Writing, like any profession, has its own jargon. For example writers can identify as a “pantser” or a “plotter.” Plotters outline their novels, draw road maps, and have a plan. Pantsers fly by the seat of the matter and enjoy being surprised along the way. I’ve asked a certain NYT Bestseller I know about this. Grace Burrowes says that no matter what your established method, there will come a book that won’t play by your rules. It will break you, or it will teach you, by way of necessity, a new set of skills.
I’ve thought a lot about breaking this week. My participation in PitchWars, my summer, my day job, my parenting, and my writing have all got me cracking. I’m feeling the strain, y’all. Growing pains are real. This week was particularly momentous in that I received valuable critiques on my first few pages from some respected writing mentors.
Critique–constructive criticism– is HOW I grow and improve as a writer. I’ve learned a lot about story and character from reading phenomenal books. Reading wide and deep is always a boon. But when it comes right down to it–the way I learn is by someone saying, “Not like this. Like this. And let me tell you why. Understand? Now you try.”
My buddy, Hemingway, wrote a lot of amazing stuff. And one of his quotes, which I paraphrase now, is how I have come to think of critiques: “[Critique] breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Critique is hard. It’d be great if my story came out flawless and perfect and nothing but, “OMG! Amelia is brilliant! And y’all, we should be paying her to read this. In fact we must! Get her an agent! NOW!” was written in the margins of my pages.
That’s not how it works. This is how it works. All my thanks to author Aimee L. Salter for her considered and kind critique. ALL of my PitchWar critiques have been this generous and kind, and I cannot thank Joan, Jenny, and Aimee enough for them!
Does that mean that critiques no longer break me? Nope. That wave of ouch still crashes, but it doesn’t knock me off my feet and drag me off to the ocean of despair and inaction.
Because I know I can revise. Revision! Yay, revision!
I’ve accepted that my process will always include multiple revisions. That’s right. Forget about pantser or plotter. I am a committed REVISER. There is no limit on revision’s grace. I can write and rewrite until I am strong in all the places where critique showed me I was broken. The result is that I am no longer afraid. Critique opportunities mean learning opportunities. I’ve got more to learn. That’s no shameful secret . Critique is an opportunity to learn from some writers who have been practicing longer than me. You better believe my response is going to be enthusiastic and my thanks for their help heartfelt and sincere.
Specific and detailed critique is a gift. I’ve taken my critiques this week, and I’ve worked hard to fix what is broken. My pages stand improved. Please see below.
But y’all, critique is about the pages. It isn’t about you. If you get a critique back and the comments are about you that’s a red flag telling you to RUN AWAY. In the past (and I’ve been doing this for many years now), I’ve gotten critiques that have comments that go along these lines:
“Do you even read YA?”
“You’ve got to be delusional if you think this is a good.”
“Have you ever had your heartbroken?”
“You should know better.”
Y’all, this isn’t critiquing; this is bullying. And if this happens to you, please don’t think you have to take it. Nope. Stuff like this hurts because it is dangerous and toxic. Run away. There is nothing in there that you can use to improve your story. This is not toughening you up for the writing and publishing world. This is NOT brutal kindness, and it certainly isn’t professional. This is just spiteful, mean, and unfortunate hissing coming from someone, who is having a bad day… or worse.
Shrug it off. Admire your vast personal library of well curated YA. Smile at your obvious pragmatism (delusional people do not try to improve themselves). Know your heart beats stronger for having survived heartbreaks. Thank the bully (maybe they meant well), and take comfort that they will NEVER be consulted again. Redouble your own efforts to be kind and professional when critique opportunities come your way.
Writers have blind-spots when it comes to their own pages. We need to help each other. Get a critique. It’s okay that it stings; critiques break everyone. But they’re going to make you strong.
The smell of thyme and onion pressed against Kate as she stood shaking in the dim kitchen. The waves at the shore crashed while on the stove the bubbling chowder whispered its own despair. “How?”
“A spell from the North by the look of it.” Cook’s rough hands shook as she gathered a few tarts, some cheeses, and a loaf of bread. She took the dish cloth draped reliably over her shoulder and laid it in the center of the table.
Kate’s voice was tight between her sobs. “Can it be undone?” She watched Cook wrap the lunch in the soft linen.
“Black magic can always be undone, Katy.” Cook’s fingers fumbled as they tied up the parcel. She pushed it in Kate’s hands, until Kate held the knotted meal against her own knotted stomach.
“How?” Kate begged.
“I don’t know,” Cook said, shaking her head. “You’ll find a way, though. I’m sure of it. But now you need to run.” Cook grasped Kate by the shoulders. Tears pooled in her eyes and the wrinkles on her face were drawn tighter and deeper than Kate had ever seen before. “You’re not safe here. You need to run now. Far away. Understand?”
The hot summer air swelled inside the kitchen and smothered Kate until she could not breathe.
Annie bleated miserably at Kate’s side. The salt of the surf lingered in the air and the pound of the waves hummed in her ears.
Away. Far away from ocean breezes and white sand. Far away from her mother and stepfather. Far away from the warmth of Cook’s kitchen and the comfort of the court. And farther away still from her stepfather’s influence and friends. Away. Until the memories of home—and the stories—were all that remained. Kate nodded.
Cook’s hands left wrinkles in the silk of Kate’s sleeves that could not be smoothed away. “I’ll find another lamb to serve for dinner. That should buy you a little time—”
Annie bleated impatiently.
“A very little time.”
Memories unraveled with use. And in the weeks that followed their flight from home, poor Kate had recalled those last moments with Cook until it was a threadbare story that haunted more than it consoled.
“I am sorry, Annie.” The white lamb stood in the mountain road, chewing on the hem of Kate’s cloak. “Our story is so thick sometimes…” Annie stared up at Kate with her obstinate, big brown eyes. “I get lost in it.”
The lamb bucked at her rope and bleated angrily.
Kate ran a hand through her tangled tresses. “Yes, but normal lambs can’t be trusted to follow their people.”
Annie snorted and headed straight across the lawn toward the manor. Her hooves carefully picked out the driest tufts of grass.
“Now don’t be like that.” Kate told her. “We both have to be at our most persuasive for this to work.”
Annie looked back at Kate, and bleated. The rope was now taut.
“Yes, I’m coming,” Kate said. She stood up and shook the dust off her trousers and cloak.
The manor house, planted stoutly at the end of the lawn, would have been considered a castle if it had taken a little more architectural risk. A palace perhaps, if it had more finesse and subtlety. But the lines of the manor paralleled the plateau and hugged the safety this rare bit of flat land offered.
“Slow down, Annie.” Kate tugged on lamb’s rope.
***END OF EXCERPT***