Thursday, September 6, 2007

Work in Progress: Critiquing a Novel-in-Progress

I was planning to offer my suggestions about how participants can get the best experience from their workshop. Then yesterday—while sitting in the library surrounded with the mountain of paper that is my writing group’s suggestions on my novel’s Chapter Two, which I’ve just started revising—I had the brilliant idea to write instead about the differences between critiquing a novel-in-progress and a short story. There are plenty of teachers and writers who think a novel can’t work in the traditional workshop format—I happen to disagree, though clearly the process is somewhat different.

Then, as if karma were on my side for a change, while looking through my computer files for something else (which I never found), I came across this, my talk on an AWP panel several years ago about strategies for critiquing a novel-in-progress! I’ve updated a few of the references, but my feelings on the matter have remained unchanged:

Writers need and crave editorial input—and the MFA “short story” workshop is the model most of us are familiar with. But can that model be effective on the messy hunks of a novel? How does critiquing a novel-in-progress differ from critiquing a short story? Does it even make sense for writers to seek input on novels-in-progress?

I wrote four novels before finally getting that “first novel” published [#4, Pears on a Willow Tree]—and had no input while working on them. Sine then, I’ve been showing my novels-in-progress to a writing group, and despite my initial concerns I believe novels-in-progress can be effectively “workshopped.”

Novels do present difficulties in a workshop setting: the writer is showing bits and pieces of a work that will likely take months—okay, let’s be real, years—to reach any sort of conclusion. Imagine reading your favorite novel one chapter at a time over a period of a year, and you quickly see the challenge. It’s hard for readers to keep track of characters and plot, let alone thematic concerns. And a question like, “Where is this going?” while legitimate, is bound to terrify the novelist-in-progress who most likely isn’t sure where he or she is going and doesn’t especially want to discover this is evident.

On the other hand, think about what many of us are told to do with novels: write in total isolation, not sharing our work until it’s finished. Then you round up your trusted readers, beg them to read your 300-plus pages…and you get back nicely-phrased but devastating comments like, “I’m actually more interested in the story about the neighbor, not the farmer; the farmer seems sort of passive and bland, but the neighbor...there’s a story!” You suddenly see that your readers are absolutely right; how had you missed all those possibilities with the neighbor—but might that have been more helpful to hear early on, before you’d written 300 pages about the passive, bland farmer? (This happened to me, with one of my early novels that [coincidentally?] did not get published.)

Since 1998, I’ve belonged to a writing group composed of six women. At the moment, five of us are working on novels. We’ve learned a lot about critiquing novels-in-progress, both as readers and writers. These are some of the things I’ve found useful to remember when approaching a novel-in-progress or when letting others read your novel-in-progress:

First, we try not to fall into the common short story critique pattern of talking about “what’s working” and “what’s not working.” Without reading the ending (in many cases the writer doesn’t even know the ending), how can we comment on what’s working or not? I’ve found the better approach is to ask lots of questions and make lots of observations.

Since a novel-in-progress likely has no determined path, I find it fascinating to hear what people see being set up. In my writing group, we get (and give) lots of comments like, “I see sexual tension between Jane and Paul.” Perhaps this is intended and the writer is pleased to see that the sexual tension has been noticed. Or, perhaps this is news to the writer…and Jane and Paul suddenly end up in bed in the next chapter, or things get toned down. Reporting what is on the page is helpful to the struggling writer, more so than with a short story. If you think of the text of a novel as a puzzle for the writer to solve, the early reader is there to point out clues. The most helpful comments for me are those that describe what the reader is seeing in the story thus far. My second novel, A Year and a Day, took a totally different turn—one I can’t imagine it now not taking—thanks to one very simple observation by a member of my writing group.

I think a novel-in-progress also benefits from more questions than the short story. For example, why is this character acting this way? Why doesn’t she get mad in that scene when her boyfriend’s a jerk? In early novel drafts, writers are exploring who their characters are, and questions are invaluable, offering insight to ghostly figures and ideas that need to be fleshed out. These questions should not be posed negatively, as a challenge (as in, I don’t believe this) except in the sense of challenging the writer to dig deeper.

I have learned to keep an open mind about suggestions. While many writers bristle at suggestions from readers and resent the feeling that someone is “taking over” their work, a well-phrased suggestion for the novel-in-progress may help you see a new avenue for your characters or spark a different way of looking at something. Remember, it’s called novel-IN-PROGRESS. Nothing is written in stone, and my writing group encourages thoughtful, well-meaning suggestions that are designed to help the writer see new possibilities.

A novel-in-progress does not benefit from line-editing as a short story does. Because a novel is so fluid, the crucial scene you’re reading may be gone in a later draft, so it doesn’t matter that a sentence is awkward. A novel has a long road ahead—these “awks” will be revised into new “awks” and on and on, getting taken care of eventually. Too much red ink on an early draft can bog down the writer and send him or her backwards—instead of writing forward to see what happens next, it’s off to polishing and revising sentences that may not be in the final draft. So if compulsive readers give you line-edits on your novel-in-progress, feel free to ignore them (or at least set them aside).

When reading a novel-in-progress, it’s hard for a reader to make sense of the larger picture of the book. Unfortunately, that’s often the most fragile part of the writer’s vision and perhaps the thing that most needs encouragement. How to resolve this dilemma? The writer has to accept that readers at this stage, reading in bits and pieces as chapters are completed, cannot possibly see how the threads are going to come together into dramatic wholeness. It is hard to accept this feeling that readers aren’t “getting” the point of your book. But they’re not. It’s impossible to see at this early “in progress” stage. (Even the writer probably can’t see the whole thing.) Short stories don’t suffer from this dilemma—everything is right there on the page and readers who miss it are either stupid or, worse, right. So if people are critiquing your novel-in-progress, you as the writer have to swallow hard and accept that much of your grand vision, craft, and sweat are going unnoticed right now. Personally, I’m torn between having a writer announce early on, “This book is about learning to forgive”—because while I now see the grand vision, I also feel my comments working to reinforce that picture rather than helping the writer discover what’s actually on the page. A good solution is to find a different set of trusted readers to read the entire manuscript when it’s done—then you can get an accurate idea of how the book ties together thematically.

Whether in a writing group or a class, it’s helpful to talk with other novelists about the struggles they’re having with their own books. Much more than writing stories, novels exact an immense toll of energy, faith, time, and discipline. How nice to hear that others are suffering as well! And even better to discuss bigger issues like point-of-view with other novelists and commiserate with people who understand exactly the unique torture and intricacies of what you’re going through.

By far, the best benefit to showing your novel-in-progress to others is for those moments when someone says, “I’m dying to know what happens next.” That’s when you smile your Mona Lisa smile, congratulate yourself on achieving the highest goal—hooking a reader into your world—and think to yourself, “God, if only I knew!”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.