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I'm in a vicious cycle.
I received several critiques the other day on my new novel, Red Satin Ribbons. One person stated that the chapter had too much backstory. Another one stated that I needed to put more people in the scene. Someone suggested I had overused the pronoun "he." A group videoed their critique of my story a week ago and cautioned me to slow the scene down—treat it as if it were a scene in a play and make sure events were in sequential order. Whew!
I didn't spend time being angry at any of them. They were all correct. Now, I was faced with what I wanted to change vs. what I needed to change.
I worked feverishly to correct the problems, making a list of the errors so I wouldn't forget to correct them. After spending a great deal of time reading and re-reading what I had written, I sent the chapter out for another critique.
Though there were slight improvements, the feedback was basically the same: too much backstory, too many pronouns; but now that I had slowed the scene down, they questioned whether the people that I added were locals or tourists. Good question, but how would I go about making their status clear in the novel without adding tons of narrative to the scene?
I take critiques seriously. Writers spend valuable time on my story. The least I can do is listen to what they have to say. So, after reading the critiques two or three times, I folded my arms and asked myself, "Will I ever finish this? Will I ever get this story right?"
At the end of the day, you're left feeling as if you'll never get off this merry-go-round.
What is a writer to do?
During my frenetic efforts to make corrections to my story, I discovered that I really don't know how to use critiques. I got so caught up in pleasing my critiquers that I lost my way. To my amazement, I had unconsciously assumed that a handful of critiquers represented the world's viewpoint.
Ever feel that way?
I wouldn't dare write a story and not solicit a critique. For me, that would be catastrophic. Assuredly, I'd miss something. I need all the help I can get to ensure I publish polished works of art.
So, how do I use a critique?
Learn to listen.
After a critique, spend a day or two throwing a tantrum and spitting venom. But in the end, learn to listen.
Since I've had numerous feedback warning me that I have too much backstory, I was forced to address this issue. Many have said that the story should begin the moment the action unfolds. Here is the ironic thing about that opinion—when I first wrote the story, that's exactly where I began—with riveting action.
So, why did I change my story?
Know your story.
In late March, while working on my second draft, I sat down with this overwhelming feeling that something wasn't right. It finally hit me. Though the story was action-packed, it was flat . . . the main character one-dimensional. The reader didn't know anything about him—where he was from, a hint about what was driving him to do what he did, why he cared so much, why was he even in the canyon in the first place. In order for my reader to care about the main character, I had to get to know him. To do that, I had to get inside his head. Then I needed to write what was going on inside his head without overusing the pronoun "he," and without my writing sounding like a grocery list.
After additional critiques, I quickly realized that the heart of the matter was how much backstory to put in the opening chapter.
How much backstory does a reader need?
Is the backstory for me? Or is the backstory for the reader? How much backstory does the reader need? Professional editors can give you an opinion, critiquers can offer suggestions, but only you have the power to make that crucial decision.
In order to know how much backstory you should or shouldn't have, you must know your story well. More importantly, ask yourself if you can reserve most of the backstory for later, sprinkling it in here and there so that your writing doesn't become dull and boring to your readers. Remember this: if you have backstory without dialogue and riveting action, it is sure to put your reader to sleep. If your reader nods off, you've lost them—maybe forever.
For me, I had to decide whether my backstory was too much. I looked at my computer page and literally tried to visualize what the backstory would look like in a printed book. Would my three and a half computer pages be three and a half pages in a pocket book or would it end up being a page and three-quarters? Would that much backstory test my readers' patience? Do they need to know all this information now or is it an information dump?
When I thought about it this way, I concluded my backstory for this particular book wasn't at all too much.
Keep an open mind. Be flexible.
I still solicit critiques for my story. However, all comments concerning the backstory fall on deaf ears—for now. Am I being hardheaded? Absolutely not. I have become comfortable with the amount of backstory that I've inserted. However, I remain open. In the back of my mind, I'm telling myself that during rewrites, if there comes a place within the story where portions of the backstory are better suited for the middle of the story, I will reposition it.
Value critiques; Respect Critiquers.
Critiques are valuable. For example, the critiquer who said that I needed to put more people in the scene offered me a great suggestion. After I placed two young men in the scene, another critiquer questioned if they were locals or not. I thought to myself, "Good question. Hadn't thought about that." I revised the scene and exchanged the two young men for an older couple—the man with binoculars around his neck; his companion, a female with a fanny pack too tight around her bulging waist. Now, who wouldn't think of these two as tourists? Aaah, problem solved.
Even more valuable are the critiquers who spend precious time reading and critiquing your manuscript, for free. They do it because they want to be of service to you. If someone doesn't get what you're trying to convey, it's okay to ignore parts of the critique. But if you've received several warnings from different people about a particular problem with your writing, pause and give serious consideration to the warning.
Critiques aren't personal attacks. Our main focus is to call attention to elements of your writing that won't work in the public sector and to save you from embarrassment.
No one can tell you which critiques are valuable to your story. Only you can make that decision. Because you don't follow a particular suggestion, doesn't mean you're being bullheaded either. It might simply mean that you've come to a place when a decision had to be made, and you made it. Being flexible, however, gives you the option to change your mind.
Donna B. Comeaux published her first novel, Selfish Ambition, in January 2015. You can find her book on Smashwords.com, Barnes & Noble (bn.com), and Amazon.com. She writes for Ruby for Women, an online Christian magazine, and has written for Hope-full Living and Believers Life. Devotionals, writing tips, and political opinions are on her blog and can also be found at www.ezinearticles.com.