Here at The Critique MD receiving a critique begins the moment you agree to be critiqued and includes your state of mind, your inner talk, and your mental prep leading up to the moment when you get critiqued all the way through to when you digest the feedback and make you revision plan. Yes, that might be longer than your definition, but the lead up and the aftermath are all key at The Critique MD. Plus, I can’t make this Master/Disaster point without that definition, so roll with me here.
My very first novel ever was a middle grade fantasy. It opens with a sentient, five-sided house in our world (I know, Cool, huh?), and inside this house a boy lives who has great destiny in a parallel world. (The last bit is a little tropey but don’t get hung up on that.)
The book failed to sell, but I loved it, so I kept working on it and workshopping it. A theme developed.
In one critique, I was told, “We’re losing interest. Too much backstory. Take it out.” Dutiful and receptive writer that I was, I would make a plan and surgically remove as much of the backstory as possible, diligently working for weeks or even months, and then bring it back.
In the next critique, I was told, “It’s too confusing; we don’t know what is happening. You need to add in some explanation, some backstory.” Dutiful and receptive writer that I was, I would make a plan and as judiciously as possible add in backstory to address the confusion points, diligently working for weeks or even months, and then bring it back.
Guess what happened?
They told me, “We’re losing interest. Too much backstory. Take it out.”
I wish I could tell you that I figured out a different plan at that point, but no. No. No. I continued this slow-motion trundle back and forth between those warring points of Too Much Backstory/Not Enough Backstory over and over like a dutiful windup toy robot.
(Luckily, I at least had the good sense to work on other novels in the interim, or I likely would have chucked it all in.)
The breaking point came when I paid a development editor to read the latest version where I had cut down the backstory for perhaps the bazilionth time, explaining to her the challenge I was facing related to the feedback. I had her read the first hundred pages, as that was way past where I always got the backstory comments. Do you know what she said to me?
“It’s too confusing; I don’t know what is happening. I actually think you do need to sprinkle in a little more backstory.”
Well, that was the paid-for two-by-four that finally whacked some sense in me. It occurred to me that the backstory was not the problem. The problem was that the story started at the wrong place in context of important character events (i.e., too many story-relevant events had happened to the main character by the time the story opened), which caused all the explanation and backstory. Once I got that, I immediately got hits on at least two solutions.
One, change where the story started. Or two, change when those story-relevant events happened to the main character. I chose the latter, dove into the revisions, a few months later was in a critique session with a group of writers and a prominent children’s book agent, and here’s what the agent said about the new version (drumroll please):
“One of the best things about this opening is how you weave in the character’s backstory without unnecessarily withholding anything. We get to discover what is happening the same time the character does.”
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Ha-LE-lu-JAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!
That was years of my life folks. YEARS. Basically, I did what Nathan Bransford cautions against in one of his recent blog posts: I jumped straight into the solutions offered by critique givers. But really it was worse than that, because I couldn’t even distinguish that addressing backstory (the gist of all the feedback) was not only not the solution, it wasn’t even the real problem. It was a symptom of the real problem. And here we arrive at the Master/Disaster polarity of this tale:
MASTERS assess feedback before taking action so as to determine the real story problem highlighted by the feedback.
DISASTERS do not assess feedback sufficiently and can waste a lot of effort and time fixing the wrong problem.
In this case, folks, do not be me. That said, wow, did I learn that lesson good. Sometimes, we just have to be harder nuts to crack, you know?
Which is adorable.
And another upside, of course, is that experiences like this becomes great fodder for blog posts. Trust me, I have a lot more Christine-as-Disaster stories. Hopefully, they will save you some time.
Onward in kindness,
Christine Carron, The Critique MD