By Miranda Paul
You think you've got it:
The final, polished draft of your picture book.
HAPPY! HAPPY! JOY! JOY!
You revel in post-draft glory (is that a choir of angels singing?) and get a surge of energy to fold those neglected loads of laundry.
Of course, nothing pulls you back to reality like laundry.
The joy fades with each towel you fold. Now you wonder—is your manuscript really finished? Better check on that.
You send off the story to your critique group, a professional editor, or anyone who'll give comments. (Never mind that the only comment you really want to hear is, "This rocks!")
After waiting FOREVER (which is really only days or weeks), all the feedback comes in.
That's when it hits you like a steam puff from the dryer vent:
Reading multiple critiques is as frustrating as folding the sock load.
How is it possible to have so many mis-matches?
You boil one person's comments down to, "Loved the ending, hated the rest." The next critiquer basically says, "Hated the ending, loved the rest." Another person writes, "The middle part lags." And yet, someone else's main concern regards the supporting character's left ear. (What the...??)
Enter the critique conundrum. Suddenly, you question everything about your manuscript. You wonder which direction is the RIGHT direction for your story, or if it's salvageable at all. You're conflicted. Inside, you get defensive. You chalk it up to subjectivity, or wish you'd never shown it to anyone.
What do you do now?
1) Stop panicking.
Remember that you put yourself in this position by sending it out into the world. The more people you send it to, the more likely you'll get at least two opposing suggestions. Expect this, because it's what can happen when you submit to agents and editors. Not everyone is going to agree. Keep calm and write on.
2) Don't "boil down comments" into your own interpretation.
If you aren't sure what a critiquer meant (especially about that random left ear thing), ask him or her to clarify. Ask why they think a certain suggestion is a stronger choice. Don't add your own spin on others' words. Understanding why a critiquer felt a certain way might shed new light on the comments. Above all, do more listening than responding.
3) Find the common thread in opposing comments.
Recently, I had someone tell me to make my animal characters behave more realistically, and another person said to make them more ridiculous/hilarious/un-animal like. Each critiquer gave opposing suggestions, but they were about the same aspect of the book. These two opposing critiques were actually pointing me to the same focus elements for revision: character development and setting up the rules of the animal/human world. Finding the commonality rather than focusing on which suggestion is right or wrong will often illuminate other options for revision.
4) Do separate, focused rounds of revision.
Especially if you've gotten multiple critiques, it's often helpful to set a goal before a revision. If your focus is word count, print out the manuscript and only allow yourself to cut words. If your focus is on character, avoid making plot changes during that revision session. Sometimes, it even helps to open up a blank document and retype the picture book from memory—you'll see what is/was most important to you.
5) Remember that it's OK to disagree with or ignore feedback, and trust yourself.
This is your story. If you have a clear vision, or "heart" to your manuscript, and a particular suggestion takes it into a direction you don't want to explore (or already have, and didn't like), trust your gut. The third book I sold never went out to my critique group, and it sold on the first submission. Remember that your job is not to please everyone, especially adults. If you've got good reason, it's OK to break the rules. In fact, it's more than OK. Quite often, it's award-winning.
6) Be mindful of when and how you send out your work for critique, and to whom you send it.
Before you hit send next time—to a critique partner or anyone—remember that you only get that person's "fresh eyes" once. While critique partners can be very helpful, too many can be harmful. Send your manuscript to writers you trust to be honest and constructive, especially those who are currently published in your genre. Make sure you're submitting something polished and worthy of their time, and let your critiquers know what kind of feedback you are (or aren't) looking for.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got laundry to do.
Miranda Paul believes that "A true writer is not measured by the length of her manuscript, but by the depth of her laundry heap." She is the author of One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of The Gambia (Millbrook, Feb. 2015), Water is Water (Neal Porter Books, 2015), 10 Little Ninjas (Knopf Children's/Random House, 2016) and Helping Hands (Millbrook, 2016). In addition to being an instructor for the Children's Book Academy’s course on grammar, she is the founder and administrator of RateYourStory.org, an online service dedicated to helping writers prepare their manuscripts for submission. Follow her on Twitter (@Miranda_Paul) or visit her website at www.MirandaPaul.com.
Maybe it was the arrival of summer. Maybe it was discovering the delightful matilijas that looked like a gathering of yellow-haired angels. Maybe it was watching a scrub jay cling to the tippy top of a swaying pine tree. Whatever it was, it seemed like a day to be grateful, not only for the beautiful scenes around me, but for writing itself, a passion I’ve followed for sixteen years.
Before I began writing, I was a dance major. My days were full of technique class, choreography and performance. As much as I loved the challenge of technique class because of what it demanded--executing the choreography to the best of my ability--when it came to official performances, I always felt as if there was something missing. After weeks of preparation and effort, I performed--then in a blink, it was gone. All that remained was an empty stage. One of the reasons I love writing picture books is that when I’m done, I’ve made something that can be held in my hands and read again and again, the first time just like the last. When you open it up, it’s like opening the curtain on a grand performance until the last page is turned and the literary curtain closes.
I love how writing allows authors the time to get it right behind the scenes. While I sit at my computer, I can whittle away on a manuscript until I can do no more. Then after it sells (of course!) it stays in its final pristine form regardless of what else may befall a dancer (or author), on or off a stage.
I love how as I work, characters emerge and feelings float into being and resonate with something inside myself. Feelings of effort, hope, redemption, or silliness, as the case maybe. Feelings of a new found friend, or a far flung dream finally realized, for characters and authors alike.
Yes, I am grateful for this wonderful stage of life.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles. A member of SCBWI, Lori is a frequent speaker at schools, SCBWI conferences, and has worked as a writing instructor for the past eight years at the Institute of Children’s Literature. Recent picture book titles include Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, (Clarion, 2013), Cindy Moo (HarperCollins, 2012), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault (Random House, 2010), and In the Trees, Honey Bees! (Dawn, 2009). To learn more about Lori and her upcoming books, visit her website at www.lorimortensen.com, or read her blog at http://lorimortensen.blogspot.com.
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