Tuesday, August 31, 2010

40 Making the Most of Criticism

Writing isn't something I do in public. Mostly I do it in in the night or early morning, in hours I am conscious of stealing from my children and spouse, or borrowing from time I could have spent working for clients or--groan--cleaning my house. I kept it secret until I was almost done with the first draft of my novel. But once those hours had coughed up a certain number of pages, I started craving feedback. Was it horrible? Was it wonderful? I had no idea, and part of me was afraid to find out. What I needed was someone to critique my work, so I started to look around online, and I joined SCBWI, went to a couple conferences, and gradually started putting together different people to help me get a handle on how much work my manuscript still needed.

I don't even want to say what number draft I've just finished, but I've come to the realization that critiquers come to you in different stages during your journey as a writer. There is value in every one of them. You just have to recognize them for who they are and what they offer.
  • The Cheerleader: She reads your work and loves it. Loves it so much she is willing to read it multiple times and love it even more each and every time. She's the one who keeps you believing in yourself and your story. Unfortunately, she is new to writing and often knows only as much as you do, so she can't help you understand that--while your story is worth loving--it also needs serious help. Or possibly she knows there's something wrong, but doesn't know how to help you fix it.  Still, without her, you might not survive the second draft, much less the eighth.
  • The Alpa Reader: She is who you need in an early draft, someone who can read the whole book without cringing and offer honest feedback about what works on a grand scale and what doesn't. She knows how to read attentively for pace and plot and character, and she knows how to pick out the good things as well as those that still need work. She doesn't line edit but gives you a road map for your next revision.
  • The Writing Partner: She is developing her craft on a parallel trajectory to yours. She knows almost as much as The Author--if you're lucky, she may even be The Author--but she is willing to stick with your story through all the drafts and help you look at a different layer of the manuscript in each. Eventually, she helps you line-edit your manuscript, not by rewriting it in her own style, but by pointing out a problem, explaining why it's a problem, and letting you find your own solutions.
  • The Author/Mentor: She is published or on her way to being published, and she's worked with enough editors to understand the limits of what can or should be said to encourage someone's writing without destroying its integrity. She doesn't line edit until the narrator has a voice, the plot holes are fixed, the characters are likable and distinct, and the pacing keeps the reader reading. She may pick up on your common crutch words, comment on specific phrasing that pulls the reader out of the story, or say things like, "cut this scene in half, it's dragging the story down" that leave you scratching your head. This is only because you haven't learned enough yet to see beyond your words to the various elements of craft. But once that light bulb comes on, her comments are like 24k gold. You listen to them, and revise, revise, revise.
  • The Beta Reader: Ideally, this is someone who would ultimately buy your book. She doesn't need to know everything there is about writing, because you've already written the best book you and your various critiquers can coax out of you. She can--and should--point out typos; places where she doesn't understand or believe something; and parts of the story where her attention wanders.
     
  • The Professional: Once your story reaches a certain level, you get lucky and have agents or editors start commenting on your work. Sometimes they are like The Author, and the comments seem undecipherable. But if you research what they've said, really think about it in context of your story and writing, the sentence or two of advice they give you can be enough to transform the whole manuscript. A positive rejection can make your day, or even your week, because you know you're getting close. And that's when you keep submitting. Unless you're getting some positive comments or suggestions from the professionals you submit to, you need to go back to the drawing board and visit with some other types of critiquers.
Critiquing, like writing, is a process, and it's individual. It's up to us as writers to learn everything we can about the craft and business of writing. Someone the other day wrote about the DIYMFA that writers have to earn. I've also read that most writers need eight to ten years of writing to get good enough to be publishable.

Few of us are patient enough to wait that long before submitting. I sure wasn't. I've made every rookie mistake agents tweet about and rant about. (Okay, maybe not all of them, but I've made a lot of mistakes.) My biggest was submitting too early, and that's not because I didn't bother to have my work critiqued. I did. I just didn't ask the right critiquer at the right time. I didn't even know enough to know what I needed in a critique.

Don't give your first, or even your second draft to a Cheerleader or a group of Alpha Readers and expect it to be ready to query because they said it was great. They can tell you whether the manuscript is worth pursuing though. With that confirmation under your belt, look for a Writing Partner or Mentor who knows as much or more than you do about the craft. Read craft books and craft blogs. Critique other people's work. Read fiction with a writer's eye. Study what works and what doesn't. Understand why you like some things and not others. Listen to what your Writing Partners or Mentors have to say. Then get a number of different Beta Readers. Don't try to take every piece of advice that's offered. Learn to sift through it. Look for common denominators where they find problems, not just what problem they think they've identified. Revise, revise, and revise some more. Then query. (After taking time to write the best query letter you can and doing your market research on your comps and which agents or editors might like your story.) Submit if requested.

Send out 5-10 queries and stop to assess what's happening. If you have sent out your query letter without sample pages, and you're not getting submission requests, it's time to rewrite your query and have another look at your concept. If you have sent out sample pages and you're not getting requests, it's also time to check your writing. Find the right critiquer for where you are in the process, or hire a Professional or an Author. Enter contests. Repeat ad nauseum.

Don't give up, but don't just keep sending out the same old thing. Because guess what, all those stories about authors getting triple digit rejections before getting accepted? They weren't necessarily for the same book or the same version of the book. Just because one draft doesn't sell doesn't mean the next one won't fix the problems that hold it back. Or maybe there's a different way to look at the story. Or a better story you can tell using the knowledge you've acquired while writing this one.

So that's my two cents. I want to take this moment to say that I've had help from amazing Cheerleaders, Writing Partners, Alpha and Beta Readers, Authors , Mentors, and Professionals. For their unwavering patience, support, kindness, and expertise,  they deserve more gratitude than I can possibly express.

As for my Marissa, who has been everything to me, I can only hope to give back a fraction of what she has offered so generously. Consider this a marker, M. I owe you BIG.

Martina

40 comments:

  1. Great post, Martina. And I think it's awesome that you and Marissa have found each other and work so well together. Hope your Tuesday is terrific!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a fantastic post! I especially like how you broke down all the different types of readers and critiques. Very helpful.

    Question: can the same person play more than one critique role? Or do you think each reader fits into only one category?

    Thanks for a great post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. After reading this post, you have given me a new perspective in pitching my query and story idea. I've been trying hard for a long time, and I'm glad to know that it's okay to try and improve, and not to give up. Thanks for this, and look a look out for me. ^_~

    ReplyDelete
  4. Martina, I am beyond words. The words touched, humbled, and grateful don't begin to express how I'm feeling this morning. You know I'm your cheerleader and any other reader you need me to be. I believe in your story, and all your writing, and know I'm going to be the first one to read WW (again) when it makes its way to publication. It's a pleasure and an honor to work with you in writing, reading, blogging, and in life.

    Martina first sent me an e-mail through SCBWI almost a year ago. She was seeking a writing partner, and I was scared and (as she well knows) piled under by a difficult time in my life. And like her, I had only told my husband I was writing seriously and was largely keeping it under wraps with everyone else. Nearly four months later, the storm otherwise known as "Snowcation" hit the Mid-Atlantic region. During those days off from school, I FINALLY e-mailed Martina back (tail between legs) and we met up. Best. Move. Ever. The rest is history.

    I am the priveleged one in this duo. Reading your writing is something I do gladly time and time again. I love you, Martina, and thank God for you in every possible way.

    xxoo
    Marissa

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great post! I wish I had my own Marissa or Martina!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Okay, so the blog post was wonderful for all of the obvious reasons. But, the exchange between Martina and Marissa...two dear friends...well, that's what gave me chills. My faith in humanity is restored whenever I read from-the-heart kudos or proclamations of gratitude or sincerity -- for those moments of true giving matter the most.

    Thank you for starting my day off perfectly!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Understanding those different kinds of crits are crucial, esp the first year or so. It helps keep things in perspective. And as a critter, learning what the other writer is looking for in the critique.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What a perfect day to stumble upon your amazing site! This post is so inspiring, and really puts the critiquing process in perspective. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great post, both from the stand point of a writer and a critter. I love this part: They weren't necessarily for the same book or the same version of the book. That's were I am right now. My YA contemporary novel is now a YA thriller due to changes and suggestions made by one critter. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I just love this post - so true on all counts.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Nice :) I smiled all the way through the post and the comments. It's all so true!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Awesome post! Now I know exactly what to look for when I need people to read my work. Thanks so much for this post!

    ReplyDelete
  13. This is such good advice. I could so relate to the first paragraph. That is so me.

    I'd love to find a mentor. I think it'd really help me move to being ready to submit.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The description of the different types of Critiquers is spot on and useful as I tried to find people to fit the role of author/mentor and professional. So happy Martina and Marissa found each other so we readers can reap the reward of this blog.

    ReplyDelete
  15. You are all so kind! This stuff all falls into info I wish I'd known before I ever sent out my first query letter to an agent. I hope it helps. And for the record, I don't get the chance to say this often enough, but Marissa and I both love sharing the journey with all of you.

    And Marissa, what can I say after that comment without making people gag at all the mutual adoration? I couldn't possibly have a better partner on this writing journey. You know how much I love you and value your opinion. (And I'm not just saying that because I'm about to send the last chapters of this revision. :D)

    Hugs,

    Martina

    ReplyDelete
  16. You guys are so blessed to have found each other. This post was awesome. Anyone who has even one or two of these kinds of critique partners would be lucky. To have all of them would put a writer on a clear path to publication.

    ReplyDelete
  17. What a wonderful post! I agree with Candyland -- I wish I had my own Marissa or Martina.

    ReplyDelete
  18. KarenG, Natalie, I really think you find these people as you reach the right stage in the process. Too early on, professionals couldn't help you. It would be too time-consuming for them. Even an Author wouldn't help, because you wouldn't understand what she was trying to say.

    Candyland and Nicole, you have us. We're right here, and that's why we are doing the contests and links and other features. Use them to connect with other writers!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Wonderful break down! At least I know I am not the only person who really only tells few people I am writing at all. They sorta think I'm weird, except everyone in the blogging world : ) It is very hard to find readers, but I think I found a couple of good ones who will stick with me.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Awwwww, I'm getting all choked up! Just knowing I fit in somewhere on that scale means a lot to me. Sometimes it's hard to not only get a critique, but to give one as well. It would be nice to always be the cheerleader, but you also have to know when that would be a disservice to the person who is asking for your help. I personally always try to be honest in a constructive way, but afterwards cringe thinking the person might take it the wrong way.

    ReplyDelete
  21. This is great--and sweet! (no, we're not gagging LOL) The SCBWI Boards are definitely a great place to meet other critiquers; I've met a few there too. And don't forget finding them at SCBWI conferences and retreats, on blogs or Twitter while social networking, on Nathan Bransford's forums/boards, or via contests or WriteOnCon (stay tuned next August--WriteOnCon is planned to be annual!)

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thanks to you both--for showing us more about how the process works, and for inspiring us to know what great friends can be found along the way. Pretty special stuff here...

    ReplyDelete
  23. Great post, I am so sharing this with my new critique group, thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  24. what a fantastic post. thanks so much for sharing.

    <3333

    ReplyDelete
  25. Bekah, in the blogosphere we can all be weird together. The writing community online is incredibly supportive, isn't it?

    Lisa, when are you anything but kind to anyone? You're in many places on my list, and I hope that everyone who is lucky enough to get you as a mentor in the current contest takes the time to stop and hear your comments. The few suggestions you made in the beta read resulted in far more tension. I was a little reluctant to keep going with this revision after an editor request on the previous version, but I'm so glad I did! You're a prime example of how a sentence or two of judicious comments can be far more valuable than pages of copious notes.

    Carol, thanks for the additional suggestions. And Kenda and kangaroobee, writing friends are the best. We entrust each other with bits of ourselves right when they are fresh out of the womb. That's an amazing bonding experience. I'm looking forward to hearing that you've both found your own writing partners!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Such an awesome post, Martina! So true, all of it. : )

    ReplyDelete
  27. Love this post! It's wonderful that you two have found each other, and the rest of us bloggers are thankful you started this awesome blog!

    For me, I sometimes get buried in the do's and don'ts and have to struggle to the surface. But all the time others put in to making our work better is truly amazing.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I'm lucky enough to have an Alpha reader and several Author/Mentors, most of whom aren't afraid to tell me what they think.

    It's always nice to find those people, but sometimes a cheerleader helps too. :)

    ReplyDelete
  29. See what I mean? You are just so sweet. I'm just glad I could be helpful. The writing community has given me so much, I just want to give back too!

    ReplyDelete
  30. Fantastic article, Martina! A classic. I hope I fit in there somewhere--you definitely are at least one of those to me, plus a good friend (and possible cousin).

    And I must add, *WE* are all blessed that you and Marissa found each other, because together you write one of the best blogs in the bloggerverse!

    ReplyDelete
  31. So glad I read this! This is practical and at the same time really encouraging. I think I just found my "Marissa," and am so grateful for a writing partner who can crit without making me feel "criticized." What a wonderful post. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  32. This is a great list. Very helpful and encouraging :)

    ReplyDelete
  33. Aw! You guys are too cute. :) I'm so glad I found this blog.

    I have a couple great cheerleaders and some great alpha readers, but I'm still trying to find that mentor who can push me past where I am. Have two people I'm reading for and haven't looked at their comments on my work yet so maybe they'll be the ones!!

    Here's a tic I have: I line edit for people who are completely wet behind the ears. Because if I don't, I can't read through the overwritten newbie adverb love, etc, and because maybe this will teach them to write tighter by seeing it done w/ their own work. Every time I do it I get great feedback that they needed to see that (and I always explain the why of whatever changes I make; I just do better by example.)

    ReplyDelete
  34. Ara, you are definitely on my list, too. And OMG, Clara? In so many places on the list!

    Jessica, Julie, at least when it comes to the blog, we consider you among our biggest cheerleaders. We can't thank you enough! There is so much support out here for writers. It's wonderful to feel like a small part of the incredible, generous & talented online community of writers.

    Donna, Michele, and Lynda, I'm so glad you found this helpful.

    Jess, I have had the same tic. There's definitely some value in it--especially when it comes to deleting adjectives and adverbs etc. And you definitely can't comment on every one. But noting the reason for a suggestion lets the writer learn. It's easier for us to do the line edit on a beginning writer, but then they are developing OUR voice and not their own. I'm not talking about instances where you line-edit a few pages as an example of something difficult to explain, but I am personally trying to resist doing more than those few pages except for grammar and punctuation, etc. Or at least that's my latest approach. :D

    ReplyDelete
  35. Very good article and great advice. I too like the way you tagged the different critics. We need them all. I have been lucky to have two special Cheerleaders in my corner also. They keep me motivated and strong so that I can work with all the others and not feel defeated or discouraged at any time.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Excellent breakdown of critique types. I think it's important for newer writers especially to understand that it's not all cheerleading. I've been fortunate to have several levels of CPs and they all make me better.

    ReplyDelete
  37. What an insightful post!!! It's so useful to have the different types of critiquer/beta reader/cheerleader broken down like that, and it all makes so much sense when you explain it in this way :)

    It's so important to have good critique partners in your life, but I've never really thought about the needs of my writing journey that must be met in doing so...

    ReplyDelete
  38. I really enjoyed this post. Editing someone else's work can be a hard, but I believe in "tough love".

    I knew after a few rejections that I needed a strong, honest, critique partner. When I finally found one, I was amazed. What a difference! A good critique partner knows writing, indicates obvious overlooked errors, and is brutally honest yet respectful in their evaluation of your manuscript.

    ReplyDelete

Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)