I’ve spent my writing career chasing the elusive creature that is an Honest Critique.
There have been glimpses. An honest opinion or two about how the story progresses, a throwaway, “I didn’t like this part,” in among the praise. I’ve tried to wheedle more opinions out of my readers, only to hear that they’re “not good” at critiquing, or (worse) they don’t want to hurt my feelings. Which is worse because then you know they have things that they think could be fixed, but they won’t tell you no matter what you say.
Readers might not think much about how the story is put together except as far as what they liked or didn’t. Other writers might have been burned in the past, lost a writer friend to their honest opinion. That makes me mad every time I hear about it. It gives writers looking for help improving their stories a bad name. It makes, “I want your honest opinion,” into such an overblown trap that it has the comedic potential of, “Does this dress make me look fat?” You can’t convince them of your sincerity until you react to their opinion, and you can’t react until they give it to you. But they won’t. And I can’t even blame them.
At the beginning of this month, I had exactly two writer friends I could work with. One is my alpha reader and “whiteboard”–she lets me bounce ideas off her because talking to myself only takes me so far. The other is my beta reader, and the only person to give me decent critiques over a whole manuscript. Her strengths lie in line editing and pointing out where things don’t make much sense, but overall building blocks of the story haven’t seen much commentary. Does the plot work, are there holes, how’s the pacing, are the characters distinct and complex, is this scene even necessary, there should be another scene here, etc., none of that gets much attention. Great for final polish, but not much for finding the places that need an overhaul.
I’m still learning how to revise. I’ve finished four novels to date, but only extensively revised one. The one I submitted to PitchWars, the one I’m now hoping to get at least brief notes from mentors for, and at best get to spend two months working on with someone who will see me through the edit letter. Honestly, I would’ve dived into this contest with the same enthusiasm even if there wasn’t an agent round. When I first heard of it, I got so excited by everything else in the explanatory blog post that I missed the one line about how there’s an “agent round”.
A published author will work with me on revising my manuscript? Sign me up!
Oh, agents will look at the pitch afterward? Even better!
I was all set to take my revised manuscript and query it starting in November. Probably do that, anyway, because even if I don’t get picked for the coveted 101 mentee slots (*strokes Twitter* That’s right, precious mentor, favorite my tweets about my MS, favorite them all, love me and my writing…), I’ve found some CPs (critique partners) to work with, anyway. I’ve also learned a lot about what to look for when polishing an MS, and I know that at least one of the mentors I submitted to is planning to send out feedback to everyone who submitted to them. More are willing to send feedback to anyone who asks–and oh, I will ask.
I will covet every scrap of feedback I get. I will read the emails, pout over things I disagree with, let the critique hurt, then do absolutely nothing with the feedback until I’ve had at least one night’s sleep. Then, I’ll read them again. And find how the suggestions fit into how I see my story. How to make them mine. Where they fill in chunks that needed it, and where they add something new I hadn’t expected–and whether I like the addition or not. If possible, I’ll probably have questions and clarification. I think best when words are coming out of my brain instead of percolating inside it, which means dissecting a critique with the person who gave it, if they’re willing. If I like something but don’t know how to fit it into the story, I’ll possibly explain some framework that doesn’t actually appear in the book, but which still creates the context in which the story happens.
After carefully sorting the feedback into what I want to apply and what I don’t, after clarification, I’ll finally buckle down and change things.
And I can’t wait.
On Facebook, I belong to a group that discusses Doctor Who. We made it a private group, invitation-based, so that we could discuss spoilers without all of our walls erupting into riots. I’m a critiquer. I pull things apart and think about them, see how they work and how they don’t. I’m cultivating that reaction all the more so that if I can recognize it in other works, hopefully I can avoid such mistakes in my own.
One of the first threads we had in that group, someone jumped into the discussion of what we saw as the flaws of the episode and ripped us all a new one. He couldn’t stand that we were talking about what the show had done wrong, what it wasn’t good at, when none of us had accomplished anything near as amazing. He condemned us for sitting back and ripping apart someone else’s hard work rather than making our own. He couldn’t see how loving something and criticizing it could exist together. If you criticized it, you must not love it.
I love Doctor Who. I’ve devoured every DVD of the classic series that I could get my hands on. I’ve written silly fanfiction, and spent hours and hours discussing the merits of each different companion and Doctor. I’ve never met a Doctor I didn’t like (yes, even the generally despised Six), although I’ve met plenty of companions I can’t stand (yes, even the generally adored Rose).
I wouldn’t put so much effort into picking apart every episode if I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t spend so much time on it if I didn’t love it. If I hated it as much as my criticism seems to suggest, I wouldn’t watch it. There are better ways to spend my time.
So, yes, the edit letter is going to hurt. Of course it will. We don’t call it ripping up for nothing. Those are wounds to my precious book baby. But they come from a place of love. Too much time goes into those letters for them to be worth it if there wasn’t passion, and that’s what I want going into my MS: passion.