Tuesday, May 22, 2012

28 Don't Think Too Much, You'll Create a Problem That Wasn't Even There

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:

Read

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!

photo credit

28 comments:

  1. Right now, I'm focusing on revising my WIP. One problem is the fact I'm not sure if I'm revising correctly or how I know when I hit the right spot.

    Another problem is figuring out how to harness the energy so I can actually work on revising without losing focus and de-railing myself.

    But I'm sure I'll stumble on a few solutions one day, and seek out the others.

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    1. Chihuahua Zero, I know exactly how you feel! I recently sent my manuscript off to beta readers. Know how I knew it was ready for their eyes? I'd gone through four revisions on my own, and by the final pass, I thought the whole thing was terrible. When I was tempted to cut EVERYTHING, I knew I had lost perspective.

      You WILL get there! Keep going!

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  2. Yes! I've been known to agonize over a page or two, change it five times, and then end up with the original version. This is where critique partners are so important to me~ they can dismiss or confirm my doubts, and point out things I'm too close to notice.

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    1. Jess, absolutely! And sometimes I've lost confidence and deleted something that seemed horrible at the time, but later seemed pretty darn good. Thank goodness for saved versions!

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  3. Guilty! I'm terrible at hanging on and doing 'one more round' of revisions. I'm more than a little scared to take the next step! :)

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    1. Jemi, I'm firmly in the "one more round" camp as well. Diving in to the next step is scary, but we can do it!

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  4. "We can't compare our lumps of clay to the polished greatness that we read."

    Well said, Julie. Thanks for the great tips.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. If I compared my writing to the polished gems, I'd never send out a manuscript!

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  5. I got hung up about the technicalities of writing, after my first Beta said I over used the comma and the second suggested I added more. It took a while, but I think too many rounds of revisions and over polishing rubs the heart - and the voice - right out of the novel.

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    1. Amen to that, Elaine! I've been guilty of scrubbing voice out of mine as well. That's when my beta readers said "STOP!"

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  6. Lovely ladies at Adventures, thank you SO much for hosting me today! I truly appreciate it.

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  7. I admit to thinking too much then spinning into a panic. Didn't stay long but it happens when I think way too much on something. And I agree with Linda Jackson's comment as well

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    1. I've done the same thing. "This manuscript is the WORST!" Then I want to delete the entire thing. That's when we need to take a step back.

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  8. Oh, I SO needed this post today! Sometimes the more I revise, the more I think needs fixing... and that's not necessarily the case. Writers definitely need outside help to make their books the best they can be. It takes a village to write a novel, is my opinion.

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    1. Becca, I agree. The more we revise, the more we doubt ourselves. The more we doubt ourselves, the more we revise. Ack!

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  9. Not only do I over think, I've been labeled the overthinker by family and friends. That's not even nice is it? But, it's true. I over think EVERYTHING.

    Love this post! Thanks.

    Teresa

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    1. The Overthinker! That's funny. I'm totally guilty of that myself. And NOT only in writing :)

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  10. I'm guilty of getting stuck on a page like the old needle skipping on a vinyl record. That's when I know it's time to fling it out to fresh eyes. Love your line of "letting the creative process have it's way with you." Perfect advice. Cool post, Jules.

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    1. Leslie, with my last pass of my manuscript, I felt like deleting EVERYTHING. And that's why it's now in your capable hands :)

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  11. Julie, I think I've told you this before, but I am SO guilty of over-analyzing and nit-picking my work to death. I can't seem to help myself. You're right, it tends to create problems instead of fixing them. I totally agree that a grammatically correct sentence does not always make for interesting reading and a string of them may or may not pull together into an interesting story. I always need to step back, let it simmer, and breathe before I revise too heavily. Great post!

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    1. Michele, I'm totally guilty of the nit-picky thing, too. And I'm constantly writing little notes to myself on how to fix everything. But sometimes we just have to let go! Not easy, though.

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  12. Great summary and thoughts, Julie. :) It's totally easy to overdo it, or be so caught up in revising and fussing that we lose the "magic" and flow of writing. Yay for critique partners who can spot details we wouldn't have otherwise caught. Invaluable!

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    1. Carol, yep, my critique partners have at times convinced me to step away and leave it alone. Sometimes that's exactly what I need to do!

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  13. Wow, what a great post. I'm always over-analyzing my punctuation, the way words flow together. I use Autocrit type programs all the time and I get so frustrated over the 'problems' the programs find. I have to remind myself that Autocrit is a program designed to pick up certain things. It's not a reader who can feel emotion. I love my betas and my critique partners. They pick out the real issues - plot holes, pacing, etc. that a program can't find. There's not enough money in the world to compensate a fantastic beta reader and I wouldn't trade mine for all the riches in the world.

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    1. Jenny, thanks for mentioning Autocrit. I've never heard of that! I fear the program would go up in smoke if I ran an early draft through the system :/

      But you're right...nothing can replace the human emotion involved with reading. Thanks for the visit, and I hope you have a great weekend!

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