Decoding Critiques

A very long time ago (twenty years maybe?) I read a manuscript by a friend.  Well, I read the first 160 pages before I gave up.  I handed it back to her and said, “I quit reading at page 160 because nothing new was happening, it was the same damn thing over and over.”  And she said, “But that’s when it gets really good.”

I think that’s tattooed on my brain now because, of course, I say the same thing when people suggest that every word of my first act is not genius, GENIUS I tell you.  But I really thought of it this time because I was going through Act 3 and thinking, “Okay, now this is getting good.”  That’s only 84,000 words into the novel.  I’m sure readers will stick with it that long to get to the good stuff.

 Just kidding, I’m getting out my ax now.

There are two difficult things about reading critiques.  One is that they’re telling you that parts of your baby are ugly, and there’s nothing you can do about that because the truth is, parts of your baby are ugly.  So you let the feedback rest for at least twenty-four hours so you can get past the knee-jerk my-baby-is-not-ugly response, and then you look to see what you’ve got. This is also when you fight back the urge to explain what people didn’t get (if you’re not going to stand in every bookstore and explain that to everybody who buys the book, explaining it now will not help) and to rationalize why things are in there in terms of what you need for the book (if the reader doesn’t need it when she encounters it, you don’t need it either). 

Having fought back all the knee-jerk stuff and accepted that yes, those parts of your baby are ugly, it’s time for the second hard part, translating feedback into action.  

So first I go through and find the things that a majority of people agree on, like things to cut–Hotels (18 people said so), Bad Ass Socks (6),  Aliens/Alf Flashback (4)–and cut them.  If they’re important, I’ll put them in later.

And then I look at the things that taken together mean something that’s not mentioned directly but that needs fixed.

Nita’s not working for a lot of people (“all over the place”) and since she’s my protagonist, that is not good.  Comments: Nita needs to meet Nick faster, Nita’s drunkeness is off-putting, takes too long for her to accept the supernatural, lack of emotional involvement.

One of the problems with Nita is that her character shifted in the three years I’ve been writing this sucker.  What I’ve ended up with is a woman who desperately wants to be normal and just isn’t.  That kind of woman does not have psychic gifts because she’d repress them, so no more seeing blood on guilty peoples’ hands.  That’s also the reason (once I put it on the page) that she rejects the supernatural.  So she’s practical, hardworking, and repressing her emotions, especially her anger.  A woman who is repressing her emotions is tough to make sympathetic, so it’s going to have to be in the way she interacts with people (she’s a good person) and in her vulnerability (which I have to put on the page).

As far as getting her and Nick together, I’ve cut 2,000 words out of the first two scenes, so that gets us to the meet faster, but I still want those first two scenes in there to set up expectations and to establish the two worlds that are about to collide.  The 2000 word cut took the first two scenes from about 6000 words to 4000 words, so that’s a third of the opening.  That should have some impact.

I didn’t get a lot of feedback on Nick, possibly because his low emotional affect is pretty common among heroes.  Somebody pointed out Nick’s comfort with the number of demons born on the island seemed odd, but I think that’s more a function of my not developing the back story of demons on the island (not in the book, in my notes) than it is a function of Nick’s character.  I think I’ll leave Nick as he is for now since nobody tripped over him, although I will have to put back a part I’d cut before that had him going after the mayor.

Some people found Button annoying, but I like her, so while I’m scaling back her criticisms of Nita, she’s still going to be exasperated and career-driven.  I cut a lot of the “new” repetition and made it clearer that she’s driving (although it said right there that she was in the driver’s seat, people). The shootings are a problem. Understandably, people find a cop who shoots people unamusing, but it’s integral to the story, so I think I’ll make it clearer that the three she shot were committing violent crimes, and leave everything else in there since her propensity for shooting demons is a big part of her plot.

This is where a lot of the world-building takes place, since there are so many groups colliding in this plot: cops, criminal demons, Nita and Nick’s team, good demons, the Pure Island bigots, victims, criminal humans, good humans . . .

I also cut back the use of italics in some of the dialogue (4 people said to do that).

A lot of people said Jason could be cut, but he’s necessary so I just have to make him more interesting.  I’m ambivalent about Jeo and Daphne, but I can cut that back.  People said that Vinnie should be more freaked by Nick getting shot, but Vinnie’s drunk and upset about Jimmy, so I can see him being slow to put it all together; he’s described as red-faced by both Nick and Nita, not sure if that parallelism or repetition.  Belia’s phone call stays and so does the short scene with Max, although I cut them both back; I’m think the objection here is more that it’s not Nick and Nita than it is an objection to Belia and Max.  I need to make it clear that Rab and Jeo just got to the bar that morning; they’ve been at Motel Styx which Rab says later. Is Joyce the cat necessary? Not if she’s not useful later on, I think.  She humanizes Nita, but right now she’s not doing much.  

Three people said there was too much exposition, too many characters in Part One, and I cut a lot of it.   Others said there were too many characters in the breakfast scene, and that’s a problem because I wanted the diner to seem crowded with Nita’s responsibilities, a microcosm of her life.  So that one I’ll have to cogitate on.  And I need to get a better grip on my police organization and hierarchy, which I don’t really care about but which does have to be plausible.

And that’s where I am right now, have slashed the first part and ready to move on to the rest of Act One.  I’m still looking at comments as I go and VERY grateful to everybody who played along, so thank you all very, very much.

36 thoughts on “Decoding Critiques

  1. I know you will cut it down and make it better, but I am still deeply thankful to have read the drafts, and experienced the parts I loved that aren’t going to make it. Thank you for letting us audit.

  2. I read the draft and kept my mouth, or keyboard, still. I quite enjoyed it all, and look forward to the edited version. Thank you for letting me watch the process. It reminds me of reading an eARC from Baen Books (unedited Advanced Readers Copy) except you didn’t charge me $15. Thanks again!

  3. Since you wrote it and it’s us, we’d hang in there just to see where you lead us.

    As long as the diner scene has Nita leading Nick into temptation (in a fun role reversal way) away from healthy eating and we want french toast and eggs after reading it, you’ll have nailed it

      1. Getting the early set up and establishment of Max, so he doesn’t come out of nowhere any more. The snappiness of the new breakfast scene, that’s great now. And Button, throughout, seems sharper now. And the dumbness of Nita not acknowledging reality is a lot better, though still an issue.

        I still wonder why Nita has to be drunk? It’s such a horrible introduction to someone we’re supposed to root for, seeing her so unprofessional and then drinking more in the bar after all that coffee — it makes her seem like a lush, and just unlikable. Nick, however, is great.

        1. My memory from earlier drafts is that Nita was drunk as a way to get Button to the scene. It certainly does that, but there could be other ways. One that occurs to me: she’s been out for drinks with a couple of the cops and landed up at the bar. Then there’s the shooting, which she doesn’t see, so she hangs back, till her partner turns up in poodle pajamas and she intervenes.

          Just an idea, feel free to totally ignore if not helpful.

          1. The back story on that would be so complicated that it would take up story real estate without moving the plot unless I did something to make drinking with her cop buddies part of the ongoing story. Then I’d have a heroine who hangs out in bars with her co-workers, and that undercuts the isolation I need for her. Argh.

        2. She’s sick from poisoned donuts, who needs more than having been up all night ill to be miserable, cranky and not entirely awake?

  4. This is such a good description of why reading critiques is so hard. I remember years ago, when I was just getting started, I gave a friend a short story to read, and when she’d read it, she said very tentatively, ‘I don’t think it’s working.’ To which I replied with complete certainty, ‘Yes, it is!’

    Since then I’ve learnt to listen, and as you say, not to respond straightaway, because those early reactions are always defensive. I usually walk on the beach and swear a lot. Then I come back and reread the comments and realise that actually, they’re right.

  5. Thank you so much for letting us play. One thing I forgot to mention – very minor.
    Belia’s nickname, Be, kept throwing me off. When I saw it I kept thinking it was the verb, rather than a name. If her nickname was Bel, it might be easier on the reader’s verb/noun brain. Maybe it’s just me.

  6. I love watching a pro at work. (I haven’t had a chance to read anything–it has been an insane year and now it is December in an insane year–but if you have another round in January, at least I’ll be a fresh set of eyes.)

  7. I’m still working through it because shift work is unforgiving, but one thing that needs fixing in part 6 is that Nita mentions to Button that somebody tried to stab Nick at breakfast and gets no reaction.

    She tells her again later in the scene, while they’re looking at Nick’s mugshot, and both of them act as though it’s the first time it’s been said. Given that Button is the first person Nita has told, the first mention feels falsely casual while the second rings true.

    It would probably get picked up in editing, but just in cases.

  8. For some reason your describing Nita as just wanting to be normal reminded me of Daisy (Cinderella Deal). Except, Daisy was also colorful, bold, brave, talented, wise, warm, and a great friend. (Not all at once, but as her story unfolded 🙂

    Nita isn’t normal either, but she seems black and white, icy, and forbidding, except perhaps when she’s around food. I’m still reading the draft but I am having a hard time warming up to Nita. I want to like her, to enjoy being in her world, but it’s rather difficult. I don’t dislike her, but she just doesn’t seem to be any fun to be around and not all that interesting either. Is there anything that doesn’t annoy her?

    I don’t yet see why Nick would be interested in her as anything more than a puzzle and as someone to help him complete his earthly task.

    But I’ll keep reading. It could be I’m just not being patient enough while her story, and Nick’s, unfolds – and I do get that she’s Nita, not Daisy, Agnes, or Minerva. Nor do I need her to be those.

    Onward …. And thank you for the preview!

  9. I don’t know why, so this probably isn’t helpful, but I definitely attach to Nita in that first chunk of her POV. I also kind of like that she’s drunk – I learn that a) she’s overwhelmed b) even when she’s drunk and clumsy with it, her instinct is to show up when people she loves need her c) she’s got a sense of honor, because she tries to keep Button from going in instead of dragging her down and d) even when she’s drunk, she’s a really good cop.

    I think the drunk thing actually works well if you have a competent, repressed heroine. You get to make her vulnerable, but also show how fundamentally competent she is.

    1. Ok, I thought about it more, I think I like the drunk thing because it exists at the intersection of noir (grim, boozy detective who has seen too much gives the lay of the land to naive rookie partner) and comedies about young women bonding as they try to work through the ex-boyfriends, crappy bosses, dumbstruck men, and professional challengers that life throws at them. And I am here for what that delightfully weird intersection means for the rest of the story/ their future as partners.

  10. “(although it said right there that she was in the driver’s seat, people).”

    I decided not to critique or read the scenes because reasons. But it it’s interesting how we miss things that are right there. It never occurred to me that Nita was driving, then it’s made clear with her saying that she called Button.

  11. I know my comments weren’t very helpful but I really did find myself just skimming/skipping words and a few descriptions. There’s a bit in the diner that I felt was awkward, but I figured I was just being nit-picky. When I read I see the action playing out like a movie so I don’t always notice things others do.

    One of the things I found really interesting reading the comments was how differently people saw Nita’s world. Not just the comments about what people skipped but how people either picked up or missed something you’d said or interpreted an action differently than other people. It was an interesting visit into other people’s perceptions.

    1. You’re never going to please all readers because every reader reads a different book. Reading is a collaboration between the writer who put the story on the page and the reader who reads it through the prism of her/his perception, values, and biases. It’s why I find the one star reviews on Amazon so interesting; they’re almost always a reflection of the reviewer more than the book. The great thing about getting this much feedback is that it tends to flatten out the biases which are not in and of themselves bad things in reading. If one or two people say, “You know, the Hotels slow things down for me,” those are just readers who want to get to the action, a perfectly good desire in a reader, but possibly not good for everybody. If eighteen people say, “The Hotels slow everything down and make me skim,” the Hotels go. It has nothing to do with how well they’re written or how interesting they are or anything else, they’re just flat out screwing up the scene.

  12. In other news, my trackpad just stopped working. It’ll scroll but it won’t click, so I now have a mouse attached to my laptop. This is annoying. It appears to be definitely a hardware issue which means hitting the mall that’s 45 minutes from my house seven days before Christmas. No.


      1. Apple 1-day delivery. It’s a hundred bucks more on AppleEducation, but to get it Thursday (next business day) is an extra $100on Amazon so it ends up the same.

        Man, taking my trackpad away is like declawing a cat, just so WRONG.

        I just texted with Mollie and she said she and Josh were going to bet on whether I’d take it in to get fixed or just buy a new one and neither one would take the “get it fixed” option. I will get it fixed because I will never again be without a back-up, but I am NOT going to Rockaway for at least a month until the holiday madness goes away. And if I make it to Thursday with this mouse, it’ll be a miracle. It SLOWS ME DOWN. Also hard to cut things out of a manuscript if you can’t select/delete.

  13. You can probably just Google image search for a small town police dept. organizational chart to use as a guide. Finding articles on small town policing and crime stats might be useful; I studied criminal justice though, so it’s probably more interesting to me than it is to most others. I wouldn’t expect Nita’s department to be large, so the organization shouldn’t be too difficult for you to sort. Small towns have fewer crimes than large cities and therefore usually fewer cops.

    1. I did research that early on, but then I discovered the Witherspoons were pervasive and started to just make things up. I’ll fix it.

  14. I actually like Nita, i’m Looking forward to her relationship with Button. First of all, she gives Button an out-tells her to ask for a new partner in the morning. Secondly, Button is immediately a loyal partner, bringing lots of coffee, warning Nita about the poodle PJs.etc. You know Nita and Nick will be together but Button will be Nita’s friend. One thing I love about your books is that the heroines usually have supportive friends or family. Please keep the scupper scene. It was good and fun and made me kite Nita and Nick more.

  15. I like Nita, and I liked having her drunk in the opening scene, but I was thrown off by her fixing the toddy. I remember her saying that she doesn’t normally drink, but did because it was her birthday (which is understandable–she didn’t think she’d be working, so what’s the big deal), but then she went to a crime scene and fixed herself an alcoholic drink while she was interrogating someone. And, right after she’d been telling herself to sober up in the first scene. That seemed really off to me. The scupper scene was fun, and I loved the description, but maybe she could think her drink was non-alcoholic (like it was hidden in the lemonade bottle or something).

  16. Just want to say that there are quite a few of us who would read the 84,000 words just to get to the good stuff.

    Also, please keep Joyce. I love her!


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