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.
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.