Here’s a comprehensive “editor’s POV” discussion shared by Chris the Story Reading Ape. In my experience, careful reading of directions and the ability to follow them is a learned skill. On the one hand, as a teacher (and as many of my fellow teachers regularly lamented), getting students to follow written directions was one of the greatest of pedagogical challenges. Yet I’ve found myself misreading directions or missing an important caveat or guideline—especially when I’m trying to do something technical online :-(. So I can’t be too judgmental!
Have you ever been in an editor’s shoes? How has the experience affected your own relationship with editors?
Tag Archives: Responding to critiques
Pretty funny from Lindsay Schopfer! I am glad to report that on my Book Reviews for Horse Lovers page, I have not yet been guilty of any of these!
As I’ve been reading around in the Indie-verse, I’ve found a couple of books I’ve decided not to finish. As both a writer and a reader, I’ve thought about what triggers me to abandon a book.
Begin with conflict, not crisis.
In other words, writers I’m deciding sadly to give up on often begin with their characters in crisis. But Klems’s advice reminds me of a cruel but vital truth:
If I don’t know your character, I don’t care about her. If I don’t care about her, I honestly don’t care if she gets her brains blown out.
Sorry, but there it is.
When these writers begin their books, they have three Cs to deal with: Crisis, Character, and Conflict. It may sound counter-intuitive to state that, of the three, Crisis is the least important!
I know, I know: begin in medias res. But not when the folks in medias are just names on a page.
Can you pile on character, conflict, and crisis in opening scenes? I thought I’d try an experiment to find out.
Sally found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. She stumbled backwards. He fired. The shot narrowly missed.
Crisis, big time. And a couple of what Paula Munier calls “micro-story questions,” the elements that help to deliver what she calls “narrative thrust.” Who’s shooting at her? Why? Will she escape the next shot?
Okay, I’d read on to the next bit. But if the following three pages consisted of her efforts to flee his escape, I’d be flipping ahead to see whether things got more interesting than an abstract flight-and-pursue.
What if, instead, you read:
Of course Mark was going to pull the trigger. When he threatened, he always delivered. Sally flung her hands up, stupidly, since they wouldn’t stop a bullet, and sprawled on her butt on the wedding dress jumbled on the tack room floor behind her. The gun went off in a brain-numbing explosion, the bullet slamming into the row of bridles hanging just above her head.
We still get to the crisis pretty fast, but now we have many more micro-story questions. First, we’ve got conflict: these people have a history. It’s not just a question of why he’s shooting at her, but what between them has happened before to trigger her recognition that this isn’t a joke. “Why and who?” becomes “How does she know this about him? What has he done to make her think this now?” There’s a whole history of people in those queries.
More importantly, that wedding dress. Wedding dress? How in the world did a wedding dress get in the floor of that tackroom? And why a tackroom? We now know that these people somehow connect with horses, and that someone (Mark? Sally?) has just been through (or approached) a wedding. And he’s the determined sort who shoots first and asks questions later, while she’s (at present) a bit reactive and self-derogatory (calling herself “stupid”). Conflict and character as well as crisis—leading to a cornucopia of story questions! And all in the same number of sentences, four.
Some of my writing group colleagues are absolute minimalists and would opt for the first austere and abstract version. But to me, pure action is not nearly as engaging as action involving people I know or people I’ve been made deeply curious about.
An experiment like this leads to me be suggest that if you must demote one of the three Cs, let it be crisis! What? Start flat, with just characters in conflict? Well, yes.
As Stephen King argues, narrative tension arises not from wild, boisterous action but from people in “situations,” where they must react to each other and to the problems their situation presents.
True, you can’t spend pages on this development. It has to happen in that medias res moment, through careful pacing and selection of details.
As an illustration of how little we need a doomsday crisis, consider these opening lines from Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist:
They said the typewriter would unsex us.
One look at the device itself and you might understand how they—the self-appointed keepers of female virtue and morality, that is—might have reached such a conclusion. Your average typewriter, be it Underwood, Royal, Remington, or Corona, is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. Add to that the sheer violence of its iron arms, thwacking away at the page with unforgiving force. Unforgiving. Yes; forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty.
We’ve got character, even though we haven’t met the speaker. We’ve got conflict: That nameless “they” is already on trial! I haven’t yet read this book Will I? If it lives up to this crisis-deprived opening, you bet.
Recently, as part of my education in self-publishing, I’ve expanded my reading to include indie books about horses, as my own republished novels feature racing backdrops. My selections have mostly been prompted by mentions in Goodreads groups and the “customers also bought” list at Amazon.
In the past, I’ve tended to stick with books off “year’s best” lists, like those at NPR or the New York Times, so this new reading has taken me into new territory. It has also led me to do a lot of thinking about what works for me and what doesn’t—and whether I’m managing to purge my own writing of a pile of sins.
And it has created a dilemma I’ve read that others face: whether or not to review a book when I can’t give it at least a three-star rating.
As a teacher, I’ve seen enough students’ faces fall to know what a strong critique can do to the kind of relationships I’ve been enjoying through social media, even when the comments are intended in the most constructive of spirits and embedded in the most voluminous praise I can conjure. Do I really want to hurt people whose conversations I’ve enjoyed? And as the recipient of more than one one-star review (in places that, sadly, mattered to a budding career), I know how it feels.
But as I read this new-to-me category of book, I found myself thinking about what’s potentially lost when readers hold back from honest, thoughtful reviews because they’re negative. And I began to wonder:
Do authors of indie books WANT to know what turns readers off?
I’ve increasingly subscribed to the view that we don’t know what we’ve written until a reader tells us. We’re too close to our work. Even if we know what to do, what not to do, it’s often only when a sharp reader points out the pitfalls we’ve stumbled into that we realize that we’re in them up to our necks.
Of course, we all know that some one- or two-star reviews offer nothing constructive. The reader didn’t like sci-fi, but reviewed a sci-fi novel and gave it one star because of the sci-fi conventions the reviewer hates! I admit that I am less likely to give even well-done category romances more than three stars, because of the predictability of the plots and conventions I find problematic.
But I’ve given five stars to a very good romance, one in which the circumstances of the predictable elements are so unique and intriguing that I forgot I was technically reading a romance.
So would an aspiring indie romance writer want to know what kept her book from rising in my ranks?
True, she’d have to come in knowing that accepting potential one-star reviews does lay the task of sorting the gold from the pique at the author’s door. Personally, I learned from my negative reviews (although I couldn’t help wishing that my editor and I had been a little more in sync so that we could have headed them off). While I didn’t completely rewrite the book in question, when the chance came to revise for self-publication, I did spot things that had flown completely under my radar the first time around. And I got put on notice about my most persistent pitfall as a writer: the tendency to complicate my plots way too much.
The author of a book I’m reading now commits so many of those writerly sins we all hear about so often that I wonder whether I actually might have something useful to say to him/her. Far too many characters; characters whose relationships with each other and the plot, let alone their goals, are unclear; way too much classic “telling”: in short, can a review serve as a mini-beta reading? Or is it better to hold off on that kind of reading until the author asks?
So—one- and two-star reviews:
Should we as readers write them?
Should we as fellow authors risk writing them?
Should we as authors WANT them?
What qualities make a bad review worth the pain?
What do you think?
The Workshop featured presentations by Brian Klems, online editor for WritersDigest.com. The basic fee covered four all-group presentations by Klems and a “first-page” critique by four agents of randomly selected submissions. Participants could pay extra for ten-minute pitch sessions with up to six agents and for a personal query-letter critique by Chuck Sambuchino, author of a number of books and blogs on writing as well as humor books.
Klems’s presentations covered a huge amount of nuts-and-bolts information most valuable to writers who had not attended many conferences or mined the web for information on the business of writing. The pitch sessions were well-coordinated; all three of the agents I queried were generous listeners. The published schedule did not build in meals or receptions for the social networking that many writers find rewarding.
So what made this conference so productive? Two things: Sambuchino’s critique of my query and the “first-page” session, at which some 20 or so of the first pages submitted were thrown down and stomped upon.
First: Query-Letter Critique
I didn’t receive Sambuchino’s comments until the Thursday night before the conference, and Friday was hectic, so it was evening before I could settle into my motel room to digest the veritable armada of comments he had supplied. Everyone reading this can probably empathize with my stomach-twisting lurch when I realized that the back-of-the-book blurb I had workshopped over and over with multiple audiences was No Good. Basic questions—what is Michael’s wound, his need? What is at stake? How does this event lead to this one?—still loomed. Sambuchino wanted A LOT more information than any back-of-the-book was going to accommodate.
The feeling of utter inadequacy that settled over me produced a complete rewrite. Was that the right strategy? All I know is that when I sat across from agents and talked from the notes they were glad to let me use, not one broke in with a confused frown to tell me I wasn’t making any sense. (Believe me, this has happened.) There’s no experiment that could tell me whether my response to Sambuchino’s comments made the difference. But I do know that when I revise my query letter, the pitch itself will look a lot more like the one I wrote Friday night than the one I have now.
Lesson learned? First let me talk about
First Page Armageddon
I’ve just been reading Becky Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. At least in the first few chapters, Lerner, a poet-turned-editor-turned-agent (and I gather still all of these things), offers advice at one end of a continuum I’ve noticed. Hers is what I would call a “soft” book for writers: strong on inspiration, on the emotional landscape of writing, on how you’ll know if you’re really meant to write and how to persevere through the cold winter of a writer’s disenchantment. At the other end of the continuum: books like Michael Larson’s book on non-fiction proposals, which I downloaded for help writing my proposal for Survive College Writing (a future bestseller currently interred in a massive data dump of all the things I want to say to the students I saw struggle so hard). Larson is in the “how-to” school; this is what you do and this is what it should look like, down to how long paragraphs should be. Quit yer belly-achin’ and just get going. What’s so damn hard?
In the middle I’d place Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published. This claims to be a how-to, but there’s a good amount of inspiration here–for example, she maintains that if you’re passionate about your topic, your heart will beat through your prose. But there’s also some of that hard-headed get-on-with=it spirit: All the passion in the world won’t help if you don’t do these X or Y Most Important Things.
Reading Lerner, I find myself thinking about the many conferences I’ve attended over the years. Lerner tells ms, forget about writing the next X or Y; forget about “Marley and Me meets ET.” Write what you’re obsessive about, what haunts you. Write the book that’s your book. Thus far, the implication is that if anything is going to sell and hit, that’s the book that will.
The real question is, where’s that line between “what we’ve seen before” and “we don’t know what the heck it is”? Lerner will presumably tell me if I’ve just gone too far, according to one of the Amazon reviews. I will await the event.
If I were in the inspiration queue–I’m not exactly; I know I’ll always write–I would find some solace in sentences like these from Lerner:
“It takes a certain kind of person to understand and cope with rejection as an appraisal instead of a judgment.” (See this post for another take on criticism of our work.)
“[T]he degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success.”
I value information about what’s not working more than ever, and God knows, I persevere.
A good writing group keeps you honest. Good readers remind you that you can’t fall back on your genius. I guess if I were a genius, I wouldn’t need readers. From my keyboard to the mind of God.
No, a good group reminds you that you have to work at this stuff. It’s like riding my horse. I keep slipping back into old habits (right knee locking into the saddle, heel slipping up; taking back without realizing it in front of fences). My trainer’s “You’re doing it again” is the only way to create new mind/body memories and make them stick. Little by little I think they do.
So I go to my writing group with major revisions of The Drowned Man (the ms. I took to the conference I’ve been writing about—I’ll get back to that shortly). I decided that one tack would be to veer more toward the “literary.” Now, one thing I’ve learned is that I fall just a few pixels short of literary most of the time. But genre clearly doesn’t cut it. The answer to the “But what is it?” question confounds editors and agents every time. (Well, yes, it’s a sort of mystery, but no, it doesn’t have a knitting shop in it. Not that kind of mystery. Well, not that kind either. Darn.)
Anyway, I thought that even if I didn’t slip across the literary line, I could at least bump up the suspense with some piquant foreshadowing if I changed the point-of-view character. The POV character now telling the story knows what happened in the end, so he can drop some titillating portents here and there. I like the way this works. Problem: as my group told me, I liked his voice a little too much.
Get rid of the floating talking head. Move the action up front. (Remember, writing fiction depends on the ability to write scenes, not exposition, no matter how piquant.
Did I know this? Yes. Did I do it? Now I am.
Don’t dump a lot of names on us all at once. Get your readers invested in one or two main characters right away. Bring the others on stage when you can give them the stage time they need.
Did I know this? Yes. Did I do it? Now, yes.
Locate your opening scenes in place and time. Let your readers walk into a landscape or a room and meet a flesh-and-blood being (even if he does have to be a vampire). There’s a fine line between being mysterious for the sake of suspense (“I’m confident that that question is going to get answered”) and for the sake of being mysterious (“Who the hell is this person I’m having to listen to? Is there a reason I’m here getting vertigo in this mind fog? Help!”)
Did I know this? See above.
Let readers know early whose story it is. Okay, in someone else’s story told by a narrator (Nick Carraway, for example), readers may have to figure this out. But they should figure it out, IMHO, as they interpret the relationship between the narrator and the other characters. Who embarks on the major trajectory may change with events (and it can even be the reader, IMveryHO). And it quite often is the apparently peripheral character whose trajectory is the most interesting. But starting out in a text, you haven’t won the willingness of readers to do that kind of interpretative work. They want to get started on a road, in somebody’s tracks, before the feral pigs start jumping out of the woods at them (I ended up taking the feral pigs out of my book: see “Deleted Scenes”).
Did I know this? Ditto.
Give readers a sense of something at stake. Okay, they may not get to know right away just how much is at stake. But they need to know somebody’s in trouble, and why. I may still need to work on this. Bellweather knows Michael’s in trouble from Page One and why. He’s telling readers so. But readers have to get a sense of this by themselves. I hope when I take my revisions to readers who weren’t there last time that I get a sense of whether I’ve met this mandate.
Did I know this? Well, yes, but it’s the hardest, least concrete of missions. What makes readers care? Well, someone in trouble. Yes. I want to think about that in tomorrow’s revisions. How do readers know Michael’s in trouble?
You really have to work at this stuff.
In the course of a project I’ve been working on, a book for people about to take their first college writing course, I’ve been doing some reading to locate the personal experiences I’m drawing on in the continuing conversation among college writing professionals about what a college writing course or major ought to be and do. One source I’ve found usefully provocative is What is “College-Level” Writing?, edited by Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg, both community college professors. High-school and college teachers, students and administrators have contributed.
No Definition for College Writing?
I wonder how surprised most readers would be to learn that the collection begins with the premise that there’s no agreed-upon definition for “college-level” writing. Contributors do seem to resist the idea that writing is de facto “college level” because it is written in college. But many also resist the idea that there should be some set of specific criteria that student writers have to meet if their writing is to be acceptable college work. The perceived danger is that locking college writing to “standards” will drive it the same way “standards” have driven high-school writing: toward shallow and reductive formulas that privilege being able to follow a set of steps over thoughtful analysis of a topic. (George Hillocks’ The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, is a lucid exploration of the effects of various rubrics and standards on how teachers teach and how students write.) The writers in this volume tend to agree that college writing should be more flexible, more responsive to the different writing situations students in college will encounter.
So What Is College Writing. . . . ?
And this view of the difference between college and high-school writing points to a consistent thread of consensus among the contributors (and among my colleagues, with whom I shared many discussions of our program and the kinds of writing it was producing). What made me want to insert this post into my narrative of my own struggles was an essay close to the end of the book. By Chris Kearns, then an assistant dean of student services at the University of Minnesota, this essay advocates for what I would consider an absolutely essential component of successful college writing, Kearns writes:
[C]ollege writing proper begins whenever an undergraduate takes the first consequential step from self to other on the grounds of care for one’s audience. This is best done by opening oneself to the fact that meaning does not belong to the writer; it unfolds in the shared space of acknowledgment between the reader and the writer. (350)
This is remarkably in tune with my favorite quotation about writing that I’ve published in these posts at least twice, the quote from the reading historian Alberto Manguel that “[a]ll writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” This idea, Kearns points out, runs counter to the romanticized view that the self-regarding individual is the font of expressive genius. Kearns contends, rightly I think, that we cannot imagine this unfolding of meaning between reader and writer as a linear process of following steps or using the right toolset, and, moreover, it is difficult to explain as a concrete process, which is a possible reason so many college students find that magic something that their college teachers “are looking for” so amorphous and elusive.
Kearns points out that this process requires writers to inhabit three consciousnesses: that of writer, reader, and a third “critical reader” who experiences both perspectives and engages with the tensioned interplay between them. Kearns calls this process “recursive,” by which I interpret him to mean that one begins with an idea or a point, which then blooms in the space in which it is offered, is molded by the critical reader, and then returns, changed. This process repeats as long as a piece of writing is still attached to us intellectually and emotionally, even if it has left our hands.
This is about college writing, but I think it is about all writing that means to do more than sit in a drawer. Readers are the most surprising people. They never give you back what you think you gave them. And when you get back their gift, you–even if you resist–are what has changed.
. . . . generally, ironically, came from those family members and friends we should ideally avoid.
But they are the ones who will actually read your stuff.
- My sister, who said of an early (and I suspect chaotic) draft of KOTR: “This isn’t a novel, it’s a character sketch.” Bingo. I may misremember, but I seem to recall I was on track with the trajectory that eventually did become a book within days.
- My friend and academic colleague, who said (paraphrase) of a draft of a different novel, “I was so angry at the beginning. I didn’t know who this was, where she was, what was going on. I made myself keep reading [friends may do that], and I loved it. But the beginning doesn’t do it justice. You have to give me more help than that.”
- A former student and one of the best writers and readers I know, who had the temerity to cross out whole pages of “character development” in my then-and-current-and-maybe-forever novel in progress: “They slow me down and besides they’re hard to read. I wanted to know what was going to happen.” Again, bingo. I actually had to admit they were hard for me to read, too, and beastly to write. Note to self: Most of the time, it’s the pace, stupid.
- A former teacher who heroically read everything I gave her, about an even earlier draft of KOTR that I tried to render in first person (the one I went off into the woods to write, convinced that if I did nothing but write I’d make it happen): “I got tired of hearing him whine.” Boy, did that get my attention.
- The professor and friend who said of my failed novel, “I couldn’t get into it. It was just a bunch of people sitting around a room talking.” If ever there was a wake-up call. . !
- All the friends who’ve said, “Whose story is this?” I’ve been trying to keep that question before me in my current revision project, which, like so many of my projects, wants to spill out all over the place (my curse). (And there was the generous academic colleague who said gently of yet another project, “It’s just . . . just sort of overgrown“).
Now if I can just make use of these treasures—and get more.
Okay, let’s get the rant out of the way so we can move on to practical applications.
Like applying due diligence, perhaps?
It’s embarrassing because my second attempt to purchase good feedback was as much of a foreordained conclusion as the first.
I found this fellow in my search for likely looking conferences and workshops. I don’t actually remember his name. I do have the material he finally sent me (see below), but it supplies only a first name. Perhaps that’s just as well.
The workshop was small, private, held on a major university campus, where I was able to acquire a dorm room. The apparent imprimatur of the university disarmed me. And the workshop itself, me and a couple of other people, working with this genial individual with a bucketful of droppable names, was stimulating, full of good exercises, with some useful discussion of our projects. I was beguiled.
I had two efforts underway. I had decided to rewrite my failed novel. And I had a terrific premise that I had turned into a very rough draft of a screenplay. For $450, this person was to advise me on the screenplay. Then he would partner with me to edit my novel, parts of which I had shared at the workshop. (He did not warn me, as a conference panelist was to do soon thereafter, that revising that novel in hopes some editor would take on a chance on republishing a better version of it was pointless: “If it didn’t sell the first time, why would they think it might sell now?”).
In any case, off he went with my $450.
I waited six months.
I emailed him a couple of times, only to be assured my critique was on the way.
We’re used to this from agents. But I had paid.
I finally wrote and asked that he either send my critique or give my money back.
Bad move? I honestly don’t know. It triggered two things. I got my critique. I also got an email, since lost (as an act of psychological self-defense?), that I remember as a bruising, sarcastic excoriation that I would dare to make such an unprofessional, harassing request.
I’ve fished out the critique. Nine pages. Up to about the midpoint of the script, very detailed discussion of problems interspersed with often-specific praise, focusing largely on the nuances of scriptwriting versus writing prose, help I desperately needed as I was a complete beginner at scripts. Rich as well with the kinds of global comments I also desperately needed to hear: What is the story question? It’s hard to know what this character needs or wants. Too many characters playing redundant roles. Some logical missteps, obvious when pointed out. But at midpoint, I’m told, the story veers so far off course that it doesn’t warrant further comment (“organizing deck chairs on the Titanic”). But then: “Tremendous potential. The ending is emotionally arresting and disturbing, the eoncept is unique.” And finally, a cryptic “Well done.”
Of course, now I couldn’t do what I most wanted: arrange a (paid) follow up meeting to nail down my understanding of the technical advice and to talk through how to make the shift of direction in Act II organic and supportive of my larger hope for the story.
I see now that I could have learned from this man. But, struggling under the devastating collapse of relations (by my doing? by his?), I did a further unprofessional thing. I simply set it all aside. I could persuade myself not to trust it. Did his anger at me color his response to the story? Did he really read past page 55? In the end I gave up on the screenplay, turning the premise into a novel. (And rereading that long-ago critique, I am glad for the reminder to ask that crucial question that I’ve heard myself ask others in our writing group: Do we know what this character wants and needs? Now that I’m back to writing, time to double-check, make sure.)
But the more immediate question is whether I could have prevented these two disasters (begging the question, of course, as to whether they really were disasters). The first one, possibly, by not wanting so badly to be misled. The second one, surely. Preditors and Editors existed then; a quick trip to http://pred-ed.com/general.ht?t1 would have given me the basic advice I should have followed, to wit: a) get a written contract specifying what was to be done and when; b) start small and see how it works out.
In short, good advice is worth paying for, but with much greater caution than I exercised.