Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why you need extra eyes

Prepping my home for sale has been as enjoyable as giving myself a wedgie with a piece of barbed wire.

The upside is that my house is now cleaner than it's been since I moved in six years ago. Closets have been organized, floors have been scrubbed, and the fur balls under the sofa have been surgically reattached to the cats.

The realtors have been great about pointing out little things that might annoy potential homebuyers – personal photos, desktop clutter, lingerie hanging from the ceiling fan – things I've grown so accustomed to seeing that I don't even notice they're there.

But the realtors missed something. It took one of the housemates to point it out the other morning as I scrambled around prepping for a showing.

"I'm surprised the realtors haven't said anything about the stairs," he said.

"What's wrong with the stairs?"

"Unless the potential buyers have the same first and last name as your ex husband, they might not appreciate having his name written in bright yellow letters on the bottom step."

And damned if he wasn't right. Obviously, I knew it was there. When the home was built six years ago, we opted for sort of a modern industrial look. The stair rails are done with custom-finished wood and wire cables, while the stairs themselves are tile with steel corner pieces.

Word of advice – you don't want to fall in my home unless you enjoy brain injury.

The steel caps on the edge of each stair came from a local supplier that thoughtfully marked the buyer's name on one of the pieces in the supply yard. For the first few months after the house was finished, it was a running joke. After that, I remember asking my then-husband if the words could be removed. He told me he'd tried and failed, so I pretty much stopped noticing the name was there.

When I told this to my housemate, he laughed. "Ten bucks says we can get it off in thirty seconds with nail polish remover and steel wool."

"Thirty seconds sounds a little fast for getting off, and doesn't the steel wool hurt?"

He wisely ignored me and went to retrieve the steel wool from under the sink. I headed upstairs and came back down with a bottle of nail polish remover.

Two minutes later, all traces of the name were gone.

"This is why every writer needs good critique partners," I told him.

He frowned. "To scrub their ex-husbands' names off their stairs?"

"No. To help them fix the things they've stopped noticing or decided aren't fixable."

"Right," he said. "With steel wool and dirty jokes."

Hey, whatever works. It's true that the greatest value a critique partner or beta reader brings to the table is the benefit of a fresh pair of eyes. Even if that person isn't a grammar expert or a writing whiz, he or she can still offer a new perspective. I can't tell you how many times one of my critique partners has picked up on an error more glaringly obvious than a bright yellow name on a staircase, and I've found myself dumbfounded. How did I not notice that?

Easy. There's a sort of blindness that sets in when you're too close to something, whether it's a manuscript, a relationship, or anything else in your life.

If you're a writer, have you ever had a critique partner point out something so ridiculously obvious you couldn't believe your own ignorance? For non-writers, tell me about a "captain obvious" moment elsewhere in your life!

I'll be spending some quality alone-time with the steel wool and nail polish remover.


Linda G. said...

I find myself worried about where your housemates are going to live when you sell your house. Are you taking them with you, or do they convey to the new owner?

Sarah W said...

I've trotted out this story, before, I think, but it's still my worst blunder:

In one story, I had my MC wielding a 9mil, but it was too large a gun for several reasons, so I changed it to a .32 --- but forgot (or was too ignorant about firearms) to take "mil" out of the sentence.

I posted the passage on AW, and it was pointed out by the person became my go-to gun guy that while my MC could theoretically fire a 32 millimeter handgun, it would leave a huge hole in the wall and tear her arm off.

He helpfully sent a picture of the nearest gun that size -- it was mounted on a wheeled field artillery platform surrounded by three soldiers.

Needless to say, he now looks over all my firearm stuff!

Delia said...

Oh, you mean like that time I brought my first ten pages to an agent critique at a conference and she pointed out how unnecessary it was to have my protag go on for over a page about what kind of candy she was going to give to the nurses who'd been caring for her? *facepalm*

Michelle Wolfson said...

Candy decisions should not be made lightly.

Anonymous said...

I don't have my work critiqued any more. Every time I did, the "problems" that readers would pick out were subjective. What kind of "problems" get picked out from your stories? Are they definitely "problems"? I'm curious, because maybe I'm missing out and should be using critique partners.

Jenna Bennett said...

Yeah, I'm with Linda. I worry about the guys.

And no, I've never made an obvious mistake. Never ever. Nuh-uh.

Anonymous said...

When I get a critique back, I usually have a face-palm moment, followed by cursing and drinking.

But that's only followed by more cursing and drinking - thus the editing phase takes longer than the writing phase since I have to wait to sober up ;)

Great post - and the roomies - are they for rent? I have some things around here that can use steel wool!

N.M. Martinez said...

I've been wondering about the housemates too. What will happen to them? I'm ridiculously concerned, lol.

My critique partner points out issues all the time! It's always stuff that I'm aware of in the back of my mind, but that I don't want to face because I'd have to deal with it. I'm lazy. She pushes me to do better. I owe her lots of wine and a writer's retreat.

Boone Brux said...

Ha, love this post. I once had red plaid flannel curtains on my windows. They were ugly, but kept us warm. It wasn't until a friend of mine asked me if I put them there on purpose that I realized I could change them to something pretty and stll versatile. My Crit. Partners have found numerous ugly red curtains in my writing. I love them.

Huntress said...

I'm still squirming from the barbed wire wedgie.

Great post! Crit partners aren't there to pet and tell you how wonderful you are. You already know that.
They are there to tell the truth.
Love mine, btw.

Matthew MacNish said...

Okay so: first line? My god that's vivid. You are so good at that.

Anyway, I didn't realize you meant written on the step with like a grease pen or something, and I was expecting it to be much harder to get off.

Yes, I did that for you.

And I think this analogy is incredibly apt. I don't really think of it as blindness as much as sitting too close to the TV. You can see the pixels, but you just can't tell what the eff is going on because you have the wrong perspective. The worst part, at least for me, is the more I revise, the closer I get to the screen.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I'm so amused that we've all been worrying about the housemates!

My theory is He Who Shall Not Be Named *liked* having his name on the step and never really tried.

As for CPs? INVALUABLE. But you have to find the right ones. I will never, ever consider my work above critique or editing. Knowing what to do with crit is one of the most valuable skills a writer can acquire, IMHO.

Julie Glover said...

Interesting that nail polish remover can sting and steel wool is abrasive. Sometimes, that's what critique feels like - stinging and abrasive. But it's necessary to turn out the best stuff. I'm always in favor of getting that valuable feedback. Great analogy, Tawna!


Linda, I worry about the very same thing! I have no idea what will happen to the house or the housemates in the coming months. Have I mentioned I hate uncertainty and limbo?

Sarah W, LOL, now I need to google that gun. Priceless!

Delia, you know, I might actually enjoy reading that. (And as you can see below from Michelle, she might, too!)

Suz, your question actually calls for a much more broad answer than I can give here, so I’m thinking of dedicating tomorrow’s entire blog post to it. Stay tuned! In a nutshell though, you WANT the subjective opinions, since that’s precisely what you’ll someday hope to get from readers.

Jenna, geez, you guys are making me feel even more guilty about the boys. Believe me, this is the stuff that keeps me up at night.

Kimmullican, the boys are always for rent, though I suppose a lot depends on what you hope to rent them for.

N.M. Martinez, I agree, ass-kissing critique partners are useless!

Boone, great analogy about the curtains! Isn’t it funny how often we forget we have the keys to change things for ourselves?

Huntress, indeed, the truth sometimes hurts, but how else can we improve?

Matthew, I have to admit, I squirmed a little in my chair when I wrote that opening line. LOL about it being harder to get off! Great analogy about the TV scre4en!

Jeffe, there may be something to your theory!

Julie, great point! Someone should market critique salve!

Thanks for reading, guys!

BarbN said...

now, on a completely different topic (but one that was still in your post!).... you know, I've never understood the point of getting rid of all your personal photos. They never bother me when I am house hunting. In fact, I think it makes the house look more homey, like a family lives there. I refused to take mine down.

and of course, the house didn't sell. :-) But nobody's house is selling around here.

Sonia G Medeiros said...

Excellent point. We do need a new pair of eyes to see what we're blind to.

Meghan Ward said...

This is so true. I'm always shocked when someone reads a chapter of my ms and finds a typo that I hadn't noticed after reading it 25 times. For me it's mostly about copy editing errors, though, and Ive finally realized my book isn't going to NOT sell because of a typo. Still great to have a second set of eyes, though. I love those stairs, by the way. Not too kid friendly, but very hip!

Alexa O said...

I love love LOVE learning that I don't actually have to live with something I've resigned myself to living with. I tend to write myself into corners, plotwise, and I can never find simple solutions to get out of it. Fortunately, my friends can.

And I've learned to never, ever, EVER take a man at his word when he says something can't be cleaned.

Reetta Raitanen said...

A wonderful post and a great analogy. I've personally become an expert at navigating among the children's toys that are all over the house.

Second pair of eyes on your work is really eye-opening. And almost always results in slap the forehead moments.