Thursday, August 18, 2016

Editor's Notes #22: The Importance of Having a Critique Partner

If we are honest with ourselves, we would always choose to believe our work is great. I mean, what's not to love? We're creative. We're innovative. We think of things no one else can possibly come up with, because we're smarter than all of them.

BUT . . . what if . . . what if, in fact, we're capable of error? Not us, of course, but all those other people: the ones who are not us. What if our their ideas are not as genius as they first appeared to be during those late-night writing sessions? Who is there to shout, "The emperor has no clothes!" when it needs to be said?

Your critique partner, that's who.

Everyone needs at least one. Sometimes more than one, but definitely not zero. Critique partners are often the only thing stopping a person from making a huge mistake, sometimes with a simple phrase like, "When reading your manuscript, I noticed something . . ."

What is a critique partner? A CP is someone with whom you trade manuscripts with the intention of reading and offering suggestions to each other for improvement. Ideally, that person should be an author. Even more important, he should be an author who writes at least as well as you do if not better. A critique partner needs to be able to look at your work from a number of angles and give sound advice and suggestions on how to improve.

This is not to say that your critique partner can't be a cheerleader, but the biggest, most important qualification when seeking one is honesty. Are they willing to be honest with you so your work will improve, even if it might make you temporarily unhappy? If they write in the same genre as you do, will they allow a competitive spirit to cloud their judgement? Face it: you don't need someone to tell you how he would have written it. You need that person to tell you how to improve what you've already written and called your own. They should be able to sprinkle praise in the middle of it all, but if the feedback is all at one end of the spectrum or the other, it won't be nearly as helpful.

Critique partners are a gentle way of thickening your skin for the not-nearly-as-kind reviewers out there. If no one has ever read your work prior to publishing, or if you've only ever had attaboys from friends and family, then that first negative review just may crush you.

Hey, it's even biblical: "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses" is right smack dab there in the middle of Proverbs (27:6, if you don't trust me and want to look it up). You need to be able to trust the person to love you enough to hurt you, which is an odd concept, but honesty from a friendly voice is always easier to handle when you know that person risks much by their honesty.

Critique partners can be many things, but I'd say "invaluable" is the best way to describe them.

Do you have a critique partner? More than one? Never heard of the concept? Do you go through them like they're disposable? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Editor's Notes #21: DO. THE. RESEARCH.

I could have subtitled this "A Short Rant on Why I'm Not Doing Your Work for You." Seriously.

My name is Lynda. My middle name is Ann, the same as my mom, my grandma, and most of my aunts on that same side of the family (no one was very creative back in the mid-1960s, I suppose). One of my good friends has long maintained that my middle name is Hershey Kiss-Cheesecake, but that's a story for another day.

What my middle name is NOT:

  • Google
  • Webster
  • Language Arts Grade 5, first edition
I should perhaps preface this by saying I really like the people I work with. Some of them I even love. When editing their manuscripts, I always, always want to do my best so their work is at its best. Editing sometimes—okay, always—involves looking things up, fact-checking, spell-checking, and a little research here and there to make sure I'm doing my own job properly. I spend a lot of time in my Chicago Manual of Style, in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Edition (or the online version of it), on a variety of editing help sites, and cuddling up with classics like Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. (Yes, it's a real book and it's terrific.) On my Amazon to-buy list is Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar.

As a copy editor, I correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like. If I am expected to do more, I get paid for doing more. There are times I'll suggest things or make note of a plot oddity—partly because I can't ignore something that may hurt the book, and partly because most readers think an editor is supposed to catch everything, regardless of what type of editor has gone over the book. I don't mind doing things like that, though if the book is practically being ghostwritten by me because the plot or sentence structure is so poorly done, we've now crossed the line into another type of editing and . . . yep, it costs more because it takes a LOT more time and effort.

However, I've run into the occasional author who doesn't know the basics and who doesn't seem to realize it's his or her job to learn them. I don't expect someone to know all the editing rule differences between the US and the UK, or why "riffling" is the correct word (not "rifling") when going through someone's belongings, but I do expect them to know that when people talk, their speech is put inside quotation marks. I expect them to know that an entire book is made up of more than one lonnnnnnggggg paragraph, and I expect them to know a little thing or two about punctuation in general. They may not be as well-versed in using the "track changes" and other editing features in Word that I am, but they should have a basic understanding of their word processing program so they're not completely baffled when I make a suggestion in the digital margin of the manuscript.

I'll give assistance and instruction to a certain point, and then I hit my limit and start to wonder why that person isn't just doing their own research. It takes literal seconds to Google something. That's how I've found out all kinds of things, and I'll bet you have, too.

At what point is it considered rude to say, "You need to figure these things out on your own; I'm not a writing coach"? I will be the first person to tell you what's wrong with your sentence structure, but I can't sit you down and reteach grade-school language arts. Well, technically I can, but frankly, I don't have the time.

When I suggest to someone that their scene is flat—that it needs some textures or smells to make it come alive in the reader's mind—I honestly don't know how to answer a question of "How do I do that?" without actually writing the additions for them. I can't tell someone what's in their head; they need to figure out how to express that on their own.

I love to help people. Sharing things I've learned is something I enjoy. When I get a manuscript, I'm typically pretty excited about it, because it's new, in many cases no one else has read it yet, and there are all kinds of possibilities waiting to tickle my brain. But when someone never lifts a finger (or ten of them) to do any research on their own, my first thought is usually along the lines of, I'm already dreading the idea of editing this book if they can't even figure out basics and won't try. How awful is that?

I love when I'm talking with one of "my" authors and they mention a book they've read recently on writing, the process of it, the polishing of it, or anything that suggests they're researching their topics and constantly in the pursuit of bettering themselves. Something clicks, every time, in my head, and it says, yep. That's exactly why they're so good at what they do. They don't assume they are "good enough," ever.

If you're an editor, have you dealt with this situation—and how did you handle it? I'm looking for a balance between kind but firm, knowing where to draw the line without being seen as a complete jerk. I don't enjoy feeling mean and petty inside but have a difficult time cutting the cord.

Because most of my blog visitors are authors, I'd love to know if you've ever experienced this with a critique partner. Did you ever get stuck with one you regretted, because the writing quality was so vastly different than your own?

Thanks for visiting, and thanks (always!) for commenting! I love finding out what people think.