Reflection and a Tip From a Critique Ninja

I loved how Stacy McAnulty blogged about her takeaways as a 12×12 Critique Ninja (Read HERE). I’m sure her comments were as helpful to other members of the 12×12 community (and other blog readers) as they were to me. As children’s writers any reflections, tips, advice, etc. help us on our journey. Even if we’ve heard the same tips and advice before it’s amazing how hearing something over and over again helps it to become ingrained in our writing process. So I decided to write a blog post reflecting on my time as a Critique Ninja. But instead of making several observations I’m addressing the revision process. Specifically, the importance of taking your time.

As part of this post, I’m sharing a post I wrote in December of 2014 when I was blogging with EMU’s Debuts. EMU’s Debuts is a blog written by debut authors from Erin Murphy Literary Agency who are excited to be setting off down the path toward publication and blog about a little bit of everything along a writer’s journey. Even if you haven’t gotten a book deal yet, it’s worth your time to follow that blog.

The content of my 2014 post still holds true for me and that’s why I wanted to share it on my own blog as I finish up my time as a Critique Ninja for Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Challenge. For those not familiar with the 12×12 Challenge: 12×12 is a year-long writing challenge where members aim to write 12 complete picture book drafts, one per month, for each 12 months of the year.

As one of many benefits of the challenge, members can post their manuscript in a Forum to get feedback. Members give each other feedback but can also receive feedback from a Critique Ninja like me. Critique Ninjas browse the forum, choose manuscripts, and make “big picture” comments for the author to consider.

Notice I said “for the author to consider. As I finish up my time as a Critique Ninja I wanted to focus on that word . . . consider in terms of revision. Why? Because when I first began writing and receiving critiques, I didn’t consider comments from the critiquer to the degree that I should have. I rushed in and addressed specific comments without considering all aspects of my story. How would my revision strengthen my story overall and not just that particular part/line. I’ve learned to slow way down and consider carefully.

During my time as a Critique Ninja I noticed some really quick revising. In fact I saw some stories posted two times in the same day with the second one titled “revised” or “revision.” I wondered if it was done too hastily. Not “hastily” because the writers don’t care deeply about their manuscripts. More like “hastily” because they care so much and it’s so exciting to improve a story.

NOTE: It’s very important to me that you know that I’m not writing this post to reprimand or criticize anyone who posted a quick revision in the forum. NOT AT ALL. Because just a few sentences ago, I told you that I’ve done the same thing — a quick revision. And I’ve done it many times. My purpose in writing this post is to challenge you to read my words below from 2014 and do your best to carefully consider critique comments as you move forward on your journey as a writer. Take your time with a revision. If someone suggests a really great change for your meter in a rhyming story you must consider their suggestion in terms of your entire story…not just one line. If someone suggests something for your character, setting, etc., you must consider their suggestion/s in terms of your entire story…not just the character, setting, etc.

We know that EVERY word counts. And when we say that, it doesn’t mean “word count.” It means we have to consider EVERY word in terms of our story. Each word counts toward making our story the best it can be.

Now as a reminder of all aspects/elements of our story that we need to consider as we make revisions, here is my 2014 post from EMU’s Debuts.

Writing in Reverse

In one of my earlier posts, I talked about the fact that my car was totaled in a June hailstorm. That unfortunate event necessitated a new car. My old car had a backup camera, but this car has a BACKUP CAMERA! It’s amazing. It has this beeping-warning system that lets me know if someone is passing behind me or if I’m getting close to backing into something. The other day I was backing out of my garage, looking at the view in the backup camera, when the phrase Writing in Reverse just popped into my head. You may have noticed from my posts here that I love analogies. So when I thought about Writing in Reverse, I knew I had to use this for a post.

Before Writing in Reverse, I have to get my my story down. So I just drive/write a first draft. Yes, I do need to have a destination in mind­—a character, the semblance of a plot or structure, events to drive my story forward, etc. I need to keep the Rules of the Road/Genre in mind as I write. I need to be aware of traffic/the audience I’m writing for, and I need to watch my speed limit/word count. OK, sometimes I do go a few MPH/WPM (words per manuscript) over knowing I can probably get by with it for a draft, but I don’t want my speed/word count to get completely out of control. So, pretty much, I just drive/write on. The first draft is a hugely important part of writing. If I never do this part, I’ll never get anywhere. My ideas will be stuck at home and never see the light of day. Never get out into the world. And once the first draft is finished, I do feel like I’ve been somewhere. But I know this same journey will become very familiar . . .

. . . because now comes Writing in Reverse/revision.

Screenshot 2014-12-20 19.58.47

It’s time to take the same drive using my backup camera. It will be much slower. I will cut my speed limit to a crawl. Each twist and turn will require my complete attention. I will be more cautious and more aware of any obstacles that will hinder my story. I will listen to my internal beeps/alarms noting when something is amiss. I will listen to my critique group who will make me aware of my blind spots. This journey will take much longer than my first draft, but it has to be taken to get to that “sweet spot” for submission. I know this. It’s tough. But it must be done. And it’s worth it.

Recently my second deal was announced. A COOKED UP FAIRY TALE sold to Maria Modugno at Random House Children’s who also bought THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT. It will be illustrated by Ben Mantle who also illustrated my dragon story. Talk about Writing in Reverse! I had 102 “Saved As” files of A COOKED UP FAIRY TALE. Not all were complete rewrites, but all had tweaks. Some major, some minor. That’s a lotta Writing in Reverse. But it served me well. When I emailed Tricia (love my agent) that 102nd file, she deemed it “ready to go”. In two days, we heard back from Maria. She wanted my story 🙂

So make sure you use a BACKUP CAMERA! A really good one. Take that slow, Writing-in-Reverse journey where you pay attention to every detail and find that “sweet spot” before submitting. It will be worth it!

writing in reverse final

Last note to 12×12 writers: So as you make revisions in your manuscript make sure to consider all aspects/elements of a great picture book with each change you make. By doing this, you will be presenting your best work to critiquers — whether it be a Critique Ninja or a 12×12 member kind enough to comment on your work.

Good luck and happy considering and revising!

15 thoughts on “Reflection and a Tip From a Critique Ninja

  1. Thank you for this great advice, Penny. I love the critique process. I like critiquing, I like being critiqued, I like meeting up with other writers and discussing writing. It’s a crucial step to creating great stories. But no matter how excited I get, I always try to leave a little considering time in the process.

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  2. Penny, what is a Critique Ninja? I’ve not been able to take the 12 X 12, so have no idea what this is. I love the post. So often, with some of the picture books I’m sent, I wish the author would make a revision–any revision, but I do understand your position. When someone we know has published makes a suggestion, it may feel like a must do–they’ve been published, I haven’t so they must know better. Your point to take all revision with a grain of salt, so to speak, is important.

    You keep every revision of your story, no matter how slight the change? Wow! 102 seems like a lot. I can only image how many you will save when you write a chapter or middle grade book. Why keep so many when the 102nd is the final draft, ready to submit? What is the reason for keeping all that data? I think, not having finished a manuscript to a final stage yet, that the first draft, maybe the next two or three, but after that, the changes would be small, so why keep saving each revision because of a comma change (or whatever)? And, to take this question to the end, do you continue to keep the other 101 drafts after the book sells? All of them?

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    • Julie has asked some of us to be Critique Ninjas because we have an agent or are published. This is to bring some experience to the forum along with comments from writers who are newer to the process. Personally, I think both are very useful because everyone…no matter where they are on the journey…has valuable thoughts.

      I didn’t mean to imply that revision should be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, I meant to imply the opposite. That even a small revision must be looked at in terms of how it strengthens the entire story. And I wanted to get across the importance of taking time with revisions. I listen to the All The Wonders podcast and the Picturebooking podcasts among others and I think listening to writers with way more experience than me, made we aware of the importance of letting an idea sit or a story sit in order to find the best way to move it forward to become the best it can be.

      As far as considering the comments/suggestions of published authors as a must-do, I think you have a point. They’ve been where we haven’t. But I don’t think a published author would want an unpublished author to consider their comments/suggestions as a must-do. Here is what I’ve learned on my journey. At first I took the comments from the members of my critique group as gospel. (One was published and all had been writing longer than me.) I ended up rewriting my whole story to incorporate what I thought they were saying. My story ended up a mess. But as I gained experience and listened to podcasts and read blog posts about published authors journeys, I began to understand that when someone makes comments/suggestions that is more of an indication of weakness in my story and that I have to find a way to address that. And when I do address it, it needs to fit my vision and strengthen my story.

      Even when my editor has made suggestions…I have not ever used her exact words. She is simply brilliant, so I guess I could. But she gives me notes about why something isn’t working and maybe a suggestion or two. I consider all she says, noting that that part of the story is weak, and then do the work myself. I’m the one who came up with the idea and the one that has worked through all of these drafts. I know my story inside out and it’s in my heart. So I’m the one who needs to address her comments with my own words. That’s not to say I will never use an editor’s suggestion/s verbatim. But I haven’t yet.

      As to saving my work. I know some people don’t do that. Everyone’s process is different. And when I saved 102 drafts I didn’t save drafts with only punctuation or slight word changes. The tweaks, as I call them, were big enough that they affected some part of my story…pacing, language, etc. And I love having my old drafts to reference in case I feel my revision took me in the wrong direction. Then I could go back and borrow from an old draft. When I wrote DRAGON, I essentially had an arc because it was a rewrite of a tale. Not that it was easy to come up with a compelling twist…but it wasn’t like starting from scratch. But when I wrote A COOKED-UP FAIRY TALE, I had to come up with the plot/arc…everything. When I finished that book, I felt like I’d gotten my master’s degree 🙂

      I do keep my old drafts even after a book sale. I even have kept sticky notes and notes made on scratch paper that relate to the book. I’ve used some of this data in my school visits…snippets to show students how a story/sentence/spread can change and become stronger. And how that authors have to write many drafts to get it right. That just because we have a book in the world doesn’t mean that writing is easy for us…we still have to put in the work. And I guess I keep them for myself, too. To appreciate the time and effort it took from first draft to final manuscript.

      I hope I answered your questions. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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      • Yes, Penny, you answered them all and in more detail than I expected. Thank you . I’ve loved your book and am sure I will love your new books, so I place a lot of emphasis on what you post, even though I don’t comment many times. You have one of the most even-handed approaches to kidlit and it is helpful in many ways. Thanks again.

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  3. Love this post, Penny…YES…Magic happens when we make every word count…that’s the tag line for my #50PreciousWords writing challenge. And what I found was that creativity and imagination flourished when people had to really CONSIDER every word. 🙂 I’m hosting #50PreciousWordsforKids next month…can’t wait to read the entries.
    I also agree with you 100% about taking time…whichever side of the critique table you are on…time to think about the story…and time to digest the feedback. I, too, have sometimes RUSHED to change things when I received suggestions from critique buddies…but I’ve learned to wait a bit. I often do make those changes…but only after I’m sure they are what the story is calling for.
    So excited about your next book, Penny…congratulations!!

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  4. Love your analogy, Penny! I think we’ve all been guilty of rushing on revisions (I surely have), but sometimes time is the best editor. I can’t wait to see your new book!

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  5. Penny, I guess your parents are at your house. I didn’t get to see them this time because of their car needing to be replaced….sounds like from your post that you would understand their situation very well. Your dad and I email all the time and he told me he found another exactly like his other one. Good for him. I talked with Jana and she said her yard was a total mess. She mentioned that she would have a lot of her yard’s landscape to replace. Bummer 😦 Last but not least…I loved your blog post. I’m getting ready to start a rewrite n our musical and your post helped me a lot . Thank you . Tell your mom and dad I’m really sorry we couldn’t get together. We’ve had it planned for a long time but sometimes things get upside down. Tell them I’m sending big hugs and lots of love. Take care and CONGRATS on your new book deal. I’m so proud of you. I love telling my friends about your book. Now I will be telling about your BOOKS. Love you, Janie

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  6. This was a great post and a great analogy! I try to take my time and carefully consider critique comments, but after the 102nd revision I do sometimes lose sight of what my original story was about! Sometimes I need to park my car in the garage for a while (sometimes a really long time). Then when I take off the dust cover and put the car in reverse again, I can see even more clearly to make revisions.

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  7. This is probably the most difficult part of writing for me. I know it is better to be patient, I always benefit when I sit back and consider a critique, I always find my own mistakes if I wait a few days. But I still post/submit too soon! Like you, Penny, I’m getting better at it, but it has been a tough lesson to learn.
    Thanks for the post, it really resonated with me.

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    • I hear you! I’ve done this so many times but am doing it less and less. I’ve found myself sending a revision to my critique group and while reading it a day or two later realized, as I found many things I hadn’t considered, that I rushed and didn’t send them my best revision. Writing is such a journey and such a learning experience. I read that many writers wait when they get editorial comments from an editor. Even if they have an idea for revision, they give it time. So that’s what I’ve done with both of my books. I made notes for a couple of weeks before revising per editorial comments. It worked! So, I hope my comments today help others to take their time with revisions.

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