Getting critiqued, or waking up and smelling the coffee

When you’ve written a piece, there comes a time when you might have exhausted your attempts at revision. You’re burned out. Mentally drained. It may seem as though you can no longer see the mistakes you’ve made on the page, as though they’ve buried themselves in the text in shameful hibernation.

Failure groundhogs.

I have the mindset of an editor, and readily enjoy helping others with their written work. But when self-editing, eventually I might forget the coordinates of the mistakes, to pluck them out so they see the light of day, to change what needs to be changed. It doesn’t matter if you’re an expert editor — you need a second opinion. And often a third. And so on.

This is the perfect time to set your project aside, or if it’s as good as it can get for now, to send it to a group of critique readers.

My first rule of thumb is to accept the word “critique” itself as a positive term, despite its seemingly negative connotations. Hard truths will make you a better writer. That said, my readers are doing me a huge favor, bearing in mind Ursula Le Guin’s sage advice on being critiqued:

Before and during the entire session, the author of the story under discussion is SILENT.

All you can do is hear. You can hear what people got from your piece, what they think needs some work, what they misunderstood and understood, disliked and liked about it. And that’s what you’re there for.

This is not a time to explain or wiggle your way out of your own narrative flubs. If what you intended is clearly written on the page, you shouldn’t have to verbalize your thought processes afterward. What your readers see is what they get.

If you’re prepared and open to the consequences, and if your readers are willing to provide constructive feedback of your unpolished, unpublished work in progress (bless them), then you have the biggest advantage a writer can have on the way to publication. Their unconditional support, the different perspectives they can bring to the table, are like secret weapons.

And sometimes the perspectives will surprise you. A few of my readers have already responded to me, and the occasional commonality between critiques is both amazing and terrifying (even once worthy of a facepalm). You’d think that I, having spent so much time with my own manuscript, would have figured these things out by now. I’ve had more time than anyone to stew over, pick apart, and scribble into damnation the framework of my plot.

But really, it’s because I’ve spent so much time with it that I’m unable to see the groundhogs, who’ve lodged themselves beneath the surface of the text, getting cozy and content over the years. So when two of my readers simultaneously recognize that the exposition of the first ~100 pages needs the most work while the remainder was enjoyable, and that a secondary character needs some fine-tuning, it raises a red flag: This is something I need to change.

Because in my heart of hearts, I know these critiques to be true. I know that progressing the story in a natural way with exposition is one challenge. I know that my secondary character, Aimes, is also the most complex and mysterious — a tortured soul whose past makes him sympathetic while his lack of humanity hardly makes him relatable — so another challenge is how to effectively portray him to the reader, revealing only slices at a time.

Like good strong coffee, these critiques are pulling me out of that post-revision haze, shaking me out of my slumbering mind. They are helping me pinpoint areas needing improvement, giving me the clarity, energy, and motivation to review my story anew.

Some advice on critiquing and getting critiqued, fresh from around the Internet:

Keep Writing: A Subreddit for critiquing

My Self-Publishing Journey: Putting Together my A-Team, from Publisher’s Weekly

Five Common Problems I See in Your Stories, from Chuck Wendig (He’ll kick your writing right in the ass.)

The muse chooses you

My novel draws inspiration from various mythologies of ancient Rome. Whenever I visit a museum or gallery, my favorite game to play is Find Diana the Huntress. She’s usually depicted with a stag, her bow and quiver, or her loyal hounds.

So far, I’ve gotten pretty good at this game.

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Conceptually, Diana herself is a fascinatingly complex deity, whose influence extends beyond myth and into pagan religious practices, feminist theory, astronomy, and even comics (Wonder Woman!). My challenge was to reinterpret her as a character in a fantasy context while alluding to her historical origins. Some of these references are very clear in my manuscript (the vestal virgins, the Laurentian Forest/Palatine Hill, damnatio memoriae); others are like hidden gems for readers to hunt down.

To keep the creative energy alive like a well-oiled machine, I also like to keep supplements to my writing. It’s an amusing and all too common conundrum when one claims to want to write while decidedly avoiding the act of writing, and it’s too easy to procrastinate with the Internet at our fingertips. Doing other things that inspire writing can help, whether it’s researching, sketching characters, worldbuilding, or listening to music that informs a scene. Sometimes all it takes to evoke the writing is a more tactile, tangible form of creating.

Below are some pages from my sketchbook. I like to be able to fully envision my characters for reference, whereas the writing itself allows more room for interpretation. Many of my literary heroes have done this (J.R.R. TolkienJ.K. Rowling), and I think it’s so important to have that sense of creative playfulness.

Pardon the smudges! I’m left-handed.

Centrum Erro-Wyld

A map of my fictional world, rendered in luxurious colored pencil.

Dianna

My main character.

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I love to write with musical accompaniment, so here’s a mix of music that inspired me. Sometimes lyrics just fit perfectly, and sometimes a song captures the tone of a piece.

http://8tracks.com/mixes/5415650/player_v3_universal

How to draw inspiration for characters from music

Seven reasons your muse isn’t talking to you

Inspiration from Yeah Write

Telling your story

Contrary to popular belief, stories don’t come, even to the best of writers, fully formed and awaiting their translation from brain to pen to paper. They come in nebulous dreams and nightmares, in snatches of thought, in the idle moments waiting in the checkout line, at work and at play, and between the hectic appointments of life.

Sometimes they’re not even welcome, but as inconvenient as a pebble in your shoe, sharp and digging into your sole (soul?). No matter how you shake it, you’ve got to get it out. You’ve got to write it down before it hurts.

The story starts like this: It chooses us. And when you get a good story idea, you can feel it. But how to pursue it, and how it ends? That’s up to you to decide, and writing guidebooks can only gently nudge you in a few good directions.

At this point, I’d argue not to be concerned with the “how?” and instead with the “why?” Why does this story matter to you? Why is it worth telling to others? 

For me, the best approach to writing is to be quiet and listen. Your characters are all extensions of yourself in their own ways — inner demons, heroes, friends and enemies — and you have to let them speak to you.

From my readers, I’m seeking judgment, not necessarily approval. I’ve already effectively “approved” myself as a writer by going forward; now it’s time to prove it to others. And others might have preconceived notions about being a writer, that it’s narcissistic or even glamorous in its own way. But writing is more of an act of compulsion than a call to artistic destiny, so sharing it not self-serving — it’s self-sacrificing. It’s a gesture of trust. It’s saying, here are the contents of my head, and maybe they need some sorting through, but there might be something of value buried in there, and can you help me get it out? It’s putting yourself on the guillotine with a “please and thank you.”

It should also come from the realization that I am not a special snowflake. I am aware of the privileges that allowed me to get here and the difficulties that are sure to come. I am more like the asymmetrical paper snowflake with its crappy scissor cuts, maybe to get thrown in the trash heap, but maybe to be recycled into something better.

Go tell your story. Tell it in the only way you know how. Then let the knowledge of others guide you on.