About This Blog

This blog is about my books (of course), but it's also about writing in general and the editing process. I love the puzzle of a novel, and I'm happy to share anything I know about editing and revising. Any questions? Leave them in the comment box or send me an email, and I'll address them as quickly as I can.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Importance of Outside Critique for First-Time Authors

Let me start by saying that if you’re someone who’s vehemently opposed to critique groups -- or carting multiple copies of your manuscript to someone else’s living room where it may undergo public humiliation at the hands of the half dozen others in said group -- don’t panic. There are other options, I promise. Either way, outside constructive critique is something that every manuscript – particularly every first manuscript – needs.

Why is outside critique necessary?
Because as a first time author you need someone to help you see how well you have (or haven’t)
incorporated all that knowledge of ‘the craft’ into this first manuscript. You’re confident that your attempts at ‘showing’ aren’t ‘telling’ in disguise? You believe your understanding and use of plot-driving conflict is solid and effectively used? You’re positive that the threads of your story are well-integrated and essential to your main conflict and character development? You can’t find any place where your pace lags, and you’re certain there’s no ‘sagging middle’? Great! Maybe you’re right.

But maybe you’re wrong.

I can’t count the number of times a first-time author has said, “But I thought I was ‘showing’,” or “But that scene has to be there so the reader will know _____ about my main character,” or “But that thread adds humor because the aunt is funny,” or (possibly the most common) “You think it’s slow/boring/confusing/hard-to-get-through? But I think that [whole giant bulk of the middle] is so interesting! And the reader has to know all of that or there’s no point to the story.”

I don’t know why these things are so difficult to see in a first manuscript, but for some reason they are. Unfortunately, they’re also very difficult to hear, but hearing them is essential since often times we just can’t see them ourselves. New authors may ‘sense’ that something isn’t right, or that they aren’t quite accomplishing what they set out to accomplish, but usually the reasons triggering these instincts are almost impossible to ferret out alone.

Enter the Critique Group.

Or, more loosely termed, the writer or writers who look at your manuscript and tell you where you’ve succeeded and where you’ve failed. The varied critique gained from an actual group of writers can be a very valuable thing (especially since it’s usually accompanied with the opportunity to critique their work as well, which opens up a world’s worth of new insight on how to interpret a manuscript – all of which is sure to help in your own revisions) but sometimes multiple opinions can be a lot for a new author to process. Either way, someone knowledgeable needs to review your manuscript.

When is the best time for outside critique?
I recommend doing one big revision on your own, focusing on your pace and cutting excess material from your manuscript. And be brutal. Saving your original always makes this less stressful, and by all means create a file for everything you delete if that helps. I think I took a whopping 15,000 words out of my first behemoth of a manuscript all by myself. I was so proud. I felt so ruthless. And in the end, even though it was a mere fraction of the 70,000 words that would eventually be stripped from my ms (that’s SEVENTY. THOUSAND. WORDS. in case you think you read it wrong) taking out that initial 15,000 helped get me in the proper state of mind for purging my story of its unnecessary parts and pieces.

Cutting and condensing really does require a certain state of mind, and forcing yourself to take those first cuts is an important step in the right direction. If you really aren't sure what to take out start small, but start somewhere. And when you've taken out everything you can possibly justify, know that it was just the tip of the iceberg and get ready to listen to, and appreciate, the suggestions on your first real critique.

What qualifies as ‘Outside Critique’?
Or, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t? In my opinion, anyone predisposed to wade through and like your manuscript simply because it was written by you does not count as outside critique. Mothers commonly fall under this category, however, I do not believe in excluding anyone simply because of their relationship to you. It has much more to do with the inclinations and qualities someone possesses than it does with how well they know and love you.

For instance, my mother would not wade through or love my book just because I wrote it. On the other hand, she also doesn’t have the knowledge or inclination to read something that needs work or tell me how to fix it, so she still would not be a candidate for a first critique. Three of my sisters are actually the first people to ever look at anything I write. One of them reads every word along the way, disqualifying her for the job of outside critique because she’s already ‘invested’ in my characters and plot. The second reads for me after I’ve done my own first round of cutting and tightening, but she’s easy to please and not at all opinionated, so she too is disqualified for giving outside critique.

Then there’s my sister Annie. She’s super qualified. (Almost regretfully so, as illustrated by the 70,000 word elimination previously mentioned.) In the first place, she’s a writer (although she’s not a novelist – yet). In the second, she’s opinionated. And in the third, I know she’ll tell me what she thinks and have insight for me when it comes to fixing the problems. Tough love can be hard to take, but this is what you’re looking for when the time comes for knowledgeable feedback on your manuscript. It can be brutal, it will most likely be painful, but it is essential.

You may not have a sister (or mother, or friend) who possesses the right qualities for outside critique, but I suspect that somewhere amidst your acquaintances is another novelist. (Seriously, they’re everywhere. Just start casually mentioning that you’ve got a manuscript, and people will start confessing.) Trading critiques with another writer is a great option, and is mutually beneficial to both authors. Just make sure not to get caught in the trap of being mutually ‘nice’, as this isn’t beneficial to anyone. If there isn’t a suitable author available, keep looking. The first person who ever critiqued any of my writing was an old high school teacher, and almost everyone knows someone who knows enough about writing to make an effective critique partner.

If all else fails, there are writing groups. There are also online writing forums and other online resources for connecting with other authors and critique groups. Be creative, find something that will work for you, and don’t make the mistake of forgoing this important step in developing your first manuscript. Solid, knowledgeable critique is an essential step in turning any manuscript into a polished, sharp, well-paced novel.

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