Laura M. volunteered to have the beginning of her novel critiqued, but I’m not compus mentis enough to do so, certainly not in public. I probably could critique Kate or Amanda with a simple “Grabs/doesn’t grab” but I wouldn’t go deeper than that, and even that they should take with a grain of salt.
So … how sick am I? Well, I’m well enough to know I’m sick. Honestly, I’m having one of my atypical chest things. All stuffed, but no cough except at night, but I feel like I’m sleep walking, can’t concentrate and have body aches. Yes, I did take the flu vaccine. This would seem to be a mild form of it. Very mild. Still, all I want to do is sleep.
To make things worse, I have these hormonal calibration meds I HAVE to take every day. I sometimes forget a day, you know, got up late, running, whatever, but this week I’ve skipped two days because I was so sick. This made things worse. If it weren’t for the occasional cough and the feeling my eyes were dipped in grit, and the chills, I’d imagine that this was ALL hormonal. The hormone crashes feel like the world’s worst flu anyway, normally, so I think they’re feeding each other.
Anyway, having heard from someone who just got his first critique and it was critique from hell and also having spent the weekend before last at a seminar for writers which had a lot of editors, both trad and freelance, I thought I needed to do a post on critiques in general.
I tried to inject some caution at the seminar. You see, it was all “you have to listen to the editor” and “the editor sees more clearly” and “if you think all your words are precious, you won’t get anywhere.” And yeah, that’s true… in some cases.
I would say that’s true in very few cases. In fact, in my entire career of mentoring/teaching/writing, I’ve met exactly two cases of this. And one of them was good enough to have a career, anyway.
Most writers have a dual issue: they love their books, yes, but they want to improve them. In that, they remind me of has two left feet and no ear for music and is not swift enough for soccer, his parents would have done better not to listen to the fashions of the time and put him in football.
I was struggling to express this duality and why it’s important to pick the right editor who will make this the best of YOUR books and not someone who tries to change it to be something else, when Dorothy Grant came up with the perfect metaphor “…but just as you wouldn’t ask a homeless person what’s the best way to shape your culture, and you shouldn’t ask a skanky tramp-stamped woman at the bar to be your wife after buying her a drink, writers need to be discriminating about the editing history and areas of expertise of the editor, eh?”
She right, of course – except for the eh. I’m not sure about that eh – and that’s the first step.
But there is more to it than that. I’m going to try to encapsulate it in points, okay?
1- Choose the right editor. If your editor reads mostly Romance, don’t ask her to do epic fantasy. She’ll miss all the genre markings. But it goes further than that. If your editor is an SF geek but UF is not her passion, don’t pick her. She might not miss all the markers (I wouldn’t, and UF is like my third down subgenre to pick up for fun) but your book is likely to get critiqued from a slightly different perspective. If I had got hold of the first Anita Blake book, as a first reader, I’d been driven insane by the fact she never explains and that history is the same, despite the existence of these creatures. It bothered me even while published, but I had to take it. As a first reader, I’d have said “I don’t buy this. You’d have to build an history to show why it’s like this, despite—” Well, she clearly didn’t. But I’m an SF reader PRIMARILLY and an alternate history reader secondarily so to me this is vitally important. To her readers… clearly not.
This means I wouldn’t be the ideal first reader for her. The same with Harry Potter. If I’d read it first, I’d have said “Must you steal every trope from boarding school mysteries of the Enid Blyton ilk? People will think you’re stupid.” Only Americans didn’t grow up on boarding school mysteries, so I was wrong, she was right. (And I like the books. Well, the first three.)
2- Even the best picked editor can have a ton of things in which they’re up their own a– behind without a flash light. This is very hard for a beginner writer to accept, particularly if this is a professional editor or even a friend who is more published than you are.
When I was first in a writers’ group, our group acquired someone we thought would be the BEST critique EVER. Remember we were all young (well, thirty something but young in writing) and totally unpublished. This person had published a novel ten years before. So, instant expert.
(Yes we were that green. We didn’t realize that if she were that good, she’d have kept selling.)
I’m not joking when I say her first line “critiques” just about delayed all our careers by two years. You see, her word was law, even if we didn’t get it.
Thus, my promising foray into urban fantasy, back when I read it, was shot down because “the book doesn’t have an engine.” (Of course not. Metal bits are bad for paper.)
It took me three years to understand that she understood ONE type of story only: action adventure, of the sort that has an obvious McGuffin or a goal.
First, my stories tend to proceed more from internal development that moves the writer to something physical. Second, if there is a physical/obvious goal, there are usually five. Her critiques simply didn’t apply. For instance, Darkship Thieves was “too romancey” because the characters had “too many internal conflicts” – and so it went.
You can also, bizarrely and unexpectedly, hit someone’s hidden prejudices. You can know someone for years, and they can be perfectly sensible. You might not know that they really, really, really hate candy canes and think they’re a tool of the devil.
If you have your kid eat a candy cane in the first scene, she’s going to hate your story, and she might NOT know why. I’ve had critiques that start with “This is one of the world’s worst books” but then everything about it is extremely vague, “I don’t like your plot.” “Your feeling is wrong.” “Your MC is sexist” and so on, until finally candy canes (or their equivalent) is mentioned and the bilge pours out, in torrent “Horrible, rot children’s teeth. I can’t believe you’re so craven as to mention them. The candy cane industry—“and on and on. If you’re there in person, back off. Spittle WILL fly.
For instance, at a critique group, I presented my story Hot. This is a story of a bio-engineered future or rather a time traveling agent from some future. I got yelled at for half an hour by a man who decided I was your typical female writer (rolls eyes) and who screamed at me that guns don’t snick or hiss and had I ever fired a gun. And also, calling it burner was too stupid and no one bought that sort of slang. Then he went on to comprehensively tear everything apart, including the “beautiful lady without thank you, what is that?) (Belle dame sans merci)
Then he listened in huffy silence to the other critiques. Took him two days to re-read the story and figure out the gun WAS a laser burner and could make any noise I wanted it to. (I don’t know if he ever got the French.)
3- Then there’s the editor who is also a writer – this is even more common with first readers – and who wants you to write his book. This has happened to me even with professional editors and agents in the traditional industry.
If someone tells you the entire thrust of your book is wrong – particularly if they’ve written a book on how to write the perfect book – back away.
Look, if someone had told Pratchett the way to be a bestseller was to write Stephen King knock offs, how close do you think he would have come? And do you think he’d be a bestseller today? Or anyone of importance?
If someone tells you “To sell this book you must” unless the offer is so good you can put the kids through school on it, back off. Right now, you don’t must not’ing. You can always go indie.
For instance a well intentioned reader was the cause of the demise of one of my first trilogies (well, it will eventually be a trilogy) because he told me if books were over 100k words long, they would never sell as a first book. This, btw, I later found out, was in the golden age for goatgaggers. My book was 300k words. But he’d gone to conventions, and listened to editors. I cut it down to 100k. It was fatal. (I will eventually revive it and do it as a 3 book and send it out.)
This is actually another problem: people who have a theory of writing. I’ve run into editors who think you can’t cut too much and the way to improve a story is always to cut. I probably wouldn’t have been rude, if I hadn’t been very ill at the time, but I would still have said “Back off.” Some stories need every word. (Particularly short stories.)
Then there are the minimalists. They have really weird theories of writing. I once was in a group with a published female author who had issues with sentences like “raise your eyes” or “lift your voice.” You were supposed to use “looked up” or “spoke louder.” Don’t get me started. She would go line by line and make fun of your wording, including “Did he use a winch to raise his eyes?” Fortunately I had a degree in literature, had read way more than she had, and was immune. Others weren’t.
4- Sadistic first readers. This is often true if your first reader/editor is a failed writer or one who has given up on writing.
No piece of writing is so bad that it deserves a line by line of its awfulness. Not even eye of Argon. If someone is doing that to you, they have an ax to grind. Say thank you and walk away and don’t read the damn thing, unless you’re a masochist. Going line by line is designed to hurt. We had a thing in our group which was “mark punctuation and word errors, but don’t stress them.” This cut the sadists at the knees.
Also, making fun of your book is a tell. It’s okay to say “this book made no sense to me, perhaps I missed something.” (Always say that. Half the time you DID miss something.)
It’s not okay to say “You flip POV like a cheap cook flipping pancakes in a cheap greasy spoon.” (A rejection I received from a very respected agent, for DST. One of the gems he thought to put in FOUR handwritten pages. Finishing with “send me your next one.” I’ve since found that’s his style and also that he WILL make you rewrite your books several times. THAT letter was an expression of high interest on his part. My reaction? Particularly to the part where he told me that DST should take place entirely in the Cathouse? “OMG, no.” And I never submitted to him again, not even when he approached me years later, when I was a decent-selling midlister and told me he could take me to the top. If I ever decide to go full S & M I’ll do it physically, not with my books.)
To conclude, if someone is trying to make your book into something else, claiming insider knowledge (yes, even if they are in the industry) or tearing your book apart with malice aforethought (and often with snark too) tell them to go away. If they’re your nearest and dearest, and insist on reading everything you write, give it to them and tell them you want the results in writing. Then ignore it.
Yes, there are fantastic editors out there. And there are truly appalling ones. And sometimes they’re mixed. One of the best edits I had which strengthened the book plot, was awful on the line by line.
Remember it’s YOUR book. Yes, it might be much, much better if the main character were a transsexual alien reptile instead of a human female, but can you WRITE transsexual reptiles? And do you want to? If it kills all your joy and interest in writing, DON’T DO IT.
Again, remember: could Pratchett be a decent King knock off? Possibly. Or vice versa. But would he want to be a King knock off? And didn’t he achieve much more success by being HIMSELF?
The longer I live and write the more two truths become evident: 1- David Weber is right. It’s all about the voice. A confident, strong, enthusiastic voice will hide a multitude of sins. 2- Pratchett is right. The secret to success is to be yourself as hard as you can.
So, don’t hold on to every precious word (I only know two writers who do, anyway) but be aware of the function your words fulfill and how changing them might change the book. Pick which changes you take.
And when it comes to structural changes, never take those that will kill your book and your enthusiasm for it.
I don’t care if Fifty Shades of Alien would sell like popcorn. If you keep going “EWWW” at the thought of erotic chest bursting, it’s not for you to write. No matter how much the betas or your editors say it is.