I rewrote my novel through a critique group but I’ve lost my way

Critique groups are a great way to develop a critical sense and to experiment with what works. And to meet other people who are as dedicated to writing as you are. But too many cooks…

I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.

During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?

Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.

A brainstorming draft

If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.

A learning draft

It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.

Take control

Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.

As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.

Get back to your vision of your book

First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?

Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.

When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.

Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.

Now to your manuscript

Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.

Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:

  • 1 initial gems with rough edges
  • 2 gems from the reworked version
  • 3 don’t-minds
  • 4 rejects.

File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.

If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.

Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.

Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments

Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr

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  1. #1 by asraidevinrai on September 11, 2011 - 7:39 pm

    Dean Wesley Smith has a great post (Chapter) about this problem.

    Other people can tell you what works or doesn’t work for them. You cannot take all their advice. Take what works for you, what you think will make your story better and ignore the rest.

    http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=363

  2. #3 by Irene Vernardis on September 11, 2011 - 7:52 pm

    Hi Roz.

    Very interesting post. I haven’t had an experience with a critique group, except few years ago in a writing forum. But it wasn’t an actual critique group.

    What I can say, as an editor, is that a writer should filter and sort out the critiques received. Not an easy task, but if one can adopt as much an objective view as possible and apply common sense, it will be achieved. Each critique has one or more points that might be correct.

    In addition to your suggestions above, I would say that a very good technique to identify problems is reading out loud. Listening to something one has written will identify errors. Same can be applied to critique points.

    The main problem with getting lost is that an author will either be too protective of the MS (the “my baby” issue) to consider critique points or too insecure about it to consider too much of the criticism.
    A book is a product, so a middle and objective view should be adopted (as much as possible), to make the most of the critiques.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 12, 2011 - 6:12 am

      Good points, Irene. And it’s quite a shock when you get criticism at first, no matter how tactfully it’s given.

      • #5 by peasepodbooks on September 14, 2011 - 8:22 pm

        Excellent feedback, Irene, especially the reading out loud part, though that would have to happen after the critique group because, as ours found out, there’s not enough time. Filtering and objectivity are key, though, and seeing what points get the most attention from critiquers.

  3. #6 by Sheri Fredricks on September 11, 2011 - 7:59 pm

    In my romance crit group there’s all types of writers. Newbies to seasoned, Regency to Futuristic – and every shapeshifting, blood sucking, earl and cowboy inbetween. Knowing what to keep and what to toss is difficult for the new writer.

    A different voice would encourage a person to write a scene or plug plot holes in a different style from the one they’re critiquing. What you advised that should be emphasized is if the same problem is pointed out more than twice by different crit partners, it’s an indication something’s off.

    Every new writer should read this post :)

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 12, 2011 - 6:15 am

      Thanks, Sheri. Yes, we have to look for the underlying problem and not take so much notice of the solutions offered. Especially if it crops up again and again.

  4. #8 by Author JM Kelley on September 11, 2011 - 8:16 pm

    I’m so wary about the idea of critique groups. I’ve never used them, but I’ve seen too many instances of writers being led astray by too much input. I think the problem isn’t so much the critique group itself, as it is writers letting others take over the writing, in a sense.

    I’m protective of my words. I want to tell my own story. I don’t want my story written the way ten other people might write it. It’s literary contamination, in my eyes.

    I have a couple beta readers. They give me input. One gives me a lot more input, but the key is this: she understands my writing. She gives her opinion based on my writing history. And as the writer, I take her words under consideration. I don’t let her rewrite my story. Often times, I agree with her, as she’s voicing thoughts I’ve had on my own. If I have a concern about a portion, and she voices the same concern, I know I need to change course. If I feel strongly about a portion and she feels something very different, I will either try to find a middle ground, weigh whether her thoughts help the story, or decide if I prefer my original version.

    This is your story and nobody else’s. Input is always a wonderful tool, but letting other viewpoints take control over your own is a recipe for disaster.

    • #9 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 12, 2011 - 6:17 am

      Sounds like you’ve found a good partner whose input you trust – that’s invaluable. We always need someone to point out our blind spots – but finding that someone is tricky.

  5. #10 by Jason Runnels on September 12, 2011 - 2:00 am

    This was a very interesting post. I feel very strongly that new writers should participate in some form of a critique group, but as you point out “the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive”. Unfortunately, I think this tends to be the norm rather than the exception. Having their work ending up looking nothing like their own can be the least of their problems. Often the new writer can have such an unpleasant experience they question their ability as a writer and quit writing, or they never go back to a critique group. Either way their overall writing suffers.

    The key is to listen when there is a consensus because the group may have a point worth considering. But I like the idea of thinking about their feedback as a ‘brainstorming draft’. Calling it that gives you permission to pick and choose the advice that is a fit for your piece. As a new writer, it can be easy to become intimidated by more experienced writers and simply accept whatever advice they offer…good or bad.

    I also really like your idea of going back to the original ugly first draft to get a sense for what the raw inspiration was for the piece.

  6. #12 by jonnygibbings on September 12, 2011 - 6:29 am

    Well, from my point of view, if you have to hammer a book to fit, it won’t work. But I have problems with these groups. From my experience, there are frustrated writers, envious writers and a fair dolop of haters who write. Can you imagine what some of these groups would have said to the likes of Irvie Welsh “Well, I wouldn’t write it in phonetic Scottish”, would the result have been as good. No. You wouldn’t have read so slow you get immersed in the voice, and as such the plot. Can you imagine what folks said to Will Self? “People do not want the crack pipe made beautiful” was one crit he had.
    Keep it raw, real, from the heart. Leave it to percolate and then iron it out. You are better working with a person of a couple who get your flavour of book to develop it with I think

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 12, 2011 - 9:16 pm

      Excellent points, Jonny. Can you imagine what a crit group might say to Russell Hoban, for similar reasons to Irvine Welsh?

  7. #14 by U.L. Harper on September 12, 2011 - 4:43 pm

    I recently dropped my writing group, temporarily at least. Like you said, too many cooks in the kitchen. Whenever I went to write I simply had too many thoughts in my head to write crisply, with confidence. I agree writers should find a good group but I think it might be best to just use the group to get a temperature read on the story, gather some wits about a few elements and then like one person suggested get to the beta readers and then proofreaders or however you want to finish your process.

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 12, 2011 - 9:18 pm

      I think you made a good choice. Collect some reactions, decide what you think of them, consider whether there are common points then find a one-to-one partner. But not a proofreader. It’s not their job to tackle the content of your book :)

  8. #16 by Daniel R. Marvello on September 12, 2011 - 5:28 pm

    I started a series of blog posts on “what my beta readers have taught me,” and this is one of the topics I intend to cover. I think I’ve mentioned here before that my beta readers have been behaving more like critique partners, which is fine by me. As you say, their input has been invaluable. I cringe when I think of what I might have passed off to an editor had I not received their input.

    On the other hand, I’ve been very careful about how I accept and evaluate their critique. For one thing, I have to agree with them. Sometimes critique partners miss the point or make incorrect assumptions. Their observations still point to a potential problem, but any suggestions they make for fixing it are rarely appropriate.

    In general, I don’t take the suggestions of my critique partners as they stand. The only time I do is when their suggestions fit well within my vision for the story and my deeper understanding of the plot and characters. The story they read is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so all of their suggestions must be considered in the context of the bigger picture. This is particularly true in my case, where the book is the first in a series.

    I’m certainly no expert, but I’m a fellow writer going through the same thing Vanessa experienced. My advice would be to take it seriously when your critique partners point out a problem, but remember that it is your problem to solve. If they make a suggestion that fits well with your vision for the story and your understanding of the plot and characters, then you have a winner. Otherwise, look closely at the problem area and devise your own solution.

    • #17 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 12, 2011 - 9:20 pm

      Daniel, that’s a great idea for a series of posts. And yes, I agree. Critique partners are not you, they do not solve problems in the same way as you. Sometimes their suggestions chime, sometimes they don’t. Great advice.

  9. #18 by Jennifer Roland on September 13, 2011 - 10:16 pm

    I have worked with a critique partner whose advice I trusted and who gave me some great feedback, but never a critique group.

    I also got some awesome feedback on a rejection. The editor gave the feedback with the caveat that I should take it for one person’s opinion and reject it if it contradicted my vision for the story and its characters. The feedback is great, and I intend to use it to inform my revisions, but I love that the person said I could just throw it out if I didn’t agree!

  10. #20 by garridon on September 15, 2011 - 10:37 am

    You have to be careful when dealing with critiques. Just because someone makes a comment or gives an opinion doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a call for action. It only means they made a comment, and the writer isn’t under obligation to follow each comment.

    When I worked with a cowriter, we got a nasty critique from a beta, and it was very clear she hadn’t liked the book. Eventually we discovered that she was vehemently anti-gun, and we had guns in the book. She should have turned the beta down. Eventually we finished the book, submitted it, and agents start rejecting it. Sniffing around for reasons, cowriter went back to that critique and decided that since she hadn’t liked the guns in the story, it must be causing the agent rejections and that we needed to remove them. The book was set during the Civil War and featured soldiers from both the North and the South, and based on one person’s comment, he wanted to do something that would have harmed the book! It’s one of the reasons I’m no longer cowriting with him. It is very easy to get lost in the trees and not see the forest when you’re getting rejected (the reason we were getting rejected had to do with something not a single critter caught).

    On the fix for the story itself: I’d suggest reverting back to one of your older drafts (hope you have backups), preferably before you started making changes. Resave it as your final draft. Then read through that draft and decide what you like about it and what you don’t. Now go through the later drafts and pull out sections that you do believe are improvements you want to keep. Scrivener is good for this. I had three very different drafts and recycled passages from each in my final draft. I just kept the final draft in the main story section and the older versions in the Research section, where I could still see them. Cut and paste means you don’t waste the effort, but going back to where you started means that you’re working with the story you intended.

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 15, 2011 - 7:22 pm

      It is a minefield as you say, but if you can return to your original idea with your eyes opened, it’s worth it.

  11. #22 by Cher'ley on September 15, 2011 - 5:46 pm

    Loved the post. It has happened to me. I got so discouraged, I haven’t worked on my MS for months.

  12. #24 by Cherley on September 15, 2011 - 8:15 pm

    Thanks. I kept copies of all of it. I got some great suggestions. It was my first draft; so it wasn’t so bad. Just have to make sure I know where it’s headed. I’ll. Pull it out in a few weeks. It’s afun story to write.

  13. #25 by Marion Spicher on September 18, 2011 - 10:22 pm

    I have been writing for 4 plus years, and had all kinds of experiences with folks who did not know how to critique. However, I valued those experiences. They taught me the importance of a good critique and how to deliver it. My first manuscript was stripped of my voice and most of the things I valued t, but I now know that first manuscripts are great learning tools, rather like our first tunes on the piano. Necessary, wonderful, fun, new adventures.

    I am still looking for a good critique match, and would prefer no more than a group of three. Otherwise, too much time is spent critiquing the work of others and it cuts into writing time. At this time, I am not going to seek critiques until my first draft is done (on my 3rd manuscript) and I’ve given it a quick once over myself. Otherwise I get caught up in revising, and that defeats the point of the first draft … free and easy writing and keeping the inner critic from squelching the creative muse.

    My worst experiences happened in revision classes … where the instructor had inexperienced writers doing critiques on other new writers, (myself included in the beginning) without adequate instruction on the process. Teachers of “revision classes” might try teaching practice critiquing on writing from elsewhere, and not written by students. Only at the end of good instruction, should they be allowed to view and critique each others work. A poorly handled critique for a new writer is like expecting a baby to understand all the hazards while learning to walk. It can be devastating.

    Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of critiquing another writer’s work is that it taught me valuable reading skills, and increased my ability to catch spots needing fixes in my own work. A great time investment return.

    Thanks for this excellent post. I’m sharing it wherever possible.

    • #26 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 18, 2011 - 11:23 pm

      Thanks, Marion. It’s so difficult to find the right partners that suit your writing, your stage of expertise and your areas of interest. It’s so interesting that you said you felt your first novel had been stripped of its voice after your first critique encounters. However, I think that’s fairly normal for anyone, whether they have good critiquers or not. Everyone goes through a phase where they doubt what they did in a natural, uninhibited way, and then spends the rest of their time trying to recapture what is unique about their writing. It’s a slow process and can’t be rushed. But perhaps with good guidance, it doesn’t have to take as long.

  14. #28 by Marion Spicher on September 19, 2011 - 1:10 am

    As a beginner, I didn’t know what “voice” was, but in looking back I can see why the manuscript no longer reflected my emotions as I wrote it, or what I was trying to say. The story line had promise but in it’s original form, it didn’t have the craft elements to hold a reader’s attention. I’m confident that when I am ready, I’ll find a compatible critique partner or group. I know it is essential to have the extra eyes and expertise to catch what we miss. To borrow a well known phrase and tweak it a bit, “I takes a village to write a book.”

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