Thoughts on Having My Novel Critiqued

Fourth (left) and partial sixth (right) drafts of my WIP

It’s the worst feeling in the world.

The end.

But of course that’s not the end at all.  Indeed, the realization of how wretched having your work critiqued can be is only just the beginning of a new stage of your writing journey.

~

I’ve written before about my efforts in starting a critique group.  This in itself was something of an epic undertaking. (Who’d have thought finding a day and time where three adults could meet in person would prove so difficult?)

But as of now, my little group comprised of a rando from the internet who happens to live down the street from me, and a long-time friend who I browbeat into joining before she felt ready, has been operating nonstop since November.

This marks a chapter of my writing life that I’ve never experienced before, that of leaving my lonely writing garret to seek feedback from other knowledgeable writers.  This new experience has yielded a few key thoughts along the way:

1) I wasn’t ready

In terms of material output, I was definitely ready. I had completed multiple drafts of my WIP.

I’d completed a scene analysis for my entire novel (all 109 scenes).

I’d determined the external and internal goals of all the major characters.

I even had a solid query letter on account of some agent feedback I won as part of a charity auction.

When it came to words on the screen (and on paper), I was definitely ready.

And yet, mentally, even though I thought I was prepared to receive feedback on my work, I had no idea how largely impossible it was to prepare for this unknown unknown.

I had no idea about the emotional toll the process would have on me.  How stressful I would find it waiting for my feedback each week, how it would slowly start to wear me down.

I had no idea how susceptible I was to the feeling of being judged, since it’s largely not something I give into in all other aspects of my life.

And most importantly, I had no idea how unprepared I was for the idea that my CPs (critique partners) might have negative things to say about my writing.  That is to say, how overconfident I was that my work was basically perfect, and that the only changes my CPs would recommend would be cosmetic ones.

2) I was over-prepared

Despite having been prepared in the amount of rewriting I’d done on my own, one of my biggest takeaways from this process is how much sooner I probably could have initiated it.

Hard copies of drafts 1 (bottom) to 4 (top)

I completed three whole drafts of my WIP long before I even thought about forming a critique group, and then another one in preparation for the start of the group.

One of these drafts (#2) was a necessary rewrite, while I did a lot of work improving my sentence structure and reducing infodumping in drafts 3 and 4.

Yet, what I’ve since come to realize through my CPs’ feedback is that I spent a lot of time rehashing and reshaping large portions of my novel that ultimately ended up trashed.

In as much as writing, like prayer, is never wasted, this amounts to a lot of lost time and words.

This could have been prevented had I sought out someone to read an earlier, rougher draft for structural feedback rather than being too hung up on producing a “perfect” (there’s that word again) interim product.

3) It hurts less later

Receiving negative feedback hurts; there’s no two ways about it.

Even for the most stolid person who is thoroughly prepared to endure others finding fault with their work (which I thoroughly was not), I can’t imagine any situation in which negative feedback on something that comes from such an intensely personal part of yourself can feel any way but terrible.

That said, I’d long heard that the sting of negative feedback is lessened with time and distance, and I’ve found this to be true.

After reading my CPs’ comments and running the initial spectrum of thoughts and emotions in response, putting the feedback away and forgetting about it for a few weeks, if possible, has really helped make it feel less personal.

It makes it feel more like an assessment of the work and what it’s struggling to accomplish rather than an assessment and judgement of you as a person.

But this emotional spectrum of having one’s writing critiqued is a fertile topic worthy of a forthcoming blog post of its own.

4) Writing in a circle

Being critiqued necessarily changes the way you think about your writing.  Beyond that, though, I find it’s also changed the way I write itself.

Chart of my revision progress showing pre-CP draft (lower squares) and post-CP draft (upper triangles) drafts, as well as non-sequential revision of part of Act I (lower triangles 1-5) and part of Act II (yellow squares)

As writers, we often adopt a writing identity: plotter, pantser, early-morning writer, sequential writer, genre writer.  On top of that, we often view these identities as immutable.

I was no different in having placed myself firmly in my writing box: plotter, night-writer, writes every day, writes sequentially.  However the process of submitting chapters to my group weekly for feedback has done away with much of that.

Because negative feedback is the worst feeling ever, I do what I can to minimize more of it in the future by applying the lessons I’ve learned in each subsequent chapter that I submit.  Which means that I’m constantly working ahead to revise (re-revise) the next chapter.

At the same time, once the sting has been removed from the earlier negative feedback, I find myself anxious to work with it, and have since gone back to the beginning to give it all another go-over.

This essentially amounts to working on two different drafts at the same time, one pre-CP (Draft 5) and one post-CP (Draft 6).

And that’s not even getting into how I’m writing a whole new first half of Act II, completely out of sequence from the first act, which I plan to go over yet again in order to shorten it.  But let’s not talk about that.

5) New writing is the ultimate painkiller

Actually, let’s talk about it.

One problem with my WIP that my CPs expressed is that a portion of its middle is too rushed—that I tried to cram too much into too short a space.

With the emmetropia that comes with hindsight, I see that they’re correct, and that some revision is in order, including the rewriting of two chapters and the addition of up to four new ones.

Initially, I was NOT happy to receive this feedback, and especially not happy to have to draft new chapters when I’ve been in revision mode for so long.  Drafting and revision make use of two entirely different sets of creative muscles, and it’s not easy to switch back and forth between the two, at least for me.

Or so I thought.  Currently in the midst of roughing out these new chapters, there’s a certain liberation—a certain rejuvenation—in once again being able to just write, without thought of how the words will be received.

Those concerns come later in the writing process.  Albeit not as late as before I ever embarked upon this journey with my critique group, which I suspect has changed the way I write irrevocably.

For besides just the voices of my characters in my head, I now occasionally hear those of my CPs as well, speaking against those aspects of my writing style that they’re uniquely biased against, and also against my inarguable writing flaws that I previously didn’t know I had.

But that too—the subject of writing flaws I didn’t even know I possessed—is yet another one for a later blog post.

What have you learned from having your work critiqued?

(Images: J.G. Noelle)

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Having My Novel Critiqued

  1. I feel your pain: critique of your writing has to feel like criticism of your very self. It did for me.

    Use it to identify things you still need to learn to do. People who read may point out pieces that confuse THEM, or that they think sound WRONG. But I think it’s a mistake to let them suggest how to ‘fix’ anything. Have fun with it.

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    • I definitely appreciate the opportunity to see my work through other people’s eyes. I view it as collecting data points to help me better evaluate the quality of my work. I tell my CPs that they can suggest anything they want, but it will always remain just that – a suggestion, not a requirement. I don’t always get on board with specific suggestions even if I agree with the underlying reason for them. Although I have also had it where a CP makes a suggestion and I totally connect with it. It’s a constant process of picking what works for me and leaving all the rest.

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  2. I remember when I first entered the world of getting my work critiqued. It was, as you say, such a painful thing. However, as time goes by, I start to believe more how critical feedback is. Sometimes I won’t take all the feedback on board, but a lot of it guides my story to the right place.

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    • I believe that getting feedback is essential in any pursuit – that it’s impossible to grow and improve without it. Like you, I don’t always take all the feedback, but there’s real value in seeing your work the way someone else see it, and sometimes just having that input can take you in newer, better directions all on your own.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sure you’ve thought all this through already, but … please keep in mind that two readers is a statistically meaningless sample. The next two readers might think your novel perfect as is. I mean, even for bestsellers on Amazon, 3% to 5% of reviewers give one star.

    Typos and plot holes are one thing, but if you told the story you wanted to tell using the voice that feels right to you, I would hope you don’t lose sight of that in response to criticism. By chasing criticism too earnestly, you could end up with a manuscript that isn’t what you intended.

    As you know, I don’t write lengthy, detail-intensive paragraphs. A few people have told me they thought my book was too break-neck in pacing and wished I would have slowed it down and let it breathe. Others have set they loved how relentless it was and how that made it hard to put down. With apologies to people who prefer a text rich in details, my next one is also going to be fast paced and be built from short paragraphs. It’s my voice.

    I feel like I’m way past the saturation point in terms of absorbing any more writing advice, and maybe you are too. So … take my comment for what it’s worth (i.e., probably nothing), but I think the best thing a writer can do for herself is write confidently and be sure of her voice. If some reader or another prefers a different style, c’est la vie.

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    • Hello my friend! Nice to hear from you; your comments are always worth something to me.

      You’re definitely right that a pair of CPs don’t make for a statistically significant sample size. What they do offer, though, is two extra pairs of eyes, which are nonetheless useful. It’s not unlike when you misplace your keys and bring in others to help you search – you’re able to both cover more ground and to benefit from an outside perspective who holds no attachment to any of the places where your keys are normally found.

      In general, I’m a firm believer in the power of teamwork, collaboration, and feedback – in all disciplines and pursuits. I think I’ve mentioned before how all my life I’ve felt like I don’t quite interpret and relate to the world the way the majority of people do, so I’ve long relied on the input of others to determine how I’m tracking with the mainstream, and to ensure I haven’t strayed too far out there. Plus, it really is great having colleagues to just bounce ideas off of.

      That said, I definitely recognize that the opinions of others are just that – opinions, to take or leave as I see fit. I pay less attention to specific suggestions than to the rationales for them that my CPs offer. Sometimes this can be a real vein of gold, such as one CP who said she felt I wasn’t including enough emotion in my writing. I really connected with that feedback in my gut, and have been making changes on my own to address the issue. Other times, such as with my CP who I know is only sort of tolerating my detail-rich writing style, most advice to change it isn’t something I’m prepared to accept, although I’m open to looking again to ensure I didn’t go overboard in specific instances.

      All this to say that I don’t at all feel like I’m losing sight of my story and my voice, but rather that both are becoming clearer, to me as the writer and in the text itself. It’s all been very rewarding thus far.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I can totally identity with a lot of the things you pointed out in #4, that engaging in the writing process can change how you write and thus in turn affect who you are going forward. I’ve been recently grappling with how I’m not the writer I once thought I was, in terms of process or subject matter or even discipline, and coming to terms with it. It’s actually kind of exhilarating to reflect in hindsight how you have moved out a defined box (I am this kind of writer, this is how I work) to go off in new directions. It’s also a little scary, but that’s ok.

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    • Both exhilarating and scary are excellent ways to describe it. There is comfort in being inside our writing box yet, as in all things, growth and progress comes from pushing the boundaries, and pushing ourselves. Now that actually started writing in entirely different ways that I never thought I would do, there is no telling what my future process might look like. The sky truly is the limit when you remain open to unknown possibilities.

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  5. As an academic writer I look to outsider critiques as my personal editing system, and I’ve become happy about submitting my work to the eyes of others. I use it as a drafting tool, where even when I think something is finished, their critical gaze will identify lots of wrongs I simply hadn’t noticed. I’m not sure whether it would translate to my fiction work, but boy I love being critiqued for my academic work!

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    • I feel pretty much the same way about getting my fiction critiqued – all save the part about loving it, lol. I’d say I have a love-hate for getting my fiction critiqued. At the start of each week, I send out my chapter to my CPs and by the end of the week I’m chewing my nails with worry about what the feedback with be.

      It’s not even really a rational worry. Really, it means nothing other than the fact that some things need fixing, which I fix and that is that. There’s nothing life or death about it. Yet that initial sting of negative feedback can be so tough to take in the moment. I honestly believe that coming to terms with that feeling – being able to feel it without being defined by it – is the most important skill that any writer, fiction or nonfiction, must acquire.

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