Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Critiques: Turning Your Plot Upside-Down Since 1485

I want to start out by saying I'm sorry I didn't blog yesterday. I got so many ideas for posts from yesterday alone that I couldn't even decide which topic to address, and I was going to decide at the last minute, but then the last minute came and I laid down in my husband's lap at the early, early hour (for me, anyway) of 11pm and fell soundly asleep in the middle of an extremely exciting episode of Dexter (my new favorite television show). So I've decided to hold off on those genius ideas until next week, or possibly later, because I've been gaining new followers every day and I love that, so now I'll tease you with the promise of more excellent content. 

Now, onto the post: my workshop critique was Monday. I was very nervous. Although I've sent things out to people to read and critique before, it's never happened in real life, where I knew the people beforehand, then had to spend the rest of the week with them afterward.

For the most part, everything went very well in the oral critique. The worst part was that I didn't edit as well as I should have, so I had some tense issues, which caused my teacher, Stewart O'Nan, author of many books to say, "You change tenses so much it makes us want to stab you." Nice.

Once the group got going, they said they generally liked the premise, and no one picked on my writing (out loud, at least, but I'll get to that in a minute). They had some suggestions for plot improvements, one of which I immediately knew I would take, and others that I need to sit on...including one so major that it's literally given me a headache from thinking about it so much. Someone in the group compared the book to Farenheit 451, and I swooned, then realized he was kind of way off base...but it gave me a great idea for a new element to add, and I've been toying with changing that up, as well.

Here's the most frustrating thing that happened, and is a great lesson to you writers out there: I wasn't allowed to talk during the critique, which I thought would be fine. Then they started discussing Kaia's reaction to something that happens, saying they didn't think she would get that emotional because she didn't show emotion over an event that happened in the past. At first I was frustrated. I wanted to scream, "But she DOES show emotion to that other event, stupid!! You just didn't read it right!"

But after they spent three minutes discussing it, I realized something: if nine intelligent people (writers and mostly avid readers) who read the MS twice with the intention of critiquing it hadn't picked up on something, then it wasn't that they hadn't read it right - it was that I hadn't written it well enough. Instantly, I was thankful for the rule that I wasn't allowed to speak, because if I had pointed out the line which mentions it, they would have said, "Oh, OK," and moved on, and I wouldn't have fixed my weak writing.

Tonight, I started looking over the mark-ups and written responses. One of them in particular really stood out to me, because the critiquer literally rewrote a lot of the MS. I'm not talking a suggestion here or there - I mean crossed out half of the page and rewrote it using totally new words and descriptions. Yikes. I always thought that was stepping on the writer's toes a bit. Granted, this particular writer is very good with language. Still, if I think a paragraph or sentence needs work, I'll write something like, "Needs work" or "passive" or "not enough detail." I won't insert detail or rewrite the thing. I do suggest lines occassionally, but I thought this was a lot. Am I wrong to think that? Do most people rewrite a MS they get? (that wasn't my experience with anyone else).

Again, though, I saw a general fondness for my plot, with a few notes on holes (which can easily be patched). Two or three people said I still needed to clean up my writing, and that's fine; I know I'm learning, and that's why I picked this conference. It is great for people who really want to focus on craft. I honestly feel like I can learn to be a better writer, but I can't learn to have a great plot, so I'm very excited about this.

There were a lot of notes on how much they loved my opening, but I'm also thinking I might need to change it based on some other notes I got. I'll still keep the opening line in there, just move it a little later. It's such a great line, and it sets the novel up excellently, but I'm not sure it's perfect anymore. And the opening needs to be perfect.

This whole process was enlightening, though. I'd always heard writers talk about "killing your darlings," but I hadn't yet experienced that. Not that I thought I was so wonderful, but just that I hadn't found anything that I LOVED that I needed to kill. But it's definitely coming now, so I'm starting to get sad. I'll just file it away, though, and remember that it's not dead; it's just sleeping.


  1. Critiques are hard. Going to school for creative writing gets you used to it though. I do remember that first time I thought I was going to throw up and let me just say that one really doesn't get over that feeling, just used to the fact that if you vomit the critique will continue while you clean it up. They are helpful though because you get the information that real readers can give you because even though you would love it if the author was right beside you while you read so that you could ask questions about what you didnt understand, that isn't real life. So critiques point to the places that just need sharpening. Congratulations on your first critique, if you ever need another, I would be happy to read your MS. I have a few as well that I need to get done, bad thing about being done with creative writing classes, no more built in critique groups.

  2. That is so cool you had such a neat experience. And that you could take away so many good things (even the "bad" parts). Fahrenehit 451, eh? Now that has me seriously intrigued...

  3. "It wasn't that they hadn't read it right - it was that I hadn't written it well enough."

    I had this moment before, and it's freakishly profound. It's when I stopped being instinctively defensive of my novel child and went "ohhhhh." Yayyyyyy for this moment!

  4. Wow it sounds like a good exeperience and I agree with the no talking. You should never talk or defend your writing. If you have to defend it, then you didn't make it clear enough, or whatever...that's one valuable lesson I learned in writing class and in critiques with my group. However that woman rewriting your stuff!!! Totally OUT OF LINE! That's ridiculous. No one should do that. The girls in my critique group who know my book inside and out and are some of my best friends would never do that. They might suggest a line here or there based on a line I already wrote, A critique is meant to help you achieve the vision you have for your book, not the vision someone else has for your book. Honestly, I'd throw that woman's critique away. Its not your work anymore, it's her's. Use your gut on everything else that was said in the critique:-)

  5. First off I wanted to tell you that going to a critique group must be so helpful (even if it doesn't seem so at the time), because I have no access to anything like that here. Though I know I'd want to stand up and yell and defend my story too, I am so ready to beg people to read it and tell me what they truly feel!

    So, my point is, sorry it's so frustrating, but good for you for going anyway. It's kind of like learning to tie a shoe. The more we do it (the writing/editing) the better off we'll get. If we try to teach ourselves how to do it, it's time-consuming and sometimes futile. But if there are others to help us learn, to teach where we went wrong, in the end (regardless of how frustrating it was to get to that point) we'll ace it altogether. =)

  6. Oh, I definitely thought the critique was helpful! I loved it and got so much out of it!

    coffee, have you looked on meetup or at your local community college to see if there is a group in your area? You might find something!

  7. That sounds awesome! I'm going to be participating in my first live critique ever next week, and we've already talked about the no talking rule. It sounds super hard (I know I'll want to defend stuff or explain) but so useful too.

  8. I'm with Frankie. Rewriting sections--even single lines--is a big crit no no in my book. Does the reviewer think the author will drop the changes in and foist it off as their own work? I don't get that.

    Happy to hear the critiquing went well and you got a lot out of it. Looking forward to reading more of the promised "excellent content." Keep up the great work!

  9. "They're attacking my baby!" is what first goes through my head whenever I have stuff critiqued. It is really difficult to clamp up and let it happen, and I'm glad you could get that realization from the experience.

    As for that lady crossing out half a page... um, wtf? Apparently, she felt the need to write your novel for you; maybe it was better than hers and she was jealous. I had one of my professors do that to me last semester to one of my lesson plans (for Heather's other readers, I'm in school for my teaching degree). It pissed me off and I learned nothing from it. It's not your words and therefore not your story.

    On a note not related to this post, but related to a recurring theme, I have found myself removing adverbs from things that I write for school. So, thanks for that. :)


Loved it? Hated it? Either way, I want to hear what you thought!

Copyright 2009

See Heather Write
. Powered by Blogger
Blogger Templates created by Deluxe Templates
Wordpress by Wpthemesfree