A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Five Stages of Grief (Critique Edition), and last week I wrote about Critiques — The Good and the Bad. I’ll be honest with you. I was originally going to call this post “Critiques — The Ugly”. But when I started writing that post, it ended up incredibly negative. Downbeat. Depressed. Depressing. And really, not very useful.
So, instead, I threw that post away and started this one. Because the results of the most brutal critiques I ever received resulted in something truly beautiful.
A little backstory: About ten years ago, my agent was shopping around a novel of mine — the darkest, most *dire* fantasy novel ever written. Spoiler alert: It didn’t sell. And, in the aftermath of that disappointment, I decided to write something absolutely opposite in tone. The result was my most successful novel to date, Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft, about Jane Madison, a librarian who finds out she’s a witch. I wrote three novels in the series, then moved on to other projects.
But readers have always clamored for more in that series. And I’ve always liked the characters. So, about a year ago, I started to write a new Jane Madison novel.
The novel was fraught from the beginning. I had several interruptions as I was writing, the sort of life- and family-things that have to take precedence, even for a professional writer. I had trouble with plotting, because I really did wrap everything up in the third volume of the Jane Madison trilogy. I had trouble with character, because I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Jane and her friends, for years. I had trouble with world-building, because the rich details of Jane’s world were long forgotten — I’d written six novels in the intervening time.
But I persevered. I finished my manuscript, and I circulated it to my editors.
And I was savaged. While a couple of my editors (there were five, in all, including my copyeditor) liked the overall story, and one in particular was charmed by Jane and the plot, others thought that my writing was stilted and repetitious. They thought that my subplots were unlikely. And most importantly — they didn’t like my characters.
I could say, “I was crushed”, but that would not convey the extent of my distress. I could tell you that I didn’t sleep for one full night, and I worked on three hours of sleep a night for several weeks. I could tell you that I started making notes to myself at *all* sorts of places — at baseball games, during dinners, on the phone with family and friends.
But really, I don’t have words to describe how devastating the critiques were.
And yet… (See? I’m getting to “the beautiful”…)
I pulled up my big-girl pants, and I finally sat down to work. In ten days, I deleted about 40,000 words (from an 80K manuscript), and I added about 38,000 all-new words. I focused on all the things that had worked in the earlier books — humor and character and plot and, and, and…
And in the end, I have a book that is as strong as the original Girl’s Guide. The main romantic subplot is, hands-down, the best romantic subplot I’ve ever written. All of the conflict in the book arises from the essential nature of the characters. There are laugh lines in the book — I’ve actually watched readers laugh out loud at parts — but there are also rich, detailed descriptions of magic rituals.
Single Witch’s Survival Guide is the best book I’ve written for adults in more than five years. It’s the perfect launch of the new Jane Madison Academy Series, an ideal entree to my writing for people who know Jane, and for those who have never met her before.
And it wouldn’t be that way, if I hadn’t put it out their for critiques.
But enough about me. Tell me about a time that criticism changed your writing for the better!