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FIRST DO NO HARM

           It's my turn to pick up the baton, and thank you, Helen, for kicking off our discussion.  

          When approaching critiques I try to honor a precept taught to all medical students, FIRST DO NO HARM. A quick check of Wikipedia discloses that this principal "reminds the physician and other health care providers that she or he must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do." EXACTLY! The whole point of a critique is to assist the writer in realizing their vision. 

           

 

            My first critique was a disaster. I was a single parent, working 60 hours a week, but in my spare moments I managed to write. The writer who had been assigned my manuscript told me I was wasting my time and hers because there was no way I could write under those circumstances. I came away angry and discouraged and wondering why I had bothered to sign up for a critique in the first place. (It was not, by the way, at an SCBWI event.) And yet, despite her dire predictions, it was exactly during this period of my life that I wrote the manuscript which became my second book and which has just gone into its second printing. 

 

            SO, WHAT TIP CAN I GIVE TO BEST APPROACH ANOTHER WRITER'S MANUSCRIPT IN CRITIQUE?  
 

            My mantra, when reading another writer's work, is HONOR THE PROCESS. Those of you who have read the book, ART AND FEAR by David Bayles and Ted Orland, know the story about the pottery class which was divided into two groups, the students in one of those groups being told that they would be graded solely on the quality of their work while the students in the other group were told that they would be graded solely on the quantity of work produced. 

The result? Those students graded on the basis of quantity also produced the work of highest quality. The following quote from page 29 of the book sums it up best: "It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

           

            It takes piles of "ugly pots" to make something beautiful. So, it is with any form of art. You have to try and fail and try again.  And again!  So, my first intention ALWAYS is to honor this process when I read another writer's work.  

 

            I look for specifics, yes. Voice. Character. Conflict. Pacing. Like Stephanie, I try to highlight those things that are working well. Then I pose questions. "How is your main character feeling in this scene? Is she angry about what happened to her?"

           

           

            My goal, after all, is to help the writer take the next step on the journey. And I am always quick to point out that my opinions are simply that; the opinions of one writer. As in medicine, second opinions are always a good idea if you have any doubt about a critique. 




WHAT'S AN EDITORIAL LETTER LIKE?

I, too, have never found an editorial letter to be anything other than helpful.  It is a gift to have someone respond to your work in a serious manner. 

Most of my experience has been with picture books and poetry.  When I submitted the manuscript for my picture book, Dear Baby: Letters from Your Big Brother, my editor at Candlewick suggested that I ratchet up the humor.  This was like giving a kid permission to eat three more chocolate chip cookies. 

I had a great time allowing my main character to vent more about having a new baby sister.  And when I do school visits, these sections never fail to be the ones kids mention as their favorite parts of the book.  And yet, I had been hesitant at first to take the humor to that level on my own.  


To get a real "inside" look at an editorial letter, go to Jacqueline Davies's website and check out her correspondance with her editor, Ann Rider on the picture book, The Boy Who Drew Birds, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.  Here's the link:  http://www.jacquelinedavies.net/letters.pdf 

And with poetry, the focus of an editorial letter or numerous e-mails back and forth may be a single line.   This was the case with a poem I recently sold to CRICKET magazine. 

With novels, editors let you know when an outcome feels contrived rather than organic to the story.  That's how I found the new ending to the middle grade novel I'm revising now. 

Tomorrow two more Tollboothers will weigh in on the subject of critiques and editorial letters.  Meanwhile, Helen and I look forward to chatting with you today.  

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
wordsrmylife
Nov. 4th, 2008 04:09 pm (UTC)
Your Hippocratic oath for critiques made me smile, because it's what I tell my copyediting students as well.

Kathy Q.
sarahsullivan
Nov. 4th, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC)
FIRST DO NO HARM
Thanks,Kathy. I'm glad you agree. After all, a word surgeon can do just as much harm as a medical surgeon and we all want to end up with a living, breathing patient when the "procedure" is completed.
scgreene
Nov. 4th, 2008 04:57 pm (UTC)
Re: FIRST DO NO HARM
A really, really wonderful editor-author exchange can be found in the July/August 2008 Horn Book - it's between Laura Amy Schlitz ("Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Newbery winner) and Mary Lee Donovan. While not their letters, it's a very funny insider's version of what goes on during those exchanges.

Can someone else provide the link?
sarahsullivan
Nov. 4th, 2008 06:52 pm (UTC)
Re: FIRST DO NO HARM
Thanks for reminding me, Stephanie.
Here's the link:

http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2008/jul08_donovan.asp
rockinlibrarian
Nov. 5th, 2008 01:24 am (UTC)
I was a single parent, working 60 hours a week, but in my spare moments I managed to write. The writer who had been assigned my manuscript told me I was wasting my time and hers because there was no way I could write under those circumstances. I came away angry and discouraged and wondering why I had bothered to sign up for a critique in the first place. (It was not, by the way, at an SCBWI event.) And yet, despite her dire predictions, it was exactly during this period of my life that I wrote the manuscript which became my second book and which has just gone into its second printing.

This paragraph is very inspiring to me right now! Good work and thanks!
sarahsullivan
Nov. 5th, 2008 02:47 am (UTC)
FIRST DO NO HARM
You're so welcome. Thank you for reading. And, happy writing!
diannewrites
Nov. 5th, 2008 01:55 am (UTC)
The letters between Jacqueline Davies and Ann Rider were fascinating and inspirational! Thanks for sharing that link, Sarah.
sarahsullivan
Nov. 5th, 2008 02:42 am (UTC)
EDITORIAL CORRESPONDANCE
Glad you enjoyed them, Diane. I completely agree with you. I'm bowled over by the generosity of both Jacqueline Davies and Ann Rider in sharing this inside view of the process of creating a picture book.
diannewrites
Nov. 5th, 2008 03:07 am (UTC)
Re: EDITORIAL CORRESPONDANCE
Yes, generosity is just the right word.

Both were thoughtful and enormously kind in their back and forth responses. Their respect for one another and for the process of writing/editing was particularly inspirational.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )