Apparently, I’m both a better and worse writer than I always thought.
It’s been pretty much a full year since I started my critique group, and the time I’ve spend working with my CPs has been full of revelations about myself as a writer.
I’ve previously written about how what was once my worst writing trait—my prose, rife with irredeemably run-on sentences—has since become the best asset of my work.
But in writing, as in all things, with each new level comes a new devil. Now that people can actually read my sentences and comprehend my meaning, I’ve spent a whole year working on all my other writing flaws. Specifically, through the critique of my WIP, I’ve learned the following:
1) Stories are about people, not ideas
Characters drive the plot, not the other way around. In some parts of my WIP, I was allowing the needs of the plot to dictate characters’ behaviour, regardless of their existing traits and motivations (when I bothered to give them traits and motivations at all).
In order for my desired plot to work, I came to discover, I needed to work backward to develop the sort of characters whose actions would convincingly culminate in that specific outcome.
2) Show, don’t tell
This is one of the most pervasive pieces of writing advice that everyone has heard but not everyone actually knows how to apply. Basically, it amounts to the idea that readers don’t want to be spoon-fed the story and its significance; they want to experience and interpret it for themselves.
I was pulled up on both the micro and macro levels of telling vs. showing by my CPs in my WIP:
2a) Once more, with feeling
At the micro level of “show, don’t tell”, according to Peter Selgin, a writer and past contributor to the blog of publishing industry professional Jane Friedman, “Adjectives aren’t descriptions; they’re opinions.”
In my WIP, I was doing well enough with this—for example, rather than telling the reader a character is unhappy, I’d have them do something to demonstrate this unhappiness.
However, I learned I wasn’t always showing characters’ emotions strongly enough—in particular, that it wasn’t always clear how my main character was feeling because her emotional beats were either too ambiguous, too external (rather than visceral internal responses of the body), or absent altogether.
2b) Events in real time
At the macro level of “show, don’t tell”, I learned that readers want to see the action of (and varied reactions to) the events of a story in real time rather than being told about them.
Especially when it came to major, plot advancing events, I was often weakening my story (and the reader’s engagement), by presenting them in a summary rather than dramatizing them in a scene.
3) Readers don’t need to know all the details/backstory
As a writer of historical fiction, I can very easily write my way down a historical rabbit hole because the story setting, the ethos, and the societal norms and mores are so different from the mainstream.
According to British author L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I really want the reader to feel this foreignness—to see it in their mind’s eye, and to feel that this is just a moment in time with decades worth of character and societal history behind it.
But save the most pertinent details to what’s happening at that very moment in the story, I’ve come to realize, most of the details and backstory can be cut since readers will likely skip it anyway—if they continue reading at all (ESPECIALLY if it’s presented as a dreaded infodump).
4) It takes fewer events than you think to tell a story
Part of the reason I was summarizing some of the story events under lesson #2b is because I had too damn many events, and I was trying to keep my word count under control.
To remedy this, I learned to eliminate events that did nothing to further the plot, to eliminate those that were needless repetitions of others, and to combine some of what remained so that they presented more than one point of significance to the story.
5) Don’t rush the story
This also ties in with #2b. Part of the reason I was summarizing certain events is because:
a) I hadn’t fully thought through what was actually happening to have a clear enough sense of how to show it,
b) I was rushing to get to the good parts.
This latter reason, while correct in the sense of not lingering on the dull connective tissue of a story, is also something of a flawed premise. Any part that isn’t “good”, or otherwise can’t be made “good” as appropriate for its function in the story, probably doesn’t need to be there.
6) Pacing is essential (“Don’t rush”, redux)
This too operates on a micro and macro level—the pacing of individual scenes and the arc of the entire story as a whole—and it was at the micro level where I was having the biggest problems. Some events were far too short for their significance to the story (see lesson #5) and some went much longer than they needed to (see lesson #3).
7) Tell a story, not your research
This ties in with #3, and really just goes without saying. However much I may have suffered for my Art through the 20+ reference books I’ve read, that is my cross to bear on my own rather than making the reader suffer along with me.
Readers are here for entertainment, not a history lecture. Having CPs was invaluable in helping me recognize which research was strictly necessary and which was self-indulgent filler.
Everything I’ve learned through working with my critique group was a basic element of writing craft that I’d already known on an intellectual level for years.
Of course, the practical application of one’s intellectual knowledge is an entirely different story, no pun intended.
I see now that over the past year, I’ve learn/re-learned how to write altogether since all my writing faults and lessons are interconnected. Just like the events of a story itself.
What key writing flaws have you overcome?
(Image source #1 and #2)
5 thoughts on “Learning by Doing (Over): Even More Thoughts on Having My Novel Critiqued”
I had some trouble originally with telling stories in third person, my preferred form, and staying solidly in the pov of the character. When I realized that, I sought books and blog posts on pov – until it became internalized how to get the effect I want, which I describe as being the character, and seeing life from right behind their eyeballs. Which is sort of like first person, but not as jarring if you have more than one pov character.
Structurally, I also started with three main pov characters, and, so I would have a way of commenting on each from the ‘outside,’ I picked the ‘best’ person for each main character to be that sidekick/nemesis/friend. When I realized that six is way too many characters to get really close to, I reluctantly dumped the extras, and had to figure out stronger (and much shorter) ways to keep what was necessary to the story from the extra three. It turned out to be easier and richer than I expected, and just what I needed. With three, I have a line in my written process file which says, ‘Become THIS character,’ and I go quickly to the place where I write each from (a part of me), and the rest flows.
And all the things you mentioned.
And to watch for a tendency to mistype short words. It for is or in, do or so or to for each other, have been surprisingly difficult to catch on proofreading – and the trick that works best there is to have the Mac read me my actual text. Nothing like hearing ‘it in’ instead of ‘it is’ to catch it, because they are very different words, and the robot voice knows no context.
My beta reader would occasionally catch one of those – until I found the trick – because she hadn’t written the words. In my defense, she usually said that she didn’t catch it on the first reading!
It took me so long to write the first book (15 years from idea to publication) because I had to learn to write well enough not to cringe at my own work. I hope it takes you far less to reproduce the story in your head on the page.
I’m a chronic mistyper of short words! I also use a text-to-speech program to catch these (and also just to hear the flow of my sentences).
I’m always in awe of writers who go in for the multiple POVs from the get-go. I’ve never done it before but will have three POVs in my next novel. I like the idea of you having a different place inside of yourself from which each character emerges; this is good advice, and I can already think of two parts of myself where two of the three can come from.
My WIP is in first person, which I originally struggled with. Like you, I studied up on it (novels and craft books) and have since been told I do it well.
First person is different, in my mind, from narrator. It has much to offer.
EVERYTHING is a struggle when you start!
I thought I would certainly know it all simply from having read so much.
But each thing you learn is easier the next time, and there really is a diminishing list of things you need to learn, at least for the WIP, after a while – there is only so much craft, and the art becomes second nature.
I like your honest critiques of your writing! You’re braver than me: I’m still in academic writing mode, where all things explanatory are perfectly acceptable .
Being honest with myself about my writing is the only way to brace myself for when others are honest with me too!
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