If I wanted your opinion, I’d…Oh, wait…

It’s been a wobbly week here in Paradise. I received, in two separate batches, the first sets of anonymous critiques of my opening chapter.

And that’s my post. Thanks for stopping by.

No, seriously. When the critique bundles landed in my e-mail, I scanned for disaster, then perused them without breathing (maybe that’s why I nearly passed out). I set them aside and eliminated 5,000 words from Chapter One. As a start.

A few days on. I reread the critiques. And I smiled. Eight writers saw my work. Eight published authors had criticisms and suggestions–some delivered far more gracefully than others–to make my story cleaner, snappier. Richer.

But I have to admit, I’ve put myself in a bit of a sticky place. I submitted these pages to a group of writers planted within a specific genre of fiction. More than that: a sub-genre of genre fiction. I picked a thematic element of my novel and tossed it to authors who write solely within this genre. The challenge is to extrapolate from a limited definition of story construction–according to a tried-and-true formula and for a specific group of readers–to the larger world of satisfying, engaging reads. And with some exceptions, I think the feedback was spot on. In the days since receiving these critiques, I’ve made enormous changes to my manuscript–not because I accepted everything offered as Gospel, but because I recognized the patterns. There were consistencies between the criticisms. And nothing my gut hadn’t already warned me about.

This morning, while my coffee was hot and my mind was clear, I read the feedback and read it again. Honest. Encouraging. All of it useful advice, even if I choose not to follow it. Here are a few comments I grabbed:

The setting, the writing, the premise, the history, the – everything. I loved it.  

[[none of this is needed. I’m not trying to be harsh. This is publication ready writing. But this scene, while perfectly fine, is NOT moving the story forward.]] 

Your writing is lyrical and highly polished. I recommend that you spend a little more time on the main character’s scene before moving to a different historical time.

…That was a bit confusing. Otherwise, the writing is brilliant.  

…The writing is beautiful, but the distant viewpoint leaves me emotionally distanced from the characters. Good luck—you’ve got lots of talent.

Whenever I’m doing anything related to art (writing, acting, painting, cooking) I think of Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Structure first. What is the main character’s goal, motivation and conflict. Establish those first and then decorate to best underscore the story elements. I believe this story will be fantastic.

In a sweet twist of serendipity, I read William Kenower’s book of essays for writers, Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion, the day before I received the first set of these critiques. He has this to say about facing rejection and criticism:

The world does not want you to fail. The world is forever supplying you with the information needed to do exactly what you want. Whether you accept this information is up to you. But do not fear the information. The only thing to fear is your judgment of that information. When those letters come back, look with friendly eyes upon what the world wishes you to know, and be grateful that you are one letter wiser.

I have so much to learn about storycraft. So much work to do before this novel is ready for a real editor to shred to bits. Mired in my isolation, I’ve had no idea until this week whether what I’ve been working on for the past fifteen months is viable, publishable work. I still don’t know that, but I feel more confident I’m on the right path. I believe the world does not want me to fail.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
—E.L. Doctorow

IMG_1141

The Sun Also Rises. Every Single Day.

Related Posts from wise writers~astute bloggers:

Five Reasons You Should Embrace Rejection Linda Formichelli for copyblogger

Doubt, Fear, False Alarms, and “Giving Birth” To Our Dreams Kristen Lamb

When Writers Face a Constant Climb

81 thoughts on “If I wanted your opinion, I’d…Oh, wait…

  1. You’ve gotten some great comments/feedback from the critics as well as some advice on how to improve some aspects of your writing. And I guess, that’s how it goes .. taking in the not-so-good with the not-so-bad. It’s all in the game.

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  2. Julie, you have inspired me! I am a fledgling writer and one thing I struggle with is having someone to critique me. That’s one reason I joined here. You have a real talent. I look forward to reading more of your work!
    Penny

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    1. Penny, there is no higher honor than to be an inspiration to another writer. Thank you! Go, write, share and take what will help you and motivate you. Leave all the rest. I wish you courage and peace. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

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  3. Will you be working with the same eight people again? I’ve got three long-standing writing friends and we know the birthing pains of each other’s work, which means we can suggest major changes to structure and theme. We’ve also got past the birthing pains of giving each other feedback and receiving it. So hang onto ‘the 8’ if you can, they are worth their weight in gold. SD

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    1. Hi Sandra (beautiful blogs, by the way!),

      No- this was a one-shot experiment. The reviewers are unknown to me and I anonymous to them. I’m taking a local critique group out for a test drive tomorrow- one of my goals this year has been to find a feedback group- so I hope this takes. But I may use this new, in-person group to work on short stories and/or personal essays rather than my novel. The format of the this particular group doesn’t seem like it will lend itself well to long fiction. I’ve got at least one virtual writing buddy who has promised to be an eye and an ear. I’ve just got to find the courage to send out my work to people I know!

      It’s so good to hear your positive experiences. I hope to build the same long-term writing relationships.

      Julie

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  4. As another aspiring novelist of the literary and lyrical variety, I really appreciated this post. I am attending a critique group with other published writers, and the feedback is both invaluable and, at times, difficult to swallow. It’s great to see another writer drawing out the positives from the experience!

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    1. Thank you, Melissa. I’m chuffed!
      I’m entering my first critique group next week- excited, nervous. I think I’m going to toss in some short stories I’ve been working on, rather than saddle them with this behemoth. The Universe Does Not Want Me To Fail is my new mantra.

      All the best to you on your writing journey!

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  5. I look forward to reading your novel. You are brave to send off your efforts for review. I have not got the courage to to do that. I have just published a non-fiction e-book wlthout any collaboration or reviews from anyone. It took me two years of intermittent work. I felt that if asked for comments and reviews from my peers and backed everything up with evidence based research, it would take another ten years,

    I felt what I had to say was too important and could not be delayed that long.

    So I published and my efforts, faults and ignorance are on display for the world to see. But no ones has bought it yet.

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    1. Robert, I think you are brave for having released your work to the world. There is no doubt that the (minimal) feedback I’ve received so far has added weeks, if not months, to my process. Revision is soul-killing in a way- I feel as if I haven’t written anything new in months.

      Sales. Marketing. Aspects of the publishing business of which I’m fully aware and which leave me nauseated. I wish you so much success and not a little luck in bringing the right audience to your book.

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      1. Thank you for your reply. I am not a professional writer. Although I have had articles published in newspapers. Trouble with newspapers is that the editors edit! A weekly essay I submitted to my local newspaper had the title “In Praise of Smoking, Drinking and Obesity.” The first three words of the title were cut. So it seems that no one read it. At least, there were no comment about it the following week!
        I will be submitting copies of my book for review to my peers later this year.

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  6. How wonderful to receive feedback from fellow writers who took the time to read what you wrote, and care about you and your writing! I doubt anyone does well with criticism, especially at first. I mean, our initial reaction is probably, “If I wanted it to say that, then that’s what I would have written.” But you are talented especially since you can see the benefit in these critique. I wish you much success!

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    1. Thank you, Lilly! There is an art to criticism, I am certain. And an art to receiving it well. When it comes via e-mail I can melt down in private, then pick myself up and show the my best face to the world. But I am genuinely grateful for the feedback — I know it’s made me a better writer and my story is stronger for the effort.

      Best wishes to you.

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  7. This is a great post to read for anyone who wants to be published. I hope to write a novel someday, and I know the process will be fantastic and a long journey. As long as you’re confident, keep listening to the critiques you’re given, take these published authors’ advice, and keep trying, you will achieve your goals. Good luck! 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Rebecca! I’m so glad you found meaning and encouragement in my words. I’m so touched and inspired by the support from other writers; considering how much we work in isolation, with so little feedback, the greatest gift we can offer is to cheer from the sidelines. I wish you the greatest success on your writing journey!

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      1. You’re welcome, anytime! I agree that we work independently so much that it can be difficult at times to find feedback. I’m glad that blogging is such a great way for us to break out of our isolation and talk to other writers! 🙂 I wish you the greatest success too!

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  8. Couldn’t be more impressed with this post. Your willingness to put your pride in perspective and accept critique on that level is very admirable. This idea is something everyone can take away and apply to some aspect of their lives. Well done.

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    1. Many, many thanks, Mike. Part of me wants to hide under a blanket and write by the light of a flashlight, never to show my work, never to be reminded that I toil in vain. But I’m a disciple of Priscilla Long, who preaches that work is never finished until it’s sent out into the world. There’s great satisfaction in finishing, even if it drops like a stone. I can turn and walk away at that point, knowing I tried.

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  9. Congratulations – you are a lot farther along than most writers! You are putting one foot in front of the other and getting somewhere. Keep it up! Sounds like excellent feedback. I hope the Freshly Pressed post encourages you in your endeavors.

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      1. I know – especially when another piece that was recently Freshly Pressed was about how writers are competitive and not very supportive of each other. I think it’s a little different in the blogosphere.

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      2. I’ll have to seek out this piece. I’ve attended writers’ conferences and workshops and found only supportive environments from other writers. It’s a rough enough business as it is, without tearing each other down!

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  10. I sympathize with your excitement in receiving your letters. Personally, I usually don’t like criticism. I know I need it, I just don’t like it. Afterwards, I always know when something needed fixing, but the process feels like I’m drowning. It’s something I’m working on.

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    1. It’s so hard, isn’t it? We want affirmation that we’re on the right path, we need feedback on how we can improve. I believe our work is not finished until we release it into the world, but the cost can be so high.
      What I know is that I am a better writer, or at least have improved my story, based on the the small amount of feedback I’ve received. Even the act of rejecting some of the suggestions and remaining true to my intent, my voice, has made me stronger. Keep on, Susannah!

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  11. ““Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    I would say writing can be more like cycling: You are not always protected by car walls, you are more vulnerable to the weather, people see you unprotected as you tell your story.

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    1. Jean, as a cyclist I think that’s a brilliant analogy. Yes, we are so vulnerable, so exposed, sometimes moving at an alarming, exhilarating pace, sometimes limping along the side of the road. But would we want it any other way? Peace and awesome writing mojo to you!

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  12. No matter what I write, the editing process usually involves deleting almost half of what I wrote. So much is redundant, or irreverent to the ideas I’m trying to express. The problem then is that I start out with War and Peace and end up with The Old Man and the Sea. Asking for advice from people is usually painful, even if I really want it I always say “give me your honest opinion” while desperately hoping their honest opinion is that I’m the greatest writer of all time, and since it never goes this way there’s always a little pointed pain with every comment that lets me know I, and my writing, am not yet perfect, that there is still work to be done despite all the effort already put forth.

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    1. Beautifully stated and so true. Now matter how thick our skin, we ARE our work and even gentle criticism stings. I wish you courage on your writing journey, and faith that you are doing what you are meant to.

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  13. One of the things I have struggled with internally with respect to editing is that I certainly would like constructive criticism and to improve but I also do not want individuals to attempt to change my writing style.

    Writing is subjective which is a good thing. I would rather have people like my writing for style for what it is and if they don’t – that is okay too. But at least if my writing didn’t resonate with that individual it was on my own merits.

    I wish you continued luck and success in your journey.

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    1. Jarrod, I wrestle with this, too. Some of the feedback I’ve received is aimed straight at the heart of my voice, criticizing my style as too distant, formal and lyrical (in the WIP I’m working on). I’m trying to balance my voice–which is who I am as a writer, right?!–with my objective in this novel, which aims to be an accessible bit of commercial fiction. I have to consider the audience which delivered the critiques, consider my prospective readers, and figure out how to remain true to myself.

      At 3:00 a.m. it all seems hopeless. At noon, when I can talk with and read the wisdom of other writers, I know it’s all going to be okay.

      And I rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Hope. Dream.

      My wishes for your success as well! Thank you so much for your comments and encouragement.

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      1. You are certainly welcome, and in turn, I thank you for your well wishes.

        The editorial process can be difficult because you are at the mercy of those individuals. If they subjectively don’t find your work appealing, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a good writer. I regularly read blogs and pieces that don’t resonate with me. It doesn’t mean those individuals are not talented but for whatever reason, our styles didn’t jive and that is okay.

        And, as emotional creatures, we all take a bit of a hit to our pride, no matter how strong we are, when we are basically told, or made to feel, our work isn’t good enough. My best advice would to always be true to yourself – in writing, love, relationships, and everything. I truly feel that no matter what happens in life, once we are no longer true to ourselves and turn our back on who we are, only then, have we lost everything.

        I’m going to check out more of your blog. And, again, I hope you will continue to follow your dream.

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      1. Damning with faint praise! AH, my book. I have my 30-word elevator pitch around here someplace 😉 It’s set in modern day and 13th century Languedoc, some thrills, some chills, a little wine, good scenery!

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      2. I think you’re about twelve words short on your pitch, but E.B. White would appreciate that. You had me at thrills and chills. What does your query letter look like? Mine is … eh. I keep trying to stick a different knife into the same wound. I try to support every writer I meet, and I have some downtime before draft three of my novel, so if you want another unbiased opinion of your book, let me know.

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      3. What a generous offer, David- thank you! I’m still in the throes of rewrites-seems like no matter where I put my foot, I fall into a plot hole.
        I pitched at a conference last month (2 pitches, 2 manuscript requests!) and I think I will use most of that pitch (two-minute version) as my query. I’m assembling a book proposal (marketing plan, platform, market analysis, synopsis, etc.) and the query/cover letter will be the last thing I wrap up, though it’s pretty well in hand if I hold to my pitch. Just playin’ the game.

        How much time do you let things sit and simmer in between drafts?

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      4. About six weeks in-between one and two, then maybe a month before the third.. I entered my first ten pages into a Writer’s Digest boot camp and got mixed reviews from the agent (great dialogue, strong characters, but something is off with the dynamic between two of my characters). Not that that deters me. I think I wrote a really strong book.
        How many rewrites have you done? I’ve ruined some of my best writing by being too analytical of myself.

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      5. I’m fuzzy with the numbers- I have some scenes with 6 drafts, other with three, and I’m still plugging in new ones-I’m closing in on first complete draft, but I’d say I’m in rewrite three…? I haven’t taken any time between drafts, but plan to give it several months once I feel like I’m really, truly done with the story arc. I write in Scrivener, so everything is saved. I’ve rescued some (I think) great stuff from the cutting room floor and plugged it in other scenes. I hate to think you’ve ruined anything wonderful. Kill Your Darlings, but don’t bury them too deeply!! Resurrection is mine, sayeth the Writer.

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      6. The first novel I wrote was a ghost story that should’ve stayed dead. This book is kind of Joe Dirt Meets The Notebook. I’m happy with it–I think it’s “just right” writing, and there’s some heavy, emotional stuff in it I didn’t even know I was capable of: a brutal honesty that excites me, moving forward to the next novel. I’ve written three versions of my opening. I like the first one the best, but I’m not sure it will help me sell my book. I tried to join some local writing group, but it was just a bunch of fifty-year olds trying to get laid using words no one has spoken in a century. One woman was riding a yak in her profile picture. If you ever have some free time, I could use some advice on my query letter.

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  14. What great feedback! I’m so impressed. To be told that you write beautifully, is as far as I am concerned, the whole point. Their suggestions sound minor and do-able. Obviously OBVIOUSLY they thought it was really, really good. I am not surprised, of course, but am so happy for you. Well done you.

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    1. Dear Margaret. Thank you.

      Truth be told, another one of the comments was: “Don’t let the writing become more important than the story.” I don’t quite know what to do with that. It’s one of those (beware, mixed metaphors and clichés ahead!!) sticky wickets where I feel like I’m trying to shove the square peg my lyrical, literary style into the round hole of commercial, plot-driven, genre fiction. I *think* I can make it work, but perhaps not for as narrow a focus as this sub-genre.

      But I love to read good stories. Full stop. So I feel my obligation to THIS story is to make it a good one. Just trying to figure out how. Oy vey.

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      1. I know just what you mean. This is a tough one. To translate it away from “don’t” maybe it means “Tell the story, let the writing take care of itself.” It is a good challenge, however you look at it.

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      2. Maybe you should read or re-read Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I read it reluctantly last year when I had run out of books to read but was so refreshed. To me, the writing was not more important than the story. The story seemed to tell itself without too much lyricism. Hope this helps and good luck! I admire you.

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      3. Hello Alice! Thank you for the recommendation. Capote is amazing, but I’ve not read Tiffany’s – it goes on the list. I’m working to find the balance between my natural inclinations and preferences as a reader and writer for a literary, lyrical style and what I know is a better fit for a more commercial story, which is what I’m writing (attempting, anyway). Many of my favorite authors make it look so easy!

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      4. I know right, but often it is best to follow your heart, as your vision is always true and never waivers. If you are trying to fit yourself to another person’s vision, it is sometimes difficult to find your way back to the track when you deviate as you are not even really sure what or where the track is. anyway, best wishes, and I look forward to reading your book! maybe you could publish excerpts?

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      5. Hi Julie, maybe you could consider having another blog site under a pen name that you use to release the excerpts, then you would get impartial comments? I have been thinking of doing same, as sometimes I want to write about personal stuff that is not appropriate for my current blog… just a thought. Anyway, let me know how you go. I will follow with interest!

        Kind regards

        Alice

        Alice Tamani

        Phone +679 9438344 l Email alicevstokes@gmail.com l Web http://alicevstokes.wordpress.com/

        Facebook CleanUpFijiProtectingParadise l Twitter @cleanupfji

        Mail AH&P, PO Box 77, Nausori, Fiji Islands

        Like

      6. YES! And thank you for your generous spirit! I purchased a domain name when I first started the novel and it’s sat there for 14 months, waiting for me to a) have something to put in it b) have the courage to put something in it. And, if this book is going to be a go, I also want to have to site done up professionally and that’s going to take some cash money and time and the right person with the right eye/vision. I’m a Virgo. It’s all got to be perfect the first time out. 😉

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  15. Julie what a brave and courageous thing you have done, sending a part of yourself, a piece of your heart, away, flung outward bound from the safety of your password protected lap top, your own inner sanctum, sanctaury of the secrets til now known only to one.
    I always find that it is only on the third or fourth re-reading that I can begin even to see beyond the (well meant) criticism. Each no like a dagger to my oh so sensitive soul. Time passes, and the egoic wounds heal, or at least the plasters stay in place a bit longer than before, and another part of my mind begins to open it’s window just a little, just enough to let a butterfly of hope flutter in.
    In some ways it’s not until we actually send our work out to be read by another that we can begin to even imagine ourselves as ‘writers’ and ‘authors’, those beings who inhabit a realm which both seduces and terrifies us!
    And no, the world does not want you to fail.

    Like

    1. Hello my dear friend,

      I’ve had an e-mail to you in my draft box for months, trying to answer the question, “How do you cope with your inner demons?” These past months have been one long exercise in coping and I’m still not certain if I know how.

      I’m used to the vacant rejection that comes from literary mags-“Thanks for letting us read your story “*” We won’t be accepting it at this time.” Those are easy to send straight to the delete box with hardly a backward glance. But to receive real feedback, youch. It’s funny what perspective/time can do. At first glance, some of the comments were soul-crushing. Now they just feel like…comments!

      I love the “butterfly of hope” – that what it feels like- just a whisper of possibility, a caress of potential.

      So, so good to hear from you. Warm embraces from one island to another!

      Like

  16. No Julie the world does not want you to fail ever! It is both a curse and a gift to receive feedback on a novel – after all these manuscripts are our fears, our dreams and a lot of who we are. But I am thrilled that you are one step closer to eventually seeing this story fly. It also takes courage to show another writer your work – so well done!
    Go You!!
    Wishing you the best that inspiration and motivation can give you with the next step of your novel’s journey.
    Hugs
    Kim

    Liked by 1 person

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