Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A second pair of eyes brings clarity

By R.J. Harlick

Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?

I’m one of those writers who can’t see the story for the words. When I finish the first draft, I find I am too close to the story to see the flaws. I need a second pair of eyes to help pull me back and be objective with my writing.

With my first book, I tried family and friends, but they were of little help. They could only tell me whether they liked something or not. Mostly not, except for my mother who thought my writing was equal to Shakespeare. But they couldn’t tell me why they didn’t like something, which was of little help. If it needed fixing, I had to understand why.

Eventually I found some other aspiring writers, who were also seeking critical eyes, so we formed a critiquing group. We would meet once a month at a local eatery to discuss the latest work. Fortunately for me, they knew considerably more about writing fiction than I did, so through this critiquing process I learned what I should’ve picked up in the creative writing course I never took. 

Each month we would concentrate on the work-in-process of one author. Finally it was my turn and I barely survived. I was so traumatized by their criticism, that I left the session convinced I didn’t have the talent to be a writer. I threw the manuscript into a drawer and didn’t go near it for a good six months. Eventually I summoned up my courage and dared to read the underlined words and jottings filling the margins.  Fortunately with the passage of time, I could put away my hurt feelings and look at their comments objectively and knew they were dead on in identifying the problems with my manuscript. And so I learned the value of a second pair of eyes.

Later I became involved in another critiquing group. We would critique works-in-progress, one or two chapters at a time. This worked well for my first couple of books. Their comments not only helped me with the reviewed chapters but also with the writing of the subsequent ones. But eventually I realized this type of piecemeal review no longer worked for me. I needed those critical eyes to look at the entire manuscript in one go. Edits and awkward sentence structure I could handle on my own. I needed comments on the overall story; its flow, its coherence and credibility as a story, and on the characters; their viability, their depth and breadth as meaningful people.

After six books, I follow a pretty well established routine.  I revise the first draft on my own trying as much as I can to step back to see the story for the words. I then pass this revised version onto two or three fellow writers for their comments. Invariably they find things I missed.  Their insights allow me to take that final step backwards to be as objective as I can.  I go through another major revision and pass this onto my editor, who in turn does her thing. But by this point it is mostly copyediting. Major flaws have already been corrected by the critiquing process.

Whether it is via a writing or critiquing group or through a few key individuals with solid knowledge in creative writing, I’m a firm believer in the value of those second, often third and fourth pair of eyes to help a writer step back to obtain the objectivity needed to shape their work into an exciting story, one worthy of publishing.


Pam said...

Thank goodness you went back to your manuscript. I love your Meg Harris books. We are looking for a second pair of eyes. Hint, hint.

Meredith Cole said...

I'm sorry your first experience was so traumatic... It's hard to hear criticism about your work (especially when it's not delivered diplomatically). I'm glad you found a good group later on that was helpful.

RJ Harlick said...

Actually, Meredith, even though the first experience was traumatic, what the critiquers said needed to be said for me to move on with my writing. So I am forever appreciative of their comments. And they did deliver it as diplomatically as they could. I suppose it was more me. I wasn't prepared for honest criticism of my work. Now I am :)

Susan C Shea said...

Robin, I'm curious. Do you have a reciprocal relationship with the 2-3 people who read your revised first draft? And do you ask them to read for anything in particular? Good post!

RJ Harlick said...

Thanks, Susan. I suppose the short answer is that there isn't a reciprocal arrangement in place, rather more an understanding. If one of my critiquers would like me to review one of their manuscripts I would gladly do it and have done so in the past. The critiquers have changed over the 6 books, although one person has done it since the beginning. Also for several of the books one of the critiquers was not a writer, just someone who was very good at seeing the story for the words and could offer a valid perspective. I essentially ask my critiquers to assess the quality of the story and how well it hangs together and the credibility of the characters. I am looking for major flaws in story and character development not problems with writing technique. Hope this helps.

Susan C Shea said...

Thanks, it definitely does. I'm looking for a couple of readers myself.

Robin Spano said...

Oh wow, that does sound traumatic. Good on you for bouncing back and reading the comments later instead of using the pages as fire fodder. Great post about finding your own system in this industry with no preset formulae!