I'm emerging from an intensive round of revisions on my middle-grade-novel-in-progress. I truly don't think I've ever worked harder in my life, though admittedly, as an hour-a-day writer, it doesn't take much for me to exceed my usual self-imposed limits. But for the past several weeks, I've been working five hours a day, frantically, obsessively, wanting nothing more in my life than to FIX THIS BOOK.
This is the third round of revisions on this particular title. I did the first last December in response to extremely thoughtful comments from my new Boulder writing group, who dazzled me in the thoroughness of the amassed comments from the six of them. I sent it to my editor on New Year's Day and received comments from her in April, via a lengthy phone conversation. They were . . . sobering. The thing she liked least about the book was the thing I consider my greatest strength: characterizations. I moped, I sulked, I pouted, and then I sat myself down and revised.
As I was waiting for her response to the new, deeper, richer characterizations, I had two other writer friends read the manuscript; we had formed a little critique group last summer when we taught together in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins and decided to reconvene in virtual form this summer. They had plenty to say. Plenty. As I was moping, sulking, and pouting again, I heard from my editor. The characterizations were so much better this time! Whew! But . . . the book still wasn't working. The three different story lines didn't connect. It didn't build to one clear climax. Readers wouldn't be able to know what the book was about. In other words, the problem with the book lay with what I consider my greatest strength of all: structure.
In despair, I forwarded her comments to my two Hollins friends and got back MORE critical feedback from them. One of them even told me kindly that she had experienced similar problems in one of her "early books" (this is my 57th!!!).
I considered asking another writer friend to read it. I considered hiring the brilliant Plot Doctors to give me their consultation.
But then I decided: I had already had TOO MUCH CRITICISM.
For better or worse, now I needed to fix the book MYSELF. I poured myself a glass of orange juice, with a generous shot of vodka. I barricaded myself in my bedroom with a pad of paper on my knees, and then and there I made a plan to provide the structure the book currently lacked. As soon as I made the plan, I knew it was a good one. I sent it to my editor, and she agreed.
So all I had to do was toil mightily for weeks to implement the plan. Which I did.
And, oh, the improvement! That is why I was able to work so long and so hard, because I could see before my eyes dazzling improvement in every deleted scene, every added scene, and most of all, every rearranged scene. I was ashamed I had ever let anybody read it in its previous incarnations. I was a writer on fire!!
I sent the book off two days ago, with the conservative estimate that it is now a million times better. In the revisions, I made use of comments from every single critiquer who read it along the way. Each one contributed something of genuine value to the revision.
So: how many critics are too many? How many critics are just the right number? I do believe that every good, smart, thoughtful reader has some insight worth having. And yet. . . .it's so easy for a writer to feel despair at the volume of negative comments on one little book (even, or especially, extremely valid negative comments).
I've tentatively decided, now, after the fact, that the only limit to the number of critiques that is helpful is the mental fortitude of the writer: how much she can stand hearing. In this case, I was done after getting comments from two editors (Margaret and her assistant, Susan, twice), and eight other writers. That was all I could take: stick a fork in me, I'm done!
But I have to admit the book is better for every single one. After all the moping, sulking, and pouting comes gratitude. Thank you, dear critics, for every line of criticism, even if at some point I needed to stuff my ears and move on.