Monday, February 18, 2008

A Plank in my Eye

Missy here. Let me start off by saying this is not a sermon. But as I was thinking about judging contests, this Bible verse popped into my head:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3

Okay, so maybe you don’t see the connection, and you may be thinking I’m a bit off my rocker. But aren’t we as judges able to see all the problems in an entry, yet still don’t find the exact same problems in our own manuscript?

I’m guilty of having a plank in my eye.

I can quickly pick up plot problems and lack of conflict in someone else’s work, but I have the hardest time finding it in mine. It usually takes someone else pointing the problems out to me before I realize I even have a problem.

I think it’s because we get so close to our babies. You know, kind of like our real babies. We think our children are gorgeous no matter what they look like—because we love them so much we see them through different lenses.

Different lenses…

How can we put on our judge lenses and use them to look at our own work? Here are some ideas I had while pondering this dilemma:

1. Fresh Eyes.

Let it rest. Set the work aside and get away from it for a while. If you’re like me, by the time you type The End and have read through it a half dozen times doing revisions, you’re sick to death of it. So take a break. A year would be good, but, hey, most of us would like to try to sell the thing. So I suggest giving it at least a couple of weeks. Preferably a month or two. Stephen King, in On Writing, talks about doing this. I’ve tried it, and it really helps.

2. New Eyes.

Ask someone else to read it. Someone who hasn’t seen the formation of the story. Maybe a trusted writer friend or someone you don’t normally critique with. You could also use a critique group or partner if they haven’t looked at the story yet.

3. Untrained Eyes.

I’ve heard this person called a Beta Reader. It’s someone you may or may not know well, who is a reader, not a writer. This person will give you the perspective of someone who may be reading the book in published form someday. She can point out problems that would strike someone who has no idea about writing (no idea about goals, conflict, character arcs). This person just reads and knows what she likes to read.

4. Honest, Critical Eyes.

How many times have you read an entry in the Golden Heart and zipped through it, dying for more, praying it’ll sell so you can buy it off the shelf someday and find out what happens? I’ve had that happen two or three times. One of those was a winner in the GH last year. I told a friend, “Watch, they’ll announce so-and-so as the winner and will say it’s sold already. Well, they did announce it as the winner, but it hadn’t sold yet. (And I had so wanted to be able to buy it!) But back to my point. I have to be honest and ask, when I read my own book, does it excite me as much as that entry did? Is the writing as flowing, the pacing as thrilling? No? Then I need to try to figure out what that entry has that my own story doesn’t have. What makes the writing so evocative? What makes it so enjoyable? If your work is putting you to sleep when you read back over it, then it may not be as exciting as it needs to be. So be honest. Study the great writing that keeps you up late at night reading. And then try to apply what you’ve learned to your own writing.
5. Marketer’s Eyes.

Okay, don’t shoot me on this one. Just ignore it if you want. But I think you should consider looking at your manuscript from the editor’s and Marketing Department’s eyes. Do you have a salable hook? Are you writing a story that’ll fit reader expectations? Can it be summarized into a really cool back cover blurb? Is your first sentence an attention-grabber (but not something that’s thrown in there for no other reason than shock value)? If it’s a romance, does it have the happy ending? If not, does it have a satisfying ending? Take off your personal lens and put on the marketing lens to see if the company will want to spend the time and money to buy, edit and sell your story.

6. A Child’s Eyes.

Is your plot/story easy enough for a child to read? I don’t necessarily mean simple. But does it confuse readers? I’ve been talking with a friend who’s judging a contest right now, and she’s having a terrible time with a few of the entries. One in particular is so convoluted that she can’t even follow the story. Sure, you want to write a great story, one that’s new and intriguing with maybe a twist on an old story. But you don’t want to leave a reader’s head spinning. Can you simplify? If you have a cast of thousands, can you pare down, make a character fill more than one role? Can you simplify the plot so you're not having to snatch implausible plot points out of the air? I sometimes get myself into trouble a lot by planning something too difficult to carry out.

So, we need to knock the planks out of our eyes, then look through a different set of lenses at our own manuscripts. Maybe then we’ll write that story that a contest judge or editor races through, wanting to beg for more.



  1. Missy, What great insight and I love how you tied it to a Bible verse. It is so true. We can see the problems in other manuscripts but not our own. I think its because we have everything in our head worked out, but we simply didn't get it all put down on paper. Often a critique partner will ask me: "How did your character get from this place and are suddenly in another place in time, setting, challenge, etc" It is then I realize I had moved them along their arc in my head, but not on paper.

    I really liked your list of ideas for new "eyes". You're right. All of those suggestions are a big help.

    Thanks Missy.

  2. Great advise. I love how you used a Bible verse.

  3. Those are really great strategies and questions to ask, Missy.

    I remember in Stein on Writing, Sol Stein says to make a new title page and put that best-selling author's name on it who drives you crazy because you think their books are terrible. Then read it pretending that THAT author wrote it. LOL! It will make you see flaws that you hadn't noticed before.

  4. This was a running joke in my critique group when I first started with them. I'd say, "Your action scene doesn't hit fast enough, short sentences, blah, blah, blah, whatever other wisdom I had then...and I'm make sure to add. I recognize it in YOUR book as wrong because I do it wrong all the time too, but I can't seem to stop myself.

    I first reader is a great idea, Missy, but how do you get one of those? All the authors I know are so busy and all of the 'laymen' well, they can say, "I liked it."
    "It didn't work for me."
    But do they have the tricks of the trade down in their head enough to give real helpful feedback?

  5. Love the analogies, Missy! We forget how blind we become to the weak areas of our own work. Fresh eyes are not just a luxury--they're a must!

  6. Missy, you're dead on. What great points to bring up. Sometimes we're in such a hurry, or get a wee bit jaded, and we push the process a little too fast.


    But your list makes perfect sense and I loved the Biblical analogy. It's always easier (especially when you're a newbie) to note the flaws in someone else's work...

    And not see our own. Kind of like a baby that's so ugly its cute.

    And usually those grow up to be quite nice looking, LOL!

    Mary, grab a friend or a kid to be your first reader.

    (Look at me giving advice to mega-contract-woman... Sheesh. Kinda' like offerin' stock market advice to Warren Buffet)

    And now that you've got an editor, it's not as crucial for you because your editor is a first reader. They buy what they like, and you don't necessarily need that step any more unless you want it for your own satisfaction.

    Our children tend to be brutally honest. Ummm....... Hm.......... Maybe you should ask a friend, after all.



  7. I don't know if I can trust my children, they react rather oddly to my work. First, too kind, then perhaps too cruel...all for the same work.
    So their opinions are laced with love for me and worry that I'll drag the family into a pit of humilitation.
    Gotta respect that.

  8. Great advice. I have two non-writing readers I give my WIPs to: a very honest friend, because I know she loves me enough to tell me if she sees something delusional. And my mom, because I know she loves me. :) What can I say? If nothing else, my mom at least catches typos. :)

  9. Sandra, that's exactly what I do! My cp's will ask the heroine's hair color, and I'm like, duh, her hair is red. And the cp will tell me I never mentioned it! Aren't cp's required to read our minds?? :)

    Crystal, I'm glad you stopped by!

    Melanie, I love that advice from Stein. :) I've never heard that before. Harsh, but very effective. LOL

    Mary, I have no idea who to get as a beta reader. I've just heard authors talking about it lately. I did pass an earlier manuscript to a friend's mom who was looking for something to read. She told my friend there was one part she didn't understand, so that was like reader feedback.

    Lori has a great idea. An honest friend for truth, and a loving mother for support. :)

    Myra, you're right. It's not a luxury. Since a contest or submission may be our one big shot to reach an editor, we can't afford not to send our very best work.

    LOL, Ruthy. You're right. Kids can be brutal--ie. "Mom, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but that new haircut looks, well, bad."

    Kids. Gotta love 'em. But like Mary said, they don't want to risk public humiliation. :)

  10. Lori, that's a great plan!

    You've got it covered, girlfriend.

    And Mary, you're right, my children avoid public humiliation with me at all costs.

    2003 U. S. Open Tennis Championships in Flushing Meadows, Queens, NY...

    Sarah, talking to former soccer coach mom: (me) "Um, Mom, you know this isn't a soccer match, right?"

    "Yes, of course." Mom surveys the cool stadiums, the various courts, the ambiance of major league tennis in New York.

    "Well, er, um..." Sarah, trying to be gentle, hedging.


    Sarah takes a deep breath, looks to her husband for help. Smart guy. He pretends he doesn't see her. Another deep breath, then, "You can't exactly cheer like you do at a soccer game. Or coach from the sidelines. You get that, don't you?"

    Yeah, I got it. Mom's loud and vociferous and needed behavioral coaching to be allowed into a big league tennis venue.



    She was right.

    So, yeah, let's avoid the public humiliation of our children. We should all assume pen names at least three spots removed from anything that could trace us back to our children.

    Unless we die millionaires. Then they're more than happy to be related to us.


  11. I like the child's eyes part. Its amazing in general how good kids are about simplifying without losing the point.
    for the contest...hsmuda[at]gmail[dot]com thanks!

  12. Hi Missy,
    Great post! Yes, I love the Beta reader concept as well. I've got a dear friend who's moved out of state. If there's time, she gets my complete manuscript before it goes to the editor. If I'm down to the wire, my eldest daughter reads the full before it heads to New York. I save my eldest and my long-distance friend to be those fresh eyes on text I've reworked to death. My cps see the work as it develops. They're great to point out weaknesses, but fresh eyes are invaluable to ensure the overall concept works.

    Plank in the eye? Oh, yeah, I can relate. It's always easier to point out the problems in someone else's work.

    On the flipside, critiquing teaches us to recognize problems in our manuscripts. I'm convinced one of the ways to improve our own craft is to help others improve theirs.

  13. Great point, Debby. That's one reason why I like to judge. I learn so much each time I do it.


  14. Hannah, that's so true. We need to be able to simplify without losing the point.

    I remember reading somewhere (I think in Alicia Rasley's Story Within Guidebook, or maybe Deb Dixon's GMC) that it's better to have one strong character goal rather than two or three weaker ones. That's one place we can simplify.


  15. Missy,

    Great article and good advice. One the the best methods for me is setting it aside and letting that story rest for a while. I think this is how I can sometimes work on more than one story at a time.

  16. Jenn, I do like to let it rest (because I'm usually sick of it at that point! :)) But I have a hard time starting something else. I just can't seem to switch gears until it's finished and out the door.


  17. good blog today. it would be had to be a reader. But Ruthy i can see the sport stuff you wrote where Sarah was coming from.
    Little things like novels set in australia using real towns but having the wrong climates or wrong farming area and having another capital to close.
    Like one i read where it was in Northern queensland but only a couple of hours from Sydney driving (it would be around 24 hours driving) and the industry was way off for the area. Those things i do notice.
    But not for other countries as such. (so if you ever set a novel in australia i am happy to proof read for you!)
    ok i have to get of the computer cos its overheating again. (cant wait for the cool change this afternoon!)

  18. Missy, great suggestions for spotting the problems in our work! It's amazing how often my cp and I find the same issues in each other's work, but didn't see it in our own.

    Except for my cp, no one else reads my book before I turn it in. Maybe I'll rope in a daughter for my Beta reader. Or an avid romance reader friend of mine.

    I've learned a lot from the revisions my editor wanted. So now I try to look at the next book through her eyes... before she sees it. An example:Make sure I have book length conflict between the hero and heroine. Saves me having to revise. :-)

    Thanks, Missy, for a great post!


  19. You know these holidays really throw me off. I thought yesterday was Sunday. Here I missed Missy's post.

    I wish I was linear like you, Missy. One project at a time. I spin six at one time.

    Love Melanies' Sol Stein suggestions.

    All in all lots of interesting ideas.

  20. Amen, sister!

    I am so bad about this. So many times when judging, I read an entry and think of all the things the entrant left out that I think I need to know--even though I remind myself if I had more of the entry to read, I’d probably find out soon enough.

    Then, in my own work, I know what my trying to say, and I think I’ve conveyed that to the reader, and they just don’t get it. I then have to admit that even though I knew something important about my character or plot, I hadn’t explained it very well.

    And sometimes it just takes adding a paragraph of exposition or dialogue or tweaking a sentence or two to clear everything up.

    Now, if I can just learn to take my own advice!

  21. Beta readers. I think a Beta reader would be good, but not necessarily someone who lives down the street or your sister-in-law/cousin, etc. Now, in some cases, a family member/friend will give good feedback, but I think it’s more rare for them to be completely truthful than not.

    Wouldn’t it be neat to have a trusted group of Beta readers (NOT writers) who could be depended on to read a ms. and give honest feedback? Authors needing feedback could post to the group and interested readers could respond. Maybe this is something to be considered….interesting…

  22. This I HAVE to respond to:

    Missy said: LOL, Ruthy. You're right. Kids can be brutal--ie. "Mom, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but that new haircut looks, well, bad."

    My 14 yo son has a wicked sense of humor (takes after his dad). One morning I was putting some Avon moisturizer on my face while he was brushing his teeth.

    He asked, "What's that?"

    I fluttered my eyelashes at him in the mirror and made a big show of smoothing it on my face before answering, "It's moisturizing cream. Deborah says it's supposed to make me look 20 years younger!"

    A skeptical look crossed his face, and he deadpaned, "Well, you can tell her it's NOT working."


  23. I'm close to giving up writing book reviews. Because I have to make myself stop and try to think like a reader, not a writer. I don't think authors write so that other writers can review them. They want to know how readers feel about their stories.

    Different folks bring different things to the table. Thanks for pointing out the many different eyes.


    I love how you made all those points with "eyes" and also how you tied this in to the Bible.

    So true how we're blind to probs in our own writing.



    I love how you made all those points with "eyes" and also how you tied this in to the Bible.

    So true how we're blind to probs in our own writing.


  26. Missy, you said it all stayed so sweet about it : ) I loved the part about the child's eyes. I know most folks have heard about the average novelist usually writing at a 4th grade level. Hmm, sounds demeaning, but it really isn't. Consider the term recreational reader. Sure it's great when we learn things through our fiction escapes, but reading a book that has you scratching your head and going *huh?* isn't really the invite you want to offer for repeat sales.

    I loved all of your *eyes*, Missy. Thanks for the reminder!!

  27. I so needed these insights to help me get my manuscripts ready to submit. I have a plank the size of a redwood log in my eye where my own writing is concerned. I have been looking for more eyes for my work, and this piece has provided me some great ideas. The comments help, too. I'm a newbie. I need all the help I can get! Thank you, Missy.

  28. I'll have to try some of your tips! Thanks so much!

  29. Well put Missy. I especially need to practice the Fresh Eyes...


  30. Missy, Thank you for that post. I will be applying some of your suggestions. My poor mother has told me not to let her see my manuscript this time until it was finished. I loved the Beta Eyes and I too put my work away for a while. Then when I return it seems new again.

  31. Missy, thank you for your tips on judging our own work. Just scratching the tip of the iceburg, I'm learning an overwhelming amount of ideas for authors! There's so much to remember I wonder how I'll ever do it! Since I'm a leap before I look type of person, hopefully something right will come of my meanderings!