This week, most of the Babes touched on the joys and pitfalls of critiquing someone else's manuscript. I'm going to approach this from the other side. Through the eyes of the one being critiqued.
When I first started writing, I knew nothing about the craft. Zip. All I had was a story idea and a burning passion. An avid reader with an artistic bent, I felt I at least had a feel for storytelling. But that wasn't enough. I was serious about this new passion. I wanted to do it right. Someday I wanted to sell my stories. That meant I'd be competing with professional writers. Passion alone wouldn't cut it.
One day while flipping through Romantic Times Magazine, I saw an advertisement for the RT Booklovers' Convention. A convention geared toward readers and writers of romantic fiction. I noticed some of my favorite authors would be there. It also mentioned cover models. Okay. I was younger then and admit the thought of meeting Fabio in person was a bit of a thrill. But mostly I was intrigued by the workshops. Workshops given on craft by professional writers! This is it, I thought. My chance to learn how to do it right!
Out of my element, I am insanely shy. I was so out-of-this-world, out-of-my element on this one. But I didn't care. I wanted to learn how to write and write well. I booked a flight and attended the conference all by my lonesome. Being surrounded by one thousand people-- readers, writers, and industry professionals--was overwhelming and inspiring. A lot of amazing things happened to me at that one conference and I met a lot of people who went on to play an important part in my publishing career. But this is the one thing I want to share with you today.
One of the first workshops I attended covered various points, including how to behave at a readers/writers convention. The speaker described how overloaded published authors are and how it would be rude for a stranger to ask (whether in person or by mail) her/him to critique her/his manuscript. "But," she said, "should a published author ever offer to to look at your manuscript, jump on the opportunity. Learn whatever you can and be grateful for their shared wisdom.
I took this advice to heart. Two days later, at the keynote breakfast, I noticed that the woman next to me was sort of staring. She introduced herself as Sandra Chastain and told me that I looked a little like the heroine of her latest novel. I was embarrassed. A: I had never read Sandra's books (and she'd written over thirty-five!). B: Me? A heroine?
Sandra explained that she'd had a costume made as a promotional effort. The reader who had won the costume was too shy to model it in the Costume Competition. She asked if I'd be willing to model it for her.
I was flattered, but wary. Sure my background's in entertainment, but I'm no model. Then she mentioned Steve Sandalis (the then Topaz Man) would be my escort and I crumbled like a crispy cookie. At the end of our discussion, Sandra asked if I was writing something. I said yes, although I wasn't sure of what I was doing. She then invited me to send her the first three chapters of my manuscript, promising to look it over. "I have a feeling about you," she said.
"But, should a published author ever offer to to look at your manuscript, jump on the opportunity."
Was this really happening to me? I thanked Sandra and told her that I would appreciate any guidance at all. And I meant it with all my heart.
Zip ahead a few weeks.
I still remember how my heart raced when Sandra's critique came in the mail. I sat in my car, trying to temper my breathing, as I opened the envelope and pulled out my three chapters. They were accompanied by a letter that started... I knew there was something about you.
I nearly hyper-ventalated. This from a multi-published author. After a few nice words she then went on to explain in detail everything I was doing wrong (which was mostly everything) and why. She noted specifics, gave examples as to how to fix it. Her notes were detailed, but professional and kind. Clearly she had put great thought and time into this critique.
I did not take her hard work and kind gesture lightly. I worked my butt off to understand what I was doing wrong and how to make it right. I revised and revised and because she invited me to send her my revisions, I did.
As it happens, this incredibly warm and generous woman became my mentor. That wouldn't have happened if I'd ignored her advice. Or if I'd seemed ungrateful. In fact, it was incredibly important to me to return the favor in some way. Because I could sew and because I actually enjoyed modeling her previous costume with Steve Sandalis (go figure!), I offered to make a costume and to represent Sandra's next release at the next RT Convention. I did this for a couple of years and garnered her and her books some publicity which made both us us extremely happy.
I will never forget the kindness shown to me by Sandra. And I do try to return the effort, critiqing contests now and then, even though I'm not entirely comfortable with the process. But the biggest thrill for me has been the two times I reached out to an aspiring author who, though friendly with me, didn't ask me to critique their work. I offered and they accepted and not only that, they were grateful for my thoughts and happily made revisions. For that reason, I will happily help them along in the future in whatever way I can.