Friday, December 21, 2007

Critique Partners as Crutches

Maven Jacqueline BarbourLast Saturday, I finished the novella I started writing at the end of November. I intended to jot down a few notes so I wouldn't forget the idea, but the story simply started to flow out instead, and I wound up writing 22,000 words in just over twelve days. 22,000 words that I really, really liked.

I was planning to send it out for multiple rounds of critiques: a first round to find the "big" problems, a second to take care of the layering and smoothing, and possibly one more after that, just be "sure." But after getting it back from its first round (thanks, Emma and Ericka!) with almost no red marks on it at all, I decided to just clean those tiny things up and submit the story to Cobblestone to see how it would fly.

Of course, now that I'm waiting for a response, I'm wondering it that was wise. Maybe I should have gotten more feedback before I sent it on. What if something is horribly wrong with it? What if it sucks? What if...

But wait a minute! Do I believe in the story I wrote, or don't I?

The answer is, I do believe in it. Is it perfect? No. But a thousand critiques won't make it perfect. And if there's really something terminally wrong with it, another critique probably won't help!

The truth is, I wrote this story very differently than I've written anything in a long time. I simply let myself go. I didn't send it to anyone scene by scene to "check" that it was okay. I tried not to second-guess myself for a change and simply told the story I wanted to tell, waiting until I got to the end to find out if it worked or not.

Doing that and then being brave enough to submit it to a publisher even though it had only been read by two other living souls made me realize how much I've come to rely on my critique partners' to write my story. And while I'm not for one single, solitary second bad-mouthing my fabulous CPs or the concept of getting critiques, I see now that my critique partners had become something of a crutch to me. Their input and reassurance absolved me of the responsibility to think for myself and trust my own instincts.

In retrospect, I'm sure that one of the reasons Unbridled finally ended up in the rubbish heap is that I had too much feedback on it. Too many cooks spoil the broth; I was trying to please so many different people and their idea of what the story should be that I lost my story altogether. (And here, I have allow Maven Lacey to crow, "I told you so!" She did, at least a year and a half ago, and I stubbornly refused to agree with her. Well, she was right! She's welcome to hit me over the head with the clue gun she tried to give me back then if she'd like.)

This isn't to say I'm giving up on having critique partners altogether. Mais non! I wouldn't dream of it. I just know I need to be more judicious about when I get feedback and from how many people. I'm going to keep smacking myself on the hand until I learn to wait until after I've written "the end" to hit send!

YOUR TURN: How/when do you get feedback from your critique partners? Do you feel you need someone to read the story as you go so you know your plot isn't based on an unbelievable premise, your hero isn't a jerk, and your heroine isn't TSTL? Or are you able to write your story all the way through to the end and then turn it over to your CPs, knowing full well they may tell you that you've just written 90,000+ words of complete garbage that can never be redeemed?


lacey kaye said...

/Maven Lacey stands up and cheers

Hurrah, hurrah! Best few words EVA!

I can't wait to read your new novella. If I don't get to see it until it's published, then that's not so bad, is it? Means you can do it! Solo! (Uh, solo con dos.)

/runs off to celebrate

B.E. Sanderson said...

Excellent post, Jacqueline. I don't do this, but I can see how much of an alluring trap it can be. Personally, I've only had one CP during the course of my writing, and that's only over the past year. (She's awesome, btw.) Usually, she only gets my work after the umpteenth draft has been completed and I feel like it's past the point where I can be objective about it. Then she tells me what works and what doesn't, and I revise from there (if I agree with her observations, which I usually do). No one gets to read my unfinished or unedited work. I wouldn't do that to another human being. ;o)

Don't feel bad about writing 90K words you don't think will ever sell. Look on the bright side - those words were training and they helped you write the next batch of 90K so much better. =oD

Bill Clark said...

In retrospect, I'm sure that one of the reasons Unbridled finally ended up in the rubbish heap is that I had too much feedback on it. Too many cooks spoil the broth

As one who rarely if ever solicits a second opinion on what I've written, I would firmly agree with this. Too often other people don't see why I said what I said, or why how I said it was the way I wanted to say it. Without wanting to sound rude or egotistical, I think it's more their problem than mine.

It's a little like Maven Erica's example of a few weeks ago: she wanted to use "Heaven forfend" in a story, and finally bowed to peer pressure and changed it. I'm sorry she did; she knew better what fit her story than all the nay-sayers.

As you say, Jacq, you gotta believe - in yourself, and in your writing. We've all had enough experience with writing to know when something works and when it doesn't.

I believe we are all our own best critics and CPs.

Bill Clark said...

P.S. My most recent blog touched on this theme; hop on over and tell me what you think! :-)

Jackie Barbosa said...

Thanks, Lacey. There's still a real chance you'll see it before it's published--like if Deanna rejects it and I have to figure out why :)!

B.E., I think I fell into the "trap" because my CPs are so wonderful and generally, their feedback was so positive, it made me feel good about myself and my writing. I also know I'd never be the writer I am today without them. But it did become a bit of an addiction, and I needed to pull back. From now on, I'm going to do it "your" way!

Bill, I agree. What's wrong with "Heaven forfend?" Gosh, I say it all the time! And I left a comment for you on your blog...

Bill Clark said...

Hi again, Jacq!

Thanks for your comment, which helped to raise the lit'ry tone of the comment thread. I've left a response to your query about what to do with the critiques of people you like and respect. Maybe before the day is done one or the other of us should do a copy-and-paste so as to include our chit-chat there in the discussion here.

Bill Clark said...

*Bill does a copy-and-paste from his blog thread*

Jacqueline Barbour said...
Bravo, Bill!

Of course, when it comes to writing fiction (and probably lots of other things), you can't please everyone but the people you can't please aren't necessarily Village Idiots. I state this unequivocally as a Not-Village Idiot (at least, I'm pretty sure I'm not!) who did not like the first Harry Potter book enough to get past the first chapter, and who is therefore reasonably sure that even UniversallyAcclaimedLit'rature(TM) will not appeal to everyone, even semi-smartish, reasonable people like me :).

I think the HARDEST criticism to handle properly isn't what comes from the nutcases, but what comes from people whom you like and respect. But even people you like and respect may not like something you write. The question is whether you try to change it to please them or not. And that's not always an easy-to-answer question.

Bill Clark said...
Hi, Jacq!

Thanks for helping to raise the lit'ry tone of this blog thread. Yes, it can be hard to deal with the critiques of people you like and respect. I think what should happen in those cases is to be ruthlessly honest with yourself: do you agree with what they're saying, or not?

If it's a case of "Gee, I wish I'd thought of that first", then you might want to consider working the suggestion in. But if, as is more often the case, it's "OK, I see your point, but still..." then you should stick to your guns.

Is it too late to rescue my godchild Unbridled by going back to your initial draft before all the other "cooks" came along?

Jacqueline Barbour said...
I think what should happen in those cases is to be ruthlessly honest with yourself: do you agree with what they're saying, or not?

I agree in principal, but in practice, I haven't always found that question easy to answer. Or, put another way, my general tendency is often to head-smack myself, say "Of course, that's right" and then to scramble to make changes to "fix" whatever is wrong. What I've found, however, is that sometimes the fixes can snowball until the original story is no longer recognizable.

And no, the original version of Unbridled is pretty much unrecoverable. Put another way, it's probably not worth recovering. I wrote it before I had the remotest clue what I was doing!

Maybe in some distant future I will revisit it and try to remember what it was that I loved so much about the story. Until then, though, it's safe in the MMP.

Bill Clark said...
Yay for the MMP!! (With the emphasis on the magical part!)

Carey Baldwin said...

Great points Jacqueline. I love my CPs- I really love them. Yet, I am in full agreement that critiques can be harmful if they override the author's vision and voice. So you have to be strong enough to hold onto to your story. And your CPs need to allow you to do so without taking offense. But fortunatley, I think my CPs and I are at the point where we know this.

Especially when you are brainstorming a story idea or in that creative zone where the story is unfolding, that is the time I believe you MUST turn off not only your internal editor but your external editors (CPs) as well. My friends and I recently had this same conversation via email.

But brainstorming with CPs can be great, too, as long as the editoral component is off and the wild and crazy creative component has been switched on.

Back to the question. When do I seek input? Whenever I need it!

Good luck with your submission, and yay for your muse!

Evangeline Holland said...

That's why I'm writing my first drafts and doing revisions all on my own, to get my vision clear, before I even think of going to my Crit group. For someone like myself, who did use past cps as crutches, I never really had a chance to find my sea legs on my own, and right now, just want to get my own voice out of my head and onto paper without any outside in-put.

Celeste said...

Their input and reassurance absolved me of the responsibility to think for myself and trust my own instincts.

Oy. Yes. Getting feedback can be a bit addictive, but at some point, you do have to start trusting your own ability to tell a story. CPs are great for pointing out places where you dropped the ball, didn't convey emotion, used too many dialogue tags, or made them want to tear their thumbdrive out and bang it against the wall (digital wallbanger, anyone?). But if you're any good, you're craft should improve as you realize what your writing flaws are, and begin to work on them.

I recently sent a few chapters of the book I'm rewriting to my new CP. Her help with the revisions on my last book was instrumental. I wanted her help with my current wip. But when I got her comments on the first chapter alone, I realized that she didn't "get" this book, and her vision for it wasn't matching mine at all. In the first chapter! I told her that I appreciated her input, but I couldn't make the changes she was suggesting and I would need to look for someone who "got" it, because I really loved the book. She decided to read somemore, give it a chance to gel before she made more comments, and now says she likes it. She just had to get used to the "differentness" of the style.

Then recently, the same thing happened in reverse. She had finaled in a contest, and gotten a rejection from the judging editor. She wanted to know what I thought about A,B&C. I generally don't crit on a person's storytelling ability. I don't like it when people do that to me. But just this once, I told her how I thought she could ramp up the plot and make it more urgent. She HATED it. (And honestly, she's finalling in contests with it, so it's fine as written.)

Lesson learned for both parties: We gotta have the courage to stick up for the story we wanted to tell.

Karen Mahoney said...

I love this post, Jacqueline! Perfect timing for me - I just blogged about this from the point of view of someone who has finally finished her first novel (after way too many years of procrastination). I am so lucky to have MANY writers just waiting to get their teeth into crits for me, but I have decided to go-it-alone - at least for now.

I need to build faith and confidence in my *own* voice and vision before I start 'writing by committee'. So I'm going to submit this novel with minimal input from others, and see what sort of responses I get from agents and editors. THEN I can get more involved with CPs/beta-readers.

Here's my post:

There are some interesting comments, from published and un-published writers.

Thanks again for this post. It gave me hope! :)

Karen Mahoney said...

P.S. Sorry, I forgot to say that I'm linking to this post - hope that's ok.

Vicki said...

Awesome post. In the beginning, as in the first three chapters my CP and I do crit each others work. After that we tend to write several chapters at a time before we see it again.

One of the things we've always said to each other is it's your story. These are just suggestions.

As our books wind down it becomes more of questions then crits. Which usually helps us see possible plot holes. Since I know my story, it is easy to forget the reader doesn't. So this works well for both of us.

We both had said to each other, No, I'm not changing that because...

If we change our story due to crits all the way through then it isn't so much our story but the people who've read it.

That's not to say that having a great CP isn't important, to me anyway.

One of fav things is my beta reader. She has no clue as to what is going to happen in the book. She gets two chapters at a time and that has been fab.

And of course I couldn't stop and not add that Maven Lacey Rocks big time. :D Okay, all of the Mavens Rock big time.

lacey kaye said...

It was fun! Reading as a beta reader is always enjoyable :-)

Anonymous said...

People should read this.

Manuscript Mavens

Manuscript Mavens