Go to an action adventure movie, and you’ll see cars flying, buildings exploding, and more pyrotechnics than during wild fire season in a California summer. Spend a few months reading the daily book deals from Publisher’s Marketplace like I do, and you’ll be overrun by Chosen Ones who have to save the world. Every story meant to entertain us is faster, bigger, stronger, more explosive.
Let’s face it. Our stories are doping.
And just like I’m tired of Lance Armstrong and EPO, I’m exhausted by books and book pitches on steroids. I love Harry Potter as much as the next geek girl, but not every character we write is destined to stop history’s darkest wizard.
If I could wave my magic wand and restore balance to the universe, I’d start by banning some vocabulary. Let’s shut down chosen ones and destiny. Forget saviors who must question everything they ever knew. No more magic portals and quests to save the world.
Good stories don’t require steroids. They require characters we are intrigued by facing challenges that will force them to grow.
Let’s face it folks—not everyone is the Mockingjay.
I challenge you to give that question some thought. The answer may surprise you. The answer may change. My own answers may help you attack the question.
I have gone to a paid manuscript critique hoping to be acquired. I was new at this business. I’d worked hard on my story (a picture book manuscript that has yet to see the light of day). I was psyched when Big New York Agent (aka BNYA) was assigned my piece. I sat down and the first thing he said was that no one wanted any more ugly duckling stories and it was poorly written (as far as he could tell from skimming it in the two minute interval between the previous victim and myself) and that I should toss that thing in the trash. I rallied with some questions about nonfiction (my other genre at the time) and our little tete-a-tete finished up with BNYA saying something like, “Well that’s a cool idea assuming you could write it, but judging from this manuscript, you can’t.” Ouch! (P.S. Now I have a Nice New York Agent known as NNYA, who pulled me out of the slush pile. I’ll keep him!)
I have gone to a paid manuscript critique to get ten-minute access to the brain of a publishing professional. I survived the horror of BNYA and figured out that the beauty of the conference critique with agents and editors is the opportunity to get their unique perspective. It’s not the place to get in-depth critique on a manuscript. Instead, you get to see your manuscript filtered through a brain that has been through the slush piles. She’s seen what’s being acquired and what’s not. She knows what’s trending, what’s unique, and where your book might (or might not) fit. You should believe that editors and agents really can tell a LOT about your entire 90K word novel from the first ten pages. Pay attention to the off-hand comment. I had one editor tell me that she was keen my idea of a updated version of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Huh? My novel didn’t go that way at all, but I realized that I had used the word “knight” meaning that my MC would become a champion in his new world, but there was nothing medieval about the universe. I changed “knight” to “archer” and that change of word and mindset altered the entire novel for the better.
I have asked someone to read a manuscript hoping to be praised and encouraged. There is nothing wrong with this. Sometimes we need a pep talk and a high five. When new writers ask me to read something I try to sense the vibe behind the question. Are they wavering with this piece? Do they wonder if it is worth the effort of finishing? Sometimes what we need to hear is YES! Finish the thing! Are there things to work on? Sure. But right now, believe in it. Finish it.
I have hoped for insight into problems I couldn’t figure out how to solve. I often have very specific directions for the Scrivas when I hand over a manuscript. Most recently, I was struggling with the POV in the Angel Punk novel. I asked for them to focus on that piece of the puzzle. Good critique partners can offer multiple solutions to manuscript issues. Often that will help you focus in on the right one for you.
I have sent manuscripts hoping for the toughest of tough love. Just today, I got back comments on the first 2/3 of Angel Punk from the other writers on the team. (Hence the inspiration for this post.) I have to admit that I wish they’d been a little harder on me. Seriously. I’m glad that they are feeling good about the way the novel is shaping up, but I know how much work it needs, and I was ready for a lot more meat. I’m new to the team so they might be being careful not to scare me off, but I told them they were pussycats (those big guys) compared to the Scrivas. The thing about the in-depth and gloves-off critiques of the Scrivas is that when they do praise something – and they always do – I feel like I’ve won a marathon. When the Scrivas say I’ve done well then, dammit, I’ve nailed it!
What do you want from a critique?
Recently Addie posted When Talking is Better Than Writing. It really resonated with me because I am one of those people who will spew words about anything and everything. I love talking about my work in progress with anyone brave enough to bear the onslaught. So my comment was something like “Why the heck doesn’t everyone talk about their writing all the time?” In her typically gentle way, Ruth reminded me, “Amber Dear, sometimes the work is fragile for a while.”
Hmm… Cogs turned in my head. Yes, I could see that. Sort of. But I am not very fragile (usually) and my work/ideas can take a beating. Then one of our brilliant readers sent an email that illuminated this cobwebbed corner of the writing process (and maybe my marriage, too!)
I have learned over the years that there are basically two major groups (though most likely there may be shades of gray in there as well). Inward processors and Outward processors.
I am in the latter group. Things make so much more sense when I can talk it out.
Innies get so upset when Outies want to talk before *they* are ready. Outies NEED to talk before they burst into flames.
I should have realized this before since I (like our reader claimed to be) am an outie married to an innie! It’s taken me a decade of marriage to be comfortable with the way my husband works through things and for me to realize that if I want to process out loud, I should grab an outie friend before I subject my husband to my unformed ramblings.
As for critique, I see now why one of my previous groups was so disastrous for me. It had a rule that the person being critiqued could not speak or ask questions. I might as well have been hog-tied in the corner with duct tape over my mouth. No asking questions? No discussion? It was stifling. Does that mean it was a flawed structure? No. It means it was a bad fit for me.
There are both innies and outies in the Scrivas. Outies are more likely to bring an idea and run it by us before writing. Innies may wait until the entire first draft is done to start sharing. Sometimes we have heated discussions propelled by questions asked by the writer about her work. Sometimes comments are shared and then allowed to lay fallow, taking shape in the writers mind slowly.
I think one of the secrets of Scriva mojo is that we each feel comfortable asking for the kind of eyes we need on a manuscript. Therein lies the key… the writer drives the discussion so that it takes shape in the way she needs it to take shape.