I spent my “formative years” as a writer working in a vacuum. When I think of how many decades I’ve spent as a closet writer with no one reading my stuff…well, better late than never.
I’m a fairly prolific writer and I get cranky if I don’t write every day–I’ve mastered the part about planting my butt in a chair with my keyboard and writing, but the one thing that I overlooked for too many years was just how important readers are for a writer, and not just after a book is published.
Getting readers and thoughtful feedback is something that is hardly touched upon in my library of writing books. Certainly it wasn’t addressed in college. My craft has improved tremendously just in the past 12 months that I’ve been having my work critiqued.
I’d actually thought I’d finished my YA novel a little over a year ago (and embarrassingly often since then). I knew I needed feedback from readers who read my genre, so I had a brilliant idea–why not get some young adult-type readers to read the story and give me feedback before I sent my manuscript out into the world. The summer reading group at the library seemed a no-brainer, and they certainly seemed enthusiastic about the idea, but only one of the kids actually read the whole thing. I’d forgotten, these were teenagers, and regardless of their intentions, critiquing a book is too much like homework, which is particularly evil in the summer, when teens would really rather hang out and talk.
During my military years, when giving presentations or reports, we were supposed to “fight for feedback.” I never really appreciated just how much of a fight that was going to be! I found a couple other writers willing to exchange manuscripts with me and do that, but there was no hope of getting a consensus of opinions on what worked and what didn’t and why from so small a pool of feedback. Just as I was about to give up and just send the darn thing out to look for a home, I discovered Critters.org, which is apparently the oldest writers’ workshop on the internet.
Needless to say, my first critiques were a shock.
After all, if I hadn’t thought I’d put my best work into the story, I wouldn’t have been ready to send it out. But the problem with writing without critical, constructive readers is that improvements in writing craft are few and far between.
After the initial shock wore off, I realized how lucky I was not to have sent that puppy off prematurely. No one can critique crafting stories like other writers. Not only can they spot that data dump in the first chapter, but they’ll have useful suggestions on how to deal with it. I learned about maintaining a point of view consistently without drifting into an omniscient POV, how to craft a character with a lot of growing up to do without readers feeling the urge to smack some sense into the kid–there’s a difference between an anti-hero and an unsympathetic character. These are all things I’d read about ad nauseum but, while I could recognize those writing faults in others, I was blind to them in my own writing.
In the course of this past year, what I thought was a good story actually became one. No, I’m not going to play the false modesty card–if I didn’t think it was a good story, I wouldn’t have devoted over seven years to writing it. Over the last two years, I’ve been putting over 40 hours a week into it–on top of a full-time day job. You’ve got to be nuts to pursue something that fervently and then claim, “oh, it’s not much of a story, yadda yadda yadda.” If I don’t believe the story’s worth the effort to tell it well, why am I doing this?
Getting good feedback on what works and what doesn’t work is critical. Only another writer can understand just how urgently I felt the need for that kind of feedback. Every problem a critiquer found was one less reason for an agent or editor to turn it down–but never tell me why. I like it when a critiquer likes the things that work, but my focus is always on the negative–what needs more work. I look forward to plain-spoken critiques, no pussy-footing around problem spots–it’s too easy rationalize those kinds of comments. The reader’s experience is the reader’s experience, for better or worse. A story isn’t going to suit everyone who reads it, and it’s no good pretending it works when it doesn’t.
I can honestly say there isn’t a sentence in this 135,000 word novel that hasn’t been raked over the coals and made to sit up and bark–at least three times. A year ago, I thought hand massaging every sentence, forcing it to justify its existence, would be ridiculous on something that long, but I’ve now done that several times over.
Waiting for feedback is excruciating. Between constantly checking my email and going over points in old critiques, I critique books for others, try to stay moderately current in my genre(s), but I’m still as antsy as a kid on Christmas.
I’m waiting on several critiques, so it’s time to go check my email.