A Guest Post by Julie Musil
Julie Musil is an YA author represented by Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary Agency. She's wife to her high school honey, and the mother of three amazing sons. When she's not shuttling her boys here, there, and everywhere, she's either tapping away on her keyboard, researching for nonfiction, or keeping up with writing tips and markets.
A few years ago, I took a writing course. I'd study the course material and turn in my assignments, but all along I had this nagging doubt about something. I read about noun/verb placement, misplaced modifiers, and comma usage, and began to over-analyze my work. I found myself worrying less about a good story, and worrying more about mechanics. And I have a confession to make: I honestly had a hard time breaking it all down, and couldn't tell if I was doing it right or not.
I finally summoned the courage to ask my instructor about my concerns, and her words will always stick with me. "You're doing all this naturally, so don't worry so much about it." Those words lightened my load, and allowed me to shed my fears and focus on the most important thing: entertaining the reader.
But how do we know if we're accomplishing the important points naturally? How do we apply proper mechanics without freaking out about details? Here are my thoughts:
Most writers are avid readers, and while we're doing something that brings us joy, we're also learning how to do things right. We recognize a long, flowing sentence during a slower part of the book, and a snappy sentence at the climax. We recognize how the author starts us on the journey right away, and doesn't bog us down with unnecessary information. We automatically know which verb is attached to which noun, simply by reading through a sentence that makes sense. We learn comma placement by pausing when the author wants us to.
Reading lots of books in our genre gives us a feel for what works. We can't compare our lumps of clay to the polished greatness that we read. If we do, we're not being fair to ourselves.
Critique Other Work
I don't know about you guys, but sometimes I finish a book and think, darn, how in the world will my skills ever be up to par? The pacing was perfect. I wept for the character. The scenery was gorgeous.
But one thing we need to remember is that the book we've just read has been through extensive revisions. The author's agent and a professional editor have put that manuscript through the meat grinder. The author's first draft might have been burdened with a saggy middle, or an unsatisfying ending. Maybe their grammar was off, and they used a crutch word too often.
When we critique our talented writer friends' work, we see a raw manuscript that will only get better. If the author is brilliant with character details or creative scenery, we learn from this. We recognize what works and what doesn't, because we're experienced readers.
Have Our Work Critiqued
This part is terrifying! Sending our babies out to others is not easy, but for me, it's so important. By the time we've read our manuscripts five times or more, we've lost all perspective. We don't know if anyone would even care about our character. We're not sure if the plot is interesting. We're unclear if the pacing is right.
Our critique partners read our work with fresh eyes, and they're on the hunt for what works and what doesn't. As difficult as it is to stomach, reading through their thoughtful comments only helps us move forward. They might catch the same word twice in one sentence. They might question our character's motives. They might remind us that we said the character's hair was red in chapter 3, and in chapter 10 it's black. If they read a sentence and are unsure who we're talking about, we know we need to rewrite it.
I have a long way to go on my writing journey, but one thing I've learned is this: great books start with the writer, but they aren't finished alone. Yes, we need to continue learning and applying those lessons learned to our manuscripts. But we also need to relax and let the creative process have its way with us, and worry about the mechanics after the story is down on paper. Over-analyzing our work is one way to zap the joy right out of it.
Are you guilty of over-analyzing your work? Are you like me, and have trouble figuring out if you're doing it right or not? Please share!