By: Stacey Purcell
“You’re beginning does not have a strong hook and I’m afraid you won’t draw your readers in as it stands.” Ouch.
Writers are gluttons for punishment. We pour our hearts upon the page, open our souls for all to see and then serve it up on a platter for human consumption. This is the wondrous glory and the bane of our existence. We cannot escape the inevitability of being critiqued. It is a part of the creative life. Unless we’re determined to never let our work see the light of day, then someone, somewhere will offer their opinion on what we’ve done.
Before we put our stuff up for sale or send it off to an agent, we need to have impartial eyes read over our pages. Critique partners are a writer’s secret weapon. When done correctly, they can help us avoid the type of comments at the top of this post. They can find holes in your plot, compliment your choice of words, and keep you from head hopping. The trick is to find just the right kind of help you need and to recognize you won’t need the same type of help at every stage.
I attended a workshop recently taught by my friend, Lorin Oberweger. She’s a professional free lance editor( www.free-expressions.com ) who I think is rather brilliant. The workshop was titled Working Smarter: Understanding What Kind of Feedback You Need and When You Need It She suggests that we break the process up into 3 phases.
Phase 1 is when you’re writing an early draft. Construct it more like a dialogue rather than a list of improvements. Ask questions like: What’s happening?- literally unfolding in the scene. What emotions are conjured for you? What is your impression of the protagonist? What is the viewpoint character trying to accomplish in the scene?
Phase 2 should be done during the middle drafts. Your partners should dig deeper into your characters and story. Ask questions like: Does the opposition seem clear and significant enough to pose a compelling obstacle in this scene? How am I handling the pacing of this scene? Do I understand what motivates the protagonist/ antagonist/viewpoint character in this scene?
Phase 3 is for the last drafts of your story. It’s almost ready to send out into the world. This is when giving concrete suggestions are the most valuable. Is the scene successful? What elements are eluding me? Is there a lack of credibility? Problems with grammar, formatting, flow? Are there issues of language/ voice?
This is a wonderful structure for helping a writer along without breaking their heart. Too much constructive criticism at the beginning may seem like an insurmountable blockade. Even though it is well meaning, it can be overwhelming. Start with the general and steadily move to the specific. Makes sense.
Of course, like most things in life, critiquing is not a one size fits all thing. While Lorin outlined this method, we also discussed that not every approach is necessarily for you. For instance, I’ve found that, for my personality, I need a combo of all three phases to help me feel like I’m truly moving forward. On our first pass, we focus more in on Phase 1 and 2 and only touch on 3. (Some things, you just can’t ignore!) After I’ve wrestled with it for awhile, we make another pass and that’s a combo 2 with a heavy dose of 3.
After you decide how and what you need from your critique partners, you may decide that you need help from a professional. There are many wonderful free lance editors and many awful money suckers. Be careful. Do your research. Get references. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lorin Oberweger and I think she’s amazing. She’s supportive and very insightful. That being said, after she suggested I cut two chapters even though they were “extremely well written”, I sent her an email back that looked something like this:
YOU SUCK!!! (Of course, she was 100% correct.)
She just smiles and tells me, “I suck so you don’t have to.”
Do you have critique partners? How do you structure your time with them? What have you found that really works? What doesn’t? Have you worked with a free lance editor before? Were you happy? Chime in and let us know!