Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Revision--Shannon Style (Part Three: Critiques)

For those of you who haven't been following this series (or just don't remember because I ramble about so many things it's hard for you to keep up) I've spent the last two weeks talking about my revision process. I've covered my drafting process HERE and my own personal revision process HERE. And today I'm going to talk a little about what I call the third "phase" of my revision process: The CP/Beta Phase.

Mind you--as you know from those previous posts--my poor CPs have already been involved throughout the whole process. In fact, by the end of this phase, they'll have read my draft three times (have I mentioned how amazing the Sara(h)s are? Cause um...YEAH! They = awesome.) So obviously the CP/Beta phase has a lot more to it than: send draft to CPs. (Though that would have made this post nice and easy to write).

And since today's phase is a pretty painful part of the process, I'm bringing out the big guns before we get started. The chocolate COVERED Twizzlers.

Why the big guns? Because what I'm really talking about in this post is: how I work through critique notes. Which is not an easy thing to do.

Though, I'll admit. I'm currently a very lucky girl. I have two wonderful, smart, talented Critique Partners who have the perfect blend of "getting what I'm trying to do" and "pushing me to make me better." They still give me a ton of notes to wade through. But I never have to worry that I will completely disagree with their take on my project.

It...wasn't always that way. For a long time I didn't even have CPs. And then, as I tried to find them I had some...interesting experiences.

Nothing against those readers--at all. Writing is just subjective, and not everyone will like the same things or get what you're trying to do or read things as fast as you'd like or work well with you. It happens. And I'll talk more about finding CPs in another post someday (once I figure out what the heck to say in it) but for now, since we're talking about critiques, I'll just briefly cover how *I* judge if I can work from a critique, or if it's...off.

Here's the thing. I actually have a very thick skin. No really, I do. I couldn't have survived film school if I didn't. (Let me put it this way: we had to read our scenes out loud, in front of the class, and then everyone--including the teacher--told you what you did wrong. It. was. brutal.) So...I'm good with criticism. I don't ENJOY it. But it doesn't freak me out. At least, not when I can see their point. And I'm pretty darn good at seeing their point.

So when I get notes back on my draft, I've learned to listen to my gut reaction to them. Let's face it: even though we all know we're going to get notes back, and they're not going to say: IT'S PERFECT--DON'T CHANGE A THING!, deep down, we're secretly hoping it'll be like: add a few commas here, tweak these five lines of dialogue and you're golden. So...when we get back SIGNIFICANTLY more notes than that, it's kind of like a punch to the gut. Like, "crap...I have a lot more work to do."

But that is an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT FEELING from: "wow...they, hated my project" or "wow, I completely disagree with what they're saying" or "wow, I hate their suggestions." That reaction is a sick-to-your-stomach-curl-up-in-the-fetal-postion-and-sob kind of reaction--and I've learned from past stressful experiences that it means the critique is off. Doesn't mean they're WRONG (maybe their suggestions would work if I wanted to change the book into something different from where I was going.) But they're not right for me.

So I have actually thrown out entire batches of notes from people, because they just didn't see my project the same way I did. It was scary and hard for me to do that--because I'm not one to dig in my heels and say, "no--I'm RIGHT!" But if thick-skinned me is nauseous because I just don't like anything they had to say about my draft...well...I've learned that my gut is telling me what I'm too afraid to admit: that the critique is off. And if the same thing ever happens to you, I hope you'll come to realize that it's okay--you don't HAVE to do what the notes say. Think carefully about them of course. But you can reject them if they don't fit.

And fortunately, I now have The Sara(h)s, so that hasn't happened to me in a long time. But...that doesn't mean I apply every single one of their notes. Again, I've learned to listen to my gut. I have some methods I use to judge the notes, but I'll cover those next week, because that is a HUGE part of my fourth phase of revision: The Agent Phase. So for now, let's just skip to the part after I've decided what I do and don't agree with and have a plan. Here's how I tackle the draft from there:

The Sara(h)s send me their notes as a word doc, with comments in the margins. Before I start working on them, I create an entirely new version of the draft (usually Master Draft 2 at that point). Then I open their notes file, along with my new draft and work side by side. (Oh, and I should mention, I tackle one Sara(h)s notes at a time, so every chapter gets reworked at least twice)

I scroll to their first comment. Scroll to that part of the draft, and reread. Half the time it's a quick fix. Adding more description. Clarifying or correcting an inconsistency. Trimming something repetitive. Finding a better word. Etc. Sometimes it's something bigger and I may have to rewrite a large section of a scene, or make a big cut. Either way, as I work, I highlight all the changes in teal highlighter, so they stand out in the draft like this. 

I do that because it makes it easier for me to see the draft evolve. I know some people do "track changes" and let Word keep track of all of that for them. But that feature drives me crazy because it marks every. little. change. I just want to track the big stuff, so I can see what I did to the scene and really make sure the new stuff is consistent with the other stuff. If it reads seamlessly--even with the glaring teal highlighter--I know I have it right. If the new stuff stands out, I need to blend more. 

Bonus: I can resend it to the Sara(h)s with the highlighter in there, that way if they're strapped for time, all I ask is that they read the highlighted sections to see if they're satisfied by the change. They don't have to reread the whole thing again--unless they want to--because they've already read it twice and are starting to get too close anyway. 

Which is where my Beta Readers come in.

I know, you're probably wondering what the difference between a CP and a Beta reader is. Everyone draws their own distinction, but for me a CP is someone I'm going to let read my REALLY messy stuff, someone who's going to brainstorm with me, someone who's going to read chapter by chapter because I want them to be really thorough, and someone who is going to read the draft multiple times. My Betas are the people who get the full draft all in one go (sans highlighting), it will be much cleaner (in theory) and they will probably only read it once. Basically I'm bringing them in for "fresh eyes." 

They also read much quicker because--while I, of course, want them to note anything that bothers them--I don't want them constantly having to slow down to make tiny tweaks and comments. What I'm really looking for at that point is: pacing, believable character arcs, and does the plot make sense? And that becomes MUCH clearer when the draft is read in as few sittings as possible. 

I have a number of different people who Beta-read for me, and I use them based on their availability. Usually they get a desperate email saying, "Hey--are you too busy to do a quick read?" And if I send the draft to them, they know I'm hoping to get it back from them in about a week--unless of course something comes up for them. They read nice and quick and send me the draft back--usually with a lot less comments than a critique. But it's AMAZING what they catch. I definitely, DEFINITELY recommend using Betas in your process.

From there, I do one more round of adjusting based on my Beta-Reader's feedback, sometimes asking The Sara(h)s to read isolated scenes or chapters if I made a major change. And once they're happy and I'm feeling like I've done all I can do, then...*gulp*...it goes to Laura. 

And we enter the dreaded Agent Phase, which I will talk about next week.

*Phew*--do you see why we needed the chocolate covered Twizzlers this time? That is a LOT of work. I tell ya, this process is not for the feint of heart! But it's what turns my draft from a mess of word vomit into something presentable enough to show my agent--so it's worth it.

Still...I think I'm going to need some chocolate covered Twizzlers now. *noms* Anyone want to join me?


  1. Thanks for sharing your process. I think we all wish deep down our critique partners would say the manuscript's perfect but of course it's not. That's great you have thick skin. Some times I could use thicker skin.

  2. That was a thorough post Shannon. You are so right about critique partners. I am a moderator of a critique group and the bad ones are really bad. One member once had such a negative response he stopped writing and coming for a year. Too bad to because he is a brilliant writer. I said "bye, bye," to that person.

    You may be surprised but until I started blogging I had never heard of Beta Readers. Would you mind emailing me privately and sharing how to find them and the cost. I would appreciate it very much.

    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  3. The hardest part, I think, is finding the right person at the right time in their career. You don't want a writer who is far less experienced than you because they will probably just "love your work." Which is great I suppose but doesn't really help. There's nothing wrong with having a CP who is more experienced than you (I have one, he rules) but if they are WAY more experienced than you, it's probably not going to work out.

    And there's a fine line to making that first approach. My Crit group went through two writers who had to quit. Three of the originals are still there but we have a new guy too. I had followed all the people who I approached's blogs for at least a month before I asked them, but I also got really lucky. They could have been too busy, or already in a group.

    I would say that it's really important to take some time to get to know someone first, but don't wait too long, or they may get snatched up.

  4. I'm really glad you said that about trusting your gut when it comes to the wrong feedback... I haven't experienced that before, because so far my CPs and I are on the same pages... but I am bound to experience it someday, and I KNOW I'm the type of person to curl into fetal position and sob uncontrollably whilst rocking back and forth.

    Okay, maybe not, but it's good to know that sometimes it just doesn't match up with your vision and it's okay to chuck a critique that just doesn't fit!

  5. Ah the gut. Half the time I hear it say my ms is perfect, the other half of the time it's telling me the ms is completely sucky. Thankfully, my CPs are less wishy-washy.

    And I do find it important to take all of their comments seriously. My CP suggested some pretty big changes to my first draft and I think my work's stronger for saying, "Heck, yeah, that's what I should do" as opposed to taking offense. But then again, I'm a journalist and editor in real life so I'm used to having my work edited by five different people; my ego was put in place years ago!

  6. Awesome. Really shows the importance of having solid CPs. (Can't wait for the Agent Phase!) And don't smack me or anything but...Chocolate Twizzlers sound kind of gross. LOL. I'll take the Twizzlers, sans chocolate, or vice versa! Don't hate me! *ducks*

  7. I'm still working on getting the right crit partners that I want to stick with. And Beta readers? I can only think of one. I need more. Excellent post, btw. There was some good information in there and got me thinking about some things. So, thanks!

  8. I have not read this post yet. I lost ALL FOCUS when I saw...chocolate coated (milk chocolate!) twizzlers...oh my.

  9. Wow. And thanks. Excellent post and great advice, Shannon!

  10. Such a great post, Shannon! Finding good CPs and betas is so hard. I've gone through a few that just didn't fit and recently turned my very awesome beta into a CP.

  11. Thanks for sharing the most frustrating, yet progressive part of the process, in my opinion.
    I'm still trying to find the right CPs. As in Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." I've built it, so I'm looking around for people to come. I know I'll find the right group soon enough. Thanks.

  12. I "know" it's okay to not use every note or suggestion. And I get that. But it's really nice to read someone say they have gone that far to protect what they know to be right. Makes it a lot easier to ignore some things that I just don't feel right about when they come up.

  13. Not all suggestions are going to be right on with your vision of the book. Bottom line, you're the author.

    And I'll have a chocolate-covered twizzler, thanks! :)

  14. My process is more or less the same.
    Never underestimate the power of a fresh eye, but staying true to your own vision is just as important.

    You're so right that it usually comes down to a gut feeling... once the brief flare of indignation dies down. I'm pretty thick skinned, but sometimes it takes a little time to fully digest a crit.

    Great post, Shannon!

  15. Great post Shannon. I always like getting a glimpse into other people's processes. :)
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  16. I'm in this phase now. *gulp* *gratefully accepts chocolate covered twizzlers* *crawls back into revision cave*

  17. Thank you for this post, and yes, I'll take a chocolate-covered twizzler. I wish I had thicker skin. I want the critiques. I need the critiques, but they still hurt sometimes. I'm always taken back to English class or my writing history class where they critiqued my paper (without knowing it was me who wrote them) and said that person deserved a F on that horrible paper (which got a C from the professor). It's hard, and sometimes it takes a couple days to digest what they said and move on. I'll have to remember the chocolate-covered twizzlers. Really, where have I been? I didn't know they had those.

  18. Fabulous post, Shannon!

    Thank you so much for this advice: "That reaction is a sick-to-your-stomach-curl-up-in-the-fetal-postion-and-sob kind of reaction--and I've learned from past stressful experiences that it means the critique is off."

    I am learning not to take crits too personally but it's a relief to know that if something just doesn't sit right that means it's not right for where my story is going. A big relief :D


  19. Phew! Thank God for the Twizzlers. Now, I need to get back to work. Where's my teal highlighter? :-)

  20. I think I'm going to need something stronger...chocolate covered almonds for sure.

    I really did not know the dif between cp's and beta readers but it's totally clear now. I need more peeps.

  21. your blog makes me hungry.
    it also makes me excited about being a writer. even after reading all the dirty nitty gritty stuff, i feel excited afterwards.
    perhaps something is wrong with me.
    or i've just found my passion.


  22. I've only been critiqued once, and we were a pretty good match. But I haven't gone through and fixed the 'problems' yet, so I'm not sure how I'll deal with it.

  23. I wouldn't have written the book I did without having excellent readers who are able to give constructive and valuable feedback to strenthen your story.

    CP's or Beta Raders - whatever we call them, they're imperative to the good telling of a story.

    Written communication is such that while we understand what we have written, others may not.

    I don't think the revision process is ever done until the book is on the shelf. Things can always be improved1

  24. Thanks for posting this. I've got some excellent critique partners and beta readers, and I appreciate them all, but a couple of times I've run into that sick-to-my-stomach feeling that isn't just hurt pride, it's "Wow, this person honestly didn't get it." When I have, it's almost always about major things, sometimes right at the heart of the way the story is told.

    There are a lot of nuances to judging this--what's the experience level of the crit partner(s)? Do we like the same sort of books? Are they alone in their opinion, or are others, who perhaps have more in common with my reading preferences, backing them up? As you say, it's important to think through the ideas, even if we ultimately disagree.

    Maybe the accuracy of our gut response to critique is one good measure of our readiness for the publishing industry. :) Here's hoping mine is good enough....

    Anyway, that's something I've been wrestling with lately, so I appreciate the permission to go with my instincts. :)


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