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and open to the consequences, and if your readers are willing to provide constructive feedback of your unpolished, unpublished work in progress (bless them), then you have the biggest advantage a writer can have on the way to publication.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.)

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