How to meld character and story structure together into a plot (even for pantsers)

If you find that your characters run away from you, develop a mind of their own, or passively go along with events instead of affecting them, then this article is definitely for you.

In the Characters article, I discussed how the thing your character Wants is an outgrowth of the Lie he believes and the Inner Wound he struggles against. I also discussed how your character’s pursuit of what he Wants generates your plot, whereas his discovery and acceptance of what he Needs generates your story. In the Story Structure article I talked about plot points, pinch points, etc. This article melds the two; it explains how character and story structure fit together.

 

 

Your characters generate your plot. If you’re trying to create a story and then populate it with characters, you will need to custom-tailor your characters to fit your plot. That can be difficult, because a plot is just a story, whereas a character should be quite relatable, human, and engaging. People like stories just fine, but they really connect to characters. It’s a lot easier to create characters and build plots around them than vice versa.

 

 

Story Structure: What is it, and do I need it even if I don’t outline?

Yes, you need to know what story structure is whether or not you outline your work. The more you know and understand story structure, the easier it will be to pants your way through your alpha draft without having a saggy middle or boring story. Outliners should know this too.

Story structure is not a formula. It doesn’t create formulaic books. Some scholars studied a couple thousand works of fiction from around the world and across time and they came up with a basic understanding of how stories work. Humans have this fundamental need to tell stories, and I think this is part of our functionality, or the way our brains work. You don’t need to use story structure, but if you plan on becoming rich and famous, it really helps to understand this stuff. Plus you can’t effectively break the rules if you don’t know what they are. So set aside any quibbles you have and listen.

Fiction is not real life. In real life, things happen for no apparent reason. In 2017 my best friend was hit by a car and nearly died. In a story, that would be relevant to the plot, or it wouldn’t happen. There’s no plot to my life or his, and it just happened. Were I to be telling a story, and I included an event like that which didn’t actually forward the plot or character development, readers would pitch my book across the room. So all the stuff in your book has to matter to your character arcs or your plot development.

If you’re writing a series, you can include things in your WIP that are relevant to the series arc but not the book’s plot arc, but those should be subplots and used sparingly. And you should know your series’ structure (which is basically story structure writ large) before you get too far into your books, or you’ll need to grandfather those things in. I believe Jim Butcher grandfathered Storm Front’s events into his series plot in the Dresden Files series because Storm Front was his first published book and he had no idea, at the time, that he’d publish a 24 book series out of Harry Dresden. That’s why the series seems to take off with Book 3. This is a guess, though, and if Butcher would like to correct me, I will happily post what he says.

In Plotting, pantsing, and outlining I referred to these as “twists.” This is what they’re actually called. Percentages are approximate. You might hit your inciting event somewhere between 10% and 13%, but it should be close to what I list or your story may start to sag.

0% – the beginning

12.5% – Inciting Event. Sometimes called “inciting incident” (which is probably just people making slips of the tongue) or “call to adventure,” for people who like the Hero’s Journey.

25% – First Plot Point

37% – First Pinch Point

50% – Second Plot Point, or Midpoint

62% – Second Pinch Point

75% – Third Plot Point

88% – Climax begins

98% – Climax ends, Resolution begins

Again, these are approximate. Some people end the climax at around 95%.

In addition to these points, there’s usually a Key Decision that happens somewhere between the 20% and 25% mark.

This article is meant to be brief, as in “not a book.” The best book I’ve found for simply, easily, usefully, and briefly describing these things is Weiland’s Five Secrets of Story Structure book. I encourage you to buy and read it. I’ve read about nine books on story structure so far and I’m working on my 10th and 11th ones now, so I’m going to synthesize what those books say for you, but a lot of it will be from her book. (Again, I get no kickbacks for books I recommend.)

Go get a copy of your favorite paperback, one you’ve read so many times you know the story by heart, mark the pages where these percentage points occur, and keep it handy. You may want a pencil or highlighter.

The Hook – 0-12.5% of the book

This is where you introduce the characters and the world to your readers. Your story should begin with your characters in their Normal World, which will be either idyllic and soon to be lost, or horrible and in need of fixing. Something minor but symbolic of the changes to come will happen in the first couple of pages. Get out your book and look through the first chapter. What little thing is this? In Arrows of the Queen, it’s Talia’s 13th birthday, and the news she’s going to be married soon. In Storm Front, it’s Harry Dresden being hired to look into the death of Tommy Tom and the disappearance of Larry Sells (I think; the book is not handy).

In this section of the book your main character should let the reader know what she wants. It’s good for novice writers to explicitly state this. Talia blurts to the women in her hold “I want to be a Herald.” Dresden wants to stay on Murphy’s good side so he can be paid both now and in the future. If your reader doesn’t know what your main character wants, your book will seem vague and perhaps confusing.

There is a hell of a lot of writer advice out there about keeping back story and world building out of your first 12%. I’m not sure I believe that, though I’m open to being wrong. You should never info-dump or engage in exposition in this section because that will bore your readers to tears. However, you do need to let us know enough about your world to orient ourselves. Get out that book and read it carefully. Use a symbol to mark each time your favorite author slips in some bit that makes the world more understandable. Harry Dresden tells us he lives in Chicago, and that there are laws of magic he can’t break, and how magic affects technology, and quite a bit more. Talia tells us what the hell a “Herald” is and why she would want to be one.

Only use character background info and worldbuilding if it helps the reader grasp what’s going on and what they need to know about the character to make sense of the character’s immediate situation. We don’t need to know that the monarch of Talia’s world is always a Herald at this point. We do need to know the basics of what a Herald is. We don’t need to know about the Blackstaff during the first 12% of Harry’s story, but we do need to know that he could be killed if he violates the Laws of Magic on Murphy’s behalf.

Inciting Event – 12.5% to 20-25%

Your main character will brush against the central conflict somehow at this point. Something major will happen that will deeply impact the character, but won’t be enough in and of itself to suck the character irrevocably into the story. In a romance, this might be the Meet Cute. If I were writing a scifi about the discovery of interstellar travel through wormhole jumping, this might be where I put the successful discovery of interstellar travel. No one has done it yet, but at this point we know how to do it, and the main character might be chosen to make the first attempt. From the 12.5 to 20% mark (approximate) the characters will be preparing, somehow, to enter the conflict. They may have no idea that they’re doing so, but they are.

For example, in Big Hero 6, Hiro is taken to the Nerd Lab and meets his future friends. He’s wowed, both by their coolness and by what they’re working on. He meets Baymax and learns what Baymax can do too. (Movies are wonderful for studying story structure, incidentally, and the more you learn about this stuff, the more you can see it as you watch.)

Around the 20% mark, or between 20 and 25%, your character should make a Key Decision that will lead to the First Plot Point. In Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers decide to fly to Never Never Land. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy decides to run home and encounters the tornado that takes her to Oz. In Big Hero 6, Hiro decides to try to qualify for Robotics School. In Arrows of the Queen, Talia is asked if she really wants to be a Herald and Queen’s Own despite the fact that the previous Queen’s Own was murdered, and they didn’t catch the murderer. In a paranormal werewolf romance I read a few months ago, the main character decided to stay in the diner where she worked despite being alone.

Sometimes, after the Key Decision, there will be a brief sequence leading to the First Plot Point (the point of no return). We see Wendy and her brothers fly to Never Never Land. We see Dorothy run home and try to get into the storm cellar. We see Hiro develop his nanobots and display them at the exhibition. Sometimes the Key Decision is “I think I’ll step through this portal,” and then there’s a sentence of action and then we’re at the First Plot Point.

First Plot Point – 25%. End of Act 1, beginning of Act 2.

Here the main character is sucked into the conflict and can’t leave. In the PN werewolf story, the main character is mugged and saved by a giant wolf, which turns out to be the werewolf she falls in love with. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s house drops on the Wicked Witch of the East. In Peter Pan, the kids land in Never Never Land and encounter Captain Cook. This is a big setpiece scene, a transition from the old world into the new, and a situation that the main characters can’t get out of easily. If the movie is a musical, you’ll usually have a giant musical scene here with dancing. The Munchkin scene in The Wizard of Oz is an example; it starts with Dorothy opening her door into technicolor fantasy and ends with the song “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

Act 2 is often split into two parts. Between 25% and 50% you’re going to want to very carefully follow your genre’s conventions. This is the section that’s most specific to genre.

Typically your character doesn’t understand the central conflict at this point. They might not even know who the villain is. They’re trying to do the thing they need to do, but because they don’t know what’s really going on, they’re running around rather unproductively and making little progress. This section should be interesting. Your protag is going to meet a lot of new people, including allies, and possibly train or develop something. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets her three buddies and is attacked several times by the Wicked Witch of the West. In Big Hero 6, Hiro mods Baymax and discovers Kabuki Man, his antagonist. Often this section is very engaging.

37% – the First Pinch Point

Here your antagonist makes a move or plots something that will affect your protagonist. This serves a bunch of purposes. First, if you’re veering too far off into fun-land with your protag and their allies, this re-centers your central plot. Second, your antagonist gets to screw with your protagonist, which is both important and should make you cackle and rub your hands together with glee. Third, it usually gives the first half of Act 2 enough “oomph” to get to the Midpoint.

It should be obvious that, by the 37% mark, you need to have introduced your antagonist. Often the antagonist is introduced (or its effects are) by the end of Act 1, but it’s okay to be a little late, and sometimes the antag is still behind the scenes. For example, in Storm Front we don’t see the antagonist until late in the book, but we see his effects and feel his power before the 37% mark. In Big Hero 6, the antagonist is the professor in the robotics lab. We meet him in the first act, see him as Kabuki Man at the 37% mark, but don’t find out the Kabuki Man is the professor until the climax.

50% – the Second Plot Point, aka the Midpoint

This is one of the most important points in the book and deserves a major setpiece scene. This is where everything changes. Your characters may end up with new goals, a new outlook on the conflict, etc. It’s so important that there’s a craft book out there where the author recommends you write this scene first and then work in each direction until the story is written.

At this point your main character will have an epiphany or come to an understanding about what she needs to do to achieve her goals. What she’s been doing so far (either internally, externally, or both) isn’t working, so she decides to try something else. In a movie where two main ally characters hate each other, this is where they resolve to set aside that hatred and work together as a team. In a romance, this is “sex at 60,” the point at which the two characters have sex or a moment of intimacy that signifies sex. In The Wizard of Oz, this is the Emerald City scene. Dorothy has achieved her goal of finding the Wizard, and now has a new goal: kill the Wicked Witch of the West. In Arrows of the Queen, this is where Talia finally begins to feel like she might belong.

62% – The Second Pinch Point

Between 50% and 62% your enlightened characters are still using their old methods of coping, dealing, or problem-solving to get what they want, because they haven’t linked their enlightenment with the need to try new methods. Dorothy is still hiking across Oz, for example, instead of clicking her heels. So even though they know more and are changing their ways, they’re still not getting where they want or need to go, so they’re still falling on their faces pretty much constantly. This can be really fun to write or watch.

In Big Hero 6, for example, Hiro wants to fight Kabuki Man, so he and his friends design and train in their superhero suits and Hiro flies all over San Fransokyo. Dorothy encounters the Flying Monkeys. Talia tries to figure out who’s corrupting the Heir to the Throne. Dresden’s tracking down Harry Sells.

My favorite part of a story to write is the part between the 37% mark and the 62% mark simply because that’s where the greatest amount of character growth seems to happen.

Between the 62% and 75% mark your antagonist should make himself known again–you want to keep your story on track if it seems to be veering off.

75% – The Third Plot Point, Beginning of Act 3.

Again, this is a huge setpiece scene. Between here and 88%, your character should be at his absolute lowest low-point and might even make some pretty unethical decisions. Often there’s some sort of symbolic or real death, especially of a mentor. Your character should be alone, on the ropes, ready to give up, because even though he knows what he needs to do, he doesn’t have all the info he needs to do it, or the strength to do it, or the heart.

Dorothy is told that if she doesn’t give up the ruby slippers in one hour, she’ll die. She’s locked in a room by herself. Talia’s psychic trainer is murdered and she is the only one who can get the McGuffin and rescue her friend–and she’s weak, afraid, and undertrained. Murphy is pissed at Dresden, tries to arrest him, and he has no allies. Hiro recklessly endangers his friends in his pursuit of Kabuki Man and then leaves them behind when he loses.

However, typically your character is only one piece of information or significant action away from winning. She just doesn’t know it.

88% – 98% – The Climax

The climax typically begins around 88%, though I’ve seen it start around 85%. Novels aren’t as precise as movies. During the climax the protag begins to wrap everything up, starting with the least important problem and working toward the most. They realize and apply that last bit of information needed to save the day.

Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch for her broomstick. Then she discovers that Oz is just a guy from Nebraska. She tries to leave in his hot air balloon, but it flies away. Then Glinda comes and tells Dorothy to click her heels three times. She goes home. Conflict over.

Hiro goes to the site of new construction, prepared to fight the scientist-developer, who he thinks is Kabuki Man. It’s not him. He fights and overcomes Kabuki Man, but then discovers that the man is the professor. He realizes that an innocent woman is locked into the hyperspace area that the scientist-developer created, so he enters that area, finds her, and has to leave Baymax behind, losing the last bit of his brother. Villains neutralized, great wrong righted, person saved, conflict over.

Talia guides her friends to where the McGuffin is and they rescue it. Then she saves the mind of one of her closest friends, cementing her place with the Heralds. Conflict over.

Dresden defeats Larry Sells and all his minions and stops the ritual they were enacting, solving the murders and closing up the subplots. Conflict over.

Once the conflict is over, the story is basically over. However, people really, really like resolutions. They want the “happily ever after.” We crave it. That leads us to …

Resolution – 98%-100% (sometimes starts at 95%)

Here you show the protagonist after the story is over. You resolve any lingering bits and restate the theme. There are many ways to do this. A lot of people recommend you show the protag back in her original world, only improved. Closing with a scene that mirrors the opening scene is a nice touch.

For example, Dorothy wakes up in bed, in Kansas, happy to be there. She says “there’s no place like home!”, which is the theme of the movie. Talia sees her best friend off on his training trip and thinks she’s finally found a place she belongs. Dresden preserves his relationship with Murphy and doesn’t get in trouble with the White Council. Hiro rebuilds Baymax and heads off to Nerd School with his friends, no longer a depressed loner.

If The Wizard of Oz ended with Dorothy clicking her heels, if Big Hero 6 ended with Hiro flying the missing girl through the portal, the story, while over, would have felt unfinished. You need the resolution to provide readers with a sense of satisfaction, of resolution.

You need this even if you’re writing a tragedy. Tragedies don’t have “happily ever after” endings (called HEA; HFN means Happy For Now), but they do need to satisfy. In Romeo & Juliet, for example, the story is over when Juliet kills herself, but in the resolution we find out what happened to their warring families. It must be done.

Once you internalize this, it will make both plotting and pantsing stories much easier to do.

Again, this isn’t a formula! This was developed through the study of existing stories. It’s set up with these percentages because they’re where those things occurred in well-paced, successful stories that had already been written before anyone studied story structure. Experienced writers might start their climax at 80% and resolve it at 95%, etc. That’s up to you.

Watch movies, looking for this stuff. Disney and Pixar are both excellent examples of movies that stick rigidly to story structure, and you’ve probably seen them all anyway. All of the MCU movies adhere strictly to this structure. The new Hobbs & Shaw movie, which came out less than a week ago, sticks to this structure. I see it in TV episodes, too; I’m currently watching Elementary, which is structured this way. Buffy seasons were also structured in this fashion, with each episode structured thus and the season structured according to this fashion. Once you start noticing it, it will be hard to un-notice.

That said, I started learning about story structure about 4 years ago and I’m just now able to identify it as I watch new movies. It takes a while before you can really make it out. But read your favorite novel, watch movies, etc. and you’ll start to get it too.

Why your first book will probably never be published

Most of the people I work with don’t believe their prose is deathless, which is good, but there’s a trap that a lot–and I mean a lot–of new writers fall into. It’s called “I have to make my first novel work.” If you’re typical, you either have already or will at some point fall into this trap too.

Many of the novice writers I know (and I say this with affection and respect; no one is bad, or should be mocked or made to feel inferior for this) are spending a tremendous amount of time trying to make their first novels work. They must have this first novel published. They must tell this story. This is their story. It’s a part of them, and they need to share it with the world. It’s a visceral need; they’re not being melodramatic and they don’t think the world can’t live without this book. It’s more like a compulsion. I fell into that trap and worked on my first novel for something like three years before I put it in a drawer (code for “stopped working on it”). I know people who stuck with their first novel for quite a bit longer than that.

One of the reasons writers obsess about their first novels is that, often, the writer is using pieces of his life, past experiences, and his own personality in the story. This is not precisely like writing a Mary Sue character, which is a character that’s too good and perfect to be true. Although most characters should be characters you at least understand and empathize with, if you base your characters too much on yourself, you’re going to have real difficulty with your plot, your theme, applying your critiques, or some other vital part of your book because you will not be able to make the necessary changes needed to make your book work. Also, you’ll never develop the skill to write any other characters, and every book you ever write will feel like the one that came before.

A book is fundamentally not about real life. Life does not work like fiction. Stories have structure that doesn’t exist in real life, which is why those movies are all “based on” true stories, instead of being actual true stories. Your characters and plot generate each other, and that means sometimes your characters aren’t going to be able to have the ending or results you want when you plot out your book. 

Books must be neat and tidy, with loose ends all wrapped up, and they should leave the reader with a sense that everything that happened in the story is understandable. They must have resolution. Life isn’t like that. In life, we often experience things that make no sense, that shouldn’t have happened, and that don’t lead to neat conclusions that make us feel satisfied. If books were like life, the typical reader would throw them across the room in frustration.

If you try to force your characters, which you can’t change because changing them would be like betraying yourself, into a plot which you’re also not willing to change because it’s how you wish your situation had turned out, then your story will fail. Readers will say, “it made no sense.” It will have fundamental flaws. If you don’t understand how this could happen, read the articles on structure, character, and plot, then come back and re-read this. (Note to current readers: these articles don’t exist yet.)

In addition to all that, most novice writers–and many published ones!–have no idea how story structure works. (Again, all due respect and affection. This is not their fault. I had no idea story structure existed until I stumbled across it by accident and began to study it. They certainly don’t cover it in school.*) This is because storytelling is fundamental to our species. It is an absolute necessity to tell and hear stories. It probably evolved with language well over 100,000 years ago, and might have evolved in one of our evolutionary ancestors before it got to us. How did Brud kill the rhinoceros, and can Din do it too? Well, here’s how it happened. How did Mar manage to find the new cave? Here’s the story. Both directions and instructions can be turned into stories, and explaining how we feel and why can be told as stories as well. Educating the young can certainly be done in story form. In fact, children learn best from songs and stories.

So we read lots of stories and we see lots of stories and we hear lots of stories. Our entire existences are based on stories, to the point where we can begin to believe narratives that don’t match reality. (Climate change deniers are a good example of this. They’re not crazy, but they believe things that aren’t true.) Then we go to write them, and we usually manage to more or less hit the mark and possibly even get published if we’re lucky enough, sensitive enough, and pay close enough attention to our critique partners. The problem is, writers like that are fumbling their way to success. They don’t know what they’re doing, so they can’t replicate it.

I recently watched a vlog episode in which a traditionally published writer was struggling with outlining her thriller. She’s a pantser and is trying the outline process for the first time. And as I was listening to her talk about her problems, I realized that she didn’t know anything about story structure. Here’s this successful, educated, talented, helpful person who is trying to help other people and trying to explain her process and trying to write a good book, but who is missing some fundamental pieces of the process. She even bought a book about story structure, but she’s missing how character relates to story and that’s what’s giving her the trouble. I wanted to say something, but the video is many, many months old and she probably figured it out by now.

If she, published as she is, didn’t know, how can anyone be expected to know? How can New Writer know? Now I’m betting this traditional publisher has written other books for the drawer and that her first published book wasn’t her first novel. If it was, I’m betting that she didn’t base her characters, their back stories, or how their stories should end on her own life and experiences. I don’t know these things, but I’m betting this is so.

When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t base my characters on myself, though I parceled out to them traits that I do have. I didn’t do any wish fulfillment endings. I didn’t even use my own past experiences as material. In fact, my first novel was the overly-developed back story for a character I wrote for the Dresden Files FATE role playing game. (They have a really awesome character generation process that writers could easily adapt for novels.) I wrote a paragraph for my character’s background, then expanded that to twelve pages because I wanted to understand what made her tick. Then I expanded that to 75 pages, and then I expanded that to a 120,000 word novel. At that point I realized I’d actually written a novel and that, with a little world-building work, I could write it as an original novel and even publish it. I did that, and pretty soon I had a novel that was not set in the Dresden Files world.

My problem was that, in the DF role playing game, she was 22 years old. In the original novel, she was 17. I based everything on how I wanted the story to end and on the traits I’d given her in the game, so it was incredibly difficult for me to deviate from that. I remember having a series of talks with myself about how I had to let go of the role playing game character and give the original world character a different ending in order to make the story work. But that turned out to be extraordinarily hard. The story kept wanting to go in the wrong direction because I was subconsciously forcing it there. Ultimately I got about 70% of the way through my fifth alpha rewrite, realized my character motivations didn’t match the plot (which meant they had no reason for doing what they were doing), and knew that if I didn’t put the story in a drawer for at least a little while, I’d never ‘lose’ enough of the characters to make the fundamental changes they needed for the story to work properly. With great reluctance and a sense of loss I put the story away and wrote a different novel.

Doing that probably saved my writing career, which hasn’t even really taken off yet. What it did was detach me from a book that had become a millstone around my neck. I loved my millstone, but it was still holding me back. I had a fresh start and could apply the things I’d learned in the interim to an entirely new story, one built from the ground up in a proper fashion. My next novel didn’t work either, but it failed better and I learned a lot from it. I got a lot of story structure down by writing the second book. My third book, which I’m working on now, is my struggle to match character to plot. I don’t quite have it, though I can certainly explain it, but I can see where I’m going wrong and why.** My fourth book should be miles better than my current WIP, and I’m betting I’ll have it down by the fifth book. I will probably publish my sixth book.

“Wait–who writes five books before publishing their first? OMG, isn’t that a lot of effort? Why write a book if you don’t intend to publish it? Are you nuts? I would never, ever do such a thing.” That’s in quotes because I’ve heard that response many, many times from other novice writers. And yeah, it’s a lot of work. Any learning process is.

But let me explain something to you. Do you think pro basketball players woke up one day, put on their first pair of athletic shoes, and played pro ball without ever practicing or playing for amateur teams? Of course not! Your average athlete has spent years learning how to do the thing. They practiced and competed on an amateur level and when they were good enough, they were hired to play at the pro level and get paid for it. People who bake and decorate complicated pastries first made a large number of mistakes. Those mistakes probably tasted good, but they weren’t worth a lot of money. So why should I think that my first efforts should net me fame and fortune? What makes me more special than the baker or the pro athlete? Did I put in more practice? More devotion? More time? How arrogant could I  possibly be to believe I’m that much better than anyone else who wants to make professional money at a skillset that must be carefully developed?

Your first novel is priceless, but it’s not you. It is the vehicle through which you begin to learn to write. It’s where you learn to let go.

Let it go.


*I have an English credential. I know they do cover the basic three act structure. That’s about like plopping a bag of flour in front of a kid and saying “this is flour. Now make some phyllo dough from scratch.”

**Teaching something you can’t quite do yet is not only pretty ordinary but a great way of deeply learning the thing you’re teaching because it forces you to think about and articulate them, much like critiquing does. This is why kids should teach each other things.

What to do with the crits or edits you’ve received

If you’re looking for information on how to respond to being critiqued, either online or in person, read this.

Many people ask what they should do with the critiques they’ve received.

This may sound like a silly question, but it’s not. The average novel is about 80,000 words long, which is approximately 300 pages.* If you have 3 crit partners and you give them your novel in 3000 word chunks, you’re going to end up with approximately 80 critiques. If these are developmental, it’s not too bad to collate the information, but if they’re line editing critiques you’re going to be buried under word choice suggestions.

This is how I handle critique suggestions.

The crits I receive are mostly developmental, with a few reader responses and some word choice stuff as it pertains to clarifying plot and character development. I strictly tell people to avoid doing line editing or copy editing critiques, though I’ve handled those too in two of the short stories I’ve published.

I don’t have my whole novel written before I start sending chunks out for critique. In fact, I usually don’t have more than a 6000 word ‘pad’ (and sometimes not even that). When my critique partners give me critiques, the first thing I do is thank them. On Scribophile, that means leaving a brief “thank you” on their profiles’ walls and clicking some adjective markers at the bottom, such as “like.” Please thank your crit partners. To fail to do so is rude.

Next, I carefully read and consider each critique. Sometimes I’m elated. Sometimes I’m offended, irritated, or angry. I sit with those emotions and I try my hardest not to respond to them. I trust my crit partners to have my absolute best interests at heart. They’re telling me the truth. If they lied to me to spare my feelings, Amazon reviewers would pan my books, they wouldn’t sell, and my career would be over quite quickly. I’ve been with my crit partners for years, so I know I can trust them.

If you’re just starting out, it can be hard to trust your partners, but really think: is this person trying to help me? Or is he just being an ass? If your crit partner says anything like “you should probably take a grammar class” (which I said at the very beginning of my critiquing career and still cringe about to this day), then that person is an asshole and you can throw out their commentary. If they talk about you instead of your writing, throw out their commentary. No good crit partner will say things like “you should stop writing until you learn better mechanics.” (I saw that happen to someone else.)

That said, if your crit partner says something like, “I’m finding it hard to root for your main character. I’m not sure I like her and I don’t want to read about her any more” (paraphrased criticism I received), your partner is not being a bad crit partner or an asshole. They are telling you the truth as they see it. They are trying to help you. Have your cry–mine lasted about 4 months–and then get back on the horse and work on your story. Critiques like that will eventually make you a better writer, if you don’t quit first. (Please don’t quit. Everyone can develop their skill and become better.)

In regards to processing developmental edits, I’d strongly suggest stopping writing at your various plot points (roughly 8 per book; see my article on story structure) or at the end of each quarter. Look at what your critique partners have said. Unless you have written the whole WIP already, there is no point in continuing to write if your work is fundamentally flawed. It’s like continuing to drive the car after the tire goes flat. Go back and fix the problem, rewrite the section if necessary, and keep going. If you don’t know how to fix the problem, research the solution. I think I still have an (out of date) section on craft book reviews here on this website that could be helpful there. (NOTE: This is my opinion. Many people will tell you to just keep writing and fix it later. Try my advice and try their advice and see what works best for you.)

If your critique partners have found minor flaws, don’t correct them. Keep going, and apply those corrections after your entire WIP is complete. This will keep you from endlessly tinkering with Act 1 and never finishing your WIP.

If your critique partners have identified an issue that might affect the next act or section of your book, brainstorm ways to fix it and apply those corrections when you write that section.

If your critique partners are upset or confused about something, think about what it is. Sometimes you want them to be upset or confused. Sometimes you want them to, as readers, ask those questions. For example, in my WIP, my main character’s boss has given her an order she doesn’t understand or agree with. None of my critique partners understood or agreed with the order, either. They thought I’d put in the order to deus ex machina the beginning of the story. However, the order is supposed to be something that raises red flags for my main character, and the reason the order was given is due to a long-term subplot in the series. No one is going to understand the order until Book 4, and I’m currently working on Book 2. So I nod and let that one go.

So what do you do to manage line edit critiques? What do you do with the thirty billion word choice suggestions?

This is what I did when I applied my editor’s suggestions when I edited my 30 page published short story Sacrifice. First I made a copy of my file and I labeled it with the title and “edits.” Always make a copy if you’re working in Google Docs or Word. (In Scrivener, first take a snapshot.)

Next I went through each critique and hand-copied it into the new story file. If more than one critiquer had the same critique, I would make a mark like “x2” or “x3” to indicate how many people had the problem. The more people who have the problem, the more important it is to fix.

If more than 20% of your critique partners have a problem with something, you should really fix it. Even if you love it. You’re not going to buy your books, so what does it matter that you love it? They (your readers, your potential market) have to love it, and the more critique partners have a problem, the more readers will too. Do you really want to alienate, say, 40% of your possible readership?  That’s a lot of money to throw away. It could be the difference between writing as a career, which is mostly only possible for the rich and folks who make the NYT Bestseller list with 80% of the books they write, and writing as a hobby.**

If you want to continue on this line of argument, read point 3 of this article.

After I copied over all the comments, no matter how silly they were (and I thought plenty of them were silly and a few were just plain wrong), I gave deep and careful thought to each comment that wasn’t obviously something they were right about and I needed to fix. I overcame any negative knee-jerk reaction to their comments because I wanted to be published more than I wanted to be right.

In almost every single instance, my critique partners and/or editor were right, or at least not wrong. This is because they weren’t emotionally invested in my work, so they could evaluate it objectively. I feel deeply about my work. I’m too close to it to objectively consider it without help, so I can’t just self-edit.

What to do if you feel your critique partner is wrong.

In any given manuscript you will probably disagree with your editor. Every time you disagree, think: is this something that is truly, deeply, massively, project-ending important to me to have my way? If it’s not, do it their way. You don’t want a reputation as a prima donna or someone impossible to work with. There may be 1-2 things per manuscript that you must have your way despite what the editor says. Write out a 1-2 paragraph justification for each and send that to your editor. There’s usually a little wiggle room, but not much, so you want to save your disagreements for things that truly matter.

Making corrections takes time. It’s also boring as hell, emotionally difficult, and generally about the least fun thing you can do in writing. And then you send it in and they send it back with more corrections–copy editing stuff. They’ll correct your grammar, punctuation, and spelling, but you must apply/sign off on those corrections because it’s your work. You do those and send it back. Then they return it for proofreading. You have to proofread it to make sure it’s correct because the work represents you. Your name is on it, and it’s you who will be covered in mud if there are errors. Your editor won’t suffer (that much) if your work goes to print with errors, but readers might decide not to bother with something full of typos and punctuation issues, at which point you lose money, and it looks unprofessional, which means you lose respect. I am completely forgiving of mechanics errors in drafts and am happy to read a draft rife with such. I will put a book down if there’s more than one error in the first chapter. With even one error, I view the book with deep distrust.

By the time you’re at the proofreading stage you are so sick of the project you’d rather slit your wrists than look at it again, but it must be done. It took me 100 hours to write a 10,000 word story, apply the edits, and proof it, and most of that time was the edits and proofing. I haven’t read it since.

People who have published: if your experience varies, please let me know in the comments. This is purely my experience.

If you have the leisure to do so, I strongly recommend you do your edits on one book while you’re doing something creative with another project or you might just decide that publishing isn’t for you and quit altogether. You’ll know more about where you stand in that regard once you have a work accepted and go through the process. Alternately, have a friend you absolutely trust in terms of proofreading and who is familiar with your story help you with the proofing.


*Industry standard is 250 words to the page, even though if you opened a book and counted each word on any given physical page, it would be a different number. This is because hardback books and paperback books fit different numbers of words on their respective pages.

**Of course there are exceptions. Andy Weir made bank off his first book, The Martian. But if you read interviews by him, you’ll see he depended heavily on critiques and he changed his book to suit them. And Stephen King made the NYT Bestseller list with Carrie, his first novel, and every novel thereafter. However, he spent 10 years writing and publishing short stories first and that’s where he learned the skills he needed to do such a good job on his first novel.