Critiquing #2: Writer Bashing (or, What Good is a Bad Critique?)

This is a second of two posts from the archives, revisiting the topic of bad critiques.

A critique can be either a beneficial or a devastating experience, and the difference doesn’t always depend on the person giving it. The attitude of the writer on the receiving end also has an effect.

Last Friday I blogged about harsh critiques.  Today I’m offering some practical suggestions based on critique experiences in some of the writing groups to which I’ve belonged.

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FOR THE GROUP

  • If you are in a group where reading of manuscripts is done during the session, you may have to limit the word count of each reading and set a time limit for each critique so that everyone that wants to participate will have sufficient time to do so.
  • Having copies of the manuscript for each person allows people to mark typos and grammatical errors directly on the paper, thus leaving the group free to discuss larger issues. The author can collect the copies to use later for line edits.
  • After reading is complete, allow a moment or two for reflection before beginning the first critique.
  • Some people find it easier to respond than others. The group can easily develop a dynamic in which the same people always respond and others remain silent. Agree ahead of time that every person in the group will respond once to the entire piece before additional input is allowed.

FOR THE INDIVIDUAL RECEIVING A CRITIQUE

  • Participating writers may be at different stages in their manuscripts — still working on early drafts of a first novel, doing revisions, or preparing for submission and publication. When providing your material for critique, consider advising others members of the group what stage you are at and the type of feedback you are seeking.
  • If asked, feel free to clarify why a particular point has been made, but don’t try to rationalize your choice of words or argue with those offering their opinions. You may not like the suggestions but you are not obligated to put them into practice. If you feel too defensive to accept possible negative input, don’t submit the piece for critique.

FOR THOSE GIVING A CRITIQUE

  • Critiquing the work of others is a balancing act. First practice active listening. Then respond pleasantly, don’t attack. Be helpful and honest but not harsh, providing positive feedback in a polite and respectful manner. Consider what you like about the manuscript. What did the author do well? What were the strengths?
  • Only then mention the things that did not work for you. Do not critique the choice of genre or subject matter. Be specific about what you didn’t like about the writing and why, but remember that your opinion is only that… an opinion. You may offer suggestions for changes, but realize that your wording may not be right for the author and he/she may not opt to use your suggestions.
  • This isn’t the time for a line by line edit. Mark any glaring grammar problems, word choice, spelling or syntactical revisions on the manuscript. Then move on to consider the following points:
  1. Opening – good hook, active not passive scene
  2. Characters – strong, MC motivated to solve dilemma
  3. Point of view – consistent
  4. Plot/Story line – credible, interesting, flows well
  5. Narrative – show versus tell; no author intrusion; minimal backstory
  6. Language – “purple prose”; overuse of adverbs and adjectives; passive tense
  7. Dialogue – conversational and not artificial; not used for info dumps
  8. Conflict – builds throughout
  9. Ending – satisfying and logical; not necessarily happy
  10. Style – suited to the genre and theme

The point of a critique is not to tear apart a manuscript but to point out strengths and weaknesses, and encourage the writer in making the piece stronger. Remember that newer writers are often exceptionally sensitive about their inadequacies. Without a tactful approach, a thoughtless critic can do irreparable damage to a fragile morale.

The reverse of this, of course, is that the purpose of putting one’s work out for critiquing is to obtain opinions and suggestions. If the possibility of a negative response is unnerving it may be that the writer is not ready for this stage quite yet.

A bad critique is worse than no critique. Setting out the ground rules first lets everyone know how to proceed and what to expect. In a one-on-one critique encounter this is especially important.

Now it’s your turn. Have your critique experiences been positive or negative? What would you add to the above criteria to make them more useful?

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Critiquing: #1 – Getting Punched in the Gut

In past years I’ve written a few posts on the topic of critiquing which generated several comments. Now that I’m back in another critique group, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to adjust to the critiquing styles of a new group of writers. It takes time to get to know and trust each other… time to understand what kind of feedback each one needs and desires… time to determine how best to provide individualized and constructive criticism that’s truly helpful.

In an April post five years ago I said, “Good critiquing is as much an art as good writing. Anyone with a modicum of editorial ability should be able to go through a manuscript and highlight problems with its plot, characterization, structure and grammar. I believe it takes someone who has also experienced a writer’s journey — who has survived through the creation of her own fictitious world and thus understands the exhilaration and desperation that is a part of the process – to be able to offer advice in a way that is both helpful and welcome.”

During this next week I’m going to dig into the archives and re-issue two posts on the topic of critiquing, Here’s the first…

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How do you feel when you offer your writing for examination and it gets torn apart? For me, it would depend on the motivation of the person who is doing the criticizing. Does he/she sincerely care about me and want to help me improve my writing, or is he/she using the opportunity to dish out personal opinions and humiliate? Since I would be looking for an honest evaluation I would expect to hear not only about my manuscript strengths, but also its weaknesses. What I wouldn’t appreciate is to be told that large chunks of the story should be deleted or rewritten because “it will sound much better than the way you wrote it,” or to be told the work is unredeemably bad. That would feel like a punch in the stomach.

It’s painful to get negative critiques on one’s writing but how do you deal with them? I’ve discovered several recent posts on the topic and would like to offer a few excerpts for your consideration.

In mid-September (2010) Phoebe Kitanidis blogged about “The jerk in your critique group,” but with an unexpected twist – she referred to herself as the jerk! In an effort to avoid any negative feedback from her fellow writers she found she wasn’t submitting anything for critiquing that hadn’t first been polished to perfection. Having others not find anything negative to say about her work felt good. It made her feel superior, and in turn she offered arrogant opinions on the work of the other members.  She ended up discouraging others and not learning very much herself at the critique sessions.

In retrospect she saw herself and others like her as “people invested in the idea of themselves as writers—but not especially invested in the craft of writing itself.”

On the Writer Unboxed website Anna Elliott says, “There comes a point for every writer, published or not, when you have to let others read your book.  It’s a scary moment, because however hard you’ve worked, however much you love your beloved manuscript, there are never any guarantees that your reader will love it, too. … When I’m still in the writing/revision stage, I try to remember that my first loyalty is to the story I’m telling, not to my own feelings.”

So if we steel ourselves to turn in less than stellar writing for peer critiques, how do we handle the emotions that erupt at the inevitable criticisms and suggestions?

Kristen Lamb on the Warrior Writers site  says, “I would like to point out that a good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.

“A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.”

One reaction on the Writer Unboxed post: “I’ve heard so much about rejection in the industry, but I wasn’t expecting it from my friends. I know this is going to sound bitter, but when you get your manuscript back, you’re going to find out who your true friends are. They’re the ones who will give you the bad news with a soft touch, and the good news with a big smile.” [Tamara]

There are always tactless people who feel superior and need to prove it by tearing down others, but Kristen says,“they were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps.” Perhaps we have to accept that, and, if we truly want to grow, put aside the hurt and carry on.

It’s good advice if you can follow it. Have you ever had to deal with tough or unfair critiques? How did you cope?

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When is a piano like a story?

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The grand piano at our church ended up on its side today. I watched with sweaty hands as the two men detached the lyre and a leg, tipped the piano over and removed its brass wheels.

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There’s a good reason for what they were doing. The nearly-700 pound instrument needs to be moved occasionally and its little two-inch brass wheels push the carpet along, causing it to stretch and bulge. There’s also every possibility of a move one day breaking off a piano leg! They aren’t as sturdy as they look.

We decided the solution was to install a “truck dolly” — a heavy spider-like metal device which supports the piano legs. The dolly’s five inch rubber wheels with ball bearings allow the piano to be easily moved with a gentle push. The service techs knew what had to be done and how to do the task without damage to the piano. While I understood that, I still cringed as I watched them wrestle the weighty instrument to the ground.

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I was there to open the church doors, supervise the installation and eventually hand over the necessary cheque, but of course I had also brought my camera along and I took pictures. Tonight as I review the photos I am struck by the similarity of the procedure to my manuscript revisions and rewrites.

We focus on getting our stories written because, after all, how often have we heard, “You can edit anything except a blank page?” We keep writing, and much like Topsy the story keeps growing as we work toward a novel-length word count.

The strange thing is, when we finally reach the end we may be holding a word-weighted tome that isn’t finished at all. It needs help. The plot doesn’t move smoothly. Even if we edit and revise, pushing the words around until the story is in danger of collapse, it often isn’t until someone more knowledgeable — an experienced critique partner or editor — gets hold of it, that a solution is found. Among other things, shoring up the story may mean getting rid of inadequate scenes or reinforcing the plot with stronger characters.

As nervous as I am about letting others get their hands on ‘my baby’, I know the right support will strengthen it.

Do you seek out advice from beta readers and critique buddies? How willing are you to take the advice of those who might suggest major changes in your manuscripts?

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Baseboards and Oversights

DSC09797Our house has baseboards, and today my hubby is taping above them in preparation for repainting. Baseboards are one of those things I’ve always taken for granted. Don’t they just run around rooms in straight lines to tidy up where walls meet flooring? Who knew they have to fit around so many corners and into so many out-of-the-way nooks and crannies to do so?

It’s a little like all the details that go into polishing a story. Inconspicuous but essential items that pull everything together, tidying up fictional versions of jagged gyproc edges and stray carpet fibers.

I’m surprised at how many messy bits I catch during revisions – the obvious discrepancies like the protagonist who has copper-coloured hair in one chapter and burnished blonde in another, or the child who can’t reach an item on a kitchen counter but has no trouble using the sustain pedal at his piano lesson. Obscure references to distances and time can blow your credibility, too. I had a character taking a flight from Vancouver to Toronto. She had a leisurely breakfast with her husband before leaving for the airport, and she miraculously arrived at her destination in time for a mid-morning meeting! (It’s a five-hour flight.)

Messy bits detract from a good impression of an otherwise well constructed story, just as much as dented, paint-spattered baseboards do from an otherwise tastefully decorated room.

Have you discovered any messy mazes in your current WIP that would have confused a reader, or has a critique partner or editor ever pointed out an embarrassing oversight?

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#WIPMADNESS WEEK #3 – Basics of the Craft

Welcome back for our Week #3 check-in, Wipsters.

“I’ve had a story rattling around in my head for years, waiting to be told. Maybe it’s time I wrote it.”

Hey, does anyone around here know who won this week’s draw?

If you’ve been a writer for very long, you’ve likely encountered similar comments. Whether you’re having lunch in the cafeteria at work, chatting over coffee after a club meeting, or making small talk with another parent in the bleachers at hockey practice, if you mention you’re a novelist your words may unbind the dreams of a wannabee writer. Suddenly a lot of gut-spilling happens. I think it’s a little like unburdening to a hairdresser or bartender!

After the above statement was made we chatted a bit about her ambition. I always like to encourage anyone who feels the pull to write, but it was soon obvious that she would benefit from doing some groundwork on the craft of writing before she began putting any words on paper.

C’mon, tell us who won, will ya?

“What genre will it be?” When she raised her eyebrows over a look filled with confusion, I added, “What kind of story?”

“Oh, it’ll be a fiction novel.”

Near the end of that conversation she asked if I could recommend a book that would tell her everything she needed to know. She wanted a magic formula. Not wanting to either discourage or overwhelm her, I offered to lend her something from my bookshelves that would give her an overview of novel-writing basics. After that I suggested she write a complete first draft of the story before reading anything more and perhaps getting tangled up (or bogged down) with too many mechanics.

The draw! The draw! You’re getting me all in a flap! Who won the draw???

Of the over fifty craft books on my shelf, I didn’t choose the first book I had read, which was TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight Swain (1965). Instead I chose to lend her WRITING A NOVEL AND GETTING PUBLISHED by Nigel Watts (1996, NTC Publishing Group), not because I thought it was the most comprehensive guidebook, but because it’s short, simple and straightforward… and not too scary for a very new and naïve writer.

This is where I ask YOU what book you would have recommended in that situation. Not the book you value now as an experienced writer and/or published author, but the one book you wish someone had given you before you began your first manuscript.

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Now… before we start getting tweeted to bits, I suppose I need to satisfy all the birdie curiosity and announce the winner of last week’s draw for a review by Jessica Morrell of a synopsis (or query) and the first five pages of a manuscript.

WEEK #2 WINNER
Kiperoo – Kip Wilson Rechea
 

Congratulations, Kip! Please contact me at caroljgarvin [at] gmail [dot] com with your e-mail address and I’ll give you the scoop on claiming your critique from Jessica.

Now, for next week… since we’re talking about craft books today, one person commenting before next weekend on today’s post will win a $25 Amazon gift certificate to use towards the purchase of a book of your choice.

We’ve hit the mid-point of the month, so have you all made it half-way to the goal(s) you set for July? There’s still time if you boot into high gear. Go, go, go!!! (But don’t forget to leave a comment before you depart — or several. Every comment gets a separate entry in the draw.)

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Ah, drat! It wasn’t me.

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Why crocodile skin may not be the best defense for writers

Did you ever wish you had the skin of alligators or crocodiles? You know, a thick protective layer that is virtually impenetrable? Their bodies are covered with scales composed of the same material that is found in hooves, horns and nails.

Wikipedia says “On the head the skin is actually fused to the bones of the skull. There are small plates of bone, called osteoderms or scutes, under the scales. … The rows of scutes cover the crocodilian’s body from head to tail, forming a tough protective armor. Beneath the scales and osteoderms is another layer of armor, both strong and flexible and built of rows of bony overlapping shingles called osteoscutes, which are embedded in the animal’s back tissue.”

(Click photo to enlarge)

Talk about water running off the back of a duck — having the skin of the crocodilia would mean negative critiques and bad reviews could never jab a tender nerve!

Giving criticism is more fun than getting it, that’s for sure! Like it or not, however, as a writer we’re inevitably going to have to deal with it.  I’ve written other posts about critiques (here and here) but I recently found a couple articles on the subject that I think offer another perspective worth sharing. Here are some excerpts:

“… Writing a story, essay, or poem requires vulnerability. Good writing demands honesty and disclosure,” says author, editor and writing coach Lisa Groen in her article on the Court Street Literary website. “Becoming a better writer means developing the ability to separate from your work, to hear criticism openly and objectively. If your goal is to get better, then any comments offered  … are opportunities to fulfill that purpose. If, on the other hand, you cannot separate from your work, any criticism will feel like a personal attack. You’ll feel defensive, angry, and misunderstood. Naturally, your feelings will block any helpful information offered in the process. When you’re too close to your writing, the goal of ‘becoming a better writer’ devolves to ‘defending the writer I already am.’”

An article written by Monique van den Berg on Absolute Write offers ten guidelines on how to take criticism and make it work for you. I’ll list their main points here, but click over to the article for an expanded version:

  1. Not everyone will like your writing.
  2. Beware of ulterior motives.
  3. Nothing you write is all bad.
  4. There’s always one (egomaniac).
  5. Quid pro quo. (i.e., pay it back)
  6. Build up your defenses.
  7. Value honesty.
  8. Only submit early drafts.
  9. Be as objective as possible.
  10. The writing is yours.

When it comes right down to it, an impenetrable outer shell might not always be to our advantage. In order to grow as a writer we need to be able to absorb useful feedback and constructive criticism.

“There’s no magic formula that will make criticism an easy medicine to take. But believe it or not, it is good for you. And with the right outlook, you can begin to see criticism as a welcome, desirable, and necessary part of the creative process,” says Monique.

Do you value criticism of your work? Do you find it hard to swallow or have you discovered a palatable “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down?”

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New beginnings… or, please not another revision!

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Bridal Wreath Spirea in bud

Now that spring is officially underway, I think most of us are wishing for signs that winter is giving in and retreating. We all realize that where we live has a bearing on how soon we can expect to see buds bursting, but we’re more than ready for the return of springtime with its cycle of new beginnings. Then again, there are some beginnings I’d rather avoid.

Monday’s post was about a blogfest where we were to offer up the start of our novel for a critique that focused on showing voice. We posted the first 250 words and waited for our fellow bloggers to tear into them and pass judgment on the quality of the opening and its voice.

Brenda Drake is hosting this “Show Me the Voice” blogfest-cum-contest, and her instructions were to post it for critiques, then polish the excerpt until it shines, and submit it to be judged.

Have you any idea how many times I’ve revised that novel? I’d challenge you to throw out a number, but in truth I don’t think I remember exactly how many. Nevertheless, I tweaked those 250 words and, of course, found myself reading on to the end of the chapter. And, just like every other time I looked at it, I could see more possible changes. Oh, please… not another revision!

I’ve asked the question before, but still, there is that niggling uncertainty. When do you know it’s time to stop revising a manuscript?

I have a different novel in revision, and another new one in the works. I don’t want to begin revising this one again. In fact, I’ve sent the excerpt to Brenda, and I’m closing the file. I just can’t face it. So, unless someone can convince me otherwise, I’m off to work on my new story. ‘Bye now!

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‘Show Me the Voice’ Blogfest

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I could use some help here.
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Brenda Drake has a “Show Me Your Voice” Blogfest happening right now. It’s an opportunity to get critiques from fellow bloggers of the opening 250 words of a finished novel, and then submit them for judging. Twenty finalists will be chosen to be judged by agent Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. And there are prizes! Check out Brenda’s blog for all the details.
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Here are the basic guidelines from Brenda’s website:
Everyone posts their entries to their own blog now. We get critiques from our followers and the other participants, and when we’ve polished those first 250 words we send them to Brenda at brenleedrake@gmail.com. Or if we don’t need the critiques we can send off our entry now.
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All entries submitted before the cut off time will be considered. The first round will be judged by a chosen panel of our peers (agented and unagented). The best 20 entries will be picked and posted on Brenda’s blog by March 24. The 20 entries picked will be judged by Natalie. The winners will be announced on or before Monday, March 28.
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It sounds like a fantastic opportunity, so I’m risking hyperventilation and putting my 250 words out here on display. If I convince myself to hit the ‘Publish’ button the excerpt will appear below, waiting for any helpful feedback you’re willing to give between now and Monday evening. You don’t have to be kind. I can take it. 🙂

 

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Title: Refuge North

Genre: Faith-based Romantic Suspense

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The back gate hung open. In the snow between it and the side door of the garage where the dogs slept there were fresh tracks – footprints alongside a strip of tire treads.

“What the–?“

Darcy followed me toward the gate, hesitating and whining at the garage door where the other three dogs waited to be let out for their early morning romp. As the geriatric member of my Doberman Pinscher clan, Darcy was privileged to sleep in my bedroom but the garage doubled as a makeshift kennel for the others. I detoured to close the gate and found the discarded padlock, its dull brass barely visible beneath grey ridges of snow.

I wondered why the dogs hadn’t barked at an intruder, why they were so quiet now. My breathing stuttered to shallow gasps. I remembered last night’s barking… ignoring it because I figured the dogs were complaining about a prowling coyote.

No morning greeting welcomed me as I shoved open the garage door, just silence. When I hit the light switch the glare illuminated the chain-link pens and the three dogs splayed out on the concrete, their gaping jaws frozen in death.

My mind switched into neutral and my body refused to react. No one understood how much these dogs meant to me. They are – were – the only things I ever loved that offered unconditional love in return. I wanted to go into the pens and check out each dog, discover this was a mistake, but my body refused to respond.

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Photo from Photostock

 

Paralyzed by Fear

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The fabric has well-defined folds and wrinkles from being squashed under a stack of tablecloths and placemats. It’s a batik I created somewhere around 1985. I’ve kept it because I enjoyed the experience of making it and love its colours, but it has resided in a drawer hidden under table linens for all these years because I felt it wasn’t good enough to display.

"Moonrise" - Batik by Carol Garvin

 

Early last week agent Rachelle Gardner wrote about not being able to hit ‘send’ when it comes to submitting our writing. “What holds us back?” she wrote. “It’s our fear of failure. As soon as we put it out there, we become open to rejection. What if we did it wrong? What if it’s not good enough? What if someone says it’s horrible? Can I handle that?”

‘Paralyzed by fear’ may be a cliché, but when your finger hovers over the ‘send’ key and, with a mind of its own, refuses to engage, what else do you call it? Reluctance? Nervousness?  Timidity? They’re too tame. It’s fear all right.

I rarely enter writing contests, but in three of the years that I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference I submitted entries in the associated contests… and finalled each time. It isn’t a contest that offers feedback so I’ve never known what the judges liked or what they thought was lacking. One might think the obvious next step would be to submit to contests that do offer feedback, but I’ve become familiar with the Surrey Conference. Anywhere else is out of my comfort zone.

In my comment on Rachelle’s post I said, “I think I’ll recognize God’s prodding when it’s time to make the move.” Immediately after leaving her site I clicked over to Ann Voskamp’s blog as my last read of the day, and found this among Ann’s words: “We’re in the God zone when we’re out of our comfort zone….” Now, if that isn’t prodding, I don’t know what is!

“Don’t wait for perfection,” said Rachelle. “You want your work to be as strong as possible, yet you can’t just wait forever, always saying, “I can do better.” At some point, you’ve got to listen to your gut when it tells you, “This thing’s good to go.”

So-o-o-o… this past weekend I polished required submission material to a sheen, and sent my entry off to its first “uncomfortable” destination, a contest with written critiques from multiple judges.

It wasn’t easy. I stared at that ‘send’ key for a long time. But it’s done, and now I’m about to take an iron to the batik. Then I plan to get it framed.

Are there obstacles that prevent you from moving ahead into your desired tomorrows? What will it take to overcome them?

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When things get a little rough…

A few days ago an agent wrote on her blog about how a disgruntled writer had sent an e-mail and then, before the agent had a chance to reply, had sent a follow-up e-mail lambasting her for not responding, and labeling her as a bad agent. She concluded with, “We know we’re supposed to brush it off, but sometimes it’s hard.”

Among the comments to her post was one that suggested she should ‘suck it up’… “and if it is ‘hard’, get some tips on coping skills.”

After I digested the post and its various comments I found myself wondering about these negative aspects of the industry – the effects of unjustified criticism, misunderstandings, and yes, the rejections and bad reviews.  How should we handle such things? As writers we try hard to write with integrity and express ourselves honestly and coherently, but our words are open to evaluation. When the interpretation of our work (or actions, as in the case of this agent) seems unfair, are we obliged to ‘suck it up’?

What’s your opinion? If you’re not thick skinned when it comes to those ‘black cloud’ situations, how do you cope with them?

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