Revisions and revisions: A never-ending cycle

Happy Easter, my friends! As I mentioned in my last blog post, revisions for the next draft of The Thieves of Traska are currently underway. It’s been a little tricky to find time to write and edit now that I’m working 30-40 hours a week at the patisserie. I’m still rearranging a few things so I can write every day and (try) to blog every week. I think aiming for a blog post on Mondays will work better. Fingers crossed!

A week ago, I had no idea how I was going to revise Thieves. I had a list of problems, courtesy of my beta readers, and a vague idea of what would fix them. But I also had a list of responses that I wasn’t sure what to do about:

  • “The chapters feel too short.”
  • “I’m not sure why Garrison sticks around.”
  • “It doesn’t feel like anything connects to a bigger scheme.”
  • “Not enough really happens in the beginning to compel me forward.”
  • “The pacing is too slow.”

Alright, redistributing where the chapters begin and end wasn’t too hard. I wrote out all the events on my whiteboard and figured out where it made the most sense to put breaks. That left a few blanks to fill in, but I’d figure that out later.

More than a few blanks, since the picture I took before erasing my board is a little fuzzy in spots. (Spoilers all over that board.)

Why does Garrison stick with Claire? According to enough of my readers, it had to be because he has a crush on her. Since that is not the real reason, I need to tweak his dialogue in places so that it becomes clear. I’m still bouncing ideas off of people on how to make it make sense.

Those last three comments drove me crazy. Nothing connects to a larger plot?! Nothing happens in the beginning?! What is wrong with the pacing?!

Asking my readers didn’t offer any clear answers. It wasn’t until I started poking around at what other people said about the pacing in YA books that I got to the heart of the problem.

Everyone in The Thieves of Traska has a personal goal driving them forward. It’s great for their motivation, but it’s not enough for the story. There’s no common goal any of them are working toward together that relates to the overall plot. Sounds like a pretty big thing to be missing from a sixth draft, right? But it’s not entirely missing. There are plenty of little actions that could be connected to something greater if I just add that central point.

So what do you add to The Thieves of Traska to make all the petty crimes Claire commits connect to a bigger picture? Why not some sort of heist? Sure! Now the revisions will include a heist.

What about the lack of events in the beginning, and the slow pace? That one was trickier to figure out. It’s not so much that nothing is happening; the stakes just aren’t high enough in what does happen. For example: when Claire and Garrison are on the road to Traska, one of the highlights of the trip is when they’re attacked by bandits. That’s exciting! But buried beneath a lot of uneventful walking.

Now, instead of mutually deciding to journey together, I have Garrison unaware that Claire is following him. These revisions help build up to the solution to the “why does Garrison stick around” problem. And, by adding the risk of discovery, the stakes are just a little bit higher.

It’s not such a boring walk anymore, is it? If I take the same approach to every chapter, perhaps the pacing problem will be fixed, as well.

Best and Worst of Critique Comments (bonus)

It’s been fun going through the nice and nonsensical comments my peers have left on my short stories over the years. Some are helpful, some are supportive, some are mean and some are just plain funny. They’re a great way to remind my fellow writers — particularly those new to having their work critiqued — that everyone’s got an opinion. Sometimes those opinions can hurt your feelings, but it’s important to look past that for any valuable input you can use. Just like when you read customer reviews on Amazon.com, you tend to ignore the ones that just say “Awful product. Never buying from this company again.” because there’s nothing there to advise you on why you shouldn’t buy the product. For all you know, that guy didn’t even read the product description before he bought the thing.

For this bonus episode, we’re actually going to take a look at some more comments left on the last three short stories I wrote. What makes these comments so special? Well, they come from my professor. I’ll go ahead and give him the benefit of the doubt — it’s the end of the year, the loud class next door has been bugging him all quarter, and there could be something in his personal life really stressing him out. This is the first time his comments have proved less useful and — as in the first picture below — a little hurtful.

Instead of launching into a defensive tirade, I want to use these comments to show you all that even professors, who we sometimes put on a pedestal for all their wisdom and experience, can offer less than helpful feedback.

hunters comments
“I’ll allow this one trip down a medieval rabbit hole, but if you do it again, you’ll start with a C. That you didn’t know if the story is set before or after The Black Death tells me you need to do more research.”

This wasn’t the first fantasy story I’ve passed off as historical fiction for this professor, but it’s the first time he’s responded in this way. This story earned an A, so I’m at least doing something right. But that just makes the threat of a lower grade bizarre. (To clarify, when he said “you’ll start with a C,” he meant that a C is the highest grade I could get if I did everything else perfectly.)

This professor also doesn’t like genre fiction — he prefers contemporary realistic fiction — so I’m taking this particular comment as an opinion of taste rather than objective assessment of quality. Taste should have no bearing on a grade.

sleepless comments
-A Good, if a bit melodramatic at times. She had a miscarriage? Stillborn? Co-worker’s callous remark a bit implausible. Where does he work, or Where did he work? In a silver mine in Reno circa 1870?”

For my contemporary story about the married couple that had a miscarriage, my professor generally felt it was melodramatic. During verbal critique, he offered some rather morbid suggestions on how to adjust the situation to be “more dramatic,” such as turning the accidental miscarriage into an abortion forced by the husband. This question about where the husband works that a coworker would make such a callous comment about the wife seems odd, especially given its phrasing.

Sure, I have years of anecdotal proof that people, myself included, can make tactless remarks without thinking. I think we’ve all said things and realized a few seconds later that, gee, I really shouldn’t have said that. But it’s hard to tell if what I wrote sounds more like intentional insensitivity when my only feedback is a quip. It’s important to explain why something doesn’t work when critiquing.

invaders comments
“A dystopian futuristic Robo Cop War of the Worlds woman warrior swooning techno romance novel? Part of one?”

Perhaps the least helpful feedback (as far as clarity on what changes are needed to improve the story) comes on the last story I submitted. Only the professor read it, so I can’t use my classmates’ comments to help decipher what’s “wrong” here. I guess any mentions of giant machines during an alien invasion will bring to mind War of the Worlds, but I’ve never seen any Robo Cop. Regardless, most writing is derivative of something these days.

What’s not working with this feedback is, again, that I’m not being told what isn’t working. Is it the “romantic voice” people have said I write in? Is the presence of a female character — who spends the whole story freaking out and trying not to bleed out from a gunshot wound — to blame for the “woman warrior” feel? What exactly am I supposed to change for the revised version?

As you can see, my friends, comments you don’t know how to respond to can come from anyone. They could even come from you. If you get responses like this, ignore what won’t help you. And if you’re critiquing someone else’s work, remember to explain why you think a change is needed.

 

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Best and Worst of Critique Comments #5

Ah, the return of a popular series! If you need to catch up on the last four episodes, you can find all of those right here. The guidelines are slightly different from last time; instead of writing an 8-10 page short story, the limit is 6-8. We still had to print off 30 copies and read the story aloud, and yours truly volunteered (as usual) to go on the first day. In my mind, I thought the first day would be next Tuesday so I would have the weekend to work on this. I quickly realized the first day was actually Thursday (yesterday).

Due to this immediate deadline, a pleasantly tiring day at work and me getting sick, I could not write a fresh story. I did the next best thing and grabbed part of a chapter from The Thieves of Traska. It’s an experimental sort of chapter–I sprinkled in a few scenes from her brother’s point of view for a subplot that was difficult to execute when the whole story was told from Claire’s perspective. I wasn’t sure about keeping it, but my classmates’ opinions make me think it should stay.

Without further ado, I give you their comments!

“Great stuff! I’d love to read the rest. Confused as to the timing and how this escape went down.”

“What does this mean?” Written next to the sentence “Well, what was one more palm to grease?”

“I like the premise, but it feels unresolved. Would have liked a cut to what Claire is thinking.”

“I find Reed’s possessive and obsessive nature very interesting, but also creepy in a way.”

“Nice, atmospheric piece. I could very easily envision the scenes that you constructed… I wanted to hear more about what was going down, more about Claire, etc. … It kind of reminded me of Fargo atmospherically.”

“Is he referring to his sister?” The words “precious possession” are underlined. “I would change ‘possession.’ Just … ow. She’s a person. :(“

“I would like some more descriptions. The ones you have are fantastic, but a few more might solve some of the period-confusion people seem to be having (the sheriff and village confusion is bogus though because freaking Robin Hood had a sheriff GOD!)”

“I definitely want to read more! Lots of tension and unknowns. Worried about the guardsmen. Hopefully he likes Claire. Is there gonna be a romance there? Don’t tell me! I think this is super rad and I hope you keep developing it.”

“It feels like a book chapter, not a stand-alone.”

“I like how all of the characters have complex moralities; there’s not a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ oversimplification, especially with Reed and Claire, that felt real, believable, and interesting.”

“There is not much of a resolution and we’re hung out to dry. It’s good to be ambiguous at times, but this feels odd.”

“The use of a sheriff combined with chain mail and tunics is very confusing. Apart from that small detail, the story kept my attention all the way to the end.”

“Wish I knew more of Claire… Kind of want her to take him out in the end.”

“This seems a bit of a unique place to have the story, to end before the action really starts. It isn’t bad but I am left wanting to know what happens … Good narration, good dialogue, and a slight sense of wit.”

“Setting and time have me a bit confused. Would like more dialogue at beginning. I like the gritty characterizations.”

“While the tension between the sheriff and Reed was particularly interesting, I wanted someone to be the main antagonist. I thought that was Garrison, but the sheriff seemed to be that.”

“The very beginning states Reed didn’t want to involve the authorities, but then he goes to the police guarding the prison? Or is he at his last resort? That would make sense. Reed also wouldn’t want to openly admit that he saw Claire after she escaped from jail because he would be arrested for harboring a fugitive.”

“I like it. Sharp dialogue, interesting characters, a page-turning plot… I think you have a great start for a novel here.”

“The characters’ background is unknown thus, confusing. We need to know why Claire was in jail and what criminal behavior she has. I also wonder who the narrator is. Perhaps an omnipotent POV?”

“Was he holding it or did he get stabbed? :|” Next to the sentence “Seeing the tiny blade flash into Garrison’s hand had been a surprise, though.”

“This is kinda suggestive of domestic abuse???” Next to the sentence “It wasn’t anybody’s business how he dealt with her.”

“I don’t think this is really a ‘short story,’ more like the opening to something bigger, which is both really good and bad.”

“I think it’s well written, and there’s even a bit of humor in it, like when the one guard walks in and says, ‘Does it look like no one got hurt?’ lol.”

“The ending could be stronger because I feel that nothing is really resolved. He is still going after Claire just as he was at the beginning.”

“This sounds too painful to kind of brush off, even if he’s a tough guy.” In reference to a cut on Reed’s face.

“This is written very well, is engaging and intriguing, and I want to read this book, I want to solve this mystery. I’m willing to bet Garrison isn’t such a bad guy and Claire sees this in him? Or maybe he has something she wants? Man I have so much I want to know and you do such a good job of pulling me in with just this one bit. I want to know Claire’s character and her past and yeah you get the point.”

“I wish you wouldn’t have stopped right there, as well. It makes the story feel bit off. Or maybe that’s just me wondering what would happen when Reed actually found Claire.”

“Obviously incomplete. Abrupt ending. Couldn’t decide what time period was until chain mail was mentioned. They didn’t have time to draw wanted posters or the money to get paper. Felt like fantasy.”

That last person also wrote this comment, but I have no idea what it says.

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