Sunday, April 24, 2011

Critique and the Modern Writer

Editing is a long process, and it needs to be. From the time that first draft is finally "done," to the day when you make the last edit, and then the real last edit. And then the absolutely final last edit. Are we ever really done with the edits? I know I continue to tweak a story every time I open it up. Whether it's a minor wording change or smoothing out a rough sentence, or any of a millions others things.

Right now I'm working on revising A Sign in Blood. I think I've identified the biggest issues, and soon it will be ready to go out to those first line readers. My friends have been very kind in offering their help and I'm so thrilled because... Well, this will be the first time anyone except the Fiancé has read the book through start to finish. Seriously, people have read parts of it, and the first dozen or so chapters have been thoroughly critiqued but this will be the first time anyone (except the Fiancé) has read it from the first page to the last page.

I expect there will be more edits to make, revisions on the sentence structure, possibly some scenes that I need to add (as if it's not long enough already!) and some small to medium plot points to sheer up. I'm confident that the overall plot is solid, but sometimes the details aren't as clear to others as they are to me, or there's a perspective that I've completely overlooked.

So, macro readers and critiques are fantastic things and I'm very grateful to have crits and readers to help me revise. But, I think there's a balance to be struck between what we as the writer have done and want to do, and what readers and critters want us to do. Some critique, while providing good information, is more about changing the story into what the critiquer would have written. I think we all do that, to some degree, when we're critting. It's perfectly natural for our own perspective to come through, especially because what makes a book "good" is so subjective.

Grammar and spelling you can give solid answers on (for the most part). However elements such as how much or how little description to use, what bits of which characters connect with which readers, and how upfront you have to be about this or that plot point, are all subjective. They change from one reader to the next, and sometimes wildly so.

It becomes a juggling act, trying to fit in enough description to set the scene without boring all of your readers--some may be bored for a paragraph or two anyway--while delivering information about your worldbuilding, characters and the plot, while laying in enough foreshadowing so the readers aren't totally thrown at the important moments, while fitting the larger picture into the characters' emotions and the characters' emotion into the larger picture. It's exhausting.

Because you can become completely overwhelmed by all the different perspectives, options, opinions and thoughts. When more than a few readers agree on something, it's easy to see the usefulness of the idea, but when one out of ten tells you there's too much of this or too little of that? Well, you have to ask yourself what you want. And that's sometimes the hardest question for a writer. We want people to enjoy our books. We want to tell a story that will entertain and touch readers. We want readers to enjoy our world, characters, and plot.

For writers, it's often about what other people want. That can make it hard to see where we're going with revisions. It means that you have to step back, take a deep breath, and ask yourself the harder questions. What exactly do I want readers to feel while reading this? What exactly do I want to accomplish with this scene? What do I absolutely need to communicate and what can wait until later?

Those may sound like easy questions, but when you've got so many other people's opinions in your head, it can be difficult just to clear them away long enough to find clarity. You really can't please everybody all the time, but oh how many of us want to! Despite knowing that readers reading for enjoyment are a lot more forgiving than critiquers reading to scrutinize every detail, it's really hard to let go of critique. Even when you want the story to go a particular way, and it's a good approach for more than half your critters, it's easy to wonder if that other portion of readers is right.

There comes a point when you have to draw the line. You have to define what you want the book to be, and that is one of the most important things that critique accomplishes. It forces a writer to ask those questions, to define each scene, each chapter, and each element with conscious effort. If forces us to think about it and make a decision. Is this the way I want the character? Am I okay with some readers not connecting to her here? Is this the way I want the setting? Am I okay with some readers finding it too detailed?

Crit forces you to make those hard decisions, and books come out of the critique processes stronger and more solid for having gone through it.


Mysti said...

Lovely post! I can't tell you how much I've improved since coming to CC. And how very grateful I am to my beloved critique partners. We've developed a nice little circle where we can really be straight with each other, and I so appreciate them telling me like it is. They each have their strengths, and come editing time, it IS hard to say what I'll agree with and disagree with.

The CC system though, with the ability to look at all the inline crits at the same time, is invaluable. I can see the consistencies--if they all comment on a particular passage, I know to pay closer attention to it. Good luck with yours Marion!

mooderino said...

Escellent post. It's very tricky deciding which suggestions to use, often from people who aren't really sure what you're going for.

My general rule is that if someone has a problem with a section, they find it boring or ditracting or whatever, then they're probably right. If they offer a way they think will make it better, they're probably wrong. Once I know where the problen is, it's up to me to find a way to improve it.

Moody Writing

Chrystalla Thoma said...

Great post, Mary, and I can't wait to read the whole story!

J.A. Beard said...

Good post.

The last time I had a story being critiques by other than certain dedicated partners, I was amused by the utterly contradictory advice I was getting.

Too much world building! Not enough world building!

This character is too emotional! This character is not emotional enough!

Good times.

Marion Sipe said...

@Mysti - Thank you! And I know what you mean. I'd been in other crit groups before and they just weren't right for me. CC is awesome and I have made some wonderful friends and crit partners there! Plus, I've learned A LOT! :-D

That's what I do, too. It makes it easier to have all the comments on a paragraph right there when you're editing! Well, you know, as easy as editing gets. :-)

@Mooderino - Thank you! And that's Very true. Especially since the critters are going chapter by chapter, and they don't know what the end is going to be. It makes it easy to give reader comments, grammar comments, etc., but plot comments and foreshadowing are sort of harder to discuss before the critter's gotten to the end.

@Chrys - Thank you! I can't wait to read yours, either! ;-D

@JA - Thank you! I think I'm going to start looking for macro readers for whole novels. It's just easier and it takes a long time to get a novel read posting one chapter a week!

And yeah, there is a lot of contradictory advice! It's hard to figure out how to balance it all, but I think the trick is to find two or three readers who really feel are spot on in their comments. I try to consider what everyone says, but some people are going to be closer to your aesthetic than others, you know?