Friday, March 9, 2007

Critique partners and septic tanks

This week has been a little stinky.

For several months, we've been battling our septic tank. Okay, I'll be honest, ever since we moved into the house, there has been one issue after another to come up. We've been living here for over five years. I'm hoping the next five will be a little quieter and calmer and less worrisome where the bathroom area is concerned.

The septic tank repair man was 66 years old and running circles around my 31 year old husband while they installed a new tank and the 220 feet of new field lines were delivered. I, of course, was busy keeping the toddler calm inside the house while we watched the tractors drive all across our yard and dig into the earth using their huge claws. It was quite a learning experience for my daughter. She saw first hand different types of tractors and trucks -- small and large -- all just a few feet away!

Several times over the last two days, I walked outside...I could either go to the front yard or the back yard to see where holes and huge gullies had been dug, or even look out of the side window. Let's face it, the entire area around the house has been dug and no piece of the yard was left untouched!

So I'm walking around inspecting the progress, and I see all these long holes, both deep and wide. And the first thing I think is this is how it feels to get your work back after its been in an Editor's lap, or even after it's been in your critique partner's hands.

Ripped up, torn apart, sad looking...

But once those pipes are laid down, the dirt will cover them and water, dirty and all, will flow free once again. Grass will be planted and the yard will be lush and beautiful again.

Yet, after watching this process take place - the septic tank and field lines installation - I think it's a whole lot easier for a sewage system to work easily without qualm after repairs than it is to get your manuscript back and think about where to begin.

Especially if you've gotten back over ten pages of revisions that are needed (Never had this happen to me - not yet - but I know someone who did - I can't imagine how she felt wading through those deep holes of revisions.)

I'm relating all this back to writing and the fact that I recently asked my crit partner to look at the first 25 pages of my manuscript that I'm planning to send in to a contest. The track changes feature on Word can be daunting when you see all those deleted entries in there. At first, I couldn't look at it, because I've poured sweat over these first few pages for several months. (Not literally, I'm just getting a little dramatic here).

But I knew the critique was something I needed to read with an open mind.

Basically, I need to show more and quit doing so much telling. I need to work on POV and watch my number of POVs.

Darn it, I thought I was doing better at that!

What do you mean? Writing a wonderful novel is more than an overnight process!? That's a ghastly statement! Absurd!

I'm laughing at myself, y'all.

Everything my crit partner said was information I needed to hear. When I talked to her over the phone, I realized I wasn't hopeless, yet, because she liked the story. No one likes criticism of our work, but we have to take it, and get our skin thicker and thicker, if we are to succeed in this business.

Last night, I started going through those pages to consider things to omit, add and polish once again. I'm making a vow not to change a lot, because I know I have got to move on. And these contests will give me a critique back.

I just want to be sure I'm sending my best.

And while I appreciate your reading this long narrative about my septic tank issues and then follow my comparisons of writing with installing field lines, I do have a point.

I want to pose a question to you wise readers and writers, out there in the oblivion of this world wide web:
(okay, it's 3 questions, but who's really counting?)

1) Is it ever okay to stop showing and tell, just for a little bit?
2) How do you know if you've got too many italics while you're trying to display your character's thoughts?
3) What steps should a writer, who is so close to her story, take to decipher the appropriate changes that need to be made and which changes need to be ignored?

This business of writing is so subjective, It's any one's ballgame. I'd love to know your thoughts.


  1. I love to take surveys! :) I'm game for giving my opinion.

    1) Is it ever okay to stop showing and tell, just for a little bit?

    You need to do that every now and then to change or slow the pace--it's narrative. You sure can't show the story in real time! :) And you need some time for the character to think and reflect, which is kind of like telling. But you don't want long passages like this. Just a paragraph or two, then move on with the action.

    2) How do you know if you've got too many italics while you're trying to display your character's thoughts?

    Gosh, I guess that's up to different publishers/editors about how much of that is okay.And it depends on the genre. I do know that personally, I don't like to read more than a few paragraphs like that. The character seems a little too self-absorbed otherwise. I wouldn't do a whole page unless it's for something special like a flashback--which is a whole 'nother ballgame!

    3) What steps should a writer, who is so close to her story, take to decipher the appropriate changes that need to be made and which changes need to be ignored?

    It really does help to be away from it for a while. You can be more objective. I would suggest a month if you can spare it. At least a couple of weeks. I had a story I loved, got feedback from a contest that I couldn't really deal with at the time, so I set it aside while I finished a different book. When I went back to it recently, I couldn't believe how mean the heroine was! At the time I wrote it, I thought she was witty and funny. Oh my gosh, I was so off base! She was horrible. So I guess that 6 months or so gave me some objectivity.

    Good luck with the revisions! Take what you feel is helpful, and maybe get another opinion or two before making any major changes.

    Also, if you haven't finished the book yet, keep plowing away! Don't get stuck on the first chapters like I always do! :)

    Great post, by the way. Very good parallel between the tearing up of the yard and of the mss. :)


  2. Missy,
    Thank you for your thoughts and sharing your experience.

    It is so easy to get side tracked and think, Am I totally doing this wrong? To totally doubt myself in the one thing I truly love doing.

    I know what you've shared will help others who read this too.


  3. I'll add my 2 cents:-)
    1. Is it ever okay to tell? Okay, but do it VERY little. Why? Because it's kind of like listening to someone list their "issues" instead of share their emotion. The emotion is all tied up in the "show."

    2. How do you know if you have too many itallics? If you have them, they shouldn't be noticed. Now days, it seems that folks are moving away from using them. I asked this question of pubbed writers and editors at the conferences (RWA and ACFW) and was told-don't use itallics. It should be seamless and blended into the narrative and showing.

    3. How do you tell if you are just too close or if you should change to accept different critique advice?
    If it changes your story, don't do it. If it has to do with the "rules" then do it unless you are deliberately breaking a rule. For instance, if you are using dialect in dialogue, you do not want to follow the grammar rules because you will change the voice of your character and genericize him or her. However, if someone is changing your wording and it changes the meaning or you are uncomfortable with the verbiage-it's only considered a suggestion and not a change you need to make. What a critique should do is point out repetitive words, honest grammar or format mistakes, missing plot elements. It should not change your story.

    Hope that makes sense...
    Great post!


  4. Angie,
    I was tickled to read that you brought up the question about italics at the conferences.

    I was even more tickled to read your feedback - I knew I had also heard this statement from somewhere else. I consciously cut out italics because I felt like I was almost coming out of POV by using so much of it. It wasn't seamless. The seam started at the italic - you know?

    Thanks again to Missy and Angie for giving their 2 cents! I think we're learning on the FAITH blog!

  5. Hi! It's Lindi. I love your questions.
    1. Is it ever okay to tell?

    I think there are places it's appropriate. There is a balance in a narrative passage. You don't want to wear the reader out. Plus I LOVE to write in first person. So....It's like I"m sitting down telling someone my story. But hopefully the setting, dialogue and interactions between the characters mix in enough it doesn't feel like telling.
    2. Italics?
    When I write a rough draft I use them whenever I want. Then I go back and see what to do with them.

    3. Decide what to keep and what not to keep.
    I think this has different answers depending on where you are in your writing.
    I know when I was a beginning writer and met with a critique group once a week, we were big into changing everything. Sentences, wording, content, motivation....the list goes on.
    Now, that I've been doing this a while, I rarely get a sentence changed. (Unless it's just OUT there!) Mostly it's for content and motivation and plotting--to make sure the story is moving along well.
    So, that said, I think everyone who is critiquing together needs to know what the other person wants for feedback.
    Then, look at the suggestions, pray, see what really feels right to you.
    Thanks for the questions. They were great.

  6. I should have told you that I once bought a house that the woman who sold it lied. She said we had city sewer and we didn't. Guess the day it backed up and flooded my house? Yep, the day I brought my 3rd child home from the hospital. No toilet use, no showers, no water. It stank. Newborn and 2 toddlers. Let's just say it wasn't pretty!

  7. I enjoyed reading both the post and the comments. I totally agree with everyone's comments. I wanted to make one comment about italics: I don't use them for all of the character's thoughts, but I do occasionally use them when I want to emphasize a thought. Not sure that makes sense.

    Anyway, I'm a newbie so what do I know lol.

  8. Lindi~
    I like that nugget of advice you've given about crit groups and looking for content, motivation and plotting. I think you're on to something here and have actually passed this along to one of my crit group members.

    Hi Audra!
    Yes, that makes perfect sense. I guess it's where I'm coming from.

    I've used italics when I'm printing what someone wrote in a letter (their thoughts, in a way). But I think the whole POV thing we are in IS a person's thoughts. Unless you slip into omni POV, where you are all seeing and knowing, I think you are conveying the thoughts, feelings and smells, etc, of your character. I'm for only using italics when something needs to be emphasized. Of course, if a publishing house wants italics all through the novel, I'd be willing to bend a little on my rule :)

    and p.s. to Angie - Your situation you last posted was much, much worse than my problems. Sewage AND a newborn AND 2 Toddlers! I bet that could be an addendum to the book of JOB...
    Not sure if that makes sense! But it's 3 am and I'm a little delirious!