I write this blog about wherever I am or whatever I’m working on or worrying about on my writing each week. This week, I just finished critiquing a friend’s manuscript, so that’s what’s on my mind–the art of critiquing.
I swear, every time I read one of this friend’s books, it’s better than the last one. That makes going through her pages a pleasure. I gave her the marked-up manuscript today, because soon, another friend will give me a manuscript to go through. She’s a fast writer, like I am, but I always look forward to getting her pages. I love her voice, her characters, her story lines. What can I say? I usually enjoy the manuscripts my friends give me as much or more than any books I buy–not because I’m prejudiced–but because we’ve all worked so hard to become the best writers we can be. That said, though, I’m going to try to sneak in reading a book my brother-in-law sent me, just for the fun of it, because it looks so different than my usual reads–SWAMPLANDIA, by Karen Russell. I read a few opening pages, and it feels offbeat enough to be a winner.
I have four people I trade manuscripts with, and that’s enough. Any more feedback would be too much. It would confuse me. And critiquing for four friends keeps me plenty busy, especially if I want any fun reading time. Each of my friends is strong in a different area, both in critiquing and in their writing. My daughter nails me on characters. Paula tells me when I’m being too “nice.” She looks for grit and depth, tells me to push my protagonists harder. Ann S has a knack for noticing little details and marks them all. And Mary Lou marks everything–like I do: word choice, verb tense, timing, pacing, inconsistencies, and the dreaded repetition. Each of us takes care to mark sections we like, as well as sections that confused us or slowed us down. We tend to draw happy faces at paragraphs that made us chuckle.
I value each and every one of my critique partners. When I’ve fixed the changes they’ve marked, I know my manuscript has to be in decent shape. That doesn’t mean that every reader is going to love it. I learned that truth a long time ago. You can’t win them all. Some readers are a lot harder on manuscripts than editors are. But after I’ve finished my critique partners’ comments, I feel that my story’s ready to send out into the world.
I used to think a day would come when all of the lessons I’ve learned along the way would coalesce and every word I put to paper would be a gem, that I’d be self-reliant. I know better now. Yes, I write pretty clean. Yes, I plot so much, the story flows pretty well. But every writer’s too close to her own work. In our minds, we’ve given all the information a reader needs to understand a scene or subplot or a character’s motivation, but just because that info’s floating around inside our heads doesn’t mean it’s made it to the pages. And that’s when a critique partner saves you.