Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Critical Thinking by Heather Day Gilbert

Heather Day Gilbert
My husband recently told me he was proud of me. Not for sticking with writing for five years, refusing to give up…not for homeschooling his children to dizzying intellectual heights…not even for whipping up supper, night after night (admission: sometimes it’s just scrambled eggs).

Nope. He said, “I’m proud of you—you’ve really learned to take criticism of your writing.”

You have to understand that when I started writing, I thought every word that hit the page was perfect. I’d blow off any criticisms as, “They just don’t get my vision.” I’d get upset when my newspaper articles were re-titled.

Then I wrote my first novel. I got some push-back, some rejection. I pulled myself off the floor, re-grouped and wrote another novel—this time, historical fiction.

I did something different with this one. I took popular agency blog advice and I joined an online critique group for historical fiction.

Now, the very word critique probably has some ancient connection with the word criticism--which no newbie writer wants to receive. However, I figured I’d give it a shot and see what all the hype was about.

For my group, you’d load up one of your chapters, then critique three separate author’s chapters. In return, three authors would critique yours. It was tricky at first, but I got the hang of it.

As others’ errors jumped out at me, I started recognizing those same errors in my own writing. And as people asked me pointed questions about my chapters, I learned. I learned what worked and what didn’t.

For example, one critter pointed out that “She threw up her hands” sounded a little too much like a stomach virus scenario.

Another seasoned writer pointed out that the trend in fiction is to use action beats instead of dialogue tags. Now, since my novel was chock-full of dialogue tags, I didn’t take this advice seriously. After all, dialogue tags litter the classics, and if it’s good enough for the classics, it’s good enough for me! I should’ve listened—when I later got an agent, one of the first things he edited was my excessive use of dialogue tags.

There was also a writer in my group who knew far more about my time period than I could ever hope to know. He made sure I got every niggling detail correct—imperative for a historical fiction author.

But before long, I was too busy with my editing and proposal-writing, and I had to drop the critique group. Meanwhile, I saw lots of blogs and comments by CBA writers, talking about their crit partners in glowing terms. I shopped around a little, looking for that one person whose advice always resonated and whose crits I always respected.

Guess what? God brought the perfect crit partner to me. Doesn’t mean she’s the only one I have. But if she says something doesn’t work, I know it doesn’t. She is strong in the areas where I’m weak. And she represents the target group for my novels.

Accepting critiques didn’t come easy at first, but like everything, with practice, you learn how to do it right. You have a stronger advice-filter in your head that says, “Integrating that will make my story stronger,” or, “That’s heading the wrong direction.”

Newbie writers, a sure sign of growth is when you’re willing to change your writing based on applicable critiques. I know that query’s burning a hole in your computer, but get your manuscript critiqued by one or two trusted writers/readers before you send it out. Though it takes some time and effort, it will close that gap between you and your agent-to-be much faster.

About the Author
Heather Day Gilbert writes stories about authentic, believable marriages. Fifteen years of marriage to her sweet Yankee husband have given her some perspective, as well as nine years spent homeschooling her three children. Heather is the ACFW West Virginia Area Coordinator. Her historical fiction novel, God’s Daughter, is rooted in the Icelandic sagas. She recently completed an Appalachian-set suspense novel. You can find out more at Heather’s blogspot: http://www.heatherdaygilbert.blogspot.com, or at her FB page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Heather-Day-Gilbert/255797467834948. She’d also love to chat on twitter @vikingwritergal.

24 comments:

  1. I enjoyed visiting here today! Would love to hear others' stories about their critique group/critiquer experiences!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Welcome, Heather! Thank you for joining us! At present, I'm not a member of a critique group, but I have been in the past. Sometimes it's hard to find the time to write your own and critique other's work, too -- especially when the group has more than a couple of members.

    I'd love to hear what other's have to say, too!

    ReplyDelete
  3. You had me laughing at "She threw up her her hands." And I love the reminder to use action rather than speech tags. Somewhere a very early conference I saved an entire sheet of speech tags we were supposed to use! Stuff like howled, hissed, hollered, bellowed.

    Each reminded me of some kind of animal. Sheesh. My characters are humans, thank you very much.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ha! I know, Tanya. I never would've thought of that with the "throwing up" of the hands, but it is SO easy to do (and I've read that in several published novels!). Yes, the growling...might work when you're describing a werewolf talking (a la Jacob in TWILIGHT), but not for humans. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Heather,

    What a great article mapping out the oft arduous journey we're on! Critiques - when you find a good crit partner, it truly is like iron sharpening iron. It's painful at times, but all those extra edges do smooth out when you don't go it alone.

    Soooo blessed by the amazing critique partners and beta readers who don't placate me, but push me instead, toward better writing. So blessed.

    Amen and amen,
    Becky

    ReplyDelete
  6. I owe much of my growth as a writer to my critique partners. We've been together for a long time and trust each other enough to be truthful. There are times when we don't always agree, but our discussions really help us to stretch and see things through another pair of eyes. Most often, we have "ah-ha" and "why didn't I see that?" moments.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Yes, Dawn--those "A-ha" moments can really blow your socks off! And yes, we don't always have to agree. We have to choose what strengthens our stories. And Becky, yes, we have to be bold in our critiques, but the blows are softened when we know our critters have our best interests in mind!

    And Angie, I know. Crit groups can eat up waaay too much time. That's when having one to two trusted beta readers/critters can help you both. You can work on each other's schedules, not on the schedules of a whole group of people!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great points, Heather! Thank you so much. :) I like the idea of beta readers.

      Delete
  8. I thoroughly enjoy my crit partners! They are invaluable. I'm one of those crazy people who likes to have my writing torn apart--in a good and helpful way. Even if I don't agree with a suggestion, I always give it serious thought. Oftentimes, it leads me to something I like better than what I had originally or what was suggested.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that definitely happens, Sandra! You toy with those ideas...try to fit them in...and sometimes something even better comes to you! But those crit partners are so important in that process.

      Delete
  9. Great post, Heater! I believe I'm good at taking criticism--but when it comes to the first novel I wrote, I must be TOO attached, lol. Criticism seems harder to take with that one. I guess because I poured so much of myself into it. :-) Bless your hubby for being so supportive!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, you're SO right, Gwen. That first novel...I don't know if the "umbilical cord" ever detaches with that baby! But it does get easier and easier, the more crits you get, and the better YOU get at discerning which ones to use!

      Delete
  10. Dave Ramsey has said if you want to be successful, see what successful people are doing and do it! (I paraphrased)- that's how I feel about critiquing. It's a piece of the puzzle to becoming successful. (And success means different things to each of us)

    None of us could get there by ourselves and I cherish any all feedback I receive from my crit group & crit partner. And I give critiques when asked. For me, it's all about teamwork in achieving the same goals. Helping each other on the journey of writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly, Nichole! You know what just melts my heart? When writers who are a few steps ahead of me reach back and help pull me out of the trenches. Encouraging, mentoring, even just reading a little bit of what I write...those things stick with you and help you keep plugging away! Glad you have people in your life like that!

      Delete
  11. Heather, a great crit partner is worth her weight in Canadian chocolate!!! I have a few that without whom, I know I'd have been lost and alone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And the value of Canadian chocolate cannot be underestimated! Exactly, Jennifer--it's so hard to do this alone and have any motivation to keep going. I did it for a few years, and I didn't get too far too fast. You stretch and flex and grow as a writer when you finally venture out for outside feedback. Hard to do with that first book-baby, as Gwen mentioned above, but definitely worth it!

      Delete
  12. Oh my gosh I typed "Heater" lol...Forgive my clumsy fingers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will answer to "Heater," Gwen. I once had a nephew that thought my name was "Leather." Hee.

      Delete
  13. Excellent illustration of just what a GOOD CP can do for you! Mine is indispensable!! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, DL, they really are! It takes time to find the right one/s, but it's worth looking around and asking around.

      Delete
  14. Great post Heather. Great to receive the positive encouragement from your hubby, too.

    Making ourselves vulnerable to criticism is a scary prospect, but necessary to improve our craft. I had a couple of editors who have been invaluable in teaching me how to write & self-edit, improving the MS significantly.

    I always acknowledge I'm a work-in-progress (still a beginner, really) so appreciate receiving feedback, even if it is tough.

    I like the idea of the 2-beta readers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, yes, Ian--a real-live editor can make a HUGE difference in your MS, when you get to that level! Interesting how there are line-edits and content edits. My primary beta/critter is excellent with both, so I'm doubly blessed.

      There's also that issue of not having TOO MANY betas/critters--and sometimes "too many cooks spoil the broth," or some such cliched quote. Meaning, you can get so much feedback, you don't know WHICH feedback to use. For the first draft, 1-2 trusted primary readers are enough to keep me heading the right way.

      Delete
  15. Awesome post, Heather. I'm with Angie on this. I used to belong to a crit group but found that reading so many manuscripts as well as working on mine ate so much time. I do pass ideas by my hubby, who does a great job of shooting them down or inspiring others. A couple beta readers sounds like a good alternative. Not to my hubby, mind you...lol

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha--Dora--I wish I could read stuff to my hubby. BUT when I started my first novel, he shot down something crucial (I thought!) to the plotline. Ever since then, I've been like, "You can read them when they're published!" Maybe I should give him a second chance someday. But it's hard to take crits from your nearest and dearest.

      Delete

We'd love to hear your thoughts! Please leave comments. We'll moderate and post them!