Writing Help: Self-Editing and Critiquing Critiques

 

Self-Editing

First, a definition. By self-editing, I don’t mean grammar, spelling, and basic English skills (which every writer should have and develop). I mean the ability to step back from your work and see it as a reader.

Self-editing is a necessary skill in a writer’s arsenal. Without it mistakes are repeated, and the writing never grows. It’s like a child who never stops throwing temper tantrums. At some point it shows a lack of self-control and maturity. Weak self-editing can also discourage beta readers, turn off possible publishers, and force a writer to pay more for editing.

Asking trusted friends to read a rough draft and a polished work is vital. They can provide the writer insight when they’re blind and bored, having read the work over and over and over.

The Alpha readers should point out glaring plot, character, or writing issues. They’re here to help the writer self-edit with fresh eyes at an early stage. They will skip over many of the grammar and writing issues. They’re here to taste the story.

Beta readers do catch minor grammar errors (I mean minor) because there should be very few of them by this stage. The goal for Beta readers isn’t editing. The goal for Beta readers is to read. Their job is to give a reader’s feedback, so the writer can gage the reader’s reaction. They should be dealing with as polished a work as possible by this stage.

If, instead, Beta readers find themselves giving major re-writing suggestions, sentence by sentence edits, issues of telling and not showing, POV problems, sentence and paragraph restructuring, and stage directing corrections, the writer needs to brush up on their self-editing. As discouraging as it is, if Beta readers are doing this work, they’re not Beta reading. They’re editing a work for the writer and the work isn’t ready for Beta readers.

Writing Schedule:

  1. Write the rough draft. Pour your heart out and bleed onto the page.
  2. Read through and clean up. This is a good place to do the first round of edits and to self-check plot, characters, and voice. (Sentence by sentence corrections, grammar, showing and not telling, POV issues, sentence and paragraph restructuring, and stage directing.)
  3. Hand off to Alpha readers. Their job is not to correct the grammar side. Their job is to help you gage the amount of editing needed next and to cheer you on. You may need some major re-writes at this point. Or you may need to start polishing.
  4. Re-write as needed based on Alpha critiques and self-editing.
  5. Submit your story to a more in-depth critique. Use a trusted friend armed with a red pen or something like Scribophile to give you a feel for how you’re doing.
  6. Set your work aside. The amount of time you spend away from your book is up to you. Step away and work on a new project. (I’d say six months to a year.)
  7. Return to your work with fresh eyes and try to read it like a reader. Look for things you can cut out, writing that makes you cringe, and characters that seem flat. Use your red pen!
  8. Send as highly polished a story as you can off to your Beta Readers!
  9. Keep working on your other project.
  10. Fix your writing based on suggestions and start down the road to professional editing for self-publishing, or submit to a publisher.

Obviously, this isn’t a strait jacket. Some writers write clean rough drafts skipping much of the polishing. Some are so good at self-editing, their work can go from rough draft, to polish, to Beta Readers, to published. Others of us circle the drain of polishing, and hand our story off to readers so many times we need more terms than Alpha and Beta. Every writer has to find what works for them.

The important thing is for the writer to step back and imagine they’re a reader picking this book up for the first time. Good self-editors allow themselves to see the holes, the characters no one likes, the weak villains, and the bad writing. Writers must read their story like someone who hates it, and someone new to the genre. They must put the imagination that wrote the story in the first place to work pretending to be a reader.

Get busy with that red pen.

Critiquing Critiques

Accepting critiques, and critiquing those critiques for value, is another sticky, but important skill. There are dangerous pits a writer can fall into when being critiqued.

On one hand sits the Pit of Pride. Every critique is immediately disregard. The writer labels the critiquer as an idiot who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. More time is spent mocking the critique than listening. No humility is applied to the story or writing style. Instead, the greatest writer ever, who has nothing to learn, pouts in a corner. They’re like one of those moms whose child is brilliant in every way and everyone needs to know, but when you meet the child they’re picking their own nose and eating their boogers.

The other pit is Overly Open Mindedness. Every critique the writer gets is God’s truth. They immediately make all the suggested changes. If someone tells the writer to change a name to make the critiquer happy, they do it. If someone says they don’t like something, this writer hurries to take their advice. Soon you have a story written by committee that looks nothing like what the writer originally wanted to say.

How does the writer avoid these two pits? Humility and confidence are important. A writer should humbly acknowledge they need critiques, even the harsh ones. A writer should confidently stand by their story. This confidence is easier to have when the writer knows what their story is trying to say.

Human beings want stories. Don’t tell us what an undeserved rescue is, show us. We want to see how an undeserved rescue affects people. Don’t tell us children left on their own resort to horrible behavior. Write Lord of the Flies. Don’t tell us England needs a better mythology. Write Lord of the Rings. The stories stick with us longer. The stories have layers so that they become so much more than what they’re trying to say.

So, to accurately judge critiques, the writer needs to know what they’re trying to say. If they don’t know what they’re trying to say, how can they judge the veracity of a critique? Not only that, if the writer doesn’t know what they’re trying to say, they’re in danger of saying something false. It’s like having a worldview. Everyone has a worldview. Everyone. But, if you don’t think about your worldview and your presuppositions, you’re in danger of believing something untrue and possibly dangers. If a writer just writes what pours out of their heart with no thought given to what they’re ultimately trying to show in the story, they might write something false.

If they do, their story won’t ring true with people. They’ll disregard it, laugh at it, and never suggest it to friends. But, if there is truth there, then that truth shines out and resonates with people even if they don’t agree. It also pours out into different layers of the book.

So, there are two very important tools writers need to develop to write well: self-editing and critiquing critiques.

Self-editing allows the writer to write more polished first rough drafts and to present writing to Beta readers which they can read and not have to edit.

Critiquing critiques is vital to keeping your way in the story, but a writer can’t do that unless they know what they’re trying to say.

Like a baker, mechanic, soldier, or any other profession, the writer must practice, practice, practice. Get help. Read, read, read. The writer must talk with their readers. They must learn to see what they’re doing wrong so that they can stop writing only first rough drafts and can move on to a polished, readable, valuable book.

Happy Writing.

September #WIPjoy

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I’m participating in another  #WIPjoy hosted by the lovely Bethany Jennings. It will be all about The Sparrow and The Star. (Small Spoilers Warning)
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Intro Week

Tell us about your WIP:

The Sparrow and the Star is the sequel to the Cost of Two Hands, a semi-steampunk/dystopian YA fantasy. The Cost of Two Hands (SPOILERS) ends with Sparrow recaptured by the Clowns and Jonah trapped on the Streets in the body of a machine. War blossoms left and right. The Sparrow and the Star picks up right where the Cost of Two Hands ends with Jonah fighting against three Gangs while trying to protect as many children as he can. Adele must find the Preacher to return Jonah’s soul to his body. Sparrow is forced through a Relay and finds herself in Metropolis-by-the-sea and in the desperate clutch of the Guardian of Purity. This story is infused with more hope than the Cost of Two Hands, but ends with, in my opinion, worse cliff-hangers. J

What stage are you at with this project?

I’m about half-way done with the first rough draft. Jonah, Bree, Soul, and others have their part of the story finished. Now, I’m working on the Dragons and Sparrow’s side of the story.

Describe your work in progress with 5 verbs.

Well, now that I’ve thought of 500 adjectives and 200 nouns…battled, fought, drove, fell, and burnt.

Background Week – Settings and Backstories

What emotions do you evoke with your setting?

My first layer of setting is a world experiencing an ice age which evokes a mixture of hopelessness and beauty. The second layer of my settings is the locations of homes. The Streets evoke a sense of brutality and the mean shortness of life, while Greenhome is filled with light, music, laugher, and rough and tumble playfulness.

Share a line with a detail about your protagonist’s past.

Soul stared down at his broken hands. He’d had a month with Jonah. One month. But, what a month it’d been. It was as if Jonah’s soul had waited through all the dark days he lived on the Streets and then burst forth at the moment of salvage. Soul had never seen a child change so much. Yes, Jonah was still a ragged, violent, determined boy, but he’d found hope in using his gifts for others. So radically had he changed that he’d befriended Adele, gained Cid, Ralph, and George’s trust, marked Cry of the Storm, and saved Greenhome from the Clowns. Some month indeed. Soul shook his head and smiled to himself thinking of Jonah facing Cagen in Olive Hall. He’d been so proud at that moment.

What does your antagonist love deeply?

Within this story, I have three antagonist. Two very immediate ones, and one over-arching one that will really come into her own in book 3. The main thing that comes to mind with all three when I think about what they love dearly is themselves. They love themselves. Each expresses this differently: Cagen loves comfort, Pain loves power, and Purity loves her Clowns. But, what it really comes down to is they love themselves.

Which two characters have the most interesting history?

This is a hard question for me to answer because not all my characters are forthcoming about their history. They’re more focused on all the terror I’m bringing to their lives at the moment. That being said, I’d say Soul and Ronan have the most interesting histories. Soul is the master of Greenhome. I have no idea how old he is, or where he gets his powers, but he is very old, and his use of quiet magic is very interesting. Ronan is a character I’ve worked with for many years. I know him in and out, up and down. He has a unique family history that led to him receiving the powers of the SoulDefender of the Material World, also known as the Preacher. From that power, he built a force of men, the Deacons, who help him fight monsters and Guardians who use their powers to hurt others.

Name something experienced with each sense in your WIP.

Touch: the rotting bark of the dying Forest, IceFog tendrils (Not that you’d want to touch those)Smell: oceans, wet wood, rust

Hear: gunfire, explosions, screams

Taste: salty tears, coppery blood

See: the bones of a city making up the Streets, the white rose Hedge of Greenhome, the Burning Place in Metropolis-by-the-sea.

Is any part of the backstory inspired by your own life?

Not really. Adele is sort of representation of someone saved young in life and the struggles they have to see their salvation since they didn’t necessarily have a drastic turning point from visible evil to visible good. That is based on my own experience of growing up in a Christian home and being saved at a young age.

Share a line you love about a setting.

They wove through the diseased trees, down into little gullies formed by creeks, now silent with ice, and up through pines and oaks and pecans, naked and ruined.

 

Quote 

“Uppercase Art in modern America has become a synonym for arrogance, irresponsibility, vulgarity, disrespect, and wild, suicidal self-indulgence. It seems to me that consumers of entertainment products would be much better served if writers started viewing themselves as practitioners of a craft and stopped  pretending to be a kind of secular clergy that stands above the laws of man and God.” – Story Craft by John R. Erickson 

Death of a Storyteller

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Courtesy of Bing.

 

Crow was her first and now he knelt before her to say goodbye.

Blue veins.

Paper skin.

Arthritic knuckles no longer able to hold a pen.

Her eyes have closed.

Her breathing slowed.

Her living family waits and weeps.

In her mind, the last of her stories played out, the last of her characters gathered around her. Crow’s first. He loved her best, knew her best, bore the deepest scars inflicted by her hand, but burnt with the brightest hope infused by her every mark. Behind him ranged rank after rank of heroes and villains, sinners and saints, men and women, boys and girls, and animals given voice, trees given wings. Some of them have had their stories told, some waited and waited and waited too long, the chance now gone as she slipped away.

Crow took her little hand in the strong one she gave him.

“I’m sorry,” she said in her head to her best creation. “I’m sorry for everything you had to carry, everything you had to endure.”

He smiled. “You never left me. You were always there. You always brought me home.”

“But so many of you never made it home.” Tears sprang to her eyes as she scanned the faces of so many representations of her soul.

“You gave us life, even if only for a moment,” said Sundance, with blueberry eyes and blonde hair. “You gave us love.” Ronan, wearing his sunglasses, kissed Sundance on the side of her head. He came forward, holding the old storyteller’s other hand. “You gave us purpose.”

Beautiful Olive wrapped in all the seasons rested her hand on Crow’s shoulder. “You gave us a chance to fight the darkness.”

“You saved us from the darkness.” Fortunatus said beside Jack. The one-eyed boy twisted his wolf’s head earring.

“You loved us. You cried over all of us.” Star removes her top hat and bows. Beside her, Bree wrapped her arm around her son Jonah. “You reunited us.”

“Thank you….thank you…thank you…,” the old storyteller said. She searched all their well-known faces one last time. “Thank you, for sharing your stories with me. For asking me to voice them.” She turned one last time to Crow. “Thank you for finding me.” She smiled, turned her eyes to heaven, and slipped away. The room emptied instantly, all of them forever gone, for they were her soul, fragmented and broken, healed. And when she was gone, so were they.

“Goodbye…” whispered the wind.

Pages ruffled. A child snuggled deep into a chair. His eyes swept the letters, reading the words. A world opened. Characters breathed.

Goodbye was temporary.

Stories endure.

Wintersong by Sarah McLachlan

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I’m working on Book 2 of The Artists Return Series: The Sparrow and the Star. Everything in the book is rushing towards Christmas Day and the moment of Eucatastrophe.

I love Christmas, so it seemed natural to place my YA novel at that time of the year, albeit in another world. It gives me a good excuse to listen to Christmas music (as if I need one) and bake Christmas goodies, and light candles. I’m creating mood, putting my mind in the right place…right?

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But seriously, if my story takes place in deep winter, than Christmas must be part of the story. If I want to have a turning point of grace, where light infuses the story, what better day to have that happen on than Christmas? It is one of two great moments of Eucatastrophe in our own History. Christ became man and dwelt with us. What a moment of pure grace. The other, greater moment is the resurrection. Death overcome. Wishing to mirror, as a small child her father, the great story, I have purposely placed Christmas Day at the center of my faerie tale.

This has caused me to listen to Christmas carols with a new ear. The lyrics take on another layer of meaning. The first layer of rejoicing at the goodness of God is still there. The second layer of years and years of beloved family tradition is still there, and now a third layer of characters and events birthed from my mind and heart infuse these songs. The other day, I heard one of my favorites in light of this new layer: Wintersong by Sarah McLachian

I’ve always enjoyed Wintersong in the context of the end of Book 2. (No worries, this should be spoiler free, dear readers.)

Book 2 ends on Christmas Day with both the perfect and the worst things happening all at once. He’s befriended a girl named Star of Hope, a Scarecrow who came to help him. Jonah is about to start the upswing of his story, going from darkness to light.

This is the song:

“This is how I see you, in the snow of Christmas morning. Love and happiness surround you. As you throw your arms up to the sky, I keep this moment by and by. Oh I miss you now, my love. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, my love.

Sense of joy fills the air and I daydream and I stare up at the tree and I see your star up there.”

I can’t believe how perfectly this song fits my feelings for Jonah as I mentally start moving into Book 3 and how his life is going to culminate. I even wrote the ending of the whole story the other day. Already I miss everyone. Already I miss my young warrior, Jonah.

I love how the song mentions a tree and a star, both significant in Jonah’s life, both women in Jonah’s life.

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And this is how I see Jonah. I see him in the snow on Christmas morning. I see him with love and happiness all around him for the first time in a long time. I can see him throwing his arms up to the sky. This is a moment I’ll keep. I miss Jonah already, but this happiness I give him is my Christmas gift to him. Joy fills the air and I daydream of how Jonah is doing, and I stare up at the Tree and I see his Star. Oh how happy I am for my dear Jonah.

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So as you can imagine, this is now playing on repeat one on my phone. And it’s been added to the playlist for the Series. So far I have these songs and why:

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Casting Crowns: despite being very One Kingdom, the idea of not being forgotten and God bring peace suits this story, as does the music.

Rose Tattoo by Dropkick Murphys: I love the sense of family, adventure, and a good Irish brawl mixed in this song. It suits a new group of characters you’ll meet in Book 2 and a bit of the Dragons.

Worn by Tenth Avenue North: This is a heartfelt song about being worn down by this life and sin and needing some hope. Jonah gets beat down and down and down, but looks to what he’s learned from Soul about the King for hope.

Raise Your Horns by Amon Amarth: You could not find a better battle anthem than this song. It is a great brotherhood bonding song.

How Firm a Foundation: This is to remind me that the foundation of all our hope is the Word of God.

Never Once by Matt Redman: The image in this song of never being left out of God’s care is beautiful and filled with hope. It specifically mentions battle which suits this series perfectly.

The Soldier and the Oak by Elliott Park: I should move this song to the top of the list because as soon as I heard it I had to write a story for it. It is beautiful, touching, so sad, and amazing.

Hey Brother by Avicii: There are strong, repeated ideas of brotherhood and sisterhood in this story. I think that is a far more important theme for YAs than romance. Brotherhoods and sisterhoods, friends and family, will last much longer than romance. This song captures both the joy and the sorrow of standing together.

On top of that, I have also listened to the Band of Brothers and Rambo 4 Soundtracks. They both have a haunting melody that brings to mind the sadness of war.

 

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I love having a layered view to life. This is one of the things I love most about fantasy. When you read good fantasy stories, they become a lens through which you view your world. They help you see the magic that we take for granted or have become callused to. They help you see stories in a patch of white flowers, or in a tree, or even a Christmas carol. I hope one day to bring this same joy to others as they read my story. I hope it gives them fresh layers in their own lives.