Critique is the help you need to get you through your first revision.
The writing process from inspiration to consideration will likely require critiques. Your first draft should be messy. From that, you can craft something wonderful that will engage readers, start to finish. But you’ll need to get help from other writers and readers to learn what they see in your writing. Their feedback, critique, will help you learn how to revise your first draft.
Monthly Mentoring Series
This post is one in a series to publish monthly during the Minnesota State Arts Board grant year of 2021. I received the grant to work with a Minnesota fantasy genre author, Lyda Morehouse, on the first draft of my dark fantasy novel, Unwinding AnneLeah. I want to share our mentor/mentee process to prepare you for a workshop experience to be offered later in the year.
Your writing process – are you inspired?
Think back to the first time you wrote a poem or a short story. Were you 5 or 6 years old? Younger? Older? I can remember vividly the urge to write my first poem. I was with my family at a Minnesota lake cabin in the woods. I remember the smell of pine trees and a wooden porch. I may have been 5 years old. I was inspired by a squirrel.
I saw a little squirrel one day one day.
I made a little noise and he ran away.
The moment I wrote that poem I knew I was born to be a writer — not that I thought in those terms. It was an energizing moment that has stayed with me for decades. Now when I sit down to write, I feel that same excitement and I expect to be inspired.
Revisions are elegant calls to action.
When I first set out to write a novel, I was plenty inspired, but I had no tools. I’d been writing commercial copy for most of my career. Lead-in. Bullet. Bullet. Bullet. Closing. Call to action. My job was to strip out every unnecessary word to make the message easy to read and comprehend; to encourage prospective customers to contact my client for more information or to make a sale.
Creative writing allows me to let my mind loose, to find every little thing I might want to say about whatever my subject, get it down on paper, and thrill myself with the depth and magic in my imagination. Although my thoughts may be beautiful, complex, and intriguing, they are likely only those things to me, the writer. A successful creative writer will take that mind dump and craft it into something a reader can follow, an elegant call to action, leading them to invest their time in your story.
The most terrible first draft
I had my second fantasy-genre mentor session with Lyda Morehouse yesterday. She said she was making happy noises and that I produced an excellent (yes, excellent) revision to a chapter.
I knew she was skeptical of my writing abilities when she read the first draft chapters because they were a mess. But that’s what first drafts are supposed to be. Messy. The idea is to dump everything you’ve got into the first writing. Everything. Then, start sorting through the garbage to find the good stuff to build on. Then, you’ll do it all again in the 2nd draft and on and on and on.
The first draft doesn’t have a form, necessarily. If you’re assembling an anthology it would be helpful to have a form in mind. For example, all stories will be 7 paragraphs long. Maybe the paragraphs will all have the same number of words. Maybe all the stories are about rabbits. Maybe they’re about rain or the color of clouds. It really doesn’t matter what challenge you set for yourself, but an anthology should have some pattern or form.
A novel doesn’t start out that way. If you’re incredibly accomplished you may know how to create what’s in your mind on the first try. Most of us are not that kind of writer. I’m not. I write my heart out at first. All my feelings and thoughts will be jumbled, even nonsensical. But they are out in the open, in that first draft, so I can wrap my hands and mind around the words and reform them into something a reader can handle.
Get help from other writers and readers!
I’m not so skilled that I can do that word wrangling without help. I rely on my writer friends and my writing critique group to let me know if the assemblage is working.
I may not know how to tell the story. I may have all the words, but not a clear point of view. In the case of my fantasy book, I’ve struggled with how to make two most unlikeable protagonists interesting enough for readers to want to discover more about them.
Morehouse helped me see that there was no defined place or time or indication of why something mattered to the protagonist(s). This left her floundering in the story, trying to figure out where she was and why she would care to read on. I listened to her comments but more, I considered them.
The ruthless revision – what does the reader need to know?
Not every word you write is precious. Most of them, revision after revision, will be cut in favor of more suitable words that fit the evolving story. If you’re not convinced, write a 1300-word short story about anything. Done? Good. Now reduce that story to 750 words for flash fiction. Save the first draft so you see the word choices you made and know why you made them.
I had beautiful words in my first draft chapter. Really beautiful. They’re all gone now. And I don’t miss them. The words that I cut were the words that had meaning for me. They were the words that told me who the characters are, how and why they’re broken, and the big lies they tell themselves to support their awful behaviors. None of this information has meaning for a reader. To revise our work, we need to know what the reader needs to know.
One of the best ways to get out of your own head and into the mind of a reader is to ask others to read your work. I know. I know. It’s not ready. But that’s when it is ready for first readers. Readers will tell you what they need to know to be invested in your story. That’s your end game. That’s what you need to know.
Do you have an appetite for revision?
This is the tricky part for many writers, especially new writers. It’s easy to hear critique as criticism. Critique is feedback, asked for from readers and other writers. Don’t confuse this with bad or good reviews of your finished work.
Constructive critique can help you see the difference in your words between what you know as the writer and what the reader needs to know. There is a lot to know about your own inner worlds when others respond to your first drafts (or 2nd and 3rd!).
For example, I wrote that a character had an enormous diamond on her neck. My critique group was quick to ask – is that a growth or is the diamond attached to something? Funny? Yes. Critique can alert us to the shortcuts we make between what we see in our mind’s eye and what we put down on paper.
If I had taken those comments as criticism of my skills, I wouldn’t have learned to watch for those shortcuts as I progressed in my work. Feedback – thoughtful feedback – will make your work better. But can you stand to have someone say something less than wonderful about your work? Do you have an appetite for revision?
Not everybody is able to take critique – or workshopping as it’s called in a group setting. If you read about how to give constructive critique, it may help you learn why it’s important to receive constructive feedback. I promise you that your work will be better for it!
I hope you will learn to embrace the feedback from fellow writers and will learn to give the same to other writers in your community.
Please visit my Writing Coach page to help you get started on your writing project and to build a writing practice.