Posts Tagged ‘critique’

Many of you will remember my first backbone post in which I gave my own take on how critiques can go wrong. Now, I think that critiques can sometimes be an extremely helpful tool for writers, so I’d like to talk about my ideal critique. Before I begin, though, I’d like to emphasize that all writers are different. Thus, my idea of an ideal critique and your idea of an ideal critique may in fact be radically different. I’m not saying that my ideas are the only right ideas. There are several different styles of learning, so it follows that there are probably several helpful ways of critiquing. The trick is to figure out which one works for you. If what works for you is ignoring everything I’m about to say, more power to you!

For me, critiques are all about learning. When I’m receiving a critique, I’m doing so in order to learn more about writing and to improve my writing abilities. While it is lovely when critiques end up making my story stronger, that is not my primary motivation for seeking critiques. Instead, my goal is to continue to improve by gaining insight into what works and what doesn’t work. When I’m giving a critique, I’m doing the same thing: trying to teach the writer in question by pointing out what worked and didn’t work for me as a reader.

One thing I am not trying to learn from critiques is how to deal with rejection. I understand that others feel differently, but honestly, I get plenty of practice dealing with rejection by…getting rejected. There is no shortage of editors and agents happy to help me out in this regard, except with them, there is always at least the chance that they will instead decide to help advance my career and/or give me monies! Another thing I’m not looking for in critiques is warm and fuzzy validation that everything I write is awesome. If everything I wrote was awesome, I’d be getting warm and fuzzy validation from my fans, who would be–guess what!–paying monies to read my work. Yes, I know, again with the monies. Notice a trend?

I look at critique as a learning process between colleagues; therefore, my main focus is on how I can help the other writer, and this focus informs my delivery. My husband tells me that people get promoted into higher tiers of management partially because of their ability to deliver bad news. Delivering bad news well is hard! And yet this is, I believe, an essential skill in giving a good critique because almost every critique is going to include the bad news that our work isn’t perfect (and it might even be hanging together precariously with paper clips and duct tape).

Here are some guiding principles that I try to think about as I critique:

1. Mention the positives as well as the negatives. It is so tempting not to do this, and instead just focus on what’s broken. Sometimes, honestly, it’s hard to even think of any positives. But not only does this leave the writer more receptive to thinking about any criticism, it also shows the writer what she’s doing right, what she shouldn’t mess with, and what her strengths are (that she can showcase and allow to shine in future work).
2. Discuss what doesn’t work in a matter-of-fact and positive manner. Example A: “I can’t believe you used all those adverbs. There were just adverbs adverbs adverbs flying all over the place. Get rid of those goddamned adverbs, okay? It was just so bad how you used all those adverbs.” Example B: “I noticed you used a lot of adverbs. I’d suggest going back through and deciding which of them you actually need.” Example A makes people feel bad and stupid and discourages experimentation. But if you’re not experimenting as a writer and taking risks, how are you ever going to get better? (Note I am not actually advocating vast amounts of experimentation with adverbs in particular.) Example B or something similar is what I prefer.
3. State your points in a clear and concise manner. So often I hear people speak at length about one point of criticism that they could have easily expressed in a few sentences. In a verbal critique, using loads of examples to make your point is not required. Instead, mark them on the hard copy of the manuscript or in track changes, and summarize when you’re speaking. The writer can always ask questions later if something is not clear.
4. Use ditto freely. Another thing I hear a lot is several critiquers waxing long about the same point, one after the other. There is no need to do this. Instead, just say, “I ditto Katherine that the beginning seemed slow” and move on. My Taos crew were experts at doing just this, and it was amazing how much it sped critiques along…as did the two-minute time limit per person.
5. Decide what key points you wish to make verbally ahead of time. Prepare for the critique as you would for a lesson. (Can you see my teacher background here?) Consider typing up a summary sheet of your critique that you can give to the writer afterwards. I know a few writers who are masterful at doing this, and I always look forward to receiving critiques from them.
6. Help the writer by talking about their story, not yours. We all have the types of stories we like to read, and the types of stories we like to write. These types might not be the same for other writers! (I know, it’s shocking, but there it is.) Give feedback and suggestions while keeping in touch with the story you think the writer was trying to tell instead of figuring out what story you would be telling. The second rarely provides a useful learning experience since it mostly just reflects your own personal taste.
7. Critique with an eye towards making clear the promise and/or vision of the story. Benjamin Rosenbaum said something very intelligent in the comments of my critique backbone post. “I think detailed, specific positive critiques — not just cheerleading, but analysis of what worked — are actually more useful than negative ones which focus on what’s not working. Both are useful, but in the end you want to revise towards a vision, not away from problems. Doing the latter will result in a dead story — all rough corners smoothed away, with what’s left being something no one would object to, but no one is excited about either.” What he said. If we as critiquers can help the writer hone his vision, then we’ll leave him excited, both to potentially revise this story and to write in general.
8. Be encouraging. There is no reason for a writer to leave a critique feeling like a swollen and bloody rat. Honestly, I don’t care how bad the piece might have been. If a writer is regularly working and improving, there is something to be encouraging about, whatever the flaws. I’m not saying to lie and say this was the best story you’ve ever read, but a few kind words acknowledging that the writer has worked hard can go a long way. No, editors and agents won’t usually give these words. That’s why it’s even more important that they be given by supportive colleagues.

Of course, this list covers my ideal critique. In practice, I often fall short in execution, but it is what I strive for. I have been lucky enough to receive many fine critiques that have taught me both how to be a better writer and how to critique with an eye towards helping a writer learn instead of tearing them down.

What is your ideal critique? What are your guiding principles when you’re preparing a critique? What about giving a critique do you find the most difficult? Let me know!

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I am happy to present the second Backbone Project link round-up! I highly suggest you check some of these essays out pronto.

Dying Is Not a Crime, by Adam Israel

On Snobbery, by Derek Smootz

Love of Critique, by Kimberly Gould

Backbone Project: Shrink, by Marilag Lubag

Backbone Project: Truth, by Marilag Lubag

Backbone Project: Critiques Are Tools, by Marilag Lubag

I Don’t Wear Shoes, from Speculatometry: The Theoretical Measurement

When Critiques Wound, by Sandra Tayler

Library Cards are for the Birds, by Miranda Suri

I also ran into this: On Taking Criticism, by Mike Brotherton. It touches on similar issues to what I discussed in my You are Not a Weenie if a Critique Makes You Cry article.

Thanks to all of you for participating and writing thought-provoking posts.

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As you can imagine, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the subject of my first Backbone Project post. I’ve decided to take on a writing-related topic (I’ll try to pick a more general interest topic next week for the non-writing inclined), and I chose this one specifically because I expect many writers to disagree with my take on it. So, onwards into the fray! (And yes, my stomach is doing lopsided cartwheels, thanks for asking.)

When I first ventured into my various writing communities, I was regaled by the sanctity of the critique. How to become a better writer? The answer seemed to be to get critiqued. A lot. Really, as much as possible. Any writer who was truly serious about their craft would join a critique group. Or two, or even three or more. Not to mention purchasing critiques from the pros at conferences and for charity, attending workshops that consisted at least partially of critiques, etc. And then post-critique, the writer was expected to exhaustively compile all that criticism and somehow use it to patch together the remaining shreds of story (occasionally there might be more than shreds remaining, a cause for joyous celebration).

I am not being conciliatory when I say that I have learned a lot as a writer from the critiques I have received. It is plain fact. And I am very grateful to everyone who has taken the time to help me learn. But another important fact that I never seem to read about anywhere in the cult of the critique is this: All critiques are NOT created equal. Not by a long shot. And what we as writers are told to do with critiques is not always what works. I have learned this from painful, critiqued-out-of-my-mind experience. In fact, I have gone months without much productivity because of the backlash from a bad critique. I don’t think this makes me a weenie. I think it makes me human; it’s natural to get discouraged from nonconstructive critiques, especially when you are a relative beginner. I mean, do I tell my beginning voice students in detail exactly how they suck at singing, complete with subtle (or not-so-subtle) disparagement, and then have their peers tell them the same thing? Um, no. That would be insane. And yet…

Here is what I have learned about critiques:

FICTION: You can expect a fair, unbiased critique.
REALITY: Some people will always hate what you do (even if you are awesome) because they just don’t dig your style. Some people will get set off by a random, unpredictable aspect of your story and be completely unable to get over it enough to say anything helpful. Some people will read your story in a sloppy manner and give you a half-assed critique. Some people just don’t know how to critique, period.

FICTION: If you’re upset after a critique, you just need to toughen up and take it. After all, you need a thick skin to succeed as a writer.
REALITY: Some critiques are harsh in a constructive way. Some critiques are harsh in a non-constructive way. Some critiques are just plain mean-spirited. Learn to deal with the first of these. The other two? Consider not getting critiqued by these people again or…

FICTION: Take all critiques into thoughtful consideration.
REALITY: Some critiques you can pretty much ignore. That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen while they’re being given, but after a while you can tell which critiques are completely irrelevant to any learning or revising you might be doing.

FICTION: You need critiques to become better as a writer.
REALITY: There are many ways to become better as a writer. The critique is merely one helpful tool among many. After all, there were still great writers before the current fad for critique.

FICTION: You should implement all suggestions given in a good critique.
REALITY: You should listen to the issues a good critiquer is having, and figure out what you, the writer, want to do about it. Often critiquers try to completely retell your story for you (although I wouldn’t personally call this a good critique). In that case, you need to work backwards to figure out what actually wasn’t working for them, and then change it in your own way. And only if you want to.

FICTION: A critique should always be followed by a revision.
REALITY: As long as you’ve learned something from a critique, it doesn’t matter what you do afterwards. Sometimes you need to revise to complete the learning. Sometimes you want to revise. Sometimes you want to chuck the story into the fire and never think of it again. Sometimes you nod, say hmm, and make a few small changes before submitting. Sometimes, if you’re Dean Wesley Smith, you submit the story before the critique so you’re not tempted to revise the life out of your story. (And oh yes, it is so possible to revise your story to death.)

FICTION: If a person is a “pro” or just has a few more credits than you, their word is God in the critique department.
REALITY: I wish. Some pros are amazing teachers and critiquers. Others, not so much. Some people with more credits than you will have amazingly helpful things to tell you about your work. Others will not. Some readers who know nothing about writing will have insights that are equally useful. And some will not. You get the picture.

FICTION: You should be involved in as much critiquing as possible.
REALITY: If you get too involved in critiquing, it might interfere with finding time to do the actual writing. And most of us ultimately want to be WRITERS, not critiquers. Right? Otherwise why would we be putting ourselves through all this?

FICTION: If you can’t handle a critique, you shouldn’t be a writer.
REALITY: If you can’t handle rejection and revision requests from professional editors and agents (who you are doing business with), then you’re going to have some trouble. If you can’t handle the occasional critique (or even the more than occasional critique), maybe something else is going on.

FICTION: Critique trumps all!
REALITY: It’s more important to manage your writing life in whatever way works for you. And if your way is not exactly the same as everyone else’s way, that’s okay. We’re artists, after all. We’re supposed to be different.

Okay, have at it! Disagree with me (or tell me how you’ve been secretly thinking the same thing). I’m going in for more dental torture this morning (if we ever meet in person and you want to see me cry, mention dentistry), but I’ll be commenting with gusto (and pain-induced bravado) later today.

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“Anyone can write popular fiction… You just tell a story that everyone likes.”

Does this quote make anyone else’s blood boil? This type of talk makes me want to be alternately scathing, snarky, and pitying. I got it from an essay by Kat Howard, about her chance parking lot encounter with some fellow who made light of her post doc position in medieval and speculative literature.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, and that most (if not all) of my readers understand how truly challenging and difficult it is to write a novel, whether it be mainstream or genre, adult or children’s, an epic tome or a light-hearted romp. And I don’t want to get into the genre/literary question, so let’s please not go there.

Instead, I’m going to break down this statement. Anyone can write popular fiction, can they? Let’s take a look.

Writing Fiction — Lifestyle — What It Takes

1. Hours upon hours of sitting by yourself doing the writing. Not to mention the research. Not to mention the revisions. Not to mention the nit-picky copy editing.
2. Avoiding the lure of Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Farmville, MMORPGs, Solitaire, Minesweeper, etc. so you can actually do said writing.
3. Carving the time out of your already busy life, in which you’re also expected to have a day job, take care of your family, clean and do chores, and deal with life’s multiple disasters and time sinks.
4. Smiling and nodding when people say patronizing things to you. Explaining kindly and gently that building a writing career takes a long time, and no, it won’t make you rich. Alternately, getting into a lot of arguments.
5. Thinking about your story in the shower, while walking the dog, while doing the above-mentioned cooking and cleaning, while driving from point A to point B, and while you should be sleeping.
6. In your copious spare time (ha!), reading tons and tons of books, both in and out of your genre. Not to mention your nonfiction research materials.
7. Dealing on a daily basis with rejection and maintaining a positive upbeat attitude, a can-do spirit, and continued forward thinking to the next project.
8. Reading unpublished work from other writers of roughly your same level (at least in theory), learning how to both give and receive critiques

Writing Fiction — Craft — Required Understanding

1. Characters. This includes understanding every character in your book, knowing their back story, knowing their mannerisms and how they speak (word choice, etc.), knowing what they would know, knowing their motivations (what they want) and making sure you’re consistent about it. You need to keep your POV consistent over the course of the book, whatever you decide (first, close third, omniscient, etc.) Your protagonist needs to be sympathetic in some way. He/she/it needs to be a driving force in the novel, not a passive character who is only acted upon. Also your protagonist and probably other characters as well need a moving and well executed character arc, in which they grow and change and react to events and are different by the end of the novel.
2. Plot. This includes knowing how to structure a novel, making sure there is interesting conflict, making sure the stakes are periodically raised and the conflict builds over the course of the novel, knowing what your main narrative engine is, as well as keeping track of subplots and planning the correct number of them. Also the plot needs to hold together and make sense (no plot holes, please), you need to know the purpose of and conflict in each scene. You’ve got to keep the pace up (make stuff explode or whatever) or it will get too boring. This would also include making sure the continuity is sound and that the scenes happen in the correct order. You must make sure you create a hook at the beginning to draw the reader into the novel, and you aim for achieving emotional resonance and a certain closure at the end of the novel (unless it’s in a series, in which case you’re busy thinking about the overall series arc as well as the novel arc as well as deciding whether the novel needs to stand on its own or not).
3. World building. This is understanding how your world works. This includes the magic system, which needs to have rules and costs; geography, especially of a secondary world or another planet; economy; political system; social structure and mores; religion; technology level as well as any invented tech; magical creatures and/or aliens and how they differ from humans; and various existing infrastructure. Then once you’ve created your world, you have to get it across in the novel without over-utilizing info dumps or slowing down the pace.
4. Prose. This is being able to use the English language passably well, which is surprisingly difficult, even for native speakers. This includes knowing as many grammar rules as you can cram into your brain and then knowing when to break them. Points to remember include the following: eschew adverbs and speech tags other than “said” and “asked” and minimize speech tags in general. Vary sentence structure. Try really, really hard not to overwrite or use too many adjectives for your really shiny setting. Remember that you do have to say something about the setting, though. Try not to overuse words such as “that” or “really” or the “to be” verb. Use active verbs, but not too many weird verbs or it’s distracting. Spelling skills also help as spellcheck won’t catch all your mistakes.

Writing Popular Fiction that Everyone Likes — Good luck.

1. In order to make your fiction popular, you have to sell it. Unfortunately, being able to sell something is not necessarily the same skill set as being able to create something.
2. Ability to write and deliver pitches, queries, synopses, and basic summaries of your book that will make random people on the street want to read it instead of getting on with their lives. Also organizational ability to keep track of it all, including short story submissions, workshop/conference deadlines, and market research.
3. Social media and promotion! Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, keeping up-to-date on the latest trends, recording a podcast. Being interviewed for blogs, radio programs, and podcasts. Writing guest posts, being active on forums, making a book trailer, always presenting your best possible face to the public. School visits, public readings, convention and conference appearances.
4. Being lucky enough to write in line with the current zeitgeist and have your novel come out before it ends.
5. Having your publisher decide that your novel is SO AWESOME that they’re going to pour big marketing dollars into its production and promotion. Getting good bookstore placement. Getting into many bookstores at all. Having your cover not suck. Getting big names to blurb the novel. (Please note that many of these things are outside the writer’s control.)

What did I miss? Feel free to kvetch below. Even being incomplete, I think my list makes it clear that writing a novel is never easy, and writing a really good novel is even harder than that. I rest my case.

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