Thursday, May 19, 2011

Conference Secrets - Revising from Critique

For the next four Thursdays I'm going to be reporting on some of the awesome workshops I attended at the Pennwriters Conference in Pittsburgh this past weekend. Make sure you also check out Laura Campbell's conference blog post on Four Truths of Character

Revising From Critique
Becky Levine lead this incredibly useful workshop, taking us through the process she uses to revise after feedback from her crit group. She made the point that this is what works for her and that everyone learns/writes differently. Having said that, I think that the plan of action she lays out is an excellent strategy. It's designed to make the overwhelming task of revision (one that is before me as we speak) seem less daunting.

Check out Becky's book. It's indispensable.

The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: 

How to Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions

1) Join A Group
A group is important, if you don't have one get one, because 'fresh eyes see clearly.' Pennwriters is getting members together for 'round robin' email crits for people who can't access writers' groups. If you're in Pennsylvania check Pennwriters out. If not, look for a group in your area.

The way we get feedback at BCWG is once a month we all submit and comment on each others work, about 20-30 pages each time. Since there are only three of us this means that we each contribute two crits and we each get two crits, which is great. One thing that Becky suggests from the get go when giving a crit is to both include comments in the margins of the submission AND to give a summary of your criticism. That's not something we're all doing, but I'd love to change that in our group. I find the summary so useful, especially since I'm not always sure what the margin notes are referring to and that I can never take as many notes as I should when hearing a crit, too busy cringing I guess.

Another important point Becky makes about getting 'fresh eyes' on your manuscript is that, because you live in your book every day, you see all the details. You might be convinced that something is coming across that just isn't. In other words, something you think is there might not be there. Your crit group is your proxy reader. If they don't 'see' or 'get' something, it's not there, or not there enough.

Lastly, ideas spark ideas. Talking about writing is second only to sitting down and doing it. It's a great motivator.

2) Wait to Revise
Look over your notes from your crit partners right after the crit to make sure you understand what they're saying but RESIST the impulse to revise immediately, especially before the ms is finished.
Polishing is easy, but bigger changes are coming. Give yourself the chance to marinate the feedback you've gotten and to develop your story. Most importantly, don't write backwards, as in go back before you're finished, write forward through a draft. You'll be learning more about your story if you write to the end. Plus you'll be able to see how the end changes the beginning when you go back to revise.

3) When You Are Ready Start SMALL
So you don't start breathing into a paper bag when you drag your stack of critiqued submission out of your drawer, start small.
a) Work chapter by chapter
b) Re-read your critiques, it's a great way to get yourself back into your story.
c) Working from the critiques you've received, use check marks to tick off the easy changes first. These are the little fixes you can easily clarify. For example if you've forgotten some dialogue tags, or if a dog you introduced in the first chapter as a poodle ends up as a doberman in subsequent chapters. Every time you hit one of these easy fixes, use a big check mark to give yourself a sense of accomplishment - you're doing it!

4) The Highlighter is your friend
Use a highlighter to call out any crits/suggestions you aren't sure about. You don't have to agree or disagree, and you don't have to decide just this minute how you feel about something. Highlighting the passage will make sure it doesn't fall through the cracks. Let the comments simmer. You may find that when you come back to it you know how you feel. Or, it might be something you chose not to address at all, your choice.

5) Think through the big stuff
Now that you've been through the little stuff, you see that there's not as much initial revision as you first thought. Now you're in the 'heart' of things.
a) Go through all the comments that you haven't already checked off, this is the big stuff
b) Make sure you understand all the feedback - and if you don't there's no shame in reaching out to the person who gave it to you and asking for clarification.
c) Consider the impact the proposed change will have on your story. How will this suggestion improve or change the story? How do you feel about that?

6) Make the decision
a) When considering a suggested change which isn't obviously a 'yes' or a 'no' to you, consider the source. Every crit group member has strengths and weaknesses. One member may love elaborate detail and may be telling you to add much more detail. But is that in service of your story, or is it really because that's what this person enjoys?
b) If you are really undecided, put it to a vote. I actually did this not too long ago on something I was thinking about. I asked if my group thought I should change the gender of my main character. They both overwhelmingly said NO!
c) If there are some in the group that don't 'get' or understand something your trying to do, consider that this may be something your reader won't 'get' either.
d) There will be comments that you've given careful consideration to that you just decide don't need addressing. That's ok.

7) Revising Beyond the Critique
It's important to realize that people in your group aren't super heroes - they miss stuff. Just addressing their comments isn't enough. You need to go through it again and again, to catch what they might have missed, like:
a) Inconsistencies, spelling/grammar errors
b) Need to tighten character consistencies (so the characters act 'like themselves' throughout)
c) Weaving the changes through the whole plot
d) Tying subplots together so that plots are integrated, not just parallel
e) Deepening character motivation, so it seems inevitable
f) Build a full world, so it's believable and 'visible' to the reader

8)When all else fails
Manuscripts need to simmer and stew in your subconscious, during writing and revising. When you need to give yourself the time and space away from your ms, do it, don't beat your head against the wall.
a) Walk away from your computer
b) Open a new file and write it fresh. Save the old file of course, but try writing it differently just for the heck of it. You'll be freer.
c) Take a walk, listen to music, read (that was my suggestion, not Becky's!)

Becky's most important take away for me? Revision is Magic. It can be as fun and transcendent as writing that first draft when it comes together. Have fun!


  1. I've been waiting for this post, granted I have a copy of the book, but I like to hear how another writer interprets the material and the important parts they felt necessary to highlight. Plus, I'm a sucker for instant gratification.

    One thing I noticed when I read feedback, I almost feel compelled to take all feedback as gospel. My lack of confidence in my own writing is the culprit. It's true that when you look at suggestions, you need to figure out how you feel about the change in relation to the story YOU intended to put on the page. It's so important to listen to yourself first.

    The other piece of advice you pointed out from Becky's book I felt really spoke to me was to "consider the source of the feedback." I've received feedback that asked for things I didn't feel fit with my writing style. Once again, confidence in myself helps me sift through what I should consider with a "Yes" and what belongs in the "No" category.

    Great post, Alex!

  2. Oh great advice! This is why I have more than one CP... they won't catch everything and different peeps have better eyes for different things.
    I always walk away after a first draft, and I always let feedback sit a while so I can really think on it before setting it to stone. I've also learned that not everyone's feedback is good, even tho they think it is.

  3. This is an amazing wrap-up. I'm thinking you were really listening! Thanks so much. :)

  4. @Becky - so glad you think so! I didn't do it justice, but it's a starting point to get people going in the right direction (that's what it's doing for me!)

  5. Setting the manuscript aside and waiting to do a revision was a hard lesson for me to learn. I'm not a naturally patient person at all. Good tips!


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