How to Take Criticism

I’ve guest blogged before about how to give and receive critiques. But I realized that I’ve never posted anything on the subject on my own blog, so here is one slice of the pie that is the topic of critiques: getting them and learning from them.

First off, if you take your stuff to a critique group, be professional. Don’t bring something you haven’t proofread yourself, haven’t bothered to run a basic spell check on, that your cat threw up on, or that you’ve formatted in some weird tiny font that nobody can read. It shows you respect your own work enough to present it well, and that you respect the people who are reading it for you enough to be considerate and not make them do all the work for you. Critiquers don’t do the work for you – they make suggestions and give feedback. Editors do the work for you (and I am one, if you want to know, and yes, I’m open for business, and my email is rakhulzna@gmail.com). /shameless plug

Anyway, you also need to be professional in your response to criticism. Let the group know up front what kind of feedback you’re looking for (Full-out troubleshooting, or just technical help? Know your dialogue is shaky but want to concentrate on finding inconsistencies in the plotline for now? Not sure if a scene makes sense and just want to know if it does or not?) Do not expect a pat on the head from a critique group. That’s what your friends and relations are for. Go in ready to be torn to shreds. If you get nothing but praise instead, that’s a happy surprise and kudos to you for your excellent writing. But it’s better to be prepared for the worst than to go in cocky and then have the rug jerked out from under you. Confidence is good, but steel yourself for criticism. That’s what critiquers are supposed to give you.

Don’t argue with critiquers. Clarify, sure, if you don’t understand a comment, but don’t say, “Yes, this part does SO work!” if someone says it doesn’t. The correct response is, “Okay, thanks for letting me know,” or “What is it that doesn’t work here? Can you explain, so I understand what I need to fix?” You can disagree privately all you want, just not out loud.

Do NOT, NOT, NOT start editing as soon as you get home from a critique, especially if there are a lot of comments (more especially still if there are a lot of things that need to be fixed or changed). Process it overnight, at the very least. Cry if you need to. Just don’t decide one way or the other on anything the same evening you get a critique. Later, after you’ve thought it over a little, you can decide which suggestions you disagree with, which you want to work on, and which things you agree with but think a different solution than the one suggested would be best for the story.

So there you go. How to approach and take your lumps – I mean, your critiques.

Editing Without Tearing Your Hair Out

It’s far more frustrating and difficult for me to edit my own writing than to edit other people’s work.  That’s only natural, since your own work is your own personal creation, and therefore hard to distance yourself from in order to get a clear view of the “big picture” of what works and what doesn’t.

I just finished the final draft of my novel, and feel like I got into a good groove with the process over the last year and a half of editing it.  Here’s some stuff that worked well for me:

  • Focus on one type of editing at a time.  It’s a different mindset to look for technical or grammatical mistakes than to look for awkward wording, pacing issues, or tone and character inconsistencies.  Big rearranges, additions, and cuts, too, are something I generally want to do separately from other, easier fixes.
  • If I’m doing quick fixes and notice something major that feels like it might be off, I highlight it or insert a comment to make note of it for later.  Then I can look it over in another sitting, reread it and decide if it really is off, or if it’s something I’d like to get feedback on before making any big decisions.
  • At times, I’m intimidated about making sweeping changes to the full text of the novel, as if I’ll get lost and never find my way home with the book again.  To trick myself into feeling secure about the process, I’ll cut three or four chapters that need major work, rearranging, cutting, and/or big additions, and copy them to a separate file called “edits”.  I make all the changes there, and when I’m happy with it, I paste it back into the “official” novel file.
  • I keep each draft as a separate file – clearly labeled as “[workingtitle]v1” and “[working title]v2” and so on, so that if the big changes go horribly awry or some terrible computer glitch tries to destroy me, I have the older drafts to refer to for reconstruction.  It’s also kind of cool to go back and see how the story flourished and bloomed over the course of the work I’ve done on it.
  • Take breaks between drafts!!!  And I mean a month or two, with a couple beta readers giving you feedback before you get started on the next set of rewrites.  This (a) gives you a little distance from the book so you have fresh perspective going back into it, and (b) gets you feedback to work from.  Also, you won’t be so sick of reading the book that you decide you hate the whole thing and never want to lay eyes on it again.
  • If you’re feeling stressed out about a big change or aren’t sure what to do with it, step away from it for a while.  An hour, a day, a weekend.  Not more than a couple of days, or you’ll lose your momentum and have trouble settling back in to your work, but a weekend off from editing is necessary if you’re not going to go crazy – or at least become so frustrated that you’ll get overly critical.  Take a walk.  Get some coffee.  Do a puzzle.  Think of it as your lunch break.  Then get back in that chair and do some serious work!

A History of Writing

Like most kids, I made up stories when I was little.  Reading was an obsession for me so early in my childhood that I actually started screaming at a book one day because I couldn’t read it myself.  I had bouts of insomnia from the cradle on (to the present day…) and I figured out that parents get cranky if you wake them up every night for three weeks.  Luckily, I was old enough to read to myself by that time, so I read – sometimes all through the night – to pass the hours when everyone else was asleep.  Stories therefore became incredibly important to me, and that may actually be why, for me, reading is an escape from stress, a whole other world to believe in (if only for a while), and characters are company when they’re well-written.

My mom was publishing short stories and had written (and was writing) novels.  I knew books could come from people in homes just like mine, knew vaguely that rejection was part of the process and that if you just kept trying, you’d find the right fit for what you’d written.  These were great things to grow up aware of, as my storytelling became more serious.  Thanks, Mom!

And I did get serious about my writing.  Very early in my life.  At first, I just wanted my stuff to be typed instead of written.  My mom had a typewriter and let me hunt-and-peck my stories out on that.  Sometimes she’d type for me while I dictated stories to her.  I was somewhere around five-ish when, once, I was dictating a story (one long run-on sentence connected by “and”s) and Mom suggested, “This is an awful lot of ‘and’s.  You could break it up into separate sentences instead.”  As with most early writers, my initial response was “No!”  Mom typed it the way I wanted it.

Later, though, I looked over it and thought about it.  I think, up till then, I’d believed that stories came out perfect first try.  That writers just sat down and wrote off the tops of their heads, and however the story came out was just how it was.  As if stories were simply born instead of shaped and worked over and created through a process.  It had never occurred to me that a story could be improved.  I wrote the story out in separate sentences, the way Mom had suggested.  I read the first version, then the second version.  The second one was better.  Something clicked.

Then I became a serious writer.  Not a good one, but I tried, bless me.  Ha!  My mom taught me how to type when I was eight or nine because hunt-and-peck typing was slowing me down.  I started my first novel (drivel) when I was nine, finished it at ten.  It was about 150 pages of junk, but there was one great character who came out of it.  Having gone through much refining as I’ve matured, I still plan on using him as one of the major characters in my NaNoWriMo novel.

Again, many thanks to my mom, who took me along to science fiction & fantasy conventions and writers workshops and critique groups starting when I was about nine.  Also many thanks to the Southern Indiana Writers Group, who were my first critiquers (and are still the group I attend, when I make it to meetings (rarely, unfortunately)).  I especially thank the long-standing members who were there when I was a kid, because they actually gave me feedback and took my writing seriously.

And I’d like to thank the Academy – wait, no.  This isn’t actually a thank-you speech post, I just happen to have a lot to thank people for when it comes to my development as a writer.

Anyway, those were my early years and how I learned to refine my stories and talk to other writers about the process.  I have to say, one of the best things about the writing community (by which I mean workshops, critique groups, and so on) is how willing writers are to share with each other, and how excited we get to talk to someone who shares our passion for this process.  Even as a kid, most of the adult writers I met didn’t patronize me, but were instead thrilled to talk to me about my perspective on writing and give me advice and encouragement.

Sometime I’ll write a part two to this, about how my teenage writing went and what I learned from it and all that sort of thing.  For now, I’ll finish by posting (verbatim) one of the first stories I ever typed (I’m guessing it’s from around age 3 or 4 (?) because it’s typewriter print and my mom got a word processor not long after that):

lettl pegwn

oensupon a tieym ter wez a LettL PEGWEN AND HE WEZ Verrey Happey Bekaz momme Tokker Aev Hem.

it wiz gtten let and it wez the let sew the lettl pggwn put oen hez pejommez

the end

Clearly, my spelling had a lot to be desired.  My oldest sister compared it to Middle English.  If you can read that, I congratulate you.  It even takes me a while to muddle through it, and I wrote it.  😉

Drafts

While I haven’t yet started the hopefully-final draft of my current novel, I’ve learned a heck of a lot in the process of writing this book.  The last novel I finished (six years ago) is a big wad of mistakes tangled around some good ideas, and it’s beyond me still how to extract the good stuff from the mess.  So when I started the first draft of my new book – The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn – I took a very different approach.

In the past, I’ve agonized over rough drafts, trying to make them as close to final drafts as is humanly possible, the idea being to eliminate as much of the rewrite process as I could.  Truth to tell, that’s worked great with short stories, but a novel is a whole different animal.  The trouble with trying to write a perfect first draft is, it takes forever, and the content is not always as pertinent to the story as you thought it was at the time.  You get too focused on the details, and lose sight of the big story.  The details are much easier to go back in your rewrites and fix, though – mess up the big story, and you may never figure out how to untangle the good from the bad.

In addition to writing, I also dabble in graphite drawing.  One thing I learned from drawing is, if you get the whole picture sketched out and make sure that everything is proportionate and that the composition is strong, then when you add the shading, you’ll end up with an excellent picture.  If you start filling in shading before you’ve finished your outline, however, you’ll usually notice (eventually) that your perspective, proportion, and/or composition is off, and trust me, you will never get the picture to look right if you’ve already started the shading on a badly-done sketch.

So when I started my rough draft of The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I applied what I learned from visual art to written art – I thought of the first draft as a sketch.  I did it quickly and stayed loose with it, making adjustments but not getting too attached to any one line, removed what didn’t work and didn’t fill in all the empty space (subplot) until I’d finished the main storyline.

My first round of rewrites was heavy work, but, for me, it’s much easier to add material than to cut it.  I had lots of ideas for subplots, and tons of notes about the secondary characters and their backgrounds that I didn’t know whether to include in the manuscript or not during my whirlwind first draft.  When I sat down to work on the second draft, I looked over what I had and made notes about what was needed, what felt like it was missing, where the characters came off flat, etc. and coordinated that information with what I had made notes about.  All I had to do was expand on ideas that had already occurred to me, figure out where it made sense within the story and how it would affect the larger plot, and shape the story accordingly with the new material.  Almost everything “missing” was accounted for in my notes, and although it was hard to come up with the stuff that wasn’t accounted for, it was muuuuch easier than cutting out the “extra” notes that I’d made for things that really wouldn’t have worked.

The third draft, which I just finished last week (weeee!), I had some beta readers’ feedback to work from.  The majority of the rewrites on that round were for clarity, consistency, maintaining the readers’ suspension of disbelief, pacing, and improving scenes that weren’t working or weren’t working well enough.  There were still a couple areas of major expansion, but for the most part, it was troubleshooting.  I imagine the next draft will be no expansion and all troubleshooting (though that may be wishful thinking – haha!) but I’ll have to hear what my theta readers (is that a term?) have to say about that!  *grin*

Structure

So you finish your first draft of a novel, and you’re ready to edit.  It needs more work than just proofreading – there are things you need to work in, move around, combine, cut, rethink, etc.  In other words, it’s time to look at the overall structure and see where everything should go for clarity, effect, and pacing to be the best they can be.

Sometimes it’s easy to see where something can be plugged in, but when it isn’t so obvious, it can be daunting, to say the least, to start rearranging your manuscript, changing the tone of scenes and dialogue to make it all fit together cleanly, unsure what the domino effect of all that effort will be.  And if it doesn’t work, you have to undo everything you’ve worked on for weeks or months, and start trying to tackle the problems again.

It’s really hard to hold the entire structure of a book in your head (even your own book), so I decided early on in the editing process of my current novel that I was going to try a different approach to rewriting on a novel-length scale.  I made a plot layout for the whole book.  For each chapter, I did this:

  • Chapter # / Title
  • Characters’ Goals & Motivations:
  • Chapter Summary
  • Questions Raised:
  • Points of Conflict:
  • Larger Plot Movement:
  • Notes & Suggestions:

Goals and motivations are whatever your character(s) in that chapter are striving for, whether that’s “defeat the evil overlord” or “have a positive conversation with his son” or whatever.  If you have multiple characters, answer for each of them.

The chapter summary is just a brief account of the events, like an episode guide.

Questions raised means anything that either the characters themselves are asking, or that the reader may be wondering during/after the chapter.  “Who is the evil emperor?” or “How did that cheerleader learn black magic?” or “Why did the zombie cross the road?”  Anything hinted, foreshadowed, unexplained, etc. that you mean to follow up on later.

Points of conflict should include inner conflict as well as external conflict.  It will really help you pinpoint character development over the storyline arc, as well as helping you pace the action and the lead-up to the climactic scenes of the book.  If a chapter seems to have no conflict, either (a) cut the chapter or (b) dig deeper for some inner conflict or character dynamic conflicts, and make sure the rewrite brings those to the forefront.  People don’t have to fight or even argue to be in conflict – they don’t even have to be upset with each other.  They just have to have some goal or need that’s at odds with one another.

Larger plot movement – what, in this chapter, pushed the story arc forward?  It’s fine to have a chapter here or there dedicated to subplot, or to deepen the characters, but if you find you have multiple chapters in a row that don’t move the story forward, it’s time to rewrite or rearrange.  Also, if you have a high ratio of chapters that don’t move the story forward, you probably want to re-think some of the material.  And yes, character development that affects the action in the larger story does count as plot movement!

Notes and suggestions is for anything you realize as you’re reading, like, “I never answered this question in the whole book!” or “Oops, 3 chapters in a row with no forward movement.”  “This chapter is kinda short, not much happens…might be a good place to plug in [this scene].”

I found that this really helped my focus with multiple elements of rewriting.  It really helped me pinpoint pacing problems, troubleshoot boring chapters, keep the characters’ interactions true even as the characters and their relationships changed and developed, and figure out where I had room to maneuver new material into the book.

I hope it can be likewise helpful to you.

Cut It, But Don’t Toss It

A harsh reality of being a writer is that, sometimes, you have to cut characters, scenes, descriptions, and sometimes great swaths of those words you spent hours getting out of your head and into your story.  It’s especially hard if you LIKE the material you’re cutting out, but if the story is stronger for it, it’s gotta be done.

Yesterday, I was talking with some other writers about the editing process, and in particular about what happens to the material I remove from my stories.  I never get rid of the material I cut, unless it’s just a sentence or a rephrase.  Years and years ago, my mother, who is an author herself, told me (in relation to writing), “Never throw anything away.”  I didn’t understand the full importance of that advice until I’d made the mistake a few times over of deleting something and then realizing I was going to need it, after all.

Other reasons not to throw away cut material:  You never know when you may be able to use it in a different story altogether, such as the beautiful description it broke your heart to remove, but later realize would fit perfectly in your next book’s setting.  Or the character you longed to keep in that short story you wrote last year, but he/she just didn’t fit – and now you’ve thought of a perfect storyline for him/her to have a story of his/her own.  You may be able to turn a cut scene into its own short story.  You may end up combining the things you cut from one project into a whole new project.  Bottom line:  you’ve already done the work for this stuff, and you never know when you might want it for something.  Call it a pack-rat mentality or call it stocking up for hard times, whichever you want, but so often I’ve sighed with relief when I realized I still had this or that scene saved to my “parts” file.  It doesn’t hurt to have a few extra Word docs lying around, but that panic-stricken, “AAAAAAAAARGH!!!  I’ve lost that scene forever, and now I need it back!!!” is something I’d prefer to avoid whenever possible.

As to how to keep your “parts” organized….  For short stories, I have one collective file for the pieces I cut.  All my short stories are saved as separate files in one folder together, along with a file called “spare parts”.  Anytime I hack a section out of a short story I’m working on, I open up the spare parts file, cut and paste from the story file to the parts file, save, close “spare parts”, and keep writing.  With novels, I have a folder for the novel, within which are the files for the book itself (with revision numbers, since there will be multiple drafts, and I DO keep back copies of old drafts, in case I don’t like the direction my editing has taken things), and a file called “[working title] parts.doc”.   That way, I don’t get any of my parts files confused.

And yes, I even keep scenes that I really, really hate, and hope will never see the light of day.  So if, in years and years, I’m ever clenching at my chest, wheezing for breath, and trying desperately to delete things from my computer, you will know that I’m trying to get rid of those really bad parts of my writing so that posterity will never see it – LOL!

First Post

Since this is my first post on this shiny new blog, I’ll start with a brief introduction.

I’ve been making up stories since before I can remember, and writing them down since before I could spell.  I remember making a grand effort at editing for the first time around the age of five – and it was a monumental task to detach myself from the story enough to break it up into individual sentences, where it had originally been one long run-on strung together with conjunction after conjunction.  Editing your own writing has to be the hardest part of the process, but I’ve come a long way since then.

Now, I write fiction and work as a freelance editor.  I’ve written flash fiction, short stories, and a novel (which I’m in the process of editing).  I dislike strict genre guidelines both when writing and when reading – it’s a lot more interesting to see a new twist than to read an old re-hash.

My plans for this blog are to post a few times a week, maybe more, maybe less, depending on how busy I am or whether I have anything worth sharing at any given time, and my subject matter will be about the writing process.  Methods, approaches, exercises, brainstorming techniques, things I’ve noticed in books I like, that kind of thing.  And probably some philosophizing about writing from time to time, too.

So if that’s your kind of thing, check back here and read on!