Critiques — The Beautiful

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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.

Single Witch will be on sale on August 13.  You can read the first chapter now, and sales links will be active next Tuesday.

But enough about me.  Tell me about a time that criticism changed your writing for the better!

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12 comments to Critiques — The Beautiful

  • Hands down, for me, this would be my critique partner’s take on my writing style for the novel I am now querying.

    Others (including some of my wonderful fellow beta readers at the MW beta group) had said they had a problem with the first person present tense. I got defensive. I thought that was just their stylistic preferences. That’s how the story came to me and it *felt* right. But my CP and I will sit down for tea, and she said she wanted to give me an “update” on how things were going. And she finally put it into words that I understood. She said that reading it was like watching through a veil, and that she couldn’t connect with the characters. And it took me a very long minute to understand, but I *got* it.

    And that’s when I also realized that I was forcing a voice on the story that wasn’t my voice.

    Needless to say, many changes have been made, but I feel *so* much better about this now!

  • Well, I had a nightmare editor on the first big thing I ever wrote (one of those where every other comment is “If I were writing this I would do this, so change it and do this.”), so I’m good if anything I get is better than that. Laura gave me a pretty helpful critique of the work that is now accepted with Red Sage and will hopefully be out mid 2014, things that I now look out for in all my writing. And one of the best things I did was when I gave a work to my brother to look over and when he asked how in depth/critical he should go I told him to give me everything. He used to be a high school English teacher, plus he’s a fan of sci-fi and anime, and I pretty much told him not to hold back. Took me a few days before I could go through it all objectively, but it made a far better work at the end. Now it takes me far less time because I’m getting used to just going through the points in a more removed, objective way because I know that in the end, the work will be better. I’m pretty hyper-critical of my own writing, but everyone needs fresh perspective.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’m still in the process of trying to get my first WIP ready to be critiqued. It’s been taking years, which, I know, is excessive, but the primary reason for that is that there are so many things that I already know are broken, and I don’t want a critique that just reiterates those things. So I’ve been in extended revisions. On the flip side, though, last year I finished one revision set, put it away for several months, and then did a read-through to see what needed work next. The previous revision pass had not focused much on the opening chapters and they were largely abysmal, and so I despaired. But as I kept reading, I started to get to chapters that were actually really great; the things I had revised really had been much improved! So, so far I’ve been running on internal critique, but it has still shown me definite signs of *progress*, and that really helps me keep going when I come across another chapter that is awful-awful and needs to be thrown out and written again.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Also, a funny (to me) note: I mentioned to my mother how bad those opening chapters were, and she looked at me curiously and asked, “How do you know?” The straight-up answer, “They were boring to read.”

  • What a great story. I must say that for me finding a great critique service that I can rely on for fast turnaround has been the biggest challenge in self publishing. I’ve found some great ones and then they get so busy they have a waiting list, and some not so great ones.
    I always want the truth when I get a critique, respectfully presented, but the truth. I have one book in a holding pattern now because I got 4 critiques. Two people thought it was good and the other two ripped it apart. I am struggling with how to make the book better not because of the people who said it needed a lot of work, but because of the people who didn’t.
    Even though I offer my own critique services , it is hard to see the errors in my own work.
    Thanks so much for sharing how you found a way through the confusion.

  • This was one of the reasons my writing group was so amazing – we often shredded each others’ work. With kindness and love, yes, but the red ink flowed freely. Faith hates me to tell it, but one night I went home crying because of the critique she gave me. We were friends so she hated to hurt me. But she was right, and I needed to hear it and to this day I love her for what she said. I made the changes she suggested, and I ended up with a character people would want to read about.

    So who cares that I cried…I won!

  • deborahblake

    It’s going to sound like blatant sucking up, but honestly, the best critique I ever had was the first one I ever got from you. I think it was only for the first 80-100 pages of my first novel, but you pointed out issues with my writing that helped me improve not just that book but all the novels that followed. Priceless!

  • Like Hepseba, I’m still in the process of getting my WIP ready to be read and critiqued by others. I’m saving all these posts about critiques to read when I get to that point! I have had my writing critiqued in the workplace, which was usually helpful. Once, though, I kept getting feedback to “get this to one page” and honestly the subject couldn’t be covered adequately in one page, so I shrank it to a 4pt font and sent it back. Luckily my boss had a good sense of humor!

  • Laura – Earlier this year, I wrote a book in first person, present tense, and it took me almost 100K words to get that combo out of my head. (I kept slipping back into it…) I’m glad you found something that worked better for you!

    Daniel – I tune out the really bad critiques about 10 pages in. A waste of time for me to go on, even though I wasted the time of my critiquer. Yuck. It sounds as if your brother is a great critiquer for yoru purposes!

    Hepseba – Congrats on recognizing what’s working! Now, you just need to find the courage to move on, freeing yourself and your years-old project!

    Perryw – I’ve never relied on for-fee critique services from editors not previously known to me. There are, of course, some great ones out there, but I’d need to know how they worked, before I’d be willing to commit my hard-won cash!

    Misty – Some of our best friends make us cry for some of the best reasons :-) It’s the winning, in the end, that matters!

    Deb – Thanks for the kind words, you traditionally-published author, you!

    Sisi – Save away! (But don’t even *think* of sending *me* anything in 4 point ::wry grin::)

  • Mindy, sorry I am just now getting to this. Last week was totally crazy with mom’s health and the kitchen remodel. I just wanted to say that one of best parts of being a writer is the opportunity to make things we write better. I have told my betas, agent, and editor to NEVER stop editing me, critiquing me, and making me be a better writer.

    I just finished a book by a top writer in the field and it was poorly edited, repetitious, and boring. Last book I’ll read by that writer. That writer reached the level of being too big to have to be edited. Why spend the time / money to edit when the book will sell no matter what? I NEVER want to be in that position. I want to be a better writer and write a better book. Period.

    Great post!

  • Faith – I totally get the life-juggling… (I spent last week caring for an ill parent, too, with the added challenge of a seven-year-old nephew in the picture. All I want is 1% of this energy. 1%! Is that too much to ask for?!?) And yes, yes, yes — I, too, have walked away from long-time favorites when they became too “big” for editing.