Your Critique of My Work Revisited

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Early in February of this year, I posted to the MW site the opening paragraphs from my WIP, City of Shades, which will be the third Thieftaker book. (It should be out in the summer of 2014; Thieves’ Quarry, the second book in the sequence, will be out on July 2 of this year, as will the paperback edition of Thieftaker.  Just sayin’.)

Today, I want to revisit that passage and show you the revised version.  First, here is the original:

Ethan Kaille knew that he had been followed. Even as he pursued Peter Salter, who had stolen a pair of ivory-handled dueling pistols from a wealthy attorney in the South End, he himself was pursued. Like a fox running before hounds, he could almost feel Sephira Pryce’s toughs bearing down on him, snarling like curs, determined to take what he had claimed for himself.    

Salter had led him out along Boston’s Neck, the narrow strip of land that connected the city to the causeway across Roxbury Flats. British regulars, who had occupied Boston since the previous autumn, had established a guard post at the town gate, and so before reaching the end of the Neck the young thief had turned off of Orange Street to cut across the barren grasslands that fronted the flats. Ethan could see the pup ahead of him, wading through the grasses.

If not for the concealment spell Ethan had cast on himself, Salter would have needed only to glance back to see him as well. But with his conjuring in place, Ethan was invisible to all. Still, Pryce’s men followed, whether directed by Ethan’s tracks or by Sephira’s uncanny knowledge of all that he did, Ethan could not say.    

The western horizon still glowed with the dying light of another sweltering summer day, and a thin haze shrouded the quarter moon and obscured all but the brightest stars in the darkening sky. Not a breath of wind stirred the humid air, heavy with the sour stink of tidal mud; even with the sun down, the heat remained, unabated. The city itself seemed to be in the throes of ague.    

Ethan’s sweat-soaked linen shirt clung to his skin, and his waistcoat, also darkened with sweat, felt leaden. His usual limp, a memento of years spent laboring as a prisoner on a sugar plantation in Barbados, grew more pronounced with each step he took, the pain radiating up his leg into his groin. He hoped that the sound of his uneven gait wouldn’t alert Salter to his pursuit, or allow Sephira’s men to locate him too soon.

And here is the revised version as it stands now:

Ethan Kaille knew that he was followed. Like a fox running before hounds, he sensed Sephira Pryce’s toughs bearing down on him, snarling like curs, determined to rob him of spoils he had claimed as his own.

Even as the men closed on him, he himself pursued a thief who had stolen a pair of ivory-handled dueling pistols from a wealthy attorney in the South End. Peter Salter led him out along Boston’s Neck, the narrow strip of land that connected the city to the causeway across Roxbury Flats. British regulars had established a guard post at the town gate, and so before reaching the end of the Neck the young thief turned off of Orange Street to cut across the barren leas that fronted the flats. Ethan could see the pup ahead of him, wading through the grasses.

The western horizon still glowed with the dying light of another sweltering summer day, and a thin haze shrouded the quarter moon and obscured all but the brightest stars in a darkening sky. Not a breath of wind stirred the humid air, heavy with the sour stink of tidal mud; even with the sun down, the heat remained, unabated. The city itself seemed to be in the throes of ague.

Ethan’s sweat-soaked linen shirt clung to his skin, and his waistcoat, also darkened with sweat, felt leaden. His usual limp grew more pronounced with each step he took, the pain radiating up his leg into his groin. He hoped that the sound of his uneven gait wouldn’t alert Salter to his pursuit, or allow Sephira’s men to locate him too soon.

If not for the concealment spell Ethan had cast, making himself invisible to all, Sephira’s toughs might have spotted him from a distance, and Salter would have needed only to glance back to see him. Still, Pryce’s men dogged him, whether directed by his tracks or by Sephira’s uncanny knowledge of all that he did, Ethan could not say.

And just so you know, the next paragraph in the book begins:  “Ahead, the young thief slowed, then halted.”

This is not the final edit — my editor hasn’t even seen it yet, so it might well change some more — but as you read both versions you will see a number of things.  First, you’ll notice that the passage has been reorganized in a fundamental way.  Those who commented on the first version felt that it was confusing, that the presentation of information was not as clear or as efficient as it could have been.  I think I’ve fixed that.  You will also notice that the wording is tighter and cleaner, and that because of this, the action flows far better.  Again, those who commented on the original version found some clunky phrasings and repetitions.

Finally, you will see (and you should feel free to go back to that original post to check out the comments) that while I incorporated elements of remarks from nearly all of you, I didn’t do everything that anyone suggested, and that the final version, while different from the first version, is also different from all of the rewrites offered in the comments.  I didn’t do this as a matter of pride or stubbornness, but rather because I still had my own vision of how the opening graphs should look, and I stuck to that vision.

I am incredibly grateful to all of you who read and commented on that first version.  You have helped to make this a better book.  I know that some of you may have more criticisms of the new version.  I don’t want to hear them.  Nothing personal, but at this point, I’m satisfied that this is how my book needs to open.  I may change more down the road, but not right now.

Beyond just showing you the finished version, I wanted to talk a bit about the process of being critiqued and putting to use the criticisms I received.  Because the truth is, this was not only a useful exercise, it was also a difficult one.  Taking criticism is hard; hearing that our writing has failed on some level hurts.  And while I did some things right, I didn’t do everything right.

My mistakes:

1. My biggest mistake actually came before I posted the original version.  Prior to beginning City of Shades, I had gone nearly ten months without writing any original fiction.  I kept busy during that time.  I revised previously written stories and books.  I promoted Thieftaker with signings, conventions, blog tours, social media activity, etc.  I wasn’t lazing around.  But I wasn’t writing, and I should have known better than to think that I could start a new book and have it come out well after taking so much time off from composing new prose.

2. Which brings me to my second mistake.  I was cocky.  The truth is, when I posted that first version, I thought it was pretty darn good.  I expected a few small comments here and there, but generally I figured that most of the feedback would be fairly positive.  In all candor I have to say that I was blind-sided, not only by the amount of criticism the passage received, but also by how spot-on it was. As soon as you started telling me what was wrong with the opening graphs, I saw it all, and honestly I was shocked.

3. Which brings me to my third mistake.  At first, rather than simply taking this as a fair critique of a decent but flawed opening written by a rusty writer, I allowed myself to spiral downward into a pit of self-doubt.  I started questioning everything that came after the opening graphs.  I came to believe that the entire book sucked (it doesn’t, as it turns out), and that I had allowed myself to go too long without writing and had lost my ability to craft a novel (also not true).  We at MW constantly tell aspiring writers to take criticism for what it is:  the opinions of readers who are trying to help us improve our manuscripts.  Just because some readers don’t like what we’ve written in certain places, that doesn’t mean that we suck.  It simply means that we have additional work to do.  I forgot that for a couple of weeks.

Fortunately, I also did several things correctly.

What I did right:

1. In responding to your comments on my manuscript, I never let on that I was feeling bruised and hurt.  I thanked you for your feedback, put on a positive face, and made it clear that I would consider everything that you all told me.

2. And then I did exactly that.  Because as much as it hurt to hear that what I’d written didn’t work nearly as well as I thought it had, I also recognized the value in the feedback I was receiving.  All of you were doing precisely what I had asked of you:  You were trying to help me, trying to point me in directions that would improve my story.  I listened, I weighed your suggestions, I accepted that what I’d written was flawed and needed polishing, and I set about trying to incorporate your insights.

3. I also stuck to my creative vision.  I did not allow the self-doubt that ate at me in those first couple of weeks to keep me from writing or to make me abandon my outline.  I took what you gave me and I blended it with what I felt the book needed, and in so doing I produced a revised opening that reflects your concerns but still does all the things I want it to.  I kept to my outline, knowing that despite my temporary loss of confidence, I had to trust myself and continue to believe in the foundation of my book.

Taking criticism and turning it into constructive revision lies at the heart of the relationship between writer and editor.  It’s not easy, but it is the very essence of what writers do.  You all helped me improve my book; you also reminded me of the most important aspect of my job.  Thank you.

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://magicalwords.net
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18 comments to Your Critique of My Work Revisited

  • I used to take editing critique somewhat hard. Probably didn’t help that I had a really bad editor encounter my first time out. I’d rant a bit, get depressed, feel like my writing sucked, rant some more, feel like the person didn’t know what they were talking about, not want to write anything, come back later and realize that there were actually some good points in the critique and places I could improve upon.

    I’ve grown since then.

    Now, when I get a beta critique (and I hope soon from an editor) I will read it with an open mind with a thought toward the belief that if one person found fault there, others might as well. I tend to read it as soon as I get it, set it aside, drink a little (hey, it helps relax me and put me in a better frame of mind), and then come back to it with a critical eye toward problem solving. And you’re right. You don’t have to follow the suggestions to the letter. I look at the root problem, look at the suggestion, and then come up with a solution that satisfies both my sense of the work (it is mine, after all) and the issue the reader had with it. In the end, the piece is usually better for it.

    Course, I’m not saying that there aren’t places I’ll balk on. There are. But even then, I’ll at least look at it and see if there’s a reason for the mention in the critique. It could be as simple as a rewording (or taking a word out) or moving some sentences around. And I like to talk over an issue, which I’m sure would annoy some. But I find that when I talk through something, I can usually find a solution to the problem at hand. That’s why I don’t think I could join one of those writing groups that makes you sit quiet while you get hit with critiques and not get a chance to talk about it. And I don’t like to put my work out there without going through my own personal revisions first, which means I have to finish the whole piece first, not sharing the rough draft every week or whenever. That way, I’m assured of the important things that I did miss being addressed rather than the things I could have found on my own.

    Does it still bother me a bit? Sure. I have a tiny cultivated ego. A writer sort of has to be equal parts humble and ego. But I don’t let it eat at me anymore. I don’t see it as confirmation that my writing sucks, but that I can make it better and maybe learn something as well. None of us are perfect (though I’m sure there are some out there who think they are). We are all constantly learning new things in the craft, constantly improving, and in doing so, our work is constantly evolving. And that’s a good thing…even if it’s a little painful at times, requiring the sweet solace of vodka…or chocolate…or chocolate vodka. 😉

  • […] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “Your Critique of My Work Revisited.” In it I return to a passage I posted a couple of months ago for comment and critique by Magical […]

  • I was cocky. The truth is, when I posted that first version, I thought it was pretty darn good.

    I do this. Way more than I should. We could go back to the psychological roots—firstborn overachiever, used to getting praise at a young age for writing-related stuff, blah blah etc—but it’s true. I think it’s because I like the thrill, the high, of entrancing people with storytelling. So when someone comes along and bursts that pigheaded bubble, it smarts. Thankfully I’m aware of that bad habit, which at this point I can mostly shrug off. The flip-problem being the self-doubt that can follow. Thankfully I recover quickly and go back to my second reaction, which is “Okay, how can I fix this?”

    Thanks for talking about this stuff, David. I think it’s vital that we take the time to self-examine, because it can help keep away the crazies. Glad to have helped!

  • Thanks for posting the follow-up and being such a good role-model for listening to, evaluating, and adapting feedback. While I know how to accept feedback in my head, my heart doesn’t always go along with the plan, so it’s good to see how others successfully manage the process of hearing something you didn’t expect or want to hear.

    Also, can’t wait for July 2!

  • Daniel, I have yet to meet an author who doesn’t find it at least a bit difficult to hear (or read) criticism of their work. But as you point out, it’s a matter of what you do with the criticism that matters. I still find that I have to put away my editor’s revision letters for a day or two before tackling the edits, just so that I can get past my knee-jerk emotional reactions. Sounds like you have a good revision process in place, which will be enormously helpful to you as you begin to deal with professional editors.

    Laura, thanks for the comment. My cockiness had many levels. One was believing that I can take all that time away from writing and just assume that I could come back to it and write a terrific opening to my new book. But part of it also was having a blind-spot where the flaws in the piece were concerned. Like you, I am usually able to jump to the “how do I fix this” phase fairly quickly. And that’s a good thing.

    SiSi, thank you. None of us likes that pain you mention. But worse still is the pain of publishing a book that has obvious flaws. Preventing that pain, means confronting the pain of legitimate criticism.

  • quillet

    First I have to say how incredibly brave and generous you were to let us have a crack at critiquing your work. Criticism, no matter how friendly and well-intentioned it is, hurts. So thanks for bearing our friendly fire.

    Second, this follow-up post is a good lesson about how to give criticism, I think. No matter how professional and cheerful-seeming the recipient, we still have to remember that they have the same feelings (and vulnerabilities!) about their work that we do. No matter if the criticism was invited, we still have to remember to be balanced, and to point out what works as well as what might not. …Which I’m not saying as a criticism of anyone’s criticism, by the way! It’s just a general thought I’m taking away from this. So thanks for that, too.

    Speaking of what works. That rewrite? Was. Awesome. I wish you could’ve seen how big my eyes got. (Hurry up, July. Hurry UP.)

    @Daniel: Pass me some of that chocolate vodka, please!

  • Thanks so much, Quillet. I do think that there is a method to offering criticism. Whenever I offer comments on someone’s work, be it a pro or a student, I begin with the positives, the things I like. Only when I’ve exhausted those do I turn to the criticisms. And I do this for just the reason you state here: it’s hard to hear criticism of one’s own work, and so softening it with praise makes it that much more constructive. In my opinion . . . And thanks for the praise on the rewrite. Glad you liked it. This of course is the opening of the THIRD Thieftaker book and so won’t be available until summer 2014. But Thieves’ Quarry, the second Thieftaker book, will be available in July.

  • sagablessed

    I agree criticism hurts. But I am glad you were able to take it and make your work better. I know of some who cannot. It is hard, but the strong writer can use it. You have proven that you have the strength to make it. We never doubted it. Neither should you.
    As to the upcoming Thieftaker books: write faster, darn it. (just kidding, lol)

  • sagablessed

    About that chocolate vodka……yum!

  • David, you were very brave to take this on, and you handled it with aplomb. I love the new opening! Now, let’s talk about you coming onto my blog…

  • Thanks, Donald. And yes, that chocolate vodka does sound very good.

    I appreciate that, Faith. I’ll be in touch about the blog tour.

  • Long ago and far away, when I first started being published, I was in a Clarion-style critique group (Daniel’s wait-til-they’re-done-before-you-respond group). I learned the hard way to bite my tongue, swallow my hurts, and actually listen to what people liked/disliked about my writing. At first, I had to choke back tears as they dissected my babies and showed me where the guts weren’t in the right places. Later, I learned to really listen, and take notes, and digest what they said in the context it was given. Finally, I got to the point where I’d become irritated if all I got was praise without any of the flaws being laid bare.
    Lo these many years later, I lament that I don’t have a group like that to depend on for honest criticism and feedback. I have a few friends who “lovelovelove” my writing, but hey, they aren’t writers. They don’t read with an eye to improvement.
    Yes, criticism hurts, but not receiving it hurts more.

  • Vyton

    This was a very important exercise, and I’m sorry that it was painful for you. But it is very helpful. I love the new opening. Great. Thank you for undergoing this ordeal.

  • David, the hardest critique I ever got was also the best one I ever got. One night my writing group finally stood up and said, “Misty, there are problems with this story, and we have to tell you what they are.” I went home in tears that night, but once I calmed down, I took a long, hard look at the suggestions that had been offered to me. And they were right. I swallowed my pride and started making changes in my story, and eventually it ended up selling.

    What I’m trying to say is that I understand your disappointment and I’m proud of you for not letting it take you down. 🙂

  • Lyn, that is beautifully put. And there are many times when I wish I had a crit group. I have never been part of a successful one, and I know that my writing would benefit from the experience. Plus, it would just be great to be part of a writing community like that.

    Vyton, thank you for the kind words. It was painful because I let it be. It shouldn’t have been, and I as very grateful for all the feedback I received.

    Misty, thanks very much. As I say, I knew what I was getting into when I posted the original passage. Sort of. My own blindness to the flaws in my work are the main reason it hurt so much. I was angry with myself for not being more in touch with the true quality of that first effort.

  • David, thanks so much for sharing how you transformed that passage. It’s interesting that not writing for a few months as you promoted a book left you “rusty” and you had to whip those words back into shape. I guess there’s something to be said for trying to write a little something every day!

  • I think I have largely the same reaction every time I put out something of mine to critique. It hurts – of course it does – because you’re always proud of what you’ve done. But the smart money is on reading the critiques with an open mind and seeing them as genuinely interested in the improvement of the piece offered. I’ve found that it’s often (though not always) possible to suss out the weaknesses of a piece even when a critique misses the mark. And I always feel gratified at the end when I find that my revision is far superior to the original version. In the heat of the moment it never feels that way, but always does in the end. That’s what keeps me going back for more.

  • Also, what Lyn said, too. Getting critiques hurt. But getting no feedback useful for improving is painful in a different way. That’s why, while Dear Wife is the first reader of everything I write, I don’t and can’t depend on her for good critiques (at least not yet). I don’t think I’ve gotten a reaction from her yet that wasn’t “I think this is your best work yet.”