Silk’s Post #41 — I sat in the straight-backed chair at the head of the table, facing the panel. The hot seat. Four jurors sat before me, two on each side, laptops open and coffee cups steaming. Four faces smiled back at me as I made some forgettable opening statement.
Don’t worry, their expressions telegraphed. This won’t hurt a bit. Uh huh. I’ve heard that one before.
I knew I was starting from behind, with my paltry 100 pages of manuscript. It should have been closer to 400. Sitting before a jury of my peers, I knew I was already guilty on one count: Writing Without Due Care and Attention to a Deadline. As I yielded the floor to my colleagues, I sat up a little straighter, steeling myself for the additional charges that might be added.
Illegal Use of Backstory, maybe.
Violation of the First Five Pages Hook Requirement.
Contributing to the Corruption of a Plotline.
Arrested Character Development.
Failure to Signal Emotions.
Or the worst of all, Author Voice Intrusion.
It was going to be a long day. I looked longingly at the bowl of candy bars.
Here’s what it can sound like when you’re trying to follow a verbal critique: “On page 18” … (I scroll to find page 18, miss page 18 and find myself on page 34) … “blah blah blah your character’s acting like a nitwit blah blah blah” … (I finally find page 18) … “and then on page 72” … (scroll, scroll, scroll) … “blah blah blah brilliant dialogue, well done blah blah blah.”
You really have to be on your toes, and I began flat-footed.
But I got my rhythm. Listen, don’t scroll, that’s the secret. Listen, don’t defend. Listen, don’t read, don’t write, don’t explain, don’t try to atone for your sins. Now, no one can listen to a discussion of their work and fail to react at all, but I tried (with partial success) to keep open ears and a closed mouth. An inveterate note-taker, I didn’t even take notes. I wanted to look the jury in the face and listen to their unspoken words, the ones behind their eyes.
When you’re being critiqued, the impulse to interrupt with “Yes, but …” is almost irresistible. I admit, I did occasionally try to acquit myself. But the object of getting a first draft critiqued is not to convince the jury your manuscript is already perfect as written. No first draft is perfect. As Papa Hemingway so delicately put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
No, the object of getting critiqued is to get some clues about how to make the second draft better. Hopefully, much better. And faster than if you rattle around in your own head for weeks trying to decide which of your treasured characters to dump, or where to actually open the first scene, or how to turn 15 flabby pages into 5 tight pages, or where you can painlessly weave in the arcane details needed to understand your plot.
The problem with first drafts, especially for us unpublished writers, is that we grow attached to them. We love them for their strengths and tolerate their weaknesses. An honest critique – delivered with good will and intelligence by someone whose opinion we value – helps get us unattached. Able to see it through other eyes.
In advance of our “critter summit” at Whistler, BC, we all blogged about the challenges of critiquing. We researched critiquing advice in books, on websites, on blogs. We developed a template for organizing our comments. But, like all communication, the critique process is a two-way encounter: a speaker and a listener. And the best critique in the world will not help the writer who lacks listening skills.
That’s why I was watching the eyes of my 5writers colleagues as they delivered their verdicts. We’re friends. When we declare each other guilty of a writing offence, we try not to inflict too much pain. So I was watching for supplementary, unspoken input: signs of pulled punches, frustration, or, worst of all, pity. And for unvoiced agreement (or disagreement) around the table while each juror made his or her statement: heads nodding, heads shaking, eyes rolling.
What I realized – what we all realized in our 5-day retreat – was that after a couple of years of practice we have actually become pretty damn skilled critiquers (if I do say so myself, and I do). For all five books, for almost every major observation both positive and negative, there was a high degree of agreement around the table. Every juror viewed the work through a slightly different lens, and often had a different suggestion for solving a problem, but as a group we were virtually unanimous in identifying the key strengths and weaknesses of each manuscript.
We’re learning. And not only from the critiques we receive, but also from critiquing others’ work. And hearing everyone else’s critiques. And then discussing them. And then brainstorming ideas to help get a writer “unstuck” with a plot or character difficulty. And then taking advice on board and going back to the keyboard to craft our own solutions in our own voices. We’re learning.
In my own case, the verdict was clear and this was my sentence:
- Smarten up my protagonist so she never sounds witless or allows herself to be used to serve the plot at the author’s whim.
- Make sure the protagonist is consistently driven by priorities. Mystery and jeopardy first. Everything else second.
- Rewrite the whole story in first person.
- Introduce the villain earlier.
- Extract all undue writer cleverness that takes the reader out of the story.
- Tear down and rebuild one major character and his relationship with the protagonist.
- Resequence some of the plot points to make the beats work better.
- Keep the characters in motion. Don’t let them sit around.
- When I scare the bejesus out of the protagonist, make sure she shows it.
I was thrilled with this sentence, as much for what isn’t in it as for the rewrite direction it gives. I wasn’t convicted of serious backstory violations, for instance. That’s progress, for me. I only got dinged for minor author voice misdemeanours, except for my plot-driving-character felonies. And almost all my characters were unanimously acquitted, with the exception of a couple who were released after time served and will be replaced. Even my protagonist got away with a stern lecture, shown leniency as a spirited but sometimes confused youth. (However, she is expected to keep her nose clean from now on.)
I’m wildly grateful to my 5writers colleagues who spent hours reading my partial first draft, deliberating the verdict, and giving me a sentence that will rehabilitate my book and help give it new life.
I will begin serving my sentence tomorrow. It’ll be a piece of pie. I hope.