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.