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Business: Professional Critiques

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011

Professional Critiques

Vicki Hinze © 2001

Having just completed my first novel, I’m considering a professional critique before submitting to agents or publishers. I don’t belong to a critique group so unfortunately I’m the only who has read this novel, and I’m afraid I lack objectivity at this point (it’s the sixth draft). What are your thoughts on professional critiques? And do you have any suggestions as to where I may find one such professional? I would really appreciate your input.

In your situation, I might opt for a professional critique. It would depend on my confidence level in my writing skills. Let me explain.

When we write, we form vivid images in our minds. For many, it’s as if we step into the scene and live it, or it’s a movie, and we are up close, watching the scene events take place. Everything is clear to us, our vision is sharp and direct and clear, our characters are visually and emotionally and spiritually appealing. Their motives are clear. And we sense the emotional tone and the subtle effects of setting through them, so that’s clear, too.

Then we progress to the editing stage, and those images we saw in our minds when creating the scenes revisit us. What is actually written on the pages triggers those initial images and emotions again.

The end result is that we can’t be objective about our own work. The closest that we can come is to let the work cool long enough so that those creative images are dulled in our minds. That takes weeks for some writers, months for others.

A tip to hasten the process: Before you do a final edit, delve into another work, so that you’re creating images in your mind that have nothing to do with this book. Then the creative images in this book can fade from your mind.

Letting the work cool down before doing a final edit is imperative. Otherwise, you don’t know what is actually written on the page or how it affects your emotions.

What you “think” you’ve written very often isn’t what is really there. You’ll see missed or skipped words. Muddy images that aren’t clear or concise. Logic gaps, where you mentally made the leap when creating, but drop off in the canyon when reading now.

You’ll also see common mechanical challenges. (There’s an article on the ones that cause most rejections in the library, titled: “Mechanical Pitfalls.”)

It’s possible, and often happens, that you’ll see motivations you know are strong but come across weak on the page. Setting challenges, where you imaged characters firmly planted in a vivid scene and imparted concrete details that depicted the point-of-view character’s emotional mood at the time, that aren’t as concrete as you thought. Or that don’t convey an accurate sense of the character’s mood.

In other words, when you do a “cold read,” you have a fantastic opportunity to strengthen your work and rid it of the reasons editors and agents have explicitly told us they most often reject manuscripts.

Now, as I said, a cold read isn’t totally objective, only as objective as an author of a work can get on that work. So you need a reliable reader. If you’re confident of your skills, then your reader doesn’t have to be a professional. Readers have wonderful feedback. The key is to make it clear that you’re looking for the truth as the reader sees it and all feedback–good and bad–is welcome. And mean it.

Your mom or best friend is probably not the best person to do this. Their natural inclination is to protect your feelings.

Weigh what you’re told. If it strengthens the novel, adopt the recommendations. If it doesn’t, ditch them. That holds true, regardless of who is reading for you.

If you’re not confident of your writing skills, then there’s enormous value in getting the input of a professional. I worked one-on-one with Nina Coombs-Pykarre, a seasoned novelist of my type of writing who had written over forty books. Now she’s written over 60. Nina is a Writer’s Digest School instructor. At that time, they offered two novel-writing courses. I took both, requesting her as an instructor. When we ran out of courses, I knew I had more to learn before I was ready to write solo. Nina graciously agreed to continue working with me. We worked one-on-one through two more books. Then she declared I was ready to write solo. Frankly, I still lacked confidence in my work, but I trusted her opinion in all things.

There are other ways to go about finding professional guidance. There are book doctors who are editors from major publishing houses. The Book Doctor is one such example. Jerry Gross is another. Jerry was a professional editor for over 45 years. He’s extremely selective on whose work he takes on–because he’s in demand and he takes on only what he thinks has a high sales’ potential, though no reputable pro guarantees a sale. Jerry is great at what he does. He’s worked for most major publishers, created imprints and even started a genre. So he isn’t cheap, but he does quality work. Jerry Gross and Associates. He’s on the web.

For a professional critique, you can expect to pay between $2-$5 per page. Like in everything else, if you want experience and quality, you pay for it, and some do charge more. For me, it was money well spent. I wanted to understand the concepts, plumb the depths, so that I could relate that to other works as well. Actually, it was a bargain. Others have had less fortunate experiences, however, so be aware of that.

Often writers ask for a critique when all they truly want is someone to tell them how wonderful there project is. If you dig deep, are brutally honest with yourself, and this is what you’re after, don’t waste your money. In a professional critique, you’ll get a snippet of “this works,” or “Nailed point of view,” and then you’ll get a two-page remark on how you missed the mark on setting or characterization.

Logically, there’s a great reason for that. The pro is telling you what is wrong and how to fix it. When something’s right, you know how to do it and only need to know it’s right. But when reading a critique, the ratio of pumping your work up and tearing it down is hard for some to swallow.

Fortunately, when it comes to improving the work, most writers develop rhino hide early on and can take the truth as the pro sees it. That’s an important distinction. Rhino hide allows you to take the criticism as criticism of the work, not of you, the writer. And “as the pro sees it” is the best even a pro can give you on content.

Mechanics are a snap to learn. Awareness, time and experience and effort, and you get them down. Non-mechanics, or content, are subjective. Even a pro isn’t exempt. However, they have the advantage of experience and knowing what will sell. And then, of course, you have the nebulous spark that is a gift and just flat can’t be taught. A writer has it, or doesn’t have it.

In the end, regardless of who issues the advice, do what you feel best serves your story.


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