Beyond the Sandwich Method: What I Learned About Critiquing From My Editors
A while ago, before Midnight Thief went out on submission, I had tea with a veteran writer friend. Amongst discussion of all things publishing, the topic turned to editing. My friend mentioned that early on in his career, he wouldn't have been able to judge good editorial advice. It was only after writing several books and growing in his craft that he had the experience to do so.
I distinctly remember wondering what he meant by good editing and whether it really was that hard to identify. After all, I’d put my novel through several rounds with beta readers and felt like I had a good instinct for sorting through feedback.
Fast forward ten months later, when I got my first editorial letter from Abby Ranger. That was when I realized that I’d had NO idea what a good editor was capable of. The difference between the manuscript I submitted and my story now is the difference between a pencil sketch and a full-fledged oil painting.
And not only have I improved my book, I've also gleaned tips on how to be a better critique partner. Here are some of the things I've learned, both from my first editor Abby and my current editor Rotem.
1. Decreasing the suck Vs. Increasing the awesome
When I critique manuscripts, I tend to focus on things that I don't like. But I've come to realize that it's equally important to be look for good things so they can be emphasized -- for example, noting an intruiging character trait that be brought out more, or pointing out intriguing themes that are hinted at but could be developed. A side benefit of doing this is that you decrease your chances of being “that guy.” You know, the beta reader who suggests you rewrite the story to his personal taste.
2. Ask good questions
Some the best feedback that I've gotten was not in the form of specific suggestions, but questions that help me clarify and deepen my story. What does the character want here? What does she learn? Why does she feel this way?
3. A spoonful of sugar ...
I don't consider myself an incredibly sensitive writer when it comes to feedback, but apparently I'm as susceptible to flattery as the next person. I’ve realized that I get more excited about revision suggestions that are phrased in a positive way. And when you think about it, there are many ways to give the same advice. Saying "The first chapter of your book is boring ” vs. “Your book would be even more exciting if you tighten the pacing in the first chapter,” are ultimately suggesting the same thing, but I still feel more motivated after reading the latter. Both my editors (and agent Jim as well) are really good at this phrasing suggestions in an encouraging way. You'd almost think that they spend a lot of time delivering editorial feedback to writers or something.
So these some principles I've gleaned from my editorial letters so far. After I finish my revisions, I'll blog more specifically (in a non-spoilerish kind of way) about the changes I've been making to my book. But for now, let me turn the question to you. What kind of editorial feedback do you find most helpful?
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Sixteen year old math whiz, Autumn, spends her days reading about serial killers and dreaming of becoming an FBI Profiler. She never dreams her first case will be so personal. Her world is shattered when she comes home from school and discovers her murdered sister’s body on the living room floor. When the initial evidence points to a burglary gone wrong, Autumn challenges the police’s theory because of the personal nature of the crime. Thinking that finding the killer will bring her family back together, she conducts her own investigation using her affinity for math and forensics, but her plan backfires and her obsession with the case further splinters her family. When her investigation reveals the killer is someone she knows, Autumn offers herself up as bait and sets a dangerous trap to unmask his true nature and to obtain a confession for her sister’s murder.