Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Being Critiqued

By Amy MacKinnon

It didn't go well.

Weeks ago, I submitted the first two chapters of my WIP to my writers' group. It was my turn to be critiqued, and truth be told, I was a wreck. I was at a crossroads and badly needed these pages to be good. Having my first book, Tethered, well-received by publishing types should have been all the reassurance I needed. But we are writers and we are required to prove our merit anew (to the world, but more important to ourselves) with each subsequent story.

The other issue at hand was I'd just finished reading the sophmore effort of a writer whose first book was brilliant. This second book was a disappointment. It read too much like his debut, even the characters had the same voice, inflections, physicality. I didn't want to write another version of Tethered so I stetched beyond my abilities. This work-in-progess of mine could not be first person, there would be no present tense, there would be multiple points-of-view and even an omniscient narrator. It was a struggle.

My writers' group was kind, of course. First, they spoke of the good contained within my pages and then told me all that wasn't working: too much backstory plunked in here; slow down the action there; be careful to tread lightly with the visuals in this section; and, no, that nickname doesn't work at all. They were kind and they were honest.

Afterward, I thought I had shown them too much too soon. For me. I was feeling fragile and uncertain, I should have waited. Perhaps this story wasn't what I should be writing. It was hard.

From time to time, I'd open up the document and re-read what I had. Should I proceed? I started another. I liked it very much, it would be a joy to write. Almost easy because I'm so close to it. The research will be a cinch. There is no ease to the research with my WIP. My book is based on actual events, a horror the world turned its back to, but one I can't forget. Reading, and oh my God watching, what mothers and fathers, what young children had to endure left me devastated. I should let go of the story, I thought.

But it wouldn't let go of me.

What I didn't realize (and you may find this difficult to believe) was that each time I reviewed my WIP, I revised it. It seemed too little to meet the demands of my writers' group -- they have very high standards expressed in the kindest possible terms. A tweak here, deleting a paragraph there, punching up dialogue all around moved it forward, though I was certain it wasn't enough.

Last night, they critiqued those same pages. Their hard work and mine was rewarded; they deemed the work up to par. After they finished with their feedback, Lisa asked if the last time had been too much, too critical. I told her it was, that I hadn't been ready to hear all they had to say so early on in the project. But Lynne disagreed. She said that while I may have felt that way, the revision proved otherwise. Hannah agreed the proof was on the page.

I don't know how some writers do it, how they work without the support of others who know what it is to labor and second-guess and obsess over every word on the page. To wonder if the work is good enough and not receive an answer.

Last night felt exactly like the very first time I presented the first two chapters of Tethered to Hannah, Lisa, and Lynne. I was elated and reassurred that I was on the right path. More than that I was grateful to know I have these three extraordinary women in my life.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, Amy, I'm even more envious of your group now than ever. And I know the worry about a sophomore effort--I want it to be better, to show growth, to show range.

And, it sounds as though you are well on your way.

Feel free to bounce things off of me, too, okay?

Lisa said...

I've been studying all of you -- holding you up as the ideal writing group -- and I've learned there seem to be a few things that are crucial to a good critique relationship.

I think the group needs to "get you" and your work and understand what you're trying to do (competence to give you constructive input goes without saying). And I think that if you trust your group and know that they care enough to be as hard on your work as you are, you have it made.

This isn't an easy dynamic to establish. I've just accepted an invitation to join a newly forming critique group. I'll be turning pages in next week for our very first critique session...

Wish me luck on the first Saturday in May!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

I appreciate that, Judy. And I agree that we have something pretty terrific here. I have everything crossed for you and your sophmore effort. That angst never goes away, doesit.

Lisa, a huge journey you're about to embark on, no? I wish you the best with that, I wish for everyone who wants a writers' group that they find a constructive one. We were just saying last night that thereare so many variables necessary to construct a productive group -- personality, a certain level of craft, trust -- that it's a wonder people ever do. We hope to facilitate multiple births when we do the panel at Grub's writing conference.


Carleen Brice said...

I too tried to change it up for novel 2. I went from 1st person to 3rd person, from 1 POV to 2 POVs. But I've been surprised to see how many of the same themes are present in my 2nd novel. I didn't plan it that way, but there they are. Hopefully, it doesn't read like a retread of the last novel.

Wishing you continued grace and success with your book 2!

Larramie said...

It's difficult to imagine the challenge of "besting" a first novel that has already received such early praise, Amy. Yet there's no doubt that you -- with the guidance and encouragement of Lisa, Hannah and Lynne -- will succeed.

What I can't imagine, though, is this: "...we hope to facilitate multiple births when we do the panel at Grub's writing conference." If you succeed, ladies, start franchising!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Carleen, another Shay? I don't think so. She's her own person in ORANGE MINT & HONEY. A fine debut (Target pick,no less). I don't think your next effort will read like the first. As for themes, my books will always explore the same themes -- the forgotten people of this world -- but I'll try my damnedest to ensure they read differently.

Larramie, you are always a safe harbor. When the reviews come in and I need to hide myself away from them, mind if I duck over and wait it out at your place?


Anonymous said...

I like this post, Amy. It shows a certain vulnerability inherent to writing, especially fiction writing. We question so much, it's a wonder we move forward sometimes! But I think in the end, we (and the writing) are stronger for it.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Joanne, my writing is certainly stronger for it. I'm still weak as a kitten when it's time to share.


Allison Winn Scotch said...

Amy, I, too, felt the pressure of delivering my second novel. I found it much more difficult to write than the first, which is silly in some ways because I'd already proven that I was an okay writer. But with those expectations came higher expectations, and I found it almost paralyzing. Fortunately, like you, I eventually found my groove and then cruised along. It's finding that groove that matters, and I'm glad to hear that it sounds like you did!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Allison, that pressure can be paralyzing, so many expectations. You found your groove and then some. Just look at that cover for TIME OF MY LIFE. It goes on sale in October, right?


Eileen said...

Your desire to be better and better is all the recommendation I need. I can't wait to read your book.

Anonymous said...

Your post tells me you are not fighting with the world but yourself, for satisfying that creative urge.
Something I respect, more than NYT lists and the rest.
I do envy your group. Bravo to the lot of you.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Eileen, I appreciate that. BTW, not only did I laugh long into the night reading UNPREDICATBLE, I bought it for a friend who desperately need a laugh. What power you have to spread good cheer.

Usman,earning your respect means quite a bit to me. Thank you.


Patti said...

i need these kind of unrelenting writer's for a group. i will start working on that.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

That and a dress, and then you'll be complete. I wish I could share them with you all.