In your compliment sandwich, hold the cheese

“You forgot the sandwich.”

The fourth grader stared me down, her nose twitching. I shifted beside her desk, where a laptop displayed her personal-essay-in-progress.

“Was I supposed to bring lunch?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes and thrust her chin into her palm. She might be nine, but she definitely had the teen angst down. “No. The compliment sandwich.”

“Yes, oh, sorry.” As a parent editor, I was supposed to first give a compliment to the student, then make a single constructive suggestion, then finish with one additional compliment.

I scanned the essay. “Um, this part where the coach screams at you–very vivid.”

The eyes rolled again.

The students were all at the point of their essay revision that turned them apathetic. I totally understood their impatience. How many times had I written something quickly, loved it, and wanted to proclaim it done? Oh, so there’s a plot hole or two, and that one character just sort of disappears. And yeah, seventeen pages of backstory exposition is a lot…but it’s good stuff! If we mess with it, we might lose the voice! Disrupt the flow!

I’m also an impatient critique buddy. I know we’re supposed to compliment each other, support each other, keep each other going in the face of near crushing rejection from the industry. But I want to get to the problem, the slow sections, the confusion, the part where I might fail.

Recently I asked (nay, begged) my two writing groups to help me revise Jinnie Wishmaker on an impossible timetable. Thirteen (my lucky number) amazing writers read my book OVERNIGHT and sent me comments the next morning. In a crazy two-day crunch, I fixed most everything they pointed out, things I hadn’t been able to see in two years of writing and revising. And the unbelievable thing — they were all so kind! They were careful not just to point out the weaknesses, but also the parts I shouldn’t mess with.

At no point in the process did I want to just give up. Snuggled within the compliment sandwich, the bitter parts were easy to ingest, and I managed to make it a stronger work (and not break what wasn’t broken.)

I’m known as a hard-core critic. But I’ll learn from this, and along with making a bigger, better book, I’ll try to be a more careful, considerate editor.

Here are the killer 13. They ROCK.

From my Austin critique group Novel-in-Progress:
John R. Jones, children’s illustrator
Melanie Typaldos, author of Celeste and the Giant Hamster
Melissa Gaskill, Travel Writer
John Burch, 3D animator and sci fi writer
Cindy Phillips
Mark Geppert

From Verla Kay’s Blue Boards, the most wonderful place for children’s writers on earth, as I’ve never met a single one of these writers in person, and they helped a virtual stranger:
Kellie DuBay
Alanna Infinger
Larissa Hardesty
Mary Ann

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