Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Revision: Thinking of WHY not WHAT

For those of you in the process of sending your baby manuscript off and into the world, I wanted to expand on a previous post regarding conflicting advice.

When reading for critique, the instinct is to try and be helpful. Often, I think the result of that is a critique that offers advice rather than a breakdown of the issues at heart.

This is one of my favorite clips. I really hope no one has received or left a critique session with me feeling like this...

But it transitions us nicely (after a few calming laughs) into the reason you should always focus on the WHY instead of the WHAT: the critique you got very likely could be the reader trying their best to help you with a solution, rather than pointing out something that is actually wrong.

Your job when revising is to figure out if that solution is the right one for your work, or if there is something else causing your reader to make the comment that they did that helps to point to what you really need to revise. How? Ask why.

Let's start with the video. WHY did this gatekeeper start spitballing outrageous ideas instead of directly critiquing the work? Well, honestly: from an outside perspective, and someone who has thrown some pretty outrageous ideas out there, I think probably the gatekeeper just wasn't intrigued by the story.


Well, there could be two reasons: first, the story itself IS boring and/or non-fresh enough to really spark interest and stand out, OR this gatekeeper wasn't the right fit.

There's nothing you can do about an agent not being the right fit. But you should explore whether or not your story stands out in the market AND, if it does, if you've started in the right place - if your characters and voice are engaging enough right from the start to capture interest. And there's where you begin. Research - does your book stand out? And evaluate - are your characters and voice engaging?

Much better than trying to re-work it to be JAWS, right?

Here are a few things you can consider if you're getting responses all over the board, lots of "just not for me"'s, or just want to think about other solutions:

  • What's at stake in your novel? For your characters? Is it strong enough?
  • Does the reader feel like everything will be ok, even if they don't finish the book? (stakes)
  • What's the conflict in your novel? Is it easily solved? (a perceived lose-lose situation is ideal)
  • Does your character have autonomy in the conflict and stakes?
  • When do you introduce the conflict and stakes? Too soon? Too late?
  • Could your readers run into your character on the street and know how he/she would react to a variety of bizarre situations? (voice)
  • Does your character's voice resonate in your readers' heads even after the pages stop?
  • What's your ratio of dialog-to-narrative?
  • Do your chapters end with conflict, or resolution?
  • Is your idea unique? Can you condense it into a one-line hook that doesn't sound like ANY other book? (PW has weekly deal reports you can browse for free FYI)
  • Does your book contain elements not found or not often seen in your genre? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
  • What kinds of books does your reader/critique-r generally gravitate to? How would that influence what they would say? (don't focus on what you *think* an agent wants; what have they sold? Who do they represent? What have they read recently?)

Finally: what did YOU intend?

Find your book's focus. What are your comps? (in THAT genre, published in the last THREE to FIVE years). What do those books do well? What do you want YOUR readers to take away? What impression do YOU want to make?

Have you asked your critiquers if you've hit those marks?

If you need help figuring out the WHY: ask a friend! I'm sure the poor guy in the video above left scratching his head and maybe just thinking, WHAT?! And not sure where to even begin with the advice he was given.

Stepping back can be difficult; so try collecting the feedback you've been getting, and asking for some fresh eyes to help brainstorm: what should I read between these lines?

Keep an open mind...and don't be afraid to step back from a project, either, and write something new. You might not have found your perfect execution yet. You may need time, and more experience as a writer, to grow into it.