I think the title says it all.
You want more?
You can’t catch every typo, every slip of the syntax. And believe me, when you’ve worked on a manuscript for a year, you can’t see the forest for the trees.
Most of all, everyone else’s brain doesn’t work like yours.
Character motivation has to be universal. So does the emotion a scent will evoke, the weight a certain word will carry. Every one of us is living a unique life.
Writing is about capturing the experiences we share.
So I had this round table critique for my manuscript with my SEKRIT ARSENAL OF TEENS. As you may know, I write YA lit for boys that girls like to read too, so my panel consisted of two boys and one girl.
DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.
I am no shrinking violet when it comes to kids. I’ve got a handful of my own, which means a plague of them has passed through my house over the years. I was a scout leader for both sexes for approximately a billion years. Believe me, I have seen and dealt with every personality type and situation you can think of. So I wouldn’t recommend doing this unless…
A. You can withstand any sort of comment a person can hurl at you about your writing, personality, choice of wardrobe, and belief system–you’ve got to be a good sport.
B. You do not shock easily–don’t do this if you’re a prude.
C. You genuinely like teens and sympathize with them–if you’re confrontational, you’re not going to find out anything helpful anyway.
D. Teens generally like you–no matter how much you like them, if you don’t connect, they’ll just tell you what they think you want to hear.
E. In the end, you will make sure it’s a positive experience for each and every teen involved–kids are kids, and a book that stirs up their emotions can bring out the dramatics. They can tear each other to bits. You must have the finesse to make sure everyone feels heard, and goes away feeling closer.
You have to do all of this without appearing to be in charge. If you’re very clever, they’ll kind of forget you’re there and spill stuff they’d be MORTIFIED to tell their parents.
Oh yes, I am that good.
The truth is, it’s not that I’m that good, it’s that I like the kids that much, and they know it. My SEKRIT ARSENAL OF TEENS was incredibly astute. I asked a question, and they answered it.
For three hours.
They were brilliant. Honest. They put their free time into reading 52,000 words written by a nefarious woman, and the only payback was lunch at Panera’s. My teens spewed their emotions, shared deep thoughts. And they trusted me to listen to their ideas in the spirit they were given.
It was a real honor.
…that I would blog every Tuesday and Friday. Dang my unrelenting Spring Resolutions.
Okay, I’ll take a break to let you know what I’m doing today.
I’m sure you are fully aware that I have FINISHED MY WIP AND I AM INTO REVISION TIME. No, this is nothing like Hammer Time.
Because I definitely can touch this, baby.
I spent this week going through past critique comments and consolidating them all on one hard copy of each chapter. THAT was interesting. Sometimes, one person might hate a certain sentence, while another person would love that same sentence. But there are plenty of places where I have a POV slip, tense change, unnecessary attribution or leave my characters floating in space. All in all, I have lots of fabulous advice to ponder from my critique buddies.
Today I am plotting Story Arc. Yes, most of you made an outline BEFORE you wrote your story. I think I may have told you previously…
I CAN’T LIVE BY YOUR RULES MAN!!!
I am taking index cards and briefly writing down each scene. After I have done this for every chapter, I will go back and ask myself, “Self, does this scene further the story or tell the reader something vital about the character that he didn’t know before?” If not…
This is the post where I make a lot of enemies.
I read your ten-page chapter. It is single-spaced, chock-full of typos, grammatical errors and syntax lapses. I dutifully correct every single one.
I highlight every place where you tell, rather than show.
I help you role play your dialogue.
I reconfigure your story arc.
I replace your lackluster action verbs.
I use my time and brain cells on your manuscript…
…and you don’t care if it gets published.
What. The. Hell.
I know we are are all progressing at a different pace. Some of us are driven by inner demons, some by clocks ticking, others by the bill collector. Some of us have to divide our time between opposing duties. I get that.
And our dreams differ. While you might be happy to be published in a regional magazine, I really want to have a career as a YA novelist. Both are cool aspirations.
But all of us should be progressing toward our goals:
TO WRITE SOMETHING THAT SOMEONE WANTS TO READ.
What good is it to write something that doesn’t make it off your laptop? Or any farther than your critique group? If you don’t want to be published, just what in the name of helvetica are you looking for?
Do you want a table of people to tell you once a month that you’re talented?
I won’t do it. Even if you are talented. Because it’s a waste of my time and effort. And I don’t have that much. It’s a waste of yours too.
If you’re going to write at all, you might as well do it for real.
I feel guilty.
Critique group yesterday. Chapter 10 gallops along—pathos, intensity, drama.
Fearless leader reads with vigor and gusto. Including the “fudge” word.
Only it wasn’t “fudge”.
And Lord, the name-calling, including, “baby-lick”.
Only it wasn’t “lick”.
And by golly, Fearless Leader read it like she meant it!
At first I laughed, but then, I was mortified at what I had done to this tableful of refined ladies.
Week by week I have spooled out my story, made them care about my rogue’s gallery. They’re willing to go along for the ride. (Because they’re really good sports.)
Over nine chapters they’ve learned my main character’s story: hardship, trauma, sacrifice. So when the big moment came, and the “f” bomb exploded…
They were ready for it! Judging by the reaction, you might say they relished it.
Because the words MEANT SOMETHING. They were meant for anger, for the ultimate put-down, like they used to be. They weren’t scattered through the text to be cool. They didn’t pop out three and four times a paragraph instead of “um” and “uh”. The two offending words were each used once, strategically, and for great effect.
Okay, then. No guilt.
But then I think about Fearless Leader, her impeccable pageboy, her sweet smile, her lady-like voice, barking out those words…
I still gotta cringe.
It is tremendously easier–and faster–to evolve as a writer with a critique group behind you. (Or around your neck. Depending on your planetary federation.) I improved my craft so much between the first chapter of my novel and the last that–well, I felt I had to issue an apology on our listserv for what I’d put my little buddies through.
The Valuable Aspect of Critique Groups #1 that I’ll blog my fingers stubby over today is…
THE READING OF THE MANUSCRIPT
You can read your own words out loud to the mice in your garret all you want, but YOU know what they’re supposed to mean, and you can put in the inflections so they twist the right way. If you want to see how the reader is going to understand your words, you’ve got to have a stranger (gasp!) put her profane tongue all over them. (Ooooh, yeah. I AM a YA writer.)
For this exercise, a cold reading is best. Where the practiced reader stumbles is usually an awkward piece of writing: too many prepositions, jumbled syntax, misused words, poor punctuation, etc. Perhaps characters’ names are cumbersome or too similar.
When you are one step removed, you may hear words repeated within mere sentences of each other. Or even that the “blooming flowers bloomed under Judy Blume’s window”.
Dialogue that sounded snappy on paper may sound insipid hanging in the air:
“I say, Boopsie, could you fetch me that ping-pong ball?”
“What-what? This one? Under the yum-yum tree?”
You’ve learned at least a day’s worth of revisions, just by listening to someone read your MS out loud.
God help you when the REAL critique begins.
You travail…grind…you coax the keyboard late into the unforgiving night.
Cull…pinpoint…tease the perfect words from your brain.
You strategize. You project. You pluck the marionette strings.
Grip the sneering knife in your sweaty palm…plunge it into your howling heart Blood
Spills through your printer onto the page.
But The Worst is tomorrow:
And that would be why I don’t write poetry.