Thursday, March 06, 2008

To Critter or Not To Critter, Part 3

Last time, we talked a lot about how to critique someone else’s work; this time, let’s talk about some caveats to apply to subjecting yourself to the critting experience. If you’ve already decided that the tactics of the first author we talked about won’t work for you—that you do, in fact, want another pair (or many pairs) of eyes looking at your stuff—then what should you expect out of the critique? Or do you have a right to expect anything in particular? That question may seem a little odd. After all, you’re not just picking any civilian off the street to read this material. Ideally, you have some relationship or other with the person who’s about to read and comment on what you’ve done. Ideally, you have some reciprocal respect for one another. It can be assumed, then, that you have a right to ask for certain things from the critique and get them. Right? Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t live in an ideal world, writing-wise or otherwise. And if there’s one complaint that arises out of critique groups more than any other, it’s the lament from the author who didn’t get what she wanted or needed from the critiquing experience. Either the group or the partner “didn’t get” what she was trying to do, ignored her requests entirely/gave her feedback on peripherals without touching the “big stuff,” or trashed her work and basically told her not to quit the day job. None of these things, obviously, is particularly helpful on the surface…but they may in the long run help this author way more than she suspects. How? 1) If a reader doesn’t “get” what you’re trying to do in the work, 99% of the time, the fault is not the reader’s but the author’s. Sound harsh? It’s not. It’s plain reality. We’re in this thing to communicate, and if that communication fails…guess who’s responsible? Yes, there are critiquers who are obtuse, and who “won’t get” something that’s plain on the page. There are readers whose vocabulary level isn’t up to ours, and they’ll flinch at words our kids knew in seventh grade. There are people who just plain don’t read very well, and they’ll miss things. There are people for whom subtlety is a waste of time; if it’s not as clear as being hit by a two-by-four, they won’t understand it. But that, ladies and gentlemen, is our public. That’s who we’re asking to plunk down hard cash money for what we’ve put on the page. So we owe it to them to, as much as is in our power, reassure them that they didn’t waste that money. Which means that, in the end, what matters isn’t so much our lofty vision as whether we can actually convey that vision clearly enough for someone else to catch it. When we do, magic happens. If a critiquer indicates that we fell short of that clarity—no matter how stupid the comment seems to be—we’d do well to at least consider it. I personally know authors who say, “If one person tells me to change something, no matter how wrong I think they are, I owe it to both of us to give it a second look.” That person who “doesn’t get it” is a reader, too. A reader you’ll want as a fan, if you’re in this to make any money. (!) So if you can make changes that help more readers “get it,” it’s no crime to consider doing so. That’s not “dumbing down” your work unless you’re deliberately choosing elementary words when better ones would do, or something else that makes you cringe in the doing. But be aware that some things that might feel like “dumbing down” are actually things that increase the clarity, the sharpness, and the vividness of what you’re portraying, and you’ll be happier with the end product in the long run for having done them. 2) If a critique group ignores what you’ve asked for—and gives you feedback on little nitpicky things instead of looking at the “big picture”—it’s frustrating. It’s maddening. It feels unhelpful. It’s not. Once again, it pays to step back from the “Well, that was a waste of time!” sputtering and consider what this group of people is actually telling you. Usually, it’s “I’m not advanced enough to give you what you’re asking for…but I’ll give you what I can.” I distinctly remember, about a year or so into belonging to my RWA chapter, thinking that something someone read was just fine…then, hearing more experienced authors take some aspects of it apart, and as they did so, I’d think, “Well, yeah, that could have been better.” At that point in my life, I wasn’t advanced enough as a writer to know that what they were pointing out were various storytelling or craft weaknesses; just the fact that they could see them, and I couldn’t, started to educate me. A year or so after that, someone read something, and all of a sudden I could feel “holes” in it. Things nagged at me. Things bothered me. Things didn’t make sense. And I’d been stopped, as a reader, by those things. That’s how I knew I’d come a little further along the path: I could tell something was wrong. But what to tell the author to do? I was at a loss. Fortunately, once again, more experienced authors’ comments became valuable, because they saw the same things I did, but they could offer advice on what those “trouble spots” meant, and some possible solutions to them. I’ll tell you honestly, I was in awe of them at that point. I didn’t know how they did that…! …until one night when all the pieces fell into place. That night, someone read a piece in the group, and as usual, I made note of the places where things didn’t seem to ring true, or go correctly, or stuff seemed out of order somehow. But then, even as I marked the things in the margins, I found myself scribbling questions. Suggestions. “I’d like your heroine better if she______”. And I knew a miracle had occurred. Because not only was I picking up on craft things…but I actually had some clue how to fix them! Yes, it was an epiphany. But it took me several years to learn enough about the writing craft so I could adequately give that author helpful information, rather than just vague generalities about “For some reason, this isn’t working for me.” This is the place in the craft continuum where critiquers give you line edits when you’re looking for story arc (they don’t even know what a story arc is); mark where they think you misused a comma but have no comments on character depth (they’re out of theirs); or who tell you your characters are “getting along too well” and “there’s no conflict” because the characters aren’t spitting at each other. On one level, their “help” isn’t doing you any good. On another, though, it’s a gentle reminder that we’re all on a very, v-e-r-y wide spectrum of ability, recognition, and articulation when it comes to finding the trouble spots in a work, much less knowing how to fix them. Remembering that—as well as keeping in mind that, once again, they may not have “gotten” it because you didn’t put it there clearly enough in the first place—will help keep the frustration in perspective. Six months from now, those same people may give you something so sparkling and insightful you’ll wonder who replaced them with more intelligent clones. The answer is, no one did; if you’re lucky, they replaced themselves. :-) And if you remember to keep your humility in place, you’ll often get an unexpected and very pleasant surprise; a critiquer won’t give you what you ask for, she’ll give you what you actually need. Serendipity, in that case, is a wonderful thing. However, there’s one thing none of us needs, either on the giving or receiving end… 3) Trash talk. Now, let’s get something straight right away: I’m not averse to trash talk per se, in its proper context, and all done in fun. Heck, I think I’ve made an AOL buddy for life out of some guy in Lansing, Michigan, through nothing but a trash talk session back and forth about Big Ten football. :-) (I sometimes wonder if this guy really realized he was talking “smack” with a gray-haired middle-aged lady.) And any football fan of any stripe would have just loved to be in my office during the last week before Super Bowl last year, where trash talk reached absolutely poetic heights. (!) There’s nothing wrong with making “dumb blonde” jokes about the other side, bragging on one’s own team and disparaging another’s, or poking fun around any subject or event as long as it’s something considered fair game and OK to play with. People’s work, however, is not and should not be in this category. Unfortunately, you may find yourself in a situation where someone in your critique circle thinks it’s funny or “smart” to sharpen a rapier wit on other writers’ egos; you'll be able to tell when this is happening, because the comments aren’t craft-specific, they’re personal. They’re personal slams about your genre, your treatment of the work, or your talent level. And that, in what’s supposed to be a relationship contributing to your professional growth, is out of line. Should you find yourself in this scenario, run, do not walk, away from that group. This kind of thing will not help you. It will not make you “strong.” It’s not a good test of how “professional” you are to ascertain how much cruelty you can stand. It’s just plain mean, there’s no place for it, and if you are in a group that allows for it, they’re not going anywhere you want to be, either. Sometimes it can be tricky to find a good critiquer or good group to share your work with. So what to do? Look everywhere, in a wide variety of spots and sources, for people with whom to share work: writers’ groups you belong to, online workshops, writers’ web sites…there are a zillion routes to take; sometimes, all you’ll need is one trusted person to look things over, and other times, you’ll want a lot of feedback from a lot of varied personalities. Some groups have critique-partner matching services; sometimes the best recommendation simply comes to you by word of mouth. But when you find a good critique situation, one that makes you do your best work and still enables you to rejoice in the process…it’s worth its weight in gold many times over. I’ve tried to be that for other writers; I hope I can continue to do so. Which is a subtle way of saying I’m almost always available for critiquing…so feel free to ask! Thoughts? Janny


Deb said...

I've been lucky, in a way...I've been part of everything from a large and undisciplined crit group giving their feedback in public, out loud, and unedited. I've had a single crit partner--sometimes as many as two--give me valuable input. I've had the same editor over 5 different books at 2 different houses. There are pluses and minuses to every conceivable scenario you can call critique.

The overall upside is, you're sending your "baby" out there to stand, or fall, on the approbation of other people. This is stressful in & of itself...but oh so valuable if you get past the white-knuckle moment!

Donna Alice said...

Guess I've gone from one gamut to another with crit partners. I've had great ones and some really awful ones.

I think it's all in knowing what to accept and what not to accept from what someone else says. How much do you know about your own story?

Donna Alice said...

Okay, I'll ask---are you an expensive critiquer or do you do it on a sharing basis with other writers?

Janny said...


I have to rustle up your e-mail to send you a more personal reply, but the best I can answer this depends. :-) I generally do a limited amount of critiquing for free, as it were, in that I'm not exchanging writing with that many people right now. I don't mind critique-exchanging, though. If it comes down to something more detailed--i.e., you want a whole bunch of material gone over with a thorough critique and feedback--I generally put that into the "editorial services" basket and we talk about fees accordingly. In short, what do you have in mind?