(Or, Shake Each Scene until it Bleeds)
NOT AN EDITOR is stoked to have snagged an intern for her first ever interview about critiques. Not just any intern. No. We’re talking *the* INTERN. Well, former intern who has gone on to bigger and better things. I love her posts--mixed with real information and a dash (or ten) of humor—such as this one.
INTERN’s thoughts about critiques interested me not only because she’s worked at a publishing house and an agency, but also because she’s a once-inspiring-now-published author. And, you know, her unfaltering anonymity is uber-cool. Here's what she has to say about critiquing.
INTERN is a former publishing intern who now lives in a barn.
She has published one book and is "working on" a "novel".
Who, as a critiquer/beta-reader for INTERN’s own writing, has INTERN learned the most from, and what did INTERN learn from him/her?
INTERN's most memorable experience of being critiqued was when a writer-acquaintance e-mailed her from New Zealand to say "this story was trash and you obviously don't care about being a writer". It was breathtaking. INTERN is not being sarcastic here—sometimes, you get too complacent as a writer and you need someone to say "what the hell are you doing? you could be doing something really great and you're spending your time on this garbage?" It's rare to find someone both discerning enough and bold enough to give you that kick in the pants. (PS INTERN stopped writing such trashy stories after that experience).
What is the one piece of advice INTERN can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?
Critique with an eye to the big picture, not the individual sentences (that can come later). There's no use quibbling over "azure eyes" versus "cerulean eyes" if the pacing's in shambles or there's no discernable conflict. When INTERN reads a manuscript, she is constantly asking herself questions: Does each scene have a goal? Are the characters changing enough over the course of the manuscript? Are the subplots developing and inter-tangling at an interesting rate? Is it boring?
Often, it's the big-picture questions that will help a person bring her novel to the next level, not the minor tweaks.
When INTERN critiques someone’s work, what is INTERN’s process?
INTERN is definitely a critique-as-you-go-er. As she reads, she types notes furiously into a separate "critique" document. Once she's read the whole manuscript through once (and assembled 10-20 pages of notes), she goes for a really, really long walk and feeds some ducks or something while her thoughts brew. Over the next day or two, she re-reads certain parts of the manuscript and slowly assembles her incoherent rants into useful, organized comments. Then she feeds some more ducks.
Is there one specific thing that INTERN gravitates toward while critiquing?
INTERN is a fiend for scenes. She can't stand pointless or redundant scenes—and once you learn to recognize them, you can't turn it off. Sometimes, authors will write three or four or a dozen or a trillion scenes that convey basically the same information. If you can combine all the redundant, diluted scenes into a single scene, the result is often way more powerful. INTERN always asks herself, "What is this scene doing? Why is it here? Why are we making the readers read it? How could we give it more impact?" INTERN's motto is, shake each scene until it bleeds!
Question added by INTERN: "Ahh, I just got my critique back and now I want to do so many revisions I don't know where to start!"
Take a long walk and feed some ducks. Lock up your manuscript and don't let yourself touch it for at least a few days, lest you fly into a frenzy of massive plot overhauls and character changes that you will later realize you can't really handle. Getting a critique is like a fire drill: Proceed in an orderly fashion! Walk, don't run! Don't panic! OK, maybe panic a little :)
Word of Caution to my crit partners: Beware of NOT AN EDITOR coming down on your scenes. Purchase gauze and Bactine, and possibly needle/stitching thread. You may thank INTERN for this newfound area of critiquerly wisdom.
And now, NOT AN EDITOR will resume using her real name. Or not.