Critique and Cogitation
I gave Lani and Krissie the first two acts of Liz to read, knowing there were big problems but not knowing what they were. That’s a major problem in writing a book: if you knew what the problems were, you wouldn’t create them, but only somebody outside the book can see them. Lani gave me the manuscript with track changes marked which is the best way to critique since you can make the changes right in the computer on the same doc, and a lot of them were easy fixes, things I could do right away. The rest fell into two camps: big fixes I’m going to have to think about (not whether to make them but how), and things where I could see her point, but what she wanted me to do was wrong.
The second group is where the pitfalls lie. The temptation to say “No, that’s not right because of XYZ” is huge, but you can’t say that immediately; if you do say it immediately, you’re probably wrong because it’s a knee jerk reaction. You have to look at two things: why the critiquer said it and why you’re resisting it. The first one is the easy one: you figure out why she thought that needed changed and you see if you can find another way to achieve what she needed (she’s your first reader so you can’t dismiss it out of hand because other readers will feel that way, too). And then if you’re still reluctant to change it, figure out what your problem is.
For example, Liz’s mother was an alcoholic when she was growing up. She went into rehab when Liz was twelve and she’s been sober since, but the years from four to twelve were bad ones for Liz for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that she loved her mother and couldn’t help her, although like all children of alcoholics, she tried. When Liz comes back to town after a long absence, her aunt tells her that her mother is drinking again, and Liz refuses to believe it although it worries her. After that, she doesn’t look for evidence of drinking and she doesn’t tell anybody except one old friend, who tells her that it’s not true and gives her reasons why. Lani’s objections were two-fold: Liz would look for evidence, and if Liz was asking other people about it, she’d ask her mom. Because those two things were missing, Lani couldn’t understand Liz’s reaction to the news and it made Liz seem cold and uncaring.
So the first thing is why did Lani trip over that? And she gave me the answer earlier because she’s an extremely thorough and insightful critiquer: Liz’s emotions aren’t on the page enough. I’m not a highly emotional writer anyway, but in first person, there has to be more of an emotional spill, and it’s not there until Liz gets hit with a rock. So Liz not reacting with more action to her aunt’s accusation was part of an overall flaw in the first act: Liz doesn’t have much emotion on the page. And that’s going to have to be fixed.
But I’m still not going to have Liz look for bottles and ask her mother. I’ll make other changes in hopes of accomplishing the same thing, but not that way because it would be a character violation. As Krissie pointed out, children of alcoholics, families of alcoholics, in general do not discuss the problem with other people; it’s the big family secret, shameful, especially in a small town. For the same reason, Liz wouldn’t go looking for bottles, plus that would be a betrayal of her mother. I think she’d do exactly what she did do, try to dismiss what her aunt had said, and then an hour later when she runs into a good friend, and the conversation turns to the aunt, she’d blurt out what her aunt had said, and the friend would respond. Later on, something she does makes somebody else ask about it, and she shuts the conversation down, but aside from that one blurt, she wouldn’t mention it.
So that’s character and you don’t violate it. But part of the reason Lani wanted more is that Liz seems cold, so when I said, “She can’t do those things, it would be a character violation,” Lani suggested she be aware of why she wasn’t doing those things, to acknowledge the omissions in her thoughts. But I don’t think Liz would acknowledge that she’s falling back into old patterns, I don’t think she’d recognize that she’s in denial. That’s part of what denial is, not recognizing your own emotions. So somehow I have to fix what tripped Lani up without violating Liz’s character. This is the stuff that takes cogitation. Lani pointed out the problem for readers and it’s a big one if it prevents readers from attaching to her. Now I have to figure out the solution.
But as I said, I think Lani already pointed the way in the big stuff she said needed fixed, particularly in Liz’s detachment in the first act. She also pointed out some big sections that she wanted cut because they weren’t going anywhere, so I have to figure out how to accomplish what I did in those sections elsewhere because she’s right, they’re slowing the story down, but the big problem is Liz’s detachment. The thing is, Liz is detached for a reason and it’s a big part of her personality (although not part of her character; she’s not intrinsically detached), so I have to figure out a way to get the emotional involvement on the page without shifting Liz’s personality too much because losing that detachment is part of her character arc in this book. But you can’t explain to a reader, “Okay, you’re going to have a hard time attaching to Liz and worrying about her because she’s emotionally distant, but if you hang in there, she’ll change.” You need to get that attachment there, in the first scene, and keep it going.
And then there’s the problem I always have which is that Liz has a negative goal. I tried to change it from “Liz wants to escape Burney” to “Liz wants to get to Chicago” but neither one is working. So back to the drawing board on that, too. But the big takeaway is that I now know why I don’t like some of this book. Now all I have to do is figure out how to fix it.
Back to cogitating.
ETA: Micki asked what track changes looks like. The blue is Lani’s comment and the red is my edit.