(Or, I Could Have Done This Months Ago)
I became a fan of Krista’s Van Dolzer’s blog when I first started researching agents. The interviews she does on a weekly basis with agents are fantastic, and usually make me feel like I have at least one more insight into each agent. And the fun part? Some of the agents stick around to answer questions the day their interview is posted. Two words: love it! If you are currently in agent-search mode, her blog is a must. No, really. Go check out her list of past agent interviews.
I found Krista hanging around over at querytracker.net, and her super-sweet comments made me like her even more.
(Not an actual photo of Krista)
Krista Van Dolzer graduated from Brigham Young University with degrees in
Mathematics Education and Economics, which, unfortunately, didn’t teach her
much about writing YA fiction (adolescent development classes notwithstanding).
She lives in Mesquite, Nevada, with her husband and two children and blogs at
Mother. Write. (Repeat.) about mothering, writing, and overusing
parentheses (hence the name).
Here are a few of Krista’s thoughts about critiquing.
NAE: Who, as a critiquer/beta-reader, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?
KVD: I’ve found some wonderful critique partners over the last year, and I must say, I’ve learned something from each of them, especially from the four who’ve read my full.
Myrna taught me that the most time-consuming revision might still the best one. Amy taught me that even minor characters need a sense of resolution. Liesl taught me a really great lesson about similes, which is that similes work best when they’re the shortest, punchiest way to make your point. (I’m kind of a simile-o-holic, in case you were wondering.) And Kelly taught me a lot about bad guys and how to use them effectively.
(I know all of this is good advice, by the way, because I recently received some R&Rs, and some of the agents’ feedback matched up with what these awesome ladies had already suggested.)
NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?
KVD: Critique. A lot. The more you practice, the better you’ll be (obviously). Plus, if you’re offering to critique a lot of people’s manuscripts, chances are, at least some of them will offer to critique yours. Talk about fringe benefits :)
NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your process?
KVD: I only do one pass when I’m critiquing a friend’s manuscript, but I do a lot in that pass. I make in-text comments as I’m going (what I’m thinking at a particular moment; what details, either good or bad, stand out; what doesn’t make sense to me), and I also use Track Changes to make grammatical suggestions.
Every time I finish a chapter, I also make a few more comments in a separate document (what I liked about the chapter; what I didn’t like about it; suggestions for changes, if I have any). Then I use those chapters notes to generate some general comments once I’m finished with the manuscript.
NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?
KVD: I like to think that I try to comment at least a little bit on everything, but plot, grammar, and characters are the elements that I usually think about the most.
When it comes to plotting, I tend to focus on pacing, since I’ve found that’s one of the main issues agents have with the manuscripts they request. And characters are so essential, so I try to make a lot of comments about them, too. Honestly, readers can slog through a lot of tedious narrative if they love your characters and care about what happens to them, so nailing those characters is key.
Question added by KVD: How do you respond to critiques of your own writing, especially negative ones?
KVD: As I’m reading over feedback I’ve gotten from a reader, I can usually divide it into one of three categories: suggestions that I agree with right away (which usually make me smack my forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”), suggestions that I think I might agree with someday, and suggestions that I don’t agree with at all. The suggestions that I agree with right away get my brain buzzing immediately, so they’re not difficult to absorb. The rest of the feedback, on the other hand, I have to think about for a while.
I try to figure out a way to incorporate the feedback that will make the manuscript stronger (because you don’t always have to apply a reader’s feedback in the exact way that she meant you to apply it). I also try to decide if I disagree with the suggestions because I really think they’re incompatible with the story I’m trying to tell—or if I’m just being lazy and know incorporating the feedback will take more time than I want it to.
Case in point: One of my current WIP’s very first readers, Myrna, said something like, “Well, I liked Seth’s chapters, but Adair’s voice and character seem more central to the story.”
My WIP, whom I affectionately call Bob, has two main characters, but one spends more time as the POV character. In my initial drafts, that primary main character was Seth. That was how I’d written the story, and I felt like that was how the story needed to be told. (I forgot for a few months that I’m the story’s creator and, as such, the story only exists insofar as I create it. In other words, I can make the story whatever I want it to be. But that’s another post.)
So I queried the manuscript. I got some good requests. And about six weeks ago, the R&Rs started rolling in. They all said slightly different things, but for the most part, the agents’ feedback was remarkably similar. And I realized that I could resolve almost all of their concerns if I just made Adair the primary main character and Seth the secondary MC.
I could have done this months ago. I’d already been thinking about making these changes after reviewing Myrna’s notes. But I took the lazy way out, and now I’m paying for it on the back end. Bob will still end up in a condition that I’m really, really happy with, but because of my stubbornness, he took a lot longer to get there than he needed to.
Thank you, Krista, for sharing your experiences and your wisdom. I love how you were able to come back to Adair’s character after you’d tried to make Seth’s work. Myrna seems to be a pretty savvy critiquer.
How about you: is there something one of your critiquers mentioned a while back that you resisted at first, but then ended up working the suggestion into your project? I know I’ve done it. Sometimes it just takes a while for everything to gel, and you have to go through that growing period before you can see something work the way it should.