Following up on last week’s post: say you’ve just returned from the workshop, your story’s been taken apart into little twitching pieces, and you feel as if you’ve been beaten about the head with several dozen jellyfish. But you have a stack of critiques of your story, all of them with some important point that needs to be addressed. Now what?

Here’s where we get into subjective territory. Everyone revises differently, and everyone approaches their critiques in the way that’s best for them. So while I can describe the process I use — and will do so to fill up a blog post — I can’t state with certainty that this process will work for everyone.

Based on my experience, though, here are some things that I’ve learned about synthesizing your critiques. Standard disclaimers apply, your mileage may vary, etc., etc.

1. Wait.
Aaaand we’re into subjective territory right away. It’s very possible that you’ll come out of a crit session with your brain fizzing with new ideas. Write those down — you’ll want them later, no matter what. And if you know exactly how to change the story now, if you’ve had your epiphany mid-critique, then go right ahead and start in on it.

Myself, I tend to need a breather after every crit. Sure, I’ll have some ideas, but if past experience is anything to go by, I’ll also still be resisting several of the critiques. Usually, the ones I don’t want to think about right away are the ones that struck closest to the mark. So I try to give myself a little space away from the story, particularly if I’m on deadline for something else. However…

2. Don’t wait too long.
Revisions can lose momentum, and leaving a story in the drawer for too long may mean that it never emerges. I’ve done this with one too many stories lately (see above re: deadlines) and it’s always a shame, because there they are with all the fixes outlined so clearly.

So maybe set yourself a deadline — check back every now and then, and if you can look at the crits and not immediately get defensive about them, that’s the right time to begin.

(What do you do in the meantime? That’s easy. Write something else entirely. I prefer to have different projects in several stages of completion so that I can switch between them whenever I need a rest. It doesn’t even have to be something you intend to polish up and send out — the important thing is that you’re writing, not just waiting for the Muse of Revision to descend.)

3. Organize the crits.
This will vary depending on how you prefer to work, but I find that writing out a list of all the issues with the story helps me. In fact, there are usually two lists, one for major problems (the protagonist has no apparent motivation, it’s unclear what exactly is going on at the end) and one for minor problems (the title doesn’t work, dialogue in the second scene is overwrought, horses don’t work that way). Everything mentioned in the crits goes into the lists, regardless of whether I agree with them or not.

Novels are a bit different. I assembled lists again, but for Wild Hunt I also went through and recopied all the small, on-manuscript comments. This meant that I had just one manuscript to work with and that I also got a sense of which sections had the most problems in general.

4. Decide how you want to address the problems.
For me, this takes the form of another list (yeah, I like writing out long semi-useless lists), this one of potential solutions. Some of this is just for the purpose of brainstorming, some for winnowing out the problems that, upon reflection, don’t seem to be fatal ones. “Ignore this comment” is always a potential solution.

However, before chucking anything out, keep this in mind: if one person tells you that a certain part doesn’t work, they may be wrong; if three or more tell you it doesn’t work, then there’s definitely a problem. This is not to say that you should write your story to fit majority opinion — it may be that all of them saw different problems, but that the part of the story is still flawed in an entirely different way — but that some element is catching people there, and you need to figure out how to smooth it out for them.

So brainstorm. Come up with ideas silly and serious. Go ahead and plot out whole new sections if you need to. And never be afraid to scrap what you’ve written. It’ll hurt — you did put a lot of work into it — but it won’t crumble away into ash the minute you remove it from the story. What matters right now is not preserving the parts that took you a lot of time, but making the story as a whole better.

5. Apply directly to story.
For me, this results in a manuscript copy covered in red ink (or several colors, if I’m feeling ambitious), new scenes outlined in the margin, big Xs through chunks of text, and — sometimes — a story stuffed back in the drawer. I hate doing that, especially after I’ve determined that the time is right to work on it again, but sometimes I just don’t have all the tools.

I also tend to do a broad-brush revision first, taking care of the major issues, not worrying about minor problems yet. That can be done on another pass, once the pieces are all in place.

6. Did it work?
Reread the story. Read the list (or whatever) of crits. Did you address them? If not, does it work anyway? Maybe one comment has been rendered irrelevant. Maybe one solution solved two problems. Or maybe you’ve created a whole new problem.  That’ll take another draft, and maybe a third to polish everything.

Once you’re satisfied with the story — and that’s a whole other mess of subjective assessments — send it out. Then get back to work on the next one!

2 Responses to “Reassembly”

  1. 1 Emily
    July 29, 2009 at 7:51 am

    This is also good advice for revising things like, um, dissertation prospectuses.

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