Monday, April 24, 2006

The word we fear: Critique

By Heather Justesen

Critique. The word is synonymous with sweaty palms, jittery stomachs and fear—and that’s just for the people giving them. Critiques are part of the business that most of us love or hate with a passion—sometimes a mixture of both. We love getting feedback, especially when someone says they think our story is brilliant. Unfortunately, that’s not really a critique, and doesn’t help us hone our craft very much.

It is with more than a little trepidation that I take back a manuscript after someone has been working on it. I have one coming back in the next week or so that I’m afraid to think about. I’ve put so much blood, sweat and tears into the thing, reworked it over and over, second-guessed my scenes and rewrote them. I let family members read it and point out problems; some I fixed, some I ignored. Then I sent it to my editor and she covered it in red. I avoided her notes for a couple months, not ready to deal with the major overhaul she recommended, ignoring the innocent comment from my dear husband that the changes didn’t seem that major—he hadn’t taken the time to read the whole thing, after all, so what did he know?

Then, finally, after months of avoidance, I pulled out the manuscript, dripping red ink, and began to rework it. It had two more good edits, with a significant change in the opening, before I trusted my baby to go back out into the world again . . . OK, so it was a fellow writer’s hands, not the world, but it felt like I was risking everything. What if she said my baby is ugly?

I guess that gets down to the heart of it. The book is my baby, from concept, through several drafts and hours of searching the text to pull out the extra adverbs and at least two hundred unnecessary instances of the word ‘just’ (to be frank, I’m not sure I got them all). It seems to be my favorite word. Now I sit, waiting on pins and needles to see what she thinks of my writing. Will she point to my favorite parts and tell me they don’t make sense? Will she tell me that fun line that makes me laugh is out of place, or is one of the little darlings that Stephen King says we all must feel safe killing?

Worse yet, I suppose would be getting it back and not having it covered in red pen—or purple as the case may be. What if after all the worry and fuss, I didn’t get good feedback at all? The whole point of putting my work out on the block like this is to make my book the best it can be. I do this with the hope that it will catch a publisher’s eye, be on the shelves by July, sell out the first printing before August . . . oh yeah, that’s a fairytale, and I’m not Snow White... Maybe I better give myself a little more leeway than that. But though I hate critiques with a passion, I do love the way they make me think and notice the good and bad in my writing (like the two hundred extra ‘just’s).

I have to say though, doing a critique for someone else can be every bit as enlightening as receiving one of your own work, and almost as nerve-wracking. In the past few months I’ve critiqued several manuscripts, worried I would offend the author. I tried to couch my comments in kind language (most of the time), but not being honest won’t help them. So I brave on with my notes, hoping they will find them helpful, and will look at them seriously before dismissing me as an idiot. Surprisingly, so far everyone has seemed thrilled to have me tear their stories to shreds. And while I edit, I’m reminded of rules of writing, formatting points that I might forget, building suspense and creating conflict, and describing the scene so the reader feels as though they are there, without bogging them down in too much description. Pointing out the flaws in others’ work helps me see the ones in my own more clearly. And because of that, we both win.

So while I chew my fingernails waiting for Danyelle to return my manuscript, I’ll see what damage I can do to someone else’s. If nothing else, it could prove therapeutic.


John Ferguson said...

Heather, I liked your post. It was honest and fun. Good job.

Stephanie Black said...

Heather, you summed up a writer's love-hate relationship with critiques perfectly! On the one hand, it often stings to get told "this doesn't work." On the other hand, we want our books to be the best they can be, and we're excited when someone helps us see what we can do to make the manuscript better.

I once got an evaluation that told me I was terribly, excruciatingly wordy. My instinctive reaction was wounded indignation. But then when I took an objective look at my manuscript, I realized the evaluator was absolutely right. I was able to cut thousands of words from the manuscript without hurting the plot one bit and now when I rewrite, I'm always trimming out unnecessary words as I go. I'll be forever grateful for that candid, painful evaluation!

Danyelle Ferguson said...

Heather - This is a fantastic blog. Critiquing is definitely a double-edged sword we all experience to become better writers.

And don't worry - I'll be brutally honest about the good and bad while I'm reviewing your latest manuscript.