How My First 50 Pages Stood up for Critique

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.

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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:

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  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. I need to put more effort into getting into my point-of-view characters’ heads and show their reactions and what they’re feeling;
  5. I need to study story structure and the framework of a successful novel;
  6. I need to move some scenes around because some of them appear to be a bit early in the overall scheme of things;
  7. I need to work on pacing because some scenes seem rushed;
  8. I need to study deep point-of-view;
  9. 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;
  10. I haven’t adequately explained the purpose of some of the secondary characters;
  11. Ms. Lakin recommends that I take her Emotional Mastery course;
  12. 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;
  13. 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;
  14. I need to be sure every scene advances the plot;
  15. I need to remove the predictable, mundane, and boring lines and paragraphs;
  16. 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;
  17. 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;
  18. I have too much dialogue in the manuscript;
  19. Ms. Lakin recommends that I take her course, The Ten Key Scenes That Frame Up Your Novel;
  20. 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;
  21. 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.

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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.

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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.

Janet

33 thoughts on “How My First 50 Pages Stood up for Critique

  1. Janet, I really value your honesty this morning. And love the detail with which you pass along Larkin’s many points. One on my editors (I used five before I finished my first memory) swore by Larkin and I was tempted to go to (is it on cape cod?) her workshop. Finances interfered. Please keep in mind what a gift you’ve got here. Writing is hard work. I truly hope you stay with it for you have much to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Janet. Last week started out a little tough. As a result, though, it turned out to be more productive than most. Susanne Lakin’s comments were exactly what I needed to hear. Too bad I didn’t seek her critique a year or two ago. I’d be in a different place on my journey now. I’d read parts of several of C.S. Lakin’s books about writing, but they’re making more sense to me in light of some of her comments. Thank you for your comments and encouragement!

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  3. Dear Janet, Thanks for sharing your journey with us. You and I are on similar paths. I sent my full ms in for editing/critique in February. Receiving it back “bleeding” with red was a difficult experience. It felt like a body blow, a death in the family. I am beginning to go through page by page and glean the new wisdom I can find about my memoir. Fortitude, dear writer! We’ll transform our work and transform ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing your journey with me, Rebecca. You describe how I felt last Monday and Tuesday…. I took a long walk this morning and talked my way through some things. I should have recorded it, because coming inside and trying to recreate what I’d said to myself was a challenge. I thought I had a pretty good handle on how to write fiction, so this critique was much worse than I expected. Still trying to convince myself “it’s all good.” Needing to work on so many aspects of fiction writing, I feel overwhelmed. It’s hard to know what to work on first! Hang in there, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi. Writing a book is a huge project. Obviously. I admire anybody who is willing to give it a try. You’ve thought things out quite clearly, and you have a game plan. Those are big accomplishments. Good luck. Neil S.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Janet, I just want to say your honesty and ability to focus on improving is really inspiring, and the courage to share all of your story’s weaknesses online is even more badass.
    Really do hope you can improve on all of the points you outlined, and that the novel will be a success👍🏼
    Looking forward to your next post

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It must be fairly standard for critiques to list a large number of ‘negatives’ — so don’t allow that to dent your confidence. I guess criticism comes with the territory when it comes to writing with a view to publication. Reviews must be hell, even when it is a known fact you can’t please everyone. How long have you been working on the novel?

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  8. Thank you, Billy. I felt obligated to do it. I’ve never been called badass before, but I plan to wear the title as a badge of honor. LOL! Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. I’ll try not to let you down, so someday you can buy my novel. I hope you’re having a great summer in spite of the pandemic.

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  9. Thanks for finding my blog and taking the time to leave a comment, Zy. Thank you for your encouraging words. I really appreciate them. I hate to admit it, but I’ve been working on my novel for more than 10 years. The story and my writing have changed dramatically. Sometimes I’ve set it aside for a year or more at a time just to rest from it and then go back to it with fresh eyes. I took some bad advice at one point and took a lot of narrative out of the manuscript, thinking having more dialogue would fulfill the “show, don’t tell” advice that all books about the craft of writing harp on. Now, it appears I have way too much dialogue and not enough narrative. I’ve gotten discouraged many times, but the story just won’t let me go. I feel compelled to write it and try to get it published. I just stopped and visited your blog. Interest in my Scottish ancestry drew me to a couple of your posts. I’ll try to read more later.

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  10. Thank you, Laleh. I’m trying to learn from the critique and not take the negative comments personally. They were all things I needed to be told so I can become a better writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The conflicting advice — that must be immensely frustrating. Do most authors get them done? As opposed to a round of editing/proofreading, I mean. I don’t know much about the business end of writing and I’ve no intention of going for publication. Is there such a thing as going with your gut instinct on this? For instance, what approach feels ‘right’ for your story?

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  12. My dream is for my novel to be published by a publishing company. Virtually all of them will not accept a manuscript or anything from a writer unless they’re represented by a literary agent. Literary agents won’t take on a first-time author who is not playing by the rules. I think all successful authors use the services of an editor. That’s just the way the book publishing business is. I’ve heard author after author talk about how many agents turned them down and, once they were represented by an agent, lots of publishing houses turned them down. A publisher isn’t going to take a chance on a book they don’t think they can make a profit from. It’s daunting. If all else fails, I’ll try to go the self-publishing route via Amazon or another company, but I’d really like to have that “stamp of approval” from a real publishing company.

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  13. I’m sure it will be worth it for you when you make it. I just don’t like marketing, networking, jumping through hoops, etc. Plus my writing is weird and I don’t see a market for it. It would be all pain and no pleasure. I’ve spent ages on here tonight … still getting to know the site.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Janet, thank you for sharing your journey…it’s helping us all to have our eyes opened as to what’s truly expected from us as writers…I’ve learned quite a lot just from your comments and how you’re planning on making changes that were suggested…keep going…you’re inspiring us all 🙂

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  15. Wow! Thank you so much for your comment, Anne! You’ve made my day! My head is still swimming with all Ms. Lakin’s remarks vying for my attention. I want to work on all the things I fell short on, so it’s been difficult so far to focus my efforts on one or two things. I hope I’m going about this in the best way! Best wishes on your writing. Let me know what you’re working on when you have a chance.

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  16. I admire you for sharing the good and the bad and for not giving up Janet. I always wondered why writers say it takes a long time to write a book, however, how is it when a celebrity writes a book it gets published immediately!

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  17. Thank you, Diane. Yes, I’m finding out it’s a daunting road to publication. I, too, marvel at how quickly celebrites’ books get published. Too bad I don’t have name recognition working in my favor. Perhaps if I had committed some awful crime and been in the headlines I could get published without having to work so hard for it! LOL!

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  18. Janet this is an incredible post. You have really gone in depth and in a great measure, taught us so much. I reckon, by reading your processes, that you are very conscious and precise, following clear and constructive criticism and rules. This assures me that your novel will be smashing good like we say! All the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I hope you’re right about my book being “smashing good!” I’m still reeling from all the constructive criticism I got, even as I know in my heart that I needed to be told all those things. I have a plan in place now for an organized way to try to learn what I need to learn so that perhaps by next February I’ll be ready to write a new outline and make some major revisions to my manuscript. Or, perhaps I’m just crazy and on a wild goose chase. Thank you for your continued encouragement!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. No you’re not crazy, you are on a good chase for something valuable and true and you will attain it. It is definitely an advantage to have a professional guide you and I truly believe that following their guidelines will result in success. Best of luck Janet!

    Liked by 2 people

  21. The amount of hard work you’ve put in to study the writing craft should be commended. I’ve worked with multiple publishing companies before as a professor.. They can be very generous with their attention if something really strikes their fancy. I liked to beta test my writings with the college classes I taught as a way of getting publisher attention.

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