The Jerk

I always caution writers workshopping their MS against the knee-jerk reaction to please every critiquer. One person may say to take out this sentence. The next may say to beef it up. Another may suggest that a character is flat. And then someone may love the character just as she is.

And that’s just the first four critiquers … it’s even tougher when you get feedback from say twenty or so people. Or, an agent.

Deep down, us writers are people pleasers. Yes, we do write for ourselves, but really we write for the reader. We want the reader to come away from our work feeling satisfied, like they made a new best friend (or worst enemy) in our characters. The reader should feel as if the time she spent invested in our work was the best use of that time.

It’s understandable to have that gotta-change-it reaction to critiquers. They are, after all, readers … readers who happen to catch us at a time when we can still make changes to please other readers.

I’ve always prided myself in not having that gotta-change-it mentality. Then again, my wonderful beta readers and critique partners have provided me with great feedback – things that really need to change (kill the adverbs, show don’t tell) to minor tweaks that I could consider (maybe a stronger word here or there). I make most changes, but when I realize I have something that conflicts another edit or doesn’t feel right to me, I just sit on it … like a potbelly-less Buddha waiting for the answer to come to me.

That changed yesterday. For the first time ever, I entered Miss Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent contest. If you don’t know about it, it’s a blog that holds a contest for the first 250 words of a completed manuscript. Fellow writers comment and within the midst lurks a secret agent, someone whose identity will be revealed once the contest is over. The comments on Phoenix were good – about 50 percent didn’t like the MC (you’re not supposed to in the beginning) which was a hook for some. They liked the first line, but thought I went a bit too far with it in the first paragraph – I can totally see that. And, within the first 250 words, no one was sure what the story was about. And, that’s a tough one. (See below for what I entered and how I changed it)

Then, the Secret Agent came along. She mostly agreed with them – liked the first line, thought the rest of the paragraph was overboard. But then the zinger, she said to never start books with MC’s waiting. Hmmm … OK.

So now for the Jerk. The story really truly starts there: Amanda trying to deposit a large sum of money, pissed off and hungover. I tried re-writing it and maybe this works. It definitely cools down her bitchiness in the beginning. And, yes, that first paragraph was my “Me Write Pretty” moment. Going past the first 250 words, I’m going to float this by my critique group today to see if there’s a way I can move The Phone Call (the catalyst) up before some of the flashback.

But, I’d love your thoughts. Does my post-Jerk reaction work? Does it make it any better? Don’t hold back … let me have it. I’m wearing my big girl panties. 🙂

Pre-Jerk:

Amanda Martin didn’t believe in casual Fridays.  She didn’t believe in anything casual.  Why waste time with casual dating when, despite a cold and unfulfilling relationship, she and Josh made the perfect couple?  Why bother with the empty calories of casual dining when the hottest restaurants in Chicago whisked her into a window-front table?  Business casual was not an option when she could be summoned to meet with media or investors at a moment’s notice.  She certainly didn’t appreciate the casual tone the banking industry took with the tellers all sporting chinos and matching golf shirts.  The lackadaisical dress affected the workers’ efficiency, causing her to stand alongside those with less in their checking account than she spent on her favorite pair of heels.

With frustration radiating from every pore, she endured the long line for a teller.  The lonely ATM lured her, but knowing a teller handled the hefty cash deposit won over the cold anonymity of the machine.  Amanda shifted in her place, sighing as she unbuttoned her ivory coat.

“Ma’am, would you like some coffee while you wait?” a just-out-of-college branch manager approached her.  Once upon a time, branch managers wore three-piece suits, but this kid was dressed identical to the tellers.

            “Coffee?  Am I really going to stand here long enough to drink a cup of coffee?”

            “I’m sorry about that.  The tellers are working as quickly as they can.  Could you use the ATM to complete your transaction?”

Post-Jerk:

Amanda Martin didn’t believe in casual Fridays. 

Sloppy dress, sloppy work, she thought as matching golf-shirt-clad tellers ignored the growing line. 

Amanda paused at the door as she weighed her options.  How long would it take her to deposit eighty $100 bills into the ATM?  Why didn’t Josh have HR cut her a check?  Should she just wait it out for a teller?  What is in El Paso?  Or, who?  And, what’s her bra size?  The thumping headache from polishing off a bottle of wine alone fumbled her usually decisive thoughts.

“Dammit, Josh,” she murmured. 

The line curved back on itself twice and each of the three tellers had four customers before it would be her turn at the window.  The envelope of money poked at her collarbone from its haven in the interior pocket of her coat.  No matter how she tried to maneuver it to a more comfortable position, the corner of the envelope continued to jab her.

She sighed as she thought, it’s probably a sign.  Quarterly bonuses were standard for her at the mid-sized investment firm where she worked.  But, this was different.  Instead of a bonus it felt more like a payout. 

After days of being avoided by Josh in every sense of the word – text messages unanswered, emails neglected, voicemails unreturned and even his admin ran interference for him – Amanda strode into his office the previous evening ready to end their relationship. 

About Kimberly Packard

Kimberly Packard is an award-winning author of women’s fiction. She began visiting her spot on the shelves at libraries and bookstores at a young age, gazing between the Os and the Qs. Kimberly received a degree in journalism from the University of North Texas, and has worked in public relations and communications for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t writing, she can be found rollerblading, doing a poor imitation of yoga or curled up with a book. She resides in North Texas with her husband Colby, Oliver the cat and a 75-pound lap dog named Charlie. Her debut novel, Phoenix, was awarded as Best General Fiction of 2013 by the Texas Association of Authors.
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4 Responses to The Jerk

  1. I like the post-jerk version better. Reads better, moves better. Had to quit critique groups entirely about six months ago when I began to realize that critique of a work in progress, especially a novel, can be entirely dangerous to its health. Since then, I’ve been publishing … and often. The point is that a creative work is unique, both to its genre and its voice.

    No question in this case, the second version is better, but maybe you would have achieved it on your own in a second or third edit. By all means, if you have an agent, or if a publisher suggests improvements, follow their lead, but to submit your work in a critique group can be hazardous to your creative health.

    At some point in a writer’s devlopment, I thnk they should begin to trust their own judgement. When you reach that point, critiques can only drag you down, depress you. No novel in first draft should be presented for critique anyway. Let it evolve on its own and if you feel you want opinions, present it after completion.

    • taureanw says:

      I have to agree!
      I have known quite a few people who have become so depressed after a critique that they simply abandoned their work. The first draft (or two or three) is supposed to be pretty rough. It’s like molding clay it looks like a lump of s***t until it gradually gains form and purpose :-p

      • Thanks guys! I’m lucky in that my critique group is made up of great writers who are all on my side, so I don’t mind sharing WIPs with them. And yeah, I recently came across the very first draft of Phoenix. *Cringe*

  2. I’ll address your rewrite in a moment. But first, I wonder about Ms. Snark’s First Victim’s Secret Agent Contest. Sounds too much like a gimmick to me. Your completed manuscript is what? 200, 300, 400 pages long? Even if it is 150 pages long, you can hardly determine its overall worth from a mere 250 words. That equates to about half a typed page, double spaced. If you entered for workshop-type commentary, I suppose that’s okay. But as an author and therefore would-be competitor in the same contest, I would be inclined to find faults with all the other works. It stands to reason if the endgame is an agent. But it’s good that you’ve explored this. I hope you’ll post more on the contest and what, if any, legitimacy it has.

    As for your rewrite … I don’t like it. The only change I would make to the original would be to reword the second sentence as, “She didn’t like casual anything.” That would keep casual + noun parallel throughout the paragraph. The rewrite has too many passive sentences. The original has the main character waiting, but it’s not boring. We are let in on Amanda’s worldview. Besides, how are we to know what a story is really about in the first 250 words?

    I would be more confident in what you have written the way it is. Even if it is misconstrued as arrogance.

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