Friday, February 15, 2008

To Crit or Not To Crit…That Is the Question

It’s been suggested of late that I take some time to wax poetic (since it’s lousy weather for waxing a car) about how to find a good critique partner. (Like I know?) :-) But, since I can never resist a challenge—with the caveat that YMMV—let’s explore this question. First, it’s worth mulling for a moment over the value of critique sessions, by anyone, to anyone. I’ve been in multiple writers’ workshops on critiquing where, inevitably, a multi-pubbed (and practically canonized) author stands up and blows everyone out of the water by saying, “Nobody sees my work but my editor. I write it, and she looks at it, and that’s it.” To which the room oohs and aahs and thinks, “Well, when I get to be as good a writer as she is, that’ll be all I’ll need, too.” If you look at this through the jaded glasses of those of us who’ve been at this for awhile, you figure that that’s what the multi-pubbed author wants you to think—both about her and about yourself. It both keeps you down in those trenches with the unwashed multitude (thereby reinforcing her exalted status) and—sometimes with malice aforethought—practically guarantees that you’ll never move beyond said unwashed multitude. It paints a rosy picture of a future in which every word from your keyboard will be so anointed, so ding-dang perfect, that the most your breathless editor will want to change may be a comma placement or three before sending it right on to glory, fame, honor, and great reviews (not to mention vast riches). It’d be great if things actually worked that way. (!) Too bad they don’t. Unfortunately, to the extent that you believe in and act on—or maybe more accurately, fail to act on—that rosy picture the author paints, it can stall you out for years…which is good for aforementioned author (because it removes her competition), but not so good for you. On the other hand, most of us know of at least one instance when a critique did almost irreparable harm; it was malicious, or sarcastic, or “witty” at the expense of our stories or even ourselves, and it left us thinking that that author’s secretiveness was actually the beginning of wisdom. But even if our experiences have fallen on the middle of the continuum, the question can still touch a nerve. Maybe we haven’t been fatally wounded by a critique, but we’ve been bruised, frustrated, annoyed, or ignored—the classic example is an author asking for one or two specific things from a critique, and getting everything but what she asked for. These kinds of time-wasters aren’t fatal, but, like a million tiny mosquitoes, each takes a little writer’s blood out of us. At best, they make us wonder if anyone really knows how to help us, and at worst, they make us doubt our own talent. So what’s the answer? From my side of the fence, the first author’s lucky. If she truly has never had to subject her work to any critiquing other than an editor’s or maybe an agent’s, she’s hit a rare combination of elements that few of us achieve. Some of the authors who operated this way in the past were just horking good writers; most came into their editors’ offices when editors still edited work, were able and willing to develop authors, and therefore could take the time to file all the rough edges off work that “wasn’t quite there yet.” Now, with editors being stripped of most of that ability by the constraints of “lean” industry and marketing mania, most of us—even if we’re horking good writers—can and will benefit from a “third eye”(or lots of them!) before we send things to an editor’s desk. But what kind of eye, or collection of eyes, will do us the most good? Years ago, I treasured the input of my RWA chapter, which critiqued as a whole, and as part of every meeting—something that few RWA chapters, much less other writers’ groups, did. When I described our procedure, however, most people outside our group were horrified by it. The thought of reading your own stuff, out loud, on the spot, to live people—at least a dozen of them at a time, and sometimes as many as thirty—struck them as needless torture, not to mention opening an author up to potentially hopeless confusion. “How do you know who to believe?” they’d wail. “How do you know what suggestions to take? Doesn’t everyone have a different opinion? How do you know which is right?” Well, of course everyone has a different opinion…but that’s part of the value of it. You get a wide spectrum from lots of different perspectives. And that’s why you ask them to write on the manuscript, and that’s why you take all that feedback home and look it over when you’re calmed down and can weigh each comment for its value. Let me also add that this process wasn’t a free-for-all: we had rules of critiquing, which a good manuscript chairperson insisted on enforcing; we had time limits; and we always went in with the idea that a writer was free to take any feedback or leave it. So it was not nearly the bloodbath that these people apparently pictured when I said “group critique.” I found it especially ironic that some of the same people who were put off by the notion of what we did had their own (tiny) groups where things were much closer to a free-for-all or bloodbath than our structured system…and where they got personal to boot. I’ll never forget the way one person in a small group put it: “We can say to each other, ‘This stuff sucks,’ and it’s okay, because we all know each other.” To which I said, “Saying ‘This stuff sucks’ is never okay. I don’t care how well you know each other. And I wouldn’t be a part of any group that allowed that kind of thing.” The bottom line? For whatever reasons, our system worked extraordinarily well. Our RWA chapter had so many members sell their first books after running them through our process that we gained an excellent reputation in the business. At one point, mentioning that you were a member of RWA Chapter #14—and that parts of your book had been vetted by the group—in your query letter was almost as good as having an agent vouch for your work. Valuable? You bet. So, understandably, over the years, I’ve come down on the side of “Yes, be a member of a critiquing group if you can, and the larger, the better. It will make you a better writer faster than anything else you can imagine.” But then, a weird turn in the road happened—both philosophically and geographically—and I ended up leaving RWA entirely…which meant that for all practical purposes, I no longer had a steady critique group source. Now, I’ve shifted paradigms and gone to the other extreme: one crit partner who basically is the only person who sees my work. I’m uneasy about this on one level, since I have notoriously bad luck with writer friendships…but it seems to be working so far. Knock on any wood you have available. So what makes a good critiquing situation? Having run the gamut, I can think of a number of factors that contribute to a profitable endeavor—and some “red flags” to note, and deal with, lest they sabotage your work, your self-esteem, or your relationships with other writers. We’ll talk specifics in our next post… Stay tuned! Janny


PattyK said...

Love it, Janny. Don't know what I'd do without my crit partners. They have saved me from embarrassing myself in print many times.

Consider yourself linked to the FEBO site!

Donna Alice said...

Thanks for tackling the topic! I'm looking forward to all you have to say on the subject.

I have had lots of experiences--good and bad with critiques. Some of it is truly valuable, as in contest judges. Other can be petty or too picky.

As things stand right now I have a few part time crit partners I trust and one valuable one that reads pretty much all my stuff. She catches a lot that I don't and knows my characters inside and out.
I just don't like to put all my writing eggs in one basket but using a few people.

Your RWA experience sounds wonderful and I agree--if someone told me that my work stank--we wouldn't be friends for long! Even if it did!

Deb said...

Ha! You left out the fact that your crit partner is a horking GOOD crit partner.

And Donna Alice, your experience pretty much mirrors everyone else's. All writers I know who have subjected their work to a crit group, come away with experiences both good and bad. Remember: these are PEOPLE first, with their own agendas. Sometimes, regrettably, their agendas, biases, and needs are brought to bear on your manuscript. Shouldn't happen, but it does.

And just as a sidelight to Janny's citing this writer who claimed to have no revisions: I didn't believe it then and I still don't. Everyone's writing can improve.


Janny said...

Well, said writer never claimed to have no revisions...she just claimed her editor was the only one who saw her stuff. No critters, no spouse, no nothin'. The picture she may have painted in a lot of newbies' minds was that of an exalted author who was so good the only person who NEEDED to see her stuff was her editor--implying no changes. But, cleverly enough, that's not what she SAID. I found myself hoping that her editor sent her back nine pages, single-spaced, in red. :-)

Wickedly yours,
Janny, who's still recovering from the flu