Like any writer who wants to succeed, I spent years learning about the profession and refining my skills. I attended writers’ conferences, studied how-to books on writing and publishing, and read piles of novels in a variety of genres.
Armed with a draft of my first mystery novel, I took the next step in the process: I found a mentor through a writers’ group I’d joined. My mentor offered to review the first and last thirty pages of my novel and email her comments to me after a month’s time.
At the end of the session, her email arrived and I was eager to read it. As my eyes flew over the words, disbelief stifled enthusiasm. Her remarks were sarcastic and stung as much on screen as if she’d read them out loud in a room full of people. She proposed drastic changes to the characters, settings, and plot. She even advised me to re-write the entire story in the third person. (I’d written it in the first person.) In closing, she defended her position as a “tough editor” and hoped her comments would help me write a better book.
You’ve got to be kidding!
My next reaction was to send “Miss Sarcastic” a nasty email but I decided against it. It wasn’t worth the time or energy to respond to someone who was inconsiderate and rude. I’d just file a complaint against her on the evaluation form I had to complete and send it off to the writers’ group headquarters. And yet…
I read Miss Sarcastic’s comments again. Her mocking attitude had dealt a serious blow to my ego, but what if she was right and my story did need a revamp? After all, she had a handful of published mystery novels under her belt and had mentored other writers. I was…well…green. Surely she must know what she’s talking about. And so I conceded, knowing that the revisions to my manuscript would entail a major upheaval. In fact, the task proved a lot more difficult than writing the book in the first place and took months out of my life. After I’d finished, I put it aside. When I read it a week later, I was disheartened. It was no longer my story. The changes I’d made had sucked the life right out of it. I hated it.
Not one to accept defeat, I reviewed Miss Sarcastic’s comments again—this time from an unbiased perspective. I dug out my original manuscript and integrated the changes that I felt would benefit the story and ignored the rest. After I finished, I had to admit it was a stronger novel.
I recently heard that my mentor has abandoned her writing career. Her book sales weren’t doing well, so she accepted a job with a media firm. If anything, I owe her a modicum of gratitude. The experience inspired me to set up guidelines that I’ve since followed when reviewing critiques of my work. I’d like to share them with other writers in the hope they might find them useful too:
1. Take the time to review a critique. Let it ferment. You might interpret it differently later on.
2. Try not to take a negative critique as a personal insult but consider it with an open mind.
3. A negative critique gives you a choice: either fix the problem or ignore it. Consider how any change will affect your story. Will it strengthen or weaken it?
4. No one knows your characters or plot as well as you do. If a suggestion for a change doesn’t fit— no matter how good it might sound, don’t force it into the story.
5. Growing as a writer means heeding your inner voice or gut feelings. Trust your writer’s instincts more often. If you believe that a change will improve the story, do it. If not, move on.
Meet Sandra Nikolai
Sandra was raised in Montreal, Québec, and graduated from McGill University. As a young girl, she loved reading the Nancy Drew mystery series and was determined to write her own stories one day. Her career choices didn’t exactly lead her along the “yellow brick road” to writing mystery novels—though working in a bank and experiencing a string of armed robberies did ingrain terrifying memories worthy of a story!
In 2002, Sandra won an Honorable Mention in Canadian Writer’s Journal short fiction competition. She has since published a dozen short stories online and in print. False Impressions is her first mystery novel in a series featuring ghostwriter Megan Scott and investigative reporter Michael Elliott. She is currently working on Fatal Whispers, book two in the series.
Sandra is a member of Crime Writers of Canada and Capital Crime Writers.
You can catch up with Sandra at her beautiful website and blog:
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