Be Careful what you wish for: Manuscript Critique Part Two

Willamette-Writers2Last week, I talked about my meeting with author Alex Hughes at the Willamette Writer’s Conference. It left me crushed and questioning my calling to the young adult fantasy genre.

This wasn’t the first, last, or only critique of my manuscript. I’ve mentioned my wonderful beta readers before. They gave me something similar to a critique.

Of course, none of these people have anything on my friend and fellow writer, Becky Bean. We attended the writing conference together and she volunteered to take a look at the first fifty pages of my novel before I sent it to the agent.

When the email including the critiqued pages begins like this: “Love the story, love the setting, love the way you play with the absence of words, rather than overstating it.”

Every writer’s dream, right? She lulled me into believing I’d finally found a true believer. After all, what could she possibly say to negate all the “love” she just spilled on me?

“The story’s kick-ass – the exact thing I would have devoured in high school.” It sounds like another compliment of the highest order, right?

Top three pages - the other 18 look just as lovely
Top three pages – the other 18 look just as lovely

Or not. Don’t get me wrong, I believe Becky believes all these things about my story. She also knows that pumping me up with lots of happiness isn’t going to improve my story. And I appreciate her for being strong when she sliced the story apart.

Reasons we need other people to read our stories:

  • We know the background and what we’re trying to say. We think we put the important bits into words on the page. Readers can read it and be totally lost. Someone has to find where missing information keeps the reader from suspending disbelief.
  • The character is shouting inside our mind. We’re transcribing the conversation. Sometimes we miss a few essential phrases. Someone needs to tell us when something makes no sense or seems out of place.
  • We know what will happen next. We need to foreshadow the important events, at least in subtle ways. Someone must tell us when something came “out of the blue” and fell flat.
  • Our setting is as clear in our mind as our kitchen is to our eyes. We’ve heard we shouldn’t over-describe, so we include only the barest essentials. Sometimes we leave out something the reader needs to fully visualize the scene.
  • Our description or introspection or exposition can go too far. Or it can fall short of making our message clear. Someone needs to tell us when things are overdone or unclear.

I wouldn’t suggest handing your manuscript to someone whose writing you didn’t know and respect. After all, if they can’t formulate a decent story, how can they help you?

Becky’s writing voice is authentic and her style is hilarious. She’s an avid reader of fantasy. In addition to all that, I know she wants to help me get my work published.

Did I agree with everything she said? Let me answer that this way: Do I agree with anyone on the planet 100 percent of the time? No. There’s your answer.

When the things she said lined up with the first critique, I had to consider them. I didn’t want to make some of the changes. It wasn’t true to my original idea. So, do I let it ride and risk the rejection letter? Or do I stop my whining and buckle in for the long haul?

What’s your experience with having people you know critique your writing? Do you feel a stranger has enough distance to do a better job?

12 thoughts on “Be Careful what you wish for: Manuscript Critique Part Two

  1. My book is not to the point where I’d share it with anyone, but I do have an editor for my blog posts: my husband. His eyes show me all the things you mentioned above, just in a much small format. And I know the “professionals” caution us against having loved ones critique our work, but he’s excellent because he tells me what he really thinks. I’ve made it clear that this is one situation where he cannot worry about making me angry or upsetting me. So far, so good! I’ll still cast a wider, deeper net when it comes to my novel(s), though.

    1. I’m glad your husband is able to help you with editing. Also, a blog post or article is a small enough sample of writing that someone with a good understanding of written English can help smooth out the rough parts. A novel is a different beast.
      My husband barely understands how to form a complete sentence so he thinks everything I write is amazing. Yeah – not helpful. Both my sister and my cousin have been helpful editors in the past, but they don’t understand the deep issues of structure and genre that I really need for my novels.

  2. My betas catch a lot of things I missed: plot holes, scene issues, lack of character depth. I am thankful for their honesty and I try to give the same when I critique/beta read. Sometimes I come across a little gruff, but sometimes you just have to say it like it is and not sugar coat it. I’d rather hear it from my beta/critique partner than from an agent or publisher.

    1. I think I may need to cast my net wider for my next beta reading assignment (November or December). Do you think you’ll be available?
      Someone can be gruff and honest without being cutting and cruel. Like my friend Becky. I can’t imagine you as intentionally ripping into someone.

  3. So far, I’ve had mixed experiences with critiques. My betas have done wonders catching the grammatical errors, but I’ve had to go to a professional editor to get the switch on the backside for finding (and using) the redundancy button a little… OK, a LOT … too much.

    I’ve told my beta readers to flag anything they don’t understand. Sadly, most of them are in genre, so they tend to gloss over any plot holes using their previous knowledge to fill it in. On the second book, I think I’ve managed to find a gem. A cross genre reader, who typically avoids fantasy like the plague. We’ve talked a little, and while I don’t explain things, unless it was something set up in Book 1, she’s brought up a couple of points now that will need to be checked.

    However, the work on book 1 is still under debate. I’ve started getting sales (minuscule, but still sales) and some absolutely glowing reviews. I’m hoping a few minor revisions will fix the redundancy issues, and then I can try the beta reads again. Getting the harsh/brutal truth from a beta reader saves me from a huge headache of trying to update and the finding the purchasers of the not-quite-finished manuscript to get them a proper version.

    1. I think using a mix of both writers and readers is the best way to get sound feedback from betas that will cover all the aspects – writing problems and reading-related issues. However, I purposely chose readers I knew where somewhat picky about what they “liked.” Both of the writers who read it weren’t from my genre, and I think that was a plus.
      I recently had a great experience with an editor, and I don’t think I would self-publish without paying a professional to go through my manuscript first.
      Good luck with the changes and your second manuscript. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. The revisions got slightly side tracked by NaNo, but are now underway. So far, I’ve finished the first chapter, and am mulling over an issue in the second. I’ll admit I broke many of the “rules” when this went together, which is part of where the issues lie, and what’s making the revision so slow.

    Thanks for the reply, and I love your blog. Slowly working my way through it.

    1. You love my blog? That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in weeks.
      I hope you find a modicum of encouragement here to keep writing and revising and editing and submitting. You know, to do the thing we writers do.

      1. Anything that offers advice to a wet-behind-the-ears author is something to love. Even if I do tend to throw the rules out the window on a regular occasion.

        Thanks for putting your blog/thoughts out here for others to find. I’m still working through it, but what I’ve found so far has helped keep me moving in the right direction (I hope.)

        Onward, and upward, right?

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