Using Critiques

.sarahwynne. (CC/Flickr)

Being critiqued hurts. There’s no way around it. You’ve lavished time and love on your story, and you’re about to be told everything that’s wrong with it. Someone’s probably told you you’ll need a thick skin. As if that’s helpful. You’re a writer, not a rhino, and not everything is going to bounce off. So be prepared for what’s to come, and let’s look at how to extract the maximum benefit from the pain.

Absorb the critique

As you’ve probably noticed in your own critiques, it takes considerably more time and effort to talk about the weaknesses in a story than the strengths. It takes one short sentence to say the protagonist was a great character. It takes a lot longer to talk about how they might be improved. A good critique will always mention the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the story, but the weaknesses will always take up more space. Keep that in mind, and remember that the space given to the positives and the negatives is not a reflection of the quality of the story. You asked for critique, not praise.

For all that, it’s hard not to react to critical comments. If you’re receiving the critique online and the critiquer can’t see your reaction, you can call them any name you like, moan to your friends or whatever else gets it out of your system. Just please don’t kick any cats and whatever you do, don’t fire off an email to the critiquer until you’ve calmed down.

f1uffster (Jeanie) (CC/Flickr)

If you’re getting the critique face to face, you need to keep a lid on your reaction. Write down whatever the critiquer is saying, whether you agree with it or not, and don’t interrupt them. The only thing it’s acceptable to say while receiving a spoken critique is to ask for clarification of something you’re not sure you understood. At this point, you are recording the opinion of the critiquer. Interpretation comes later.

Whatever you feel at this point, remember that you have asked the critiquer for a favour and they have done it. Even if you disagree with what they say, it’s only polite to thank them. You might think the critiquer is acting the prat. You might be right. If you’re ungracious about it, you’re the one acting the prat.

I may be exaggerating a tiny bit, so you probably won’t feel as beaten up as I’m making out. If not, it can be helpful to engage the critiquer in a conversation about where you might go with the story. I do mean conversation. Don’t try to defend your story, tell them what they should have understood or the cardinal sin, argue with the critique. You asked for their opinion and you got it. It’s up to you what you do with it.

Interpreting the critiques

The logistics of most critique groups entail a waiting time after a story is submitted, so I’m usually working on another story by the time the critiques come in. I won’t come back to them until I’ve finished what I’m doing with the current story, which gives me a cooling off period over the critiques and helps restore my own perspective on the story.

Before going through the critiques, I re-read the story to get it fresh in mind. Then I work my way through the critiques one by one. Simple line edits that are clear improvements, I do straight away. Then I note down broader issues which I think may be relevant. I say may be at this stage. I’m trying to collate what can be pages of critiques into something manageable. Final decisions come later.

Eric (CC/Flickr)

Once I have a list of the issues, I need to decide what to do about them. Critiques provide a list of suggestions. It’s not a set of instructions, and it’s not a democratic process in which only issues mentioned by the majority need to be addressed. If an issue was raised by one or two people, there’s a fair chance that it bothered others but they either didn’t register it consciously or focused on other issues. It’s my story, so what suggestions to take and what to discard is down to my judgement.

More critiques mention problems than suggest solutions. Even where a solution is suggested, it may not be a good idea but that doesn’t mean the underlying problem can be ignored. For example, critiques often mention they weren’t sure why a character made a particular choice. The solution is more likely to be in the development of the character or foreshadowing before that point than in more explanation where the critiquer noticed the problem. The critiquer is responding to their stream of consciousness as they read. The writer has a grasp of the shape of the story, and needs to place the critiquer’s suggestion in that context.

While major problems tend to be mentioned by a few different critiquers, they usually have their own ideas about what to do about it. Again, judgement is necessary. I once had a batch of 10 critiques in which one made a suggestion so radical that it changed the genre from science fiction to crime. Nobody else came up with anything nearly as dramatic. Immediately I read it, I knew it was right and made the change. I doubt the story would have sold if I hadn’t.

Beware

vassilis galopoulos (CC/Flickr)

For all I’ve said about the value of critiques, it’s possible to be misled if you don’t apply a bit of critical assessment of your own. Not every comment is helpful. If someone just tells you the story is good or bad and nothing else, it gives nothing to work with so there’s no point in paying too much attention to it. If that’s all they can come up with, they probably only skimmed it anyway. Some critiquers trot out buzzwords, the favourite being ‘show, don’t tell’. It can be good advice in context, and it’s worth attention if it comes with an explanation relating to a particular part of the text. Unfortunately, a few people seem to have a sort of critiquer’s Tourette’s Syndrome where they fill a critique with buzzwords.

‘Show don’t tell’ has probably sparked off more discussion and debate than any other three words in writing craft and I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said elsewhere. I’d recommend Patricia Wrede’s explanation, and remember what Lee Child had to say a couple of posts ago.

A common comment on short stories is ‘this should be a novel’, which always perplexes me. I’m never quite sure what it means, or if everyone who says it means the same thing.

A more insidious problem is damning with faint praise, which can be hard to recognise. It happens when a well-meaning critiquer doesn’t want to be too harsh on someone who looks like a beginner. Flailing around for something nice to say, they end up praising the mechanics of punctuation and grammar. A couple of critiques that focus on the minutiae as a positive may be a red flag that there are major structural problems. A statement to the effect that the best thing about the story was the writing may mean the same, or it may just mean that particular critiquer really appreciated the prose style.

It’s best not to spend too much time trying to second guess unclear comments in critiques. Any decent workshop will provide plenty of unambiguous comments to work with, and you’re as likely to misinterpret something as to nail it down.

Repeat critiques

I usually send my stories through at least two rounds of critiques before submitting them for publication. When I was starting out, it was more often four or five. I try not to send them to the same people. Once someone has critiqued a story, they can’t help but look at another version in terms of whether their advice was taken. This is another advantage of Critters, as it’s large enough that a second submission of the same manuscript is likely to find fresh eyes.

If you’re a member of a few different groups, you may notice that different groups tend to focus on different areas. Face to face groups tend to focus on structure because when someone has a few minutes to speak. they don’t have time to go into every detail. Online groups tend to better at line by line critiquing, which is often more helpful as the manuscript nears completion. There’s no point in worrying too much about the line by line if several paragraphs are going to be rewritten.

When to stop

Archie Campbell (CC/Flickr)

However many rounds of feedback the story needs, there comes a point where it has to stop. That’s not the easiest choice because this is the point where it’s finished. It’s time for it to make its way off the hard drive and scribbled pieces of paper and burrow into someone’s slushpile. The point where I decide the story is finished is when I can honestly say I have made this the best story my ability allows. Not the best story my favourite author would have written with the same material. Not the best story I might write after another year of developing my skills. The best story it can possibly be right now. When I can honestly say it is, it’s time to move from the creative process of writing to the mechanical process of submitting.


Exercise:

Once you’ve decided whether to go with Critters or a face to face group, give them your manuscript. Grit your teeth. Smile and nod as they critique it. If the critiques are verbal, write them down. Take as long a cooling off period as you need and then edit the in the light of the critiques. If there’s still room for improvement, repeat the process. Keep repeating it until you have the best story your ability allows.

Congratulations. You have finished your story.

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Posted in Story development, Writing

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