In 1999, I started teaching the Novel Revision Retreat. In order to come to the retreat, you must have a completed draft of a novel. We spend the weekend talking about how to revise your novel. Many break-through or debut novels have resulted. The workbook that accompanies the retreat is Novel Metamorphosis: UnCommon Ways to Revise. Since it was published in 2008, it’s only been a paperback book – till now.
This is an excerpt from Novel Metamorphosis: UnCommon Ways to Revise, the “Appendix A: I Don’t Want an Honest Critique.” It’s one of the most popular essays I’ve written because it’s an deeply personal and emotional response to the whole process of letting others read your novel. Writing is personal because it reveals who you are. And when that is critiqued – it is disheartening!
I Don’t Want an Honest Critique
No, don’t tell me what’s wrong with this novel. I don’t want to hear it. Minor problems? OK, I’ll fix those. But major structural, plot or character problems? Don’t tell me.
Cynthia Ozick says, “Writing is essentially an act of courage.” When I get an honest critique, my courage fails me.
I fear the revision needed: I won’t ever be able to “get it right.” Obviously, I thought that I had communicated my intentions well in the first draft, or I would have changed it before you read it. But you say that you don’t understand, or that I’m inconsistent, or that I’m unfocused. How could that be? I see it so clearly. And if my vision of my story is so skewed, then how will I ever get it right?
- I fear that you’re right and I’m wrong. But how can I be sure? This is my story and it comes from my psychological leanings, my background, my research. How can you tell me what is right for my story? If the story doesn’t communicate what I want, then, yes, I need to revise. I repeat: Obviously, I thought it did communicate what I wanted, or I would have revised it before you saw it. Do you just have a different vision of the story because of your psychological leanings, your background? Are you trying to envision what I intended, or are you envisioning what you would have written? Where does your ego slam up against my ego? And where does your objective appraisal need to push my ego back into line with what it really wants to do anyway? Perspective is hard to achieve.
- I fear that all my hard work, all the months spent thinking and rewriting, will be wasted.
As a novelist, time haunts me. To write a novel isn’t the work of a week or a month. It takes many months, a year, a year and a half. More. It’s a long, long process. Your revision notes mean that the time is extended, and that without any guarantee of being finished even then. Meanwhile, that means that I’m a year older, that it’s a year in which I couldn’t write anything new (even if I could find the courage to begin again).
- I fear your honesty; I need your approval (or someone’s approval; if not yours, then whose?). Will it crush me emotionally if you don’t “like” my story? I gloss over the approval part of critiques and agonize over the “needs work” assessment. Is there a way for you to only show approval, yet open my eyes, so that I recognize what needs work? I’d rather recognize it for myself than have it pointed out.
- I fear that my standards are too lax. I want to be finished, I want to have this story out there. I want to have written, but in the throes of writing, I want the end of the process long before the story is really finished. Submission comes too early and then I get rejections. Then, it’s harder than ever to revise. But waiting is excruciating. Typical advice: Put the manuscript in a drawer for three months and then pull it out and read it with a fresh eye. What? Waste three more months? Never. It’s done and ready to send out. (Ok, maybe it isn’t, but I can’t stand looking at it one more time and in three months, my editor could read it and buy it. OK, maybe they won’t buy it until I revise, but three months? Isn’t there any other way?)
Critiques, especially honest and on-target critiques, are fearful things. I know that I need them; but they are painful, emotionally draining, and confidence shaking.
But I need them. OK, can you give me a minute? Let me find my mask of courage. There. I have it on. Now bring on your best critique!
Other thoughts on critique of an artist and humility.
Art and Fear: One of my favorite books on the psychology of making art. It deals with fears about our unworthiness, fears of critiques, fears of displaying our art and much more.
Top 10 Ways to Stop the Sting of Critiques
Here are my slightly tongue-in-cheek Top 10 Ways to take the Sting out of Critiques
- Avoidance: Have someone else read the critique for you and only highlight the good comments. Read only the highlighted comments.
- Revenge: Give the creep back an ever harsher critique than you just got.
- Denial: Write out the reasons why the critiquer is totally off base. Ignore all suggestions.
- Excitement: Fake excitement about the critique and tell everyone you know exactly what’s wrong with the story and how you plan to fix it.
- Suspicion: Read each comment with the suspicion that the critiquer is trying to get your manuscript out of the running, so their own manuscript will do well. Therefore, you can safely ignore any comments you want to.
- Surprise: Allow each comment to be a revelation at how far off base this critiquer is.
- Pride: Take pride in your ability to “take it” from the tough ones.
- Loneliness: Understand that you and you alone are in the situation of receiving harsh critiques; such things have never been written about any manuscript and will never be written again.
- Forgiveness: Realize that the critiquer has sinned by so harshly criticizing your story and at some point they will have to come and ask for forgiveness; be ready to give it gracefully.
- Hope: Find hope in the good things the critiquer noticed, and Hope in the process of revision.
What They are Saying about NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS
“I found many books useful, but I found your Novel Metamorphosis absolutely the best for a workshop. For the first time in 18 years of doing The Manuscript Workshop in Vermont, I offered one this year for novels – for those who had a first draft or more that needed revision. The most interesting session was the one where we dealt with the Shrunken Manuscript, and we were all really impressed about how much we learned from this hands on activity.”
—Barbara Seuling, Director
The Manuscript Workshop in Vermont
“Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript technique for analyzing the overall flow and pacing of my novel was the single most helpful tip I have ever picked up at a workshop. Highly recommended!”
—Carole Estby Dagg
The Year We Were Famous, Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
2011. Would you walk over four thousand miles to save your family’s home?
“My initial reaction after finishing a first draft is to ask myself “Now What?” That question is answered and then some in Darcy’s novel revision retreats (I’ve done two so far). The large group sessions where Darcy discusses things like character, plot, setting and word choice help you wrap your brain around where your novel needs work. The break-out sessions with your critique group help you apply Darcy’s revision principles to your specific story. In the end, you walk away with a clear picture of how to take your novel apart and put it back together in a way that will make it a much stronger story. Hanging out with Darcy and other writers (at a retreat) who are in your shoes is a big bonus too!”
The Sweetest Thing, Egmont USA, 2011
“Darcy gets you to see through your own words to find the heart and bones of your story, then gives you strategies that help you cut the fat away from that heart and keep it singing while you rearrange the bones and sinew to make the structure strong.”
You Will Call Me Drog, Carolrhoda, 2011.
A debut middle-grade novel and a cleverly framed story of self-determination and family relationships. Fresh, funny, unexpected and, at times, just a little dark. “I revised a manuscript for an editor at Scholastic before it was accepted. His offer letter said, “The ability to have such insight about one’s own work is as rare as the talent to generate a fun and meaningful story.” Darcy Pattison taught me how to look at my own work with a powerful set of tools for considering voice, structure, action, sensory detail, and more. “It always feels magical to make a story better, but it’s not magic. It’s a matter of understanding and using the tools we writers have. Darcy built the toolbox for us with her blog, her workshops, and her book, Novel Metamorphosis. We still have to do the heavy lifting, but we’re not doing it alone.”
Devine Inspiration, Arthur Levine/Scholastic, 2012
Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript technique pushed me to see my book in its entirety — what was working and what needed to change. On the micro level, I appreciated Darcy’s emphasis on imagery and the senses — particularly taste, touch, and smell — which bring to a story texture and depth.
—Caroline Starr Rose
May B., Schwartz and Wade/Random House Children’s Books, 2012
“I’ve used the techniques that Darcy lays forth in Novel Metamorphosis, and my guess is you will copy, dogear, highlight, flag, and write all over this book. And while you’re marking up this text, your own novel will emerge cleaner, sharper, and more publishable.”
—Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, author of middle-grade historical novel,
Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different (Delacorte 2008), which was accepted by the first editor who read it after Tubb revised it at Darcy Pattison’s workshop. Class of 2k8. www.kristintubb.com
“Writers know we must revise, but few know how. Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis
offers focused questions and inviting worksheets to help you reimagine
your novel and develop the heart that will take it out of the slush pile and into
—Elaine Marie Alphin,
Edgar-winning Counterfeit Son
“There are a lot of books out there on revision, but this is the only one I’ve
found that takes you by the hand and leads you step-by-step through the process.
With Darcy, it’s actually FUN!”
—Dori Hillestad Butler, EDGAR Award winner for The Buddy Files