Monday, February 25, 2008

To Critter or Not to Critter…Continued

First of all, my apologies for the long gap in postings! I was felled by the flu last week and could just about manage the short post I put up. Any more complex thinking was a lost cause, even when I was back at work on Thursday (!), and I spent this last weekend playing catchup from some other things and trying to get in some more vestiges of rest to send the last bits of this nagging virus packing. Right now, I’m still dealing with the remnants of a cough and a rough throat—which is no fun for a singer. So we’re (the royal we, don’t you know) about a week away or so from being back 100% in the saddle. However, we are also feeling substantially more awake enough to ponder the second part of our post on critting and how to get a good crit out of this literary life. Once again, with the caveat that YMMV, here are a few thoughts on what makes a good critique—and a good critiquer. First of all, we need to draw a couple of lines between what a critiquer does versus what an editor, or coach, or writing “guidance” guru does. Some places may overlap, but the differences are important enough that it pays to keep some key ones in mind: 1. If you find yourself doing a lot of line-editing in the work, try to back off a bit. It’s hard to do, especially for those of us who are compulsive editors anyway…but that (unfortunately) is just the point. Technically, critiquing is feedback, not hands-on editing. If you find yourself crossing out extensive chunks of text, for example, or wanting to cut whole pages, make a note of it for the author, but don’t feel you need or have a duty to go through and make a substantive edit out of your critiquing process. Same with marking punctuation, restructuring sentences, etc. Unless the writer has specifically requested this, don’t correct everything. Scribble the name of a good grammar book or two in the margin, and let her do her own mechanics. 2. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out several overarching tendencies, even marking several pages’ worth of instances if necessary, to get a writer’s attention on certain things. Case in point: I have an absolute infatuation with the words “just” and “even.” (The latter must from that old Christmas carol about King Wenceslas…but I digress.) Thanks to my crit partner (bless her heart :-)) marking every one of them early on, I’ve since learned to go through before I send stuff to her and do a massive search-and-destroy on most of those wonderful words. And I do still like them. Trust me on this. One or two, here and there, are okay. Using “just” three or more times in one paragraph (which I have), however, is—er—a bit of overkill. (I almost said “just a little overkill.” See, I told you I was hooked.) 3. If you don’t like a character, feel free to say so. Give the author specifics on why you don’t like or believe in a character, and you might get a surprise: maybe she’s trying to make that person a “bad guy,” and she’s just not made him “bad enough” so you recognize that fact! On the other hand, once again, it’s not part of your job as critiquer to “rewrite” or “recast” the character yourself. Give suggestions on motivation, on action/reaction, on emotional integrity or the lack of same…but if you want to keep on the side of critiquing rather than “redoing the book,” don’t go too much farther than that. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a writer is to let her know she needs to go deeper into characterization, and let her find out how. 4. The same thing goes for setting and other details; if you don’t like them, you’re free to say so, but also, do your best to divorce your dislike—or ignorance—of a certain locale, era, or such from the critiquing of the actual writing. If you truly feel you can’t give the work the fair reading it deserves, be it out of personal prejudice or plain ignorance, it’s okay to excuse yourself. The writer will thank you more for your frankness at that point than she would if you tried to soldier on and ended up having to have things “explained” or “clarified” to you later! But once again, there’s a fine line we walk: the difference between not liking a particular setting, era, occupation for hero/heroine, etc., and telling a writer she can’t use such-and-such a place, occupation, era, scenario, or the like. You may be sincerely trying to help by telling a writer she “can’t” write something and sell it in a given market—but you may, in fact, be wrong on that. We’re all given so many “can’ts,” especially about genre fiction, that sound like gospel…and then someone comes along who doesn’t know any better, writes a horking good book using two or three of those “can’ts,” and no one bats an eye. In this, as in so many other areas—particularly in mainstream fiction—story trumps pretty much everything else. Even in genre fiction, with its tighter formulas, authors are constantly looking for ways to kick the sides out of the box, and editors are constantly looking for a way to encourage them to do so while still selling to their target audience. So try not to dissuade someone from using some element in their story just because you don’t particularly like it. Someone else may love the thing to death and buy it for a million dollars—and then, your pontifications won’t be considered knowledgeable or even thoughtful editorial advice so much as a stunning example of yet another person who “didn’t get it.” You don’t want to be in that story…so try your best to stay out of the “prohibition” business. One prohibition, however, is a good one to remember…and that’s what we’ll close with today as a final thought on your role as critiquer: 5. Refuse to be drawn into a discussion of whether a writer “has talent” or not. Think you’re not going to be asked this? Think again. I don’t think I’ve gone through more than a handful of critiques in which that question isn’t put forth as part of what the writer wants as feedback…and you should never answer it. Period. Not because you can’t tell; you usually can. (!) Sometimes you can even make a reasonable guess that the asker does not have “what it takes” to make it as a writer. But, flattering as it may be to be consulted about this mythical thing called “talent,” don’t fall for the flattery. Neither answer is a good one. If you say yes, there are always a certain number of writers who will take that as carte blanche to do nothing to develop their work or clean up their basic mistakes: “My writing teacher says I have real talent, so I don’t want to stifle it with a bunch of stupid rules.” If you say no—even if you have really, really, really good reasons for saying no—some people say you risk crushing a writer’s hopes. I wouldn’t go that far. Writers themselves decide what feedback to take, they decide whether to go any farther than they already are, and they decide when to quit; anyone who tries to pin those decisions on the word of another person is fooling herself. But that won’t stop her from accusing you of destroying her ego, stopping her dead, trashing her dreams, etc.—and who needs that nonsense? Certainly not someone who’s only trying to help. So keep the help craft-centered, keep it as close as you can to giving the writer a few landmarks and a roadmap, keep it focused as much as possible on making the work salable, and you’ll be giving good critiquing…without being abused and/or put into the shoes of an editor, a confessor, or a mother. All of those people have their places; you as critiquer are none of them. Play the role correctly and not only will you have given out some solid help to your fellow writers, but you’ll have energy and time left over to spend on your own work! …which leads us to the other side of the coin: what you, as a writer, should be getting from a critique…what your role is in the creative exchange…and how to know if you’re getting good advice. We’ll tackle that one next time! Stay tuned, Janny

1 comment:

Deb said...

Good advice. I'd add one last comment, courtesy of Jimmie Morel who writes as Lindsay Longford: "never, ever, EVER crush the writer's voice."

Now, as soon as I figure out how to obey her wisdom...