I am blessed to have remarkable people in my life. Vaughn Roycroft is one of them. He is: generous, humble, and a talented writer.
Vaughn recently wrote a guest post on Christi Craig‘s webpage. With Christi and Vaughn’s permission, I hope you’ll enjoy this post!
Surviving the Full Force Gale of a Manuscript Critique
Manuscript critiques are difficult to read and absorb. Some time ago, I won a critique of the first chapter from my work in progress, and the truth in those brief edits was painful enough. Today, Vaughn Roycroft talks about living through and working with an editor’s study of a whole novel in progress. His post is one you’ll want to bookmark, print out, and tape to your desk for that day when an editor’s notes grace your inbox.
The Wind In My Sails: Ever feel like your fiction-writing career is adrift? I did. I had a finished manuscript I believed in, a binder full of notes on beta-reader feedback, and only a file full of rejections to show for it. Sometimes you need a guiding hand to get back on course.
A big part of my recent writing journey has involved the mentorship of my editor, Cathy Yardley, which I wrote about over at Writer Unboxed. Hiring a pro and undergoing a developmental edit has been the driving force behind my effort to make my work seaworthy for publication.
Christi saw the WU post and invited me to expand on the actual process of being professionally critiqued and putting the results into beneficial use.
All Hands on Deck: For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume you’ve already found a good match in an editor—a vital component of having a successful critique experience. If you haven’t yet, there are a lot of good articles about finding the right fit in a freelance editor, including here. If your mind still boggles at the idea of choosing, a good first step would be to join the Writer Unboxed facebook group. There are at least a dozen talented freelance editors in the group, and many of them regularly contribute to the conversation. It’s a relaxed forum for getting acquainted.
Riding Out the Storm: So you’ve sent out your baby and the day finally comes. The reply email arrives. Trust me, there’s a storm on the horizon. You won’t know how severe it’ll be, but you are bound to be rocked. Any sailor worth his salt knows to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, right? Get to a safe harbor, weigh anchor, and batten down the hatches.
In other words, make sure you are in the right place, with the right amount of time, and in the right frame of mind to open your critique. Don’t excitedly start reading it on your iPhone at a dinner party. Make yourself comfortable. You should probably be alone, preferably with nothing pressing on your schedule. Every editor is different, but in my case, Cathy has provided a critique document as well as notations throughout the accompanying manuscript. Let’s assume you’ll receive the same. When you’re ready, open and slowly read the critique document. Breathe. Cathy’s critiques are broken down into characters, plot, and writing. Once you’ve read the critique doc, open and scan the notes in the manuscript, but don’t dawdle or linger on any certain point. Keep breathing. Just let the storm wash over you.
Taking Stock: If you’re anything like me, you’ve totally focused on the negatives and breezed over the positives. Now that you’ve experienced the full turbulence of the negatives, get up and walk the decks. Seriously, go out and take a long walk. It’s a great way to process what’s happened. You’ve been rattled, sure, but I’m willing to bet you’re still afloat. Nothing that can’t be repaired, right?
Now go back and read it all again. This time force yourself to focus on the positives. Repeat them aloud, jot them down, whatever it takes. Just force yourself to see the calm sea ahead. You’ve survived the storm. You will sail again.
Put It in Dry-dock: Now it’s time to step away. Resist the temptation to act impulsively. You need time to find your way from reactive defensiveness—or worse, overreaction—to proactive analysis. Unless there’s something horribly amiss, no matter how you feel about the experience so far, your only interaction with your editor at this point should be a thank-you note with your payment for services rendered. Go do something totally different. For me, the perfect getaway project is woodworking. Paint something. Strip and refinish a dresser. Replant a garden bed. Anything but obsess about your writing. Focusing your attention elsewhere will take the sting out of the critique. Trust me, your subconscious will still be working on analyzing the problems and seeking solutions. How long you will need may vary, but I need at least two weeks.
I know I’m ready to go back when the stinging problems have become no more than straightforward obstacles to be overcome. Since you’re in dry-dock, go through and make the obvious and easy fixes. No major overhaul, just the simple stuff—clunky sentences, grammatical errors, minor inconsistencies, etcetera.
Take the Voyage as a Passenger: Now it’s time to carefully read your full manuscript with your editor’s notations. But make a concerted effort to read it through her eyes. Take notes regarding the possibilities for changing the crew or plotting a new course, but don’t make those changes now. Just take the voyage of your story with the full knowledge that you can make it better for the next passenger. Get your sea-legs back by walking the decks often. Again, seriously, take a lot of long walks (or runs, or whatever you do) throughout this step. Bring aboard the advice that resonates, regarding the elements your gut tells you need to change. Jettison the rest.
It’s Time to Rebuild: After all of this, you may have some questions for your editor. Plus you’ve had time to cool your engines, so those questions are more likely to be born of proactive analysis than reactive defensiveness. Although Cathy has happily answered any questions I’ve posed via email, she also offers a paid one hour phone conference I like to utilize. Before I start revising, I set up the call. I have my notebook full of questions, and she lets me prattle on for the first ten minutes. I try to keep my prattling to proactive analysis, but she’s been known to talk me down from overreaction. Then we dissect the issues and hone the proper approaches to solutions.
This is the time to decide on the big stuff. Have you started in the right place? Does your inciting incident engage and entice readers? Do your characters’ motivations line up with their internal and external goals? Is your black moment truly black? Does each of the main characters undergo real change to make their arc satisfying?
Once you’ve worked though the big picture issues, you’ve survived the full force gale. It’s finally time to start your rewrite.
Thanks, Christi, for having me!
Your turn at the Helm: Have you ever been adrift? Have you had a full manuscript critique, or considered it? If you’ve had one, how’s the sailing been since? If not, think you’ll weather the storm?
In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ he and his wife left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their getaway cottage near their favorite shore, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy. You can learn more about Vaughn on his website.