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I met my husband in 2001 and soon started telling him about a family saga story I carried in my head. I talked about the details often but concluded I hadn’t figured out how to tie the story together. Finally, in 2013, while listening to live music one evening, the idea appeared, the visions flowed, and I excitedly told him, “I figured out the common denominator for my novel.” He responded, “Then stop talking about it and go write.” Little did he know that’s all I would do and talk about for the next two years. I wanted to write and had my spouse’s backing, but I had no formal training.
During those two years, I joined the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group and Lilac City Rochester Writers. When I mentioned I had no college-level writing experience, people told me it didn’t matter. I beg to differ because it was only then that I started learning about peer critique, head hopping, point of view differences, ellipsis, the various types of editing a manuscript needs, and multiple revisions.
I finished the first draft of my very long novel and thought I was done. Yes, you may laugh, and I’m laughing with you. Talk about being naive, lacking understanding, or being ignorant. I remember giving a trusted writer-friend a dumb look when she asked me who I would have edit it and how much revision was I prepared to do. I had no idea at the time that I wasn’t “done” or that an author could rewrite anything another twenty ways before it sounds the best that it can.
In my Veteran’s group, we write memoir or call it historical fiction if our memory doesn’t recount exact details. When we were working on essays for the first book we self-published, we edited each others’ writing by saying, this doesn’t make sense, or if you switched these two ideas around, it would work better. We corrected punctuation and the use of whom versus who, and that versus who when referring to people. We didn’t change the writing but might have asked for more detail or emotions. We acknowledged what happened to the author and were happy to share the experience in story form.
In Lilac City, we have three peer (fellow member) critique sessions yearly. A member is welcome to submit up to 2500 words per session. Each person who submits agrees to review everyone else’s work. The favored genre or experience of any author is not taken into consideration. Everyone “plays.” It’s been my experience that in this situation, the suggestions given tend to veer to the person doing the critique wanting the author to write the piece the way they would have. The storyteller ignores the fact a piece is plot-driven and pushes for character development. The plot writer generously takes the time to explain how to write an outline so someone can get all the information into a neater package. I have heard comments that a piece was “infantile,” not feasible in real life, too long, uninteresting, or the subject matter was not original. Each reviewer does all types of editing. Personally, I have found the process to do more harm than good because I am not good at letting go of the negative and looking for the positive. Most of us are writers, not trained editors.
I recently backed out of a weekly ZOOM meeting called Inklings where participants read aloud their work and listeners offered suggestions for overall improvement. There were four “regulars” at the event and sometimes a new face or two. I did learn a lot in the beginning. Sometimes I can recognize a POV “problem” now, but I can also hear three of the people’s comments whenever I read any author’s work. I will say out loud to my husband while reading a novel, “This wouldn’t have made it through Inklings.” Charli attended one evening and decided, though she did get good feedback, that she could use those two hours more advantageously if she didn’t participate. I came to feel the same way.
On a different note, it took the Inklings regulars about six months to accept and appreciate 99-word stories. When I started sharing them, the listeners wanted more detail, setting, and senses involved. I kept repeating, “99 words.” They finally got it, and I have to admit, they did help improve a few of my “babies” as we called them. In the end, I heard compliments about how I managed to have a beginning, middle, and ending in so few words. I like praise!
When Charli visited me at the end of August, she explained to the members of Lilac City during a day-long seminar the different types of editors a manuscript should have. A developmental editor, which you can find through an association, looks at the big picture of your book, focusing on the organization of material and structure then recommends revisions based on pleasing the target audience. Next, a line editor addresses the creative content, writing style, and language used at the sentence and paragraph level, which is the “art of writing,” and another set of revisions is needed. Next, a copy editor tidies up the text for conciseness and polishes the information, so it is delivered to the reader clearly. And finally, proofreading is done on the final revision, which should be in the form of a galley copy, so the words can be seen on paper in the chosen printed format. Typos and “old maids” (one word on a page) are easier to spot when in book form.
I’ve done so much editing and “peer” critiquing in the past eight years that I can spot the one typo in a David Baldacci book. Am I a friend or foe to my fellow writers when doing an honest critique? I’m not sure, but I try not to be a “dream stealer” and tell them they have no writing ability, or their writing ability hasn’t improved since I met them.
What experiences have you had with “peer” critiques? Have they been helpful or a hindrance? Do you know how to seek out the correct type of critique “peer?” Share your experiences in the comments. And keep on writing, even if it’s only for yourself.
About the Author:
Sue Spitulnik was an Air Force wife from 1972 to 1979, living in multiple states and England. She now resides in her home state of New York with her husband, Bob, and lives close to her children and their families.
Sue has been a participant in the Rochester Veteran’s Writing Group since 2015 and is the current president of Lilac City Rochester Writers group. She has a story published in each group’s anthology. On her active blog, susansleggs.com, she publishes flash fiction written to the weekly prompt from Carrot Ranch Literary Community, where she interacts with fellow contributors.
When she isn’t writing, Sue is creating with colorful fabric in her quilting studio, specializing in patriotic and t-shirt quilts.
NanoReviSo is an acronym of my own making. It’s a nod to one of my favorite drafting tools, NaNoWriMo, which officially began yesterday, but acknowledgement of where I’m at in my writing process this November — revision.
Week 1 began with a bang; I might have broken my big toe. It’s swollen in all the wrong places and is a purple bloom of bruising. It’s my big toe on my left foot which has been my tripping toe for years. It’s the toe that I thought would cause me to break other bones, but ironically, I broke it and on the eve of NaNoReViSo.
It reminds me that I will revise Rock Creek by December 15, “no matter what.” No matter if I feel overwhelmed by the volume of material I have. No matter if I doubt my plot arc. No matter if I have holes in my history that I can’t find plausible answers for, including an entire year (1858) when none of my historical counterparts to my characters did anything. It’s like 1858 slunk into a fog. No matter. I’ll get this.
Even if I did break my toe.
What’s a big toe to a writer anyhow? Well, it can become a distraction. Distractions are why I’ve set an hourly increment to two vital processes, revising and reading. Revising is much messier than drafting. It’s parts of writing: part dismantling, part tinkering, part building up, part organizing, part tightening. When you are dealing with 70,000 words or more, it’s like looking at a Lego creation, one piece at a time strewn across the floor. Reading is yet another part. I need to find unanswered history questions, re-read vital primary documents, read chapters and scenes with a critical eye. Distractions easily upset the process.
Thus, I’m using hourly increments the way NaNoWriMo fights distraction through a daily word count.
I’m hoping to discover revision bliss. NaNoWriMo helped me discover that my drafting bliss occurs at word 900. It can feel like painful slogging to write a scene up to 900 words, but after that, the story takes shape or the characters reveal themselves through dialog and the remaining words flow. Will I find that with revision? I hope so!
My plan is to dive in and not be intimidated by the work I know I need to do. I have historical timelines to shore up and an arc to build from my idea of the original arc I wrote. I might have made this too complex, writing from multiple points of view (POV) and starting with a story timeline that weaves in and out of the 1930s and the 1850s, all headed to a final revelation of what really happened July 12, 1852 at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska Territory. I have to be prepared to defend my theories, my fiction that is rooted in fact and a plausible conclusion.
No distractions 5 hours a day while attending to other responsibilities and icing my purple toe. I prepared by creating to-do lists for the other responsibilities over the next six weeks and by designating a week off, even from those tasks. I prepared by finishing out the last of the firewood hauling from the mountains (and the weather agrees with my plan, it’s now to muddy and snow has hit the higher elevations). I prepared by cleaning my house, decorating with fall candles and leaves, shopping to stock up my pantry and freezer with groceries, and baking a cake.
It was in baking the cake (not hauling firewood) that I broke my toe. Who breaks their toe mixing batter for a yellow buttermilk cake? Me, apparently. I accidentally knocked over my heavy Pyrex measuring cup and it landed square on my big toe and felt like an iron rock. Kitchen accidents do happen, but they seem ridiculous. Sympathy withers when you say, “Oh, I did it baking a cake.” Was it somebody’s birthday? An anniversary?
No, it was just the start of NaNoReViSo.
To all my fellow writers doing (or not doing) NaNoWriMo and to my special NaNoReViSo buddy, Sherri Matthews, go punch someone in the gut! Make those readers feel your words! Stay the course, no matter what.