Though it can be harrowing, getting expert criticism (from development editors, agents, qualified peers, mentors, and industry people) on your work can be one of the most valuable steps in taking a good story and bringing it to a higher level. Since I want to get the most out of their time, I don’t hand off first drafts to experts. In most cases, what they get has been revised using every step of my process. Basically that means going from big picture to small.
I have a detailed task list (which is constantly updated). Here it is, greatly simplified:
1. Print and make general notes on the whole manuscript, listening to it via text-to-speech. In particular, pay attention to how the concept plays out, the pacing and consistency of tone, problems with clarity, and the soundness of the story logic. I also note where my attention lags.
2. Analyze to determine if any scenes can be removed or any might need to be added. Make those fixes.
3. Look at individual scenes. Check for conflict. See if any need more or fewer beats. Or description. Take a hard look for beginnings that hook and endings that pop.
4. Check characters for motivation and consistency. Make sure I worry about the protagonist more and more throughout. Mark all points of decision and make them harder if possible.
5. Read the whole thing aloud for language and sound.
6. Fix inconsistencies, spelling, grammar, and word choice.
Note that this is a step-by-step process. Though I always have to do some cycling back I don’t bounce around or try to do more than one step in a single pass.
The punch list becomes something different. When I’ve completed handwritten notes during an oral critique, I type everything out as soon as I can, without prejudice. (It can be tempting to skip some criticism because “they didn’t get it.” That may be right, but maybe it’s just me who doesn’t get it. There’s even a chance that the criticism triggered my defense mechanisms. Eliminating certain criticism is a decision for later on.
For a written critique, I highlight notes in the document and do what ever I need to do to ensure I’ve got them captured for later with no loss.
For each of these, my records must become full sentences, even if that’s not what’s in my initial notes. And I make sure I capture the nuances (bold and asterisks, for their emphases and mine, respectively).
Then I let things marinate. For a month, if I can. This gives me a measure of distance that helps me to get the most out of what the critics meant (vs. what I heard or interpreted).
When I return to the criticism, it’s now time to strike out or modify what I suspect isn’t right. It’s also time to consider whether there are any problems that doom the project. (Yes, that can happen, and it means abandoning the work.)
Concerns about clarity always are kept, even if I think I’ve provided a map with highlights, complete descriptions, and Orson Welles talking in their heads. Questions of plot logic are tested, using more than one tool. Critic “solutions” are almost always challenged, and I have a strong detector for instances where the story the critic sees is clear and valid, but not mine.
I also allow myself to make notes in the moment. Sometimes, this is ideas for fixes. Sometimes, it’s new ideas to make the story better. Sometimes, images, paragraphs, dialogue, story twists, and even whole scenes fall out of my brain and need to be captured immediately.
With every critique go-through, I pull out questions and areas for research.
Except in the case of research, it’s best to get this part done quickly. Get it roughly right. I try to complete the work of capturing the essence of each item in forty-eight hours or fewer.
Then I begin to formulate a draft punch list.
I don’t worry about creating sterling prose or the best possible solutions to story problems at this stage. Why? Because this work is done out of context. It’s likely to change in the face of the needs of the whole work.
Research is different because it helps to build my knowledge base and generate options. Unless I mess up and go down a rabbit hole or slip into creating a different story, research will have a natural end point. There are no natural end points for story solutions and perfectly written scenes.
The next job is to organize the punch list. You can do this according to your needs and preferences. If an acquisitions editor or a producer waiting, this may force triage in terms of available time and the power of the person who provided notes. If something on the list is calling to be taken care of or acted upon first, I remove the distraction by taking on that task. (At this point, I often will get irritated by misspellings and grammatical errors—which tend to be limited since the submitted manuscript was proofed—so I clean them up.)
Everything else being equal, I combine items from all critics into one list and use the same big picture to small approach I follow when I’m rewriting before submission.
There are a few differences. For instance, inserting a new character or radically changing one has to be be done early, well before step 4 above. The big picture changes probably need to be inserted without polish, with the cleanup being left to step 6.
Since the action items came from other people, there are likely to be a few that don’t neatly fit into my revision model. That’s okay. I drop these in where they may make sense to me, knowing my choice might be less than optimal. Sometimes, this leads to valuable changes in my revision model.
Once the punch list is completed, going through it is efficient and straightforward. Step by step, the manuscript gets fixed, usually without my having to circle back. And the story tends to maintain its integrity, avoiding the revision problem of losing its distinctive voice.