Writing Problems: I Want to Be Done

So a couple months ago I finished polishing up my manuscript, and sent it to my critique partner and posted it in my critique exchange group. I’d finished inputting criticism from the last round of critiques, and I thought to myself, “I’m in a good place.This will be easy.” Not that I believed that there wouldn’t be problems — of course there will be problems, there are always problems — but there would only be a few. Things I could fix in a few weeks. Then I’d clean it up again, and boom, off to agents I go.

Well, no.

While problems of plotting aren’t getting mentioned (thank goodness) and there don’t seem to be overwhelming instances of my characters not being up to snuff, my to-do list for this manuscript keeps growing, and growing, the more I read my criticisms. And I realize my original goal of being ready to ship out by the end of June was laughably naïve.

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This is not what a page from a manuscript you’re “almost done with” looks like.

 

I know I can’t let myself get hung up on everything that critique partners tell me. Sometimes you just have to leave a piece of advice behind.

 

But, you have to take some of it, too. Especially when there are persistent problems — wishy washy character, descriptions that don’t go far enough — that you know about your writing, and that people are still noticing when they read it for you.

I want to be done. Not because I’m sick of my story (I wouldn’t have gone through this many revisions if I was capable of getting sick of it), or because I have other ideas (I do, though), or that I just don’t want to do the work (though yeah, I’m lazy). No, I want to be done because I don’t want to do it forever. I don’t want to be caught spinning my wheels, rewriting and editing the same things over and over again, never reaching a real stopping point. I don’t want to put of getting published. And I don’t want to keep finding so many problems that I decide my story is unfixable and quit on it altogether, burying it as far into my drawer as I can.

I don’t want to get frustrated, and leave my story unfinished. I want to see it through to the end, and make the best attempt that I can to put it out into the world.

To do that, my story, my characters, my writing, have to be as flawless as I can make them.

Which, unfortunately, means I’m not done, as much as I wish I was.

Critiques: What to Take, What to Leave

As a writer, it’s really wonderful to have people who are willing to take on the time consuming task reading your work and giving you feedback. Outside eyes can see where things aren’t working, can look without sentiment on the parts that have become too precious to you to know if it’s really good or not, and they can reaffirm decisions that you were hoping, hoping, hoping were the right ones when you put them to paper. And, possibly most important, they can give you a perspective you didn’t know you were missing, rounding out your stories, and your characters.

But it can also be a little too much.

20160606_105650The problem with so many new voices is that there are so many new voices. If more than one person is looking at your story, you’re bound to get more than one opinion on different parts. Or one reader will find they don’t like one bit of your story that you always thought worked, that reads to you like one of the best bits of the manuscript. You get a list of things you feel you should change, to the point that you feel you’re rewriting everything every time a new critique comes in. It’s overwhelming, and makes you feel as if you’ll never, ever get this damn story finished.

It’s really important, when working with critiques, to take readers’ opinions of your work seriously, to accept that you’ve made mistakes that other people have found, and now you have to take the time to fix them.

But it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to take every single bit of advice you’re given. When your book finally makes it out in the world, it’s basically an impossibility that it will be universally beloved. No matter what you do, or how you change it, someone will think that it doesn’t work, that it fails, even if others love it. Some of that opinion will have to do with your own skills and the quality of the work, and some of it will have to do with that person’s point of view and life experience and how that causes them to relate to what you’ve written.

I have a problem with internalizing every critique I get, and trying to apply a fix to my manuscript. It’s how I wind up with stories that get rewritten too many times, that get changed one way and then back again, stories that never feel quite done. I love getting all of these opinions, knowing what’s boring or preachy or what is good or clear or exciting. But I also have to trust my own self on some things: that this bit of word choice is what I want; that this flashback does add to the development of my character; that the timing of this joke works just fine. When I agree with the criticism, when I can’t ignore it, I’ll change the wording, I’ll work out the puzzle — it’s something I actually enjoy doing, after all. And I’ll give every bit of criticism its moment, analyzing it, weighing whether or not it will make my story better.

But I won’t make it perfect for every individual who ever picks it up — it’s not possible, and it’s not something I would expect when people take in my critiques. I’ll take what works for me, and make my story the best in my own eyes.

How do you deal with critiques? Do you ever have a problem with suggestions you disagree with? How likely are you to change a large chunk of your story based on what a critique partner says?

 

On Critiquing (It’s Nice to Know You Can Be Honest)

Once again I’ve sent a manuscript off to be read by my critique partner. I trust her to tell me what’s working, where I’m doing well. But I also trust her to tell me what isn’t working, where I’m failing and flailing, to type in clear language whether this story is ready for me to suit up and fling into the world.

And it’s nice knowing she expects the same from me.

Sometimes when I’m critiquing, I’m worried that I’m being mean, even if in retrospect, and when comparing my critiques to others, that never appears to be the case. It’s what I want from other people, to flatly say “I don’t understand” or “This is boring”, “I don’t believe your character” or “This whole page needs to go.” I need to know how someone outside of my brain is effected by my story, and that’s what a good critique partner wants right back.

20160501_093218Still, I’m so anxious about making people upset, about having someone angry at me (I will stress for days if I say something weird in a text message and a friend never responds), and I too often equate my being honest with being mean. It’s how I wind up being too passive-aggressive from day-to-day. But, there’s no being passive-aggressive, or pandering, when you’re critiquing — none of us have time for that. We need to know what’s wrong, so we can fix it, editing and rewriting and scribbling circles in a notebook until the solution snaps in our heads like a firecracker.

It’s wonderful, to find other writer-people that you can be honest with. People who trust your opinion, who know the difference between constructive criticism and petty meanness.  People who you aren’t overly concerned with hurting their feelings (they’ll get hurt eventually) because you’re focused on helping them mold their story into the most near-perfect shape you can.

And if you can trust them to give the same back, that’s a pretty good deal.

Dealing with Crits (A Fear of Looking)

I have a fear of looking at critiques when I get them on my work. I have enough confidence in what I do to know that the thing I sent out was not bad. Really, it’s the best I could possibly make it on my own. Still, I worry over what might be said.

Did a character come across in a way that I did not want?

Do they not believe the turn in the plot?

Do my sentences make no sense, or are my descriptions boring and cliché?

Will they discover a problem so big that I can’t fix it with a few simple tweaks?

The answer to those questions, every single time, is a certain yes. There are problems I didn’t see, characters I need to clarify, and problems that involve either an overhaul or a rewrite. It’s hard to face this, to know that my hopes that this time the draft was perfect turn out to be unfounded. There are many things to fix, and many of them are not easy, and it’s like a million tiny pains every time I see a new comment box on the edited draft a critique partner emails my way.

But it’s always wonderful, after I’ve read the comments, after I’ve made my notes. I see the story fresh through another person’s eyes, I know where I failed, I know where the story isn’t strong. And then I start to think.

Those comments, as hard as they are to read the first time around, are like continuous shocks of caffeine into my story-brain. I keep thinking about it, how to fix it. I pace the room, scribble pages of ideas. I become so excited that it fills my brain while I’m at my job, or doing chores, and I keep writing even during the times when I would normally feel burned out.

The comments fuel me, even — especially! — when they show me how much I have left to do. The story stops being something I’ve driven straight into a wall; it’s a puzzle that I can pick at and work out. The critiques help me see exactly what the problems are, and once I know what the problem is, it can be so much simpler to find the solution.

I’m afraid of my critiques, but I love them, because they make me excited again about whatever it is I’m trying to work on. Without them, I don’t know how many things I would ever, truly, finish.

Having a Critique Partner is the Best

In high school, I wrote constantly. So did my best friend. We shared our work with each other and offered opinions, mostly compliments (we were teenagers, our egos were so fragile). We even took the one creative writing class our high school ever offered (at least while we were there) together. We encouraged each other, and while I probably would have kept writing without her, I do attribute some of the confidence I as I kept pursuing it to those sessions in her room where she read my scribbled handwriting while I nervously snuggled her rat.

They made pretty good critique buddies, to be honest.

Once college started I didn’t see my high school friend as much, and Facebook wasn’t a thing yet. I received plenty of comments and assistance from classmates in my creative writing courses and from professors, who at the time helped me grow and also figure out what I really wanted to be writing. But I had no dedicated friend to share these things with, so after I lost the structure of school I was on my own. I operated within a vacuum, which I can say is a horrible place to write. Though I completed a novel, and edited it, and sent it out, it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out the why.

Sick of being stuck, I applied to grad schools, finally ending up in Lesley. It was great: finally, a community of writing friends, mentors, people who got it and could help me out. But greatest of all was when I found the person who, from the moment we read each other’s manuscripts in preparation for the residency, became my best writing friend*. We connected with each other’s writing more than the other manuscripts we read, and it only took until the end of that first half of a day before I felt like I could put my book baby in her hands and trust her not to mangle it up but to carefully inspect it, to help it grow, to love it. We’ve both graduated, but we email, text, Facebook, Skype, share recommendations and worries and, most importantly, manuscripts. When I made sudden edits to a story and needed feedback she was right there, ready to do it. And when she needed help of her own, I was on her list of people to send her beloved novel to.

Basically, I have a person who I know will do her best to help me out and give me honest feedback — praise along with criticism — when I need it, and I have the privilege of being the same person for her. And it’s great.

 

 

*She also owns rats, who I have met and snuggled with. So, maybe that’s a sign.