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Critique – A Survival Guide

So… my NWS report arrived. It came in the post on a lovely sunny day. The birds were tweeting as I sat down in a comfy chair with a coffee at my side and read it, absorbed it, re-edited and now I have the best book in the world as a result.

Did you believe me then? Did I sound laid-back and relaxed enough? Don’t tell me – it was the lovely, sunny day bit that gave me away. It’s not true of course. Nothing relaxed about me when it comes to getting feedback and reacting to a critique.

Here’s my real reaction: AAAAAH! MY NWS REPORT HAS ARRIVED. Oh blimey, it’s NINE PAGES LONG. That’s NINE A4 PAGES OF STUFF WRONG WITH MY BOOK! NINE PAGES OF MISTAKES! I’VE WRITTEN THE WORST BOOK IN THE WORLD!

Having discussed this with my fellow Romaniacs and realised it’s not just me who turns into a whimpering, gibbering wreck at the thump of an envelope on the mat, I thought it was time for some tips on how to survive and get the most out of a critique.

  1. When the envelope comes and you’ve had a look and realised the reader didn’t love every single one of your precious words, and you’re ready to give up and think you’re the worst writer ever and what’s the point in any of it, take the envelope and put it in the freezer. This is a technique I learned from Joey from Friends on how to deal with scary books, so I figure it applies.
  2. After a few days, take another look at the report, make a note of all the positives. Have some cake as a reward for your fabulousness. Be brave and look at the criticism as well – read it and if it’s too painful, pop it back in the freezer for a few more days.
  3. While it’s in the freezer, think about your book. Imagine making all the suggested changes, even if they’re huge changes. Go on, try it – it won’t hurt because at this stage you’re only imagining it. Imagine those changes made and then ask yourself – will it be a better book as a result?
  4. If the answer is yes, or even a reluctant maybe, take a notebook (go on – treat yourself to a new one. And a new pen) and start making notes, writing snippets of new scenes, new passages of dialogue. Doing this in a notebook is a lot less scary than wrestling with the 90,000 word manuscript.
  5. If the answer is no, that’s okay too. It’s your book and you need to believe any change you make will make your book better. If you don’t agree with something your Reader or Editor has said, think instead about why they might have suggested you change something.  Buy cake and have a good think whilst eating it. You might not agree with their suggestions, but you might agree something needs to be changed…
  6. When your notebook is filling up and you start getting restless and desperate to get back to your book, when you can’t wait to start making some or all of the changes suggested, it’s time to get the book out of the freezer and put the fishfingers back.
  7. Buy more cake. Then get editing.

Vanessa x

(currently on chapter 9 of editing and ready to buy my Reader a drink rather than weep all over her, wailing WHY? WHY? – that was last month.)

PS  – From Celia

I also have the cake and am on chapter 5 of the editing process.  And suddenly I GET IT! Dear Reader, whoever you are, you are a star. You make perfect sense. But I really want to keep one or two of my lovely semi-colons.

PS  – From Jan

Cutting off a suitably large slice of that cake for my reader too. Such wise and invaluable words of advice. Thank you from this much uplifted aspiring author.

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19 thoughts on “Critique – A Survival Guide

  1. My heart sank when I received my report from the NWS. But as I read through it, I discovered the reader actually made a lot of sense. Yes, my heroine is a bit of whiner (not to be confused with wino!) and she does need to toughen up a bit… so I’m off immediately to buy cake, and then get down to tackling the re-write. Thanks for the post. I totally relate!

    • Hi Louise, thanks for stopping by! Those NWS readers are really rather fab, aren’t they? And cake is always the answer to a smooth re-writing process. Good luck!
      Vanessa x

      • Thanks, Rebecca – the cake is definitely helping with the edits!
        Vanessa x

  2. My report from the NWS last year was so helpful but, boy, did I need to do a complete rewrite or what! It did take me a while to appreciate, understand and then implement the advice, it wasn’t something that happened overnight – more like four months. Once I understood what was needed, it took some time to work out how to do it. So all I would add to the above is to take your time, don’t rush, sooner or later you will suddenly ‘get it’.

    I am, of course, stocking up on cake ready for when this year’s report comes back – I will probably buy an industrial chest freezer as well.

    Great post!
    Sue x

    • Yes – a second, special NWS freezer is a good idea. I lost a lot of ice-cream making room for the last one… Thanks, Sue 🙂
      Vanessa x

      • Mama J – around here, someone is ALWAYS saying (and eating) cake 🙂
        Vanessa x

  3. I was so grateful just to be told that I wasn’t wasting my time (this was the first time I’d ever showed the book to anyone) that I was ecstatic when I got my NWS report, just for someone to take me seriously because until then, I’d wondered if I was mad as a hatter… of course, I rewrote most of it but hey…

    • It was the same for me – the first person to ever read my first ms all the way through was my NWS reader and once I got brave enough to actually read the report, I was thrilled with it and doubly thrilled by the improvements in my book once I’d re-written. Thanks for visiting, Phillipa!
      Vanessa x

      • Thanks for your lovely comments, Nicky. Definitely try the freezer idea – and don’t forget the cake.
        Vanessa x

  4. I found it was quite nice to have something to beat, repeatedly, with the fists, while chanting ‘this WILL be a good book’. Because it will. Critique is like prunes, often hard to swallow but very, very good for you. Not that NWS readers are like prunes or anything, obviously, more like yummy strawberries…

  5. Hi Jane, thanks for the comment! The NWS readers are definitely yummy strawberries! No prunes in the RNA 🙂
    Vanessa x

  6. I’m a NWS reader and I have to say it’s sometimes quite hard for us to tell authors what they could do to improve a book, without making these authors feel we’re tearing their books to bits. Although the NWS readers don’t have to reveal their identities to the authors, I’m always happy to do this if anyone asks me if I read her book. My postcode sort of gives me away!

  7. Thanks Margaret, I can imagine how hard being a reader must be and I think you all do an amazing job! I’ve been very happy with all my NWS reports… it does take a while but I think that’s because the negative always screams out at me first – when I’m brave enough to read the report properly, each time I’ve been thrilled with and encouraged by the positive comments. And each time, my book has been stronger as a result of acting on the advice given.
    Vanessa x

  8. Great post.
    When I received my report from the NWS a few years ago, all I could see were the negatives, but when I went back to it a week or so later I focused on the positives instead, and there were quite a few!
    The novel didn’t get anywhere in the end, but I learnt a lot from that report, and it encouraged me to keep on writing 🙂

  9. Thanks for your comment, Karen – I was exactly the same! I had to make myself focus on the positives and learn from the negatives, which weren’t really negatives just very constructive criticism!
    Vanessa x

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