junior-year English teacher. (He liked me because I could write, and because I had the nerve to write him an essay on why I hated The Grapes of Wrath.) It was not a job I should have taken. I am not a natural leader. I’m a decent negotiator, and I can diffuse minor conflicts – I make a good team member, but I’m not the sort of person people naturally rally around.

Plus when you’re in high school, you end up surrounded by a lot of people who want to be able to put “yearbook committee” on their college applications, but aren’t all that interested in putting in the hours. In addition I was bad at delegating. I’m sure a lot of people who actually wanted to work drifted off because they never had anything to do.

As it happened, the day before our first big deadline, there were two of us left: me, and the layout editor. We stayed up all night matching pictures with pages and stuffing envelopes. I’d never stayed up all night before. I remember thinking around dawn that I would have sold major organs for ten minutes of sleep. Instead we just blindly stuffed photographs and pages into envelopes, and when the sun came up we went to the post office to mail it all.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized we had stopped worrying about whether or not the photographs matched up with the pages, and we’d likely just mailed a whole bunch of stuff that was completely wrong.

I managed to communicate this – with some hysteria – to my mother, who called the yearbook advisor on the phone. He invited me into his office the next day and told me kindly that a) it was fine, so don’t worry about it; and b) maybe next time I ought to ask for help before it got to the point of staying up all night.

There are two important characteristics that deadlines must have to work for me:

  1. They must be reasonable.
  2. Other people need to know about them.

The first probably goes without saying. Unrealistic deadlines are worse than useless: they are frustrating and discouraging, and actually make me move more slowly.

The second is important mainly because it provides accountability. Accountability started for me a few months ago, when I began sharing chapters with my mother. I have written here before about how motivating and liberating that has been. The next step in the journey of my novel is beta readers, but I need to get through one full editing pass (probably two, actually) before I’m willing to give up the manuscript for more rigorous criticism.

The other day at work I ran into a friend of mine; I don’t see her in the office that often (it’s a big place), but she lurks around Facebook and has been aware of my progress. She mentioned, in passing, that she had once worked for a publishing house as a fiction editor, editing for continuity and pacing. That I have someone like this in my circle is a piece of serendipity I can’t pass up. I told her I’d be looking for beta readers in November, and she said she’s looking forward to reading my book.

I’ve no idea if she’ll actually like the book – but I have now had someone with actual formal editing experience offer enthusiastically to help me out. To give up this opportunity would be foolish beyond belief.

I love my novel. I love my characters, and my story. At the moment it is still full of flaws and rough areas, and needs a huge amount of work – but I love it. At the same time…it is work. I have come to look at it much as I look at my day job: something I must attend to and take seriously. It means working on the editing, pushing through the hard parts, writing new sections, ripping out and refactoring and reshaping. It means moving forward, even as I know I will have to go through it all again.

It means deadlines.

November is a motivating choice for a number of reasons. First, I think it’s not unreasonable; it’s ambitious, at the rate I’m going, but it’s doable. Second, it’s a reward. If I really finish by November, I’ll hand this manuscript off to my beta readers and spend November drafting the sequel for NaNoWriMo. The sequel is still new in my head, and not written down; it’s shiny and perfect, as things always are before they have to be concrete. It will be a treat to work on something new.

What deadline I set after that depends on what kind of shape the book is in at that point. I can guess at what a lot of the feedback will be; but the more interesting bits of it will be the ones I would not have anticipated. Those are the ones that will make me sit back and look at my novel in a way I never would have if left to myself. Those are the ones that will allow me to grow it up.

After that, I am going to pay a total stranger to hurt my feelings give it a thorough professional editing pass, and then one way or another it goes to press. 2013 is the goal, but that probably depends on whether or not I take some time to try to sell it to someone, or just publish it myself.

It’s only taken me 30 years to learn to ask for help. I think my yearbook advisor would be proud.

Editing, and the Importance of Coffee

I am a smart person.

This is not bragging; it’s just genetics. I don’t think brains guarantee you much in this life – certainly not success, or love, or prosperity (or talent, for that matter). They’re just another tool to apply to the world, and it’s just as easy to let them sit and gather dust than to use them.

I say this, because my brain is sometimes painfully literal, and people who think of me as bright are sometimes shocked at the degree to which I can be dense and inflexible. I am shocked myself, once the big, obvious light dawns.

Here’s the big, obvious light du jour:

Editing involves actual writing.

Yes, I know. Who knew? But after seven chapters and a prologue, it has finally dawned on me that editing, in many cases, actually means rewriting. This is possibly not true for everyone, but it’s true for me.

It’s not rewriting from scratch, of course – at least, it’s not rewriting everything from scratch. Chapter 7, I am discovering, has a structure and pacing I’m pretty pleased with. It’s a slow-down-and-breathe-a-little chapter, and I think it works reasonably well that way.

But huge chunks of it, it turns out, were little more than outlines of what I wanted to say. I would have written this one about 10 days into NaNoWriMo, and I was becoming conscious of the fact that if I didn’t get moving I wouldn’t get the whole story down by November 30. So I sketched in thoughts and visuals, and got the important dialogue down, and made sure I had a good transition at the end of the chapter: my heroine finishes a cup of coffee before embarking on a dreaded but necessary errand.

Editing this chapter has been like turning a handful of bullet points into an essay. Most of the pieces were there (although I had to sow a few extra seeds of discontent I hadn’t put in initially), but they weren’t actually written yet. And here I thought I had a finished draft.

I do understand why NaNoWriMo tells you not to use the month to work on an existing piece. Editing, despite the prevalence of rewriting, is not the same thing as generating that first pencil sketch of a story. Editing is like oil painting: layer one color, let it sit a few days, add another, see if it fits. First drafts are about getting the ideas down. Editing is about time, focus, and attention to detail. Editing is about actually telling the story.

After seven chapters, I have established a routine, of sorts, for my editing. It goes something like this:

  1. Read the chapter aloud, and correct any grammatical or structural errors as I go. It’s critical for me that I read aloud; it forces me to read every word, and it makes awkward passages far more obvious. It’s also a great way for me to make sure my dialogue is realistic.
  2. Fill in missing or incomplete scenes. Here I try to shift back into NaNoWriMo mode, and silence my inner editor. What’s important is that I do this for the entire chapter in one shot, rather than rewriting the same paragraph over and over and never moving on.
  3. Go to step 1, and repeat the cycle as necessary.

I have come to see editing like combing my daughter’s hair. I have to attack it carefully, gently, and a little at a time. If I rush, I just force the snags further down, where they are bigger and harder to yank out.

It’s daunting, to be honest. When I read through the whole manuscript, the first 9-10 chapters are the cleanest, and here I am gritting my teeth over Chapter 7. It’s only going to get worse, although I’m hoping practice will help.

Regardless of all the work I’ve had to put in to Chapter 7, though, it has felt easier than editing Chapter 1 (which was a far more finished product). So while I am recognizing, perhaps for the first time, how much work I have ahead of me, I am becoming more hopeful that I will actually manage to get through it.

Not that there aren’t setbacks. I was feeling pretty good last night after my latest comb-through: I’d filled in some visuals and fleshed out some thoughts. I’d tightened the dialogue and hinted – very gently – at a few events coming down the road. It was not perfect, but it was close to the point where I could put it aside and move on to Chapter 8.

And then I realized: Nobody had given my heroine any coffee. All of this setup, all these conversations, and nowhere has she actually acquired that cup of coffee she is finishing at the end.

Stupid, stupid brain.