The Under Ground Writing Project

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Seven Steps to Surviving a Novel Critique

Posted by Ali on November 8, 2012 at 6:35 PM

So, you're about to get your novel critiqued by a big group of people. Take a deep breath and chill out, it's going to be fine. No, really, I promise. The first thing to keep in mind is that a novel is long and you have a lot of people offering feedback. Add the two up and that means you're going to get a LOT of criticism. Don't be scared. Embrace this. Because the only reason you're getting the criticism is because your writing group actually cares about making your novel better. With that in mind, here's my practical how-to for navigating a big critique.


1. Take notes. Your lovely critiquers have written lots of comments on your draft that you can review later. When someone's talking, sometimes they can explain something better with a hand gesture than they can in text. Then, you write it down in a way that makes sense in your own brain for when you go back later.


Also, writing notes is a way to process feedback without having to deal with it right that second. You're recording, so you can go back later and sort out what you think of that feedback. (Since I'm a visual person, this also helped me "see" the themes in comments, which helped me with the #2 on this list.)


2. Look for areas of consensus. You're going to get lots of diversity in the feedback you receive. One of the important things is to focus on the biggies. In my critique, some people thought the main character was too abrasive. Others thought she needed to be tougher. On the surface, this seems contradictory. However, the bigger theme was that I needed to flesh out her motivations. If I do this well, then people in both feedback camps will be more satisfied because she'll be a stronger character, which is the root of the problem.


3. Keep it big picture. Look, you're working on a novel. You need to get the macro issues fixed first. Your writing group is going to do their best to be super helpful. So, you're going to get feedback on everything from plot, to character, to line edits. Whew! That can be overwhelming. The thing is, once you dig into revision, you have to skip the line edits for now and start with the foundation.


When you revise to strengthen plot and character, you're going to make a lot of large scale changes. A new chapter gets added, another chapter gets deleted, this character now does X instead of Y, and, by the way, the climactic fight scene is now set on a yacht instead of a museum.


As all of these things get changed, they're going to change the smaller scale things like word choice, descriptions, and typos. Right now, the feedback that addresses the macro issues is more important than the comments about smaller scale problems.


4. Prioritize feedback. In any writing group, there are some critiquers who think more in line with what you're trying to convey. It's okay to give those critiques a little more weight. When someone's saying, "Here's what I suggest to fix your structure," and you're thinking, "Yes! I need to fix my structure and that solution totally makes sense to me!" go ahead and underline & highlight that comment.


5. Find time to clarify. At the end of the group critique, you should have a chance to ask your group a few questions. This is not the time to argue with feedback. However, by now might have a couple of questions that the feedback brought up. Maybe you're already toying with some of the changes you might make.


It's okay say something like this to your group, "I was trying to show the character's deep seated fear of monkeys, but it seems that wasn't clear. Do you have suggstions on how I can bring that out?" Or, you can say something like, "Based on what you've said, I thought I might make the character a detective instead of a librarian. Do you think that would work?" Use the gang as a sounding board and you'll get a pretty quick feel for if your planned changes would be a good fix.


Just remember, this is not the time to say, "You're all a bunch of idiots because you obviously missed that the main character is actually a computer with artificial intelligence."


6. Give yourself some decompression time. If your experience is anything like mine, you'll walk out of the room with your head spinning. You've just gotten oodles of information thrown at you. You may want to jump right into revision to fix everything right now. Don't do this.


Your brain needs some time to filter. You want to let a few weeks go by and see what sticks in the front of your mind. Chances are, the suggestions that stay fresh are the suggestions you should start with. It will also give you some time to align the feedback with what you really want to do with the novel. Yeah, the idea of rewriting the novel to make it into a space opera may sound cool, but if the story you really want to tell is a comedic murder mystery, the two aren't really going to mesh.


The other reason to let it sit is that it allows you to get over the initial emotional rush of the critique. A little bit of time means you can tackle revision in a more objective head space. You're no longer in panic mode, and you can be more thoughtful about how you're going to dig in.


7. (Optional, but highly recommended) Treat yourself to something nice. Go ahead and be extra nice to yourself. You have just opened yourself up and made yourself super vulnerable. Also, you've finished the rough draft of a whole novel. Celebrate that. It's not a perfect novel yet, but now you're armed with a lot of ways to make it better. So, go ahead and take yourself out to dinner some place you like. You've earned it.

Categories: Books, Writing Groups, Advice

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