Those of you who have been reading my blog for years know that (for years) I’ve promised to get my historical novel finished, critiqued by a professional, and published. You also know that I failed to take that second step until this year.
Since this is called “Janet’s Writing Blog” and is supposed to be about my journey as a writer, I promised somewhere in a blog post that I would report in my blog all the good, bad, and ugly of writing a novel. That includes the important part of getting a professional to critique my work. Hence, today’s post is about the ugly.
In mid-July I decided to go for it! After reading several of her books about the craft of writing, I hired C.S. Lakin to critique the first 50 pages of my 303-page manuscript. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve received her detailed evaluation of those 50 pages. I hate it for Ms. Lakin but, as they say, “Somebody had to do it.”
The Good News
The good news is that Ms. Lakin liked five things about those 50 pages. To be specific,
she thought I had an intriguing premise and story idea;
she liked my couching this murder mystery/theft in the American colonial era;
she liked how I showed Sarah (my protagonist) shaking her fist in the air in pain as her dream is shattered;
she liked how the walls closed in on Sarah as the first rain drops of a sudden downpour pelted the windows; and
she liked how Sarah felt clammy, her heart raced, and everything started going black.
The Not-as-Glowing, Yet Much-Needed News
I don’t know where to begin. Ms. Lakin made numerous detailed comments and asked many questions throughout my manuscript. Proverbial red ink was all over the 50 pages. So much negative (yet constructive) criticism was difficult to swallow all in one evening. Having found out earlier in the day that I need a root canal and a crown on a back molar, receiving the critique was the ending of a not-so-perfect day.
I’ve heard that every writer goes through the anguish of being told their work is
lacking no good. The initial read-through of the critique comments left me wondering if I even knew how to write a coherent sentence.
That was last Monday. After having a brief pity party, though, I got back to work.
On Tuesday, I reread Ms. Lakin’s comments and started forming a plan of what I needed to do in order to improve as a fiction writer. This is what I came up with, in no particular order:
- I need to reread C.S. Lakin’s book, Layer Your Novel: The Innovative Method for Plotting Your Scenes. I’d read the first third of the book some time ago, but rereading it in light of her critique made the book make more sense to me;
- I need to study how to demonstrate emotion in my writing. In my manuscript draft I relied too much on the reader “hearing” the tone and emotion in the dialogue and descriptions I wrote. Sometimes I told what emotions a character was feeling instead of describing those emotions and how those emotions were affecting them physically. I need to work on what the characters are thinking;
- I need to put more time into making the setting of the story come alive so the reader will visual the time and place to a greater degree;
- I need to put more effort into getting into my point-of-view characters’ heads and show their reactions and what they’re feeling;
- I need to study story structure and the framework of a successful novel;
- I need to move some scenes around because some of them appear to be a bit early in the overall scheme of things;
- I need to work on pacing because some scenes seem rushed;
- I need to study deep point-of-view;
- I haven’t spent enough time in the book showing Sarah striving to overcome the inciting incident – which was the premise of the book that I described to Ms. Lakin in my one-page synopsis. In other words, I’m waiting too long into the story to have Sarah actively put a plan of action in place. Her efforts along those lines should be “well underway” before page 50;
- I haven’t adequately explained the purpose of some of the secondary characters;
- Ms. Lakin recommends that I take her Emotional Mastery course;
- Some of the dialogue sounds too modern; however, I don’t want to fall into the easy trap of using dialect that is expected in novels set in the South – especially the dialect that we’ve all been conditioned to expect slaves to have used. I’m adamant that the Black characters – free or enslaved – in my novel will be portrayed as the human beings they were and not mythical stereotypes;
- I need to pay attention to scene breaks and chapter breaks. For instance, Ms. Lakin said when skipping ahead several hours or days, it’s best to start a new chapter;
- I need to be sure every scene advances the plot;
- I need to remove the predictable, mundane, and boring lines and paragraphs;
- I need to explain why William had a will in order for his widow to inherit anything, including her own kitchen utensils. In the colonial era, a wife didn’t automatically inherit anything from her husband or the lives they’d built together. If particulars weren’t spelled out in the husband’s will, the wife was legally left with nothing;
- I need to explain why Sarah couldn’t just free a slave on a whim. Manumission papers or a statement of granting freedom in a will were necessary, but that only becomes evident later in the novel;
- I have too much dialogue in the manuscript;
- Ms. Lakin recommends that I take her course, The Ten Key Scenes That Frame Up Your Novel;
- Ms. Lakin recommends that the best course for me to take is her 8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel. Before taking this course, I need to read Layer Your Novel: The Innovative Method for Plotting Your Scenes and The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, both by C.S. Lakin;
- Although I’ve already written 303 pages and almost 90,000 words, Ms. Lakin encouraged me “to put off writing a whole novel until you get these key elements of fiction writing under your belt. It takes time and practice and effort, but it’s really the best advice I can give you at this point.”
What I’ve done since making that list on Tuesday afternoon
It is said that ignorance is bliss. A couple of weeks ago I knew I had much to learn about writing fiction, but I didn’t know how much I didn’t know or have a good grasp on. Bliss is over now. Reality has set in.
I’ve visited Ms. Lakin’s website to read about the courses she offers and how much they cost.
I’ve looked at my bookshelves and my library of e-books. I own many books about the art and craft of writing. Some of them, I’ve not read. Some of them, I need to read again. Those are on my “to-be-read” list now alongside some novels I’ve been on the waitlist for at the public library for a while. I’ve listed those books (along with writing books I can borrow from the library) in the order in which I think I need to read them.
I started rereading Layer Your Novel: The Innovative Method for Plotting Your Scenes, by C.S. Lakin, as a result of number 20 on the above list. The assignment at the end of the first chapter is to write what each scene is about on index cards. The purpose of that exercise is to make it possible for you to lay out all the scenes in order on a table. By doing that, you can see the natural sections of the plot.
In light of number 21 on the above list, my doing this exercise now is getting the cart before the horse; however, reading that assignment prompted me to look at all 68 scenes in my current draft. With all of Ms. Lakin’s comments swimming around in my head, I was able to readily pick up on some problem scenes as I reviewed the entire manuscript.
I made notes to remind myself to rewrite some scenes in Sarah’s (my protagonist’s) point-of-view instead of a secondary character’s point-of-view. There were some “aha” moments when I thought of new plot twists or thought some early scenes could better take place later in the story or vice versa. It refreshed the entire story in my mind.
As Ms. Lakin recommended in number 21 in the above list, I need to learn more about the key elements of fiction writing before tackling the entire novel. Ms. Lakin compares constructing a novel with building a house. In order to hold up, both must have a solid foundation. And solid foundations require careful planning, skill, practice, and an eye for detail.
What’s My Next Step?
In the near future I’ll dedicate more time to my writing. I’ll read everything I can about constructing a novel, constructing a scene, emotion, deep point-of-view, description of time and place, and speech in the backcountry of South Carolina in 1769.
I’m afraid this means I won’t get to read as much fiction and nonfiction about contemporary issues as I’d like. I will need to read certain types of fiction to see how successful authors construct a novel.
This week’s plan: Delve deeper into setting and description of setting. The question before me this week: How can I write about the setting of my novel more vividly and succinctly in order to plunge my reader into the Carolina backcountry in 1769?
Until my next blog post
Next week I plan to blog about two books I read in July that enlightened me about some issues of racial injustice and some of the lessons I’ve been taught that just weren’t true.
I hope you have a good book to read.
If you’re an aspiring author, I hope you get good advice and roll with the punches like I’m learning to do. It’s definitely a journey.