Thursday, April 9, 2009

I get by with a little help from my friends. .

I must confess I started Operation: Maggie long before Tami put together a post. I began my own quest at last year’s conference. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, Sally, you’re such an over-achiever!” Maybe in a former life, but I’m really just another procrastinator—at least I was until I dedicated myself to the task of making the finals someday, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Up until this point I have been trying to write while doing all of the usual things: bear children, rear children, teach full time, take classes, keep my house clean enough that it wouldn’t be condemned by the Health Department. Just like most of you I have been writing down ideas on the backs of envelopes that once contained bills or Birthday cards. Just like you I have been eking out words wherever I could, whenever I could. Just like many of you I could never seem to find a routine or to keep a cohesive schedule. The worst thing I did, however, was write in my own little bubble.

There are several reasons you need partners to critique your work. First and foremost, you have to develop a thicker skin. Better to hear your foibles from your friends than the editor or agent you’ve been dying to work with. Second, it’s extremely difficult to distance yourself from your work. Without Pam’s help, I wouldn’t have noticed that all of my characters, particularly my heroine, had a propensity for gritting teeth. Sandy showed me a hundred different ways to punch up my prose—think “snaring her with a gaze that rooted her to the spot” instead of “looked straight at her.” Most importantly, both ladies questioned my story from tiny details to the characters’ motivations, something I didn’t have the distance to do.

A word of caution: make sure you let the comments marinate a little before you start making changes. Inevitably, you see the bad and ignore the good so you need to read those comments a second time at a later date. The first time through Sandy’s notes, I completely missed that “she wanted to keep reading (darn it!)” It was only when I went back to open Pam’s comments a second time that I saw her “I think you have the basis of a good story here.” Both of those were the comments I was looking for because I knew I would keep polishing my prose and massaging my plot. I almost missed those nuggets of inspiration because my eyes were naturally drawn to the problems.

Of course, it’s still your story, so I have to share with you with what Sandy told me after her critique. She told me to think of her suggestions like a trip to the grocery store, to keep what I liked and to let the rest go. And, hey, look at all of that ink as a sign of love; someone took the time to read your work and cared enough to write/type their thoughts.

So, now it’s time for your embarrassing moments. I’ll start. My husband critiqued my second novel and discovered my habit of accidentally typing “me” instead of “my.” He helpfully hand-wrote “Arrr!” beside each and every one. Nancy Knight pointed out that I had misspelled the title of my novel throughout the synopsis among other things, and, as a wide-eyed college sophomore one of my professors read my serious short story and asked me if it was a parody because it was so melodramatic. I could go on, but now it’s your turn. Let’s get cathartic and share those stories!


Debbie Kaufman said...

Sandy has pointed out way too much to mention in some of my earlier stuff. Mae Nunn found a lot for me, especially my use of tense and WAY too much backstory. Oh, and Mae showed me that a secondary character intended as the hero for book two, was coming off as either a player or a momma's boy. OOPS!

I have to have others read and help. Red ink is my friend :)

Tami Brothers said...

Great post, Sally. I can totally relate. I'm really gun shy with critique partners. No matter how GREAT they are, I feel like I failed to see (on my own) what my critique partner points out. I know this is all in my head, but it's one of my (many) issues I have to work on...grin...

I have to say that I do work better with someone waiting in the wings to read that next chapter. Not only do I feel the desire to write that next chapter, but I feel the pressure to get it done.

A few things that have been pointed out to me are my over use of the word gaze (you'd think I would have seen that....grin); my multiple uses of the words and, but, it, was and feel; my lack of emotional pull for my characters (I usually over edit these out for some reason); ohh, and I just looked back at my last rejection letter (awesome one by the way) and she said I had a slight issue with some run-on sentences (I'm seriously working on this!!!).

That's me. Naked in the wind.

Thanks for sharing this, Sally.

Tami Brothers

Maxine Davis said...

Sally, I've always said I was the world-champion procrastinator - still probably true.
You are so very much right on the spot!!! One of my biggest mistakes: I've never let anyone critique my work. That has changed!! There are a 2 that are a great help. Now I just have to find a critique group and not use these 2 to death.

Anna Steffl said...

I don't even know where to begin. In your best Yoda voice say "What a process learning to write is."

Great post, Sally. I love a chuckle in the morning.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Yes, red ink is our friend! I'm right there with you on the backstory issue, too. I guess I just want to tell the whole story at once.

Good point on how having a critique partner can keep you writing. I forgot to mention that one. Oh, and thanks for the pun on seeing "gaze." That's just the sort of thing that is funny enough to keep it all in perspective.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Procrastinators of the world, unite! I'd say keep working with those partners until they complain. Better yet: buy them chocolate frequently. ; )

Much about self writing reveals. I love yoda. I just might do my entire next post Yoda-style.

CiCi Barnes said...

Oh, I am so the world's worse procrastinator, especially if it's the hard or boring stuff -- like the synopsis! But on the flip side, when I wait until the last minute, I do better work.

My foibles: my heroines sigh alot. My first hero sounded too feminine. He talked on and on, instead of like men normally reserve words. And I tend to have some really long sentences, so my partner tries to help me shorten them, but I'm not an easy learner. She gets so frustrated with me.

Good one, Sally. The suggestion for letting the comments simmer a day or two is right on.


Anonymous said...


Don't fear, you've got a great book in the making. I'm anxious to read more.

I've been receiving rejections for years now. In the beginning (no I haven't been alive that long...regardless of what my kids and grandkids think), I either got no answer or a slip of paper with one sentence memographed.

Then I came up in the world and started getting letters. Now days, most of them mention my work by title and mention what's good even though they don't think it's right for their press or not at this time.

I used to start sentences with "ing" words. (Having reached the canyon, he turned to face the Indians.) I also used too many "ly" words. Oh yeah, and I can't forget "that" versus "who".
(The girl that arrived late was scorned) Where's an owl when I need one?

Backstory...can't forget that villain. He's bitten all of us, I'm sure, so I won't say anymore about him.

In the words of Donald Maass (N.Y. Agent and author and teacher of Writing The Breakout Novel) "Action on every page" "If your readers are getting too comfortable with one of your secondary characters, kill him." (the character...not the reader!)
"Ramp up the action" "Keep the momenteum going"

In my own words, don't hover like a helicopter, bulldoze forward like an Army tank.


Sally Kilpatrick said...

That's great! I have had a few heroes who were too feminine, and I think there have been a few sighfests here and there.

I like those "ing" sentences, too. I try to watch the adverbs after reading an article in Writer's Digest, but who knows if I'm actually following that advice.

I shall bulldoze forward!

Ana Aragón said...


I am the world's worst (or best) procrastinator when it comes to writing. And now I'm taking online courses for my master's degree and, guess what?'s all writing!

I love, love, love critique partners. The more, the merrier. But one thing I've learned over time is that you have to know your own style, your own voice, to use their critiques to advantage. My first story was a mishmash of voices because every critique I got, I made the changes suggested. What a mess! That story has got to be rewritten sometime, because I absolutely loved it when I started writing it!


Sally Kilpatrick said...


That is such a great point. You will lose your voice if you listen to every little thing that someone says. The longer I write the more I realize the importance of letting all those comments age a little before I sift through them.


Susan May said...

Much not very bright mistakes a numerous. I can't for some reason put and ed on the end of any verb. I can't read my on material and find all the mistakes. Sometimes I rush work out and pay dearly for it. Critique partners are great helping with all of these. Even with these continuing problems I am getting better. What is the saying if you can see it, you can fix it. I just wish the fix came faster.

Linsey Lanier said...

Anna DeStefano helped me see I still have back story problems in the last March workshop. Tammy S helped me to see one of my heroines was unsympathetic. Our friend Pamela who drops by from time to time is my beta reader and has done a lot of critiquing of my heroes and heroines as well.

I know it stings to hear what's wrong with our work. But whether we feel crushed or outraged or both (guilty), we need people to help us get better at our writing. What would we do without these generous critiquers? I know I wouldn't have gotten this far.

Great post, Sally.

A Yoda-style post would be a hoot. Hope you do it!


Sally Kilpatrick said...

Funny, Susan on the start of your post. May those -ed verbs come to you.

Welcome to the Over Eager Back Story Club! I also have a membership in the Sometimes Unsympathetic Character Club. Oh, and start on the Yoda post I must!

Nicki Salcedo said...

This is great, Sally. I get by with a lot a lot a lot of help from my friends!

Carol Burnside said...

Good to know I'm not the only procrastinator.

Growing that thick skin isn't easy, is it? Thank goodness writers are a giving and forgiving bunch!