Stages of Critique and When to Re-write

On Wednesday, Sarah talked about the levels of reworking a story, ranging from minor edits to “keep basic idea, scrap the rest, and move on.” This can be in response to outside critiques, or you as an author growing and changing. It sounds logical and neat, if tedious at times. But it can also be emotionally painful.

There’s a reason I have an unpublished non-fiction work that caused me to have anxiety attacks when I looked at the file: one critique that dang near ruined the book. So there’s nothing wrong with a visceral response when you get feedback. It’s what you do after that’s the challenge.

Stage one: denial shading into Stage two: anger. “How dare you criticize that scene/character/plot point?!? You hate my baby! I wrote that for a reason.” You have poured heart and soul onto the page, bled onto the keyboard, and John Q Reader doesn’t like it. Waaaaaahhhhhh! Rage, rage against the alpha reader!

After you stop and breathe, step back. Is it the reader’s opinion, is it because you accidentally hit a very sore point with them and they can’t read through their own experience (a valid critique and honest, and something that may well happen with other readers), is it because there really is a problem with that scene/character/plot point? They are critiquing your writing, not you. Or they should. If they are critiquing you as a person, then there’s another problem and it is not the writing per se, although they might still have a valid point about particular scenes and elements.

Stage three: Grief. “My poor story. I worked so hard on that scene/researched that detail so much/ love that setting. I don’t want to let go. I love it! Wahhhhhhhhhh.”

I just cut three pages out of a manuscript, an entire scene. It hurt. The scene meant a lot to the protagonist, and if the story were just about her and her family, then it might work. If the novel were stream-of-consciousness, then the scene belonged. But the book is about something else, and is not s-o-c, so out the scene went, carefully clipped and put into a new document.

Stage four: teeth-gritting. “All right.” [Glowers at screen or page] “Yes, John Q Reader has a point. I have to add a new section/change the point-of-view character.” Or “I can’t fudge this. I have to add at least three more chapters, and cut out those four, or nothing will make sense and readers will wall the book. But I don’t want to.”

Stage five: re-writing. Depending on what needs to be changed, this can take anywhere from a day to several weeks or longer. Adding four chapters to one book took several weeks, in part because I had to research and map out (literally) what was going on and routes that the MC could take.  In another case, I cut three chapters, added more, and then had to comb through the rest of the book to add foreshadowing, and make darn certain that no traces of the original events remained. Compared to that, scene clipping is pretty simple.

The current WIP started with a female protagonist for no reason other than I thought I needed to do a female protagonist in the series. Um, not going to work, especially given her position (priestess). She wouldn’t be going where the story needed to go, or able to do and see the elements driving the story. Happily for me, I realized this after only a few thousand words, so I could scrap it and re-start without losing a lot. Her story is still important, and she still plays a key role in the book, but the male protagonist has a lot more flexibility (for medieval levels of flexibility.) In this case, I caught the problem before an outside reader did. Likewise for the book where I added 30K words to the end. Or the story that started out with one character as the bad guy and another dying in a natural disaster. Except the Bad Guy refused to take that role, and the other character? He was a reporter, a street reporter, who covered the crime beat. He’s not stupid enough to hang around when he knows good and well that trouble’s looming. I caught that one before my editor could scream, and shifted things around. That book has a lot of other problems, but forcing characters out of their character isn’t one of them.

It hurts to rework stories that you love. That’s normal. But sometimes it has to be done, in ways ranging from minor tweaks to setting the entire thing aside and starting afresh. Be not afraid.

Now go write, revise, re-cast, and rewrite.



    1. Usually, but as I said, the one where I added an entirely new ending? I caught that before it went to any reader. However, the manuscript had sat fallow for two years, so in some ways it was new to me.

  1. Finding and keeping alpha and beta readers is difficult and very much worth the effort. Oh, offering the rough draft to anyone on Facebook is easy. It’s winnowing through their responses (if any) to find the people who can point out the specifics of what they do or don’t like that’s the first problem. And then getting them to do it again to the next book, and the next . . .

    1. I’d be happy to beta read for you. I don’t know if I’m any good at it, though, as I’ve only done it once for Cedar. You might ask her offline whether it was useful. 🙂

  2. Finding alpha and beta readers in your genre and subgenre helps. If I throw the rough draft at my husband, I’ll get the fight scenes critiqued, and plenty of help plotting out “beautiful” ambushes…

    But the character arcs? Um, well…

  3. “ She wouldn’t be going where the story needed to go, or able to do and see the elements driving the story.”

    The exact issue I ran into on the current project. Sure, she’s a good character, but the captain of the ship doesn’t go on away missions (sorry Jean-Luc), nor does she really handle a lot of the day to day stuff, that’s the XO’s job. So she changed to a strong supporting character for most of the book instead, and the XO and Random Marine #3 had to become players too to help flesh the story out with the charming spy. If the series plan shakes out, she’ll take a larger role in other books (promotions tend to do that), but for now, she can’t be the sole lead.

    That took some time to come to terms with, though. Even having read books where the initial lead steps into the background, it still felt “wrong”.

    1. It does, and I think there will be a short story about her soon, partly to show what it means in that world to be called to serve the gods. It can happen at any time, to any one, not just those with magical talents who are trained from youth. But she wouldn’t be going to the salting works, or to look at the quality of seasoned firewood, or pulling logs out of the spring flood, or avoiding unwanted marital proposals…

  4. Meanwhile I’m wrestling with a story where the character is sent somewhere as a child, and as a man can do something about the reason. It’s interesting figuring out how to handle the intervening years.

    Thinking of having two characters discuss him.

  5. Criticism, yeah. I don’t handle it well. My response is -far- beyond reasonable. Far beyond. If somebody tells me “you made a mistake on page 12” that’s fine, or they want to know how the driver knew what the monster was doing in the back of the truck that is also fine. Or possibly they didn’t like a theme in the story because it doesn’t fit their worldview, that’s fine. Who am I to tell somebody what their worldview ought to be?

    But there are times when somebody makes a criticism that comes out of left-field, and I don’t take to that type of thing.

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