Posts Tagged ‘critiquing’

Are You Listening?

My critique group just went through a very painful episode in which one member was banned from submitting anything for a while. The situation was this: the writer had been submitting chapters of something she’d written several years ago. This in itself is risky (as I’ve pointed out elsewhere ), but not really a problem. What made it a problem was that the writer wasn’t bothering to revise the chapters she was submitting before she submitted them. Thus each week her submission contained the same errors she’d had the week before. The people who read her submissions became tired and frustrated with pointing out the same things over and over again. The moderator tried to explain what was wrong to the writer, suggesting that she spend some time working over the submissions, taking care of the obvious errors before sending it in, but she refused. She wanted the whole MS critiqued before she started making any changes. The moderator finally gave up and told her to stop.

I was one of the ones who was frustrated by those submissions (although, I swear, not one of the ones who complained). When you take the time to do a very thorough critique, you want to believe that your comments have some impact, that, in fact, the writer is listening to you. This doesn’t mean that that writers must unfailingly do what a CP tells them to do—writers and critiquers can have honest differences of opinion on some things. But if a CP points out that you’ve got serious problems (like POV shifts or missing explanations or garbled prose), you need to at least take heed and try to avoid doing the same thing next time around.

I think most of us in critique groups are willing to put up with submissions that have lots of problems: That’s part of the price you pay to be part of the group. But if you know the writer in question is going to have the same freakin’ problems week after week, you start wanting to avoid her if possible. For example, as a former copyeditor, I have a hard time reading through mechanical errors without trying to correct them. But if the writer has so many mechanical errors that I lose the thread when I’m reading, I may start sounding testy after a while. It’s one thing to miss the occasional comma. It’s another to throw in semicolons with reckless abandon and without any clear idea of what they’re supposed to do. Does that mean I expect other writers to be mechanically perfect from the get-go? Obviously not (although I can always dream). But it does mean I don’t expect to see semicolons used with the same cluelessness in the next MS I read from this author.

In the end, it all boils down to time, as it frequently does with writing. Submissions with lots of errors take a lot longer to read. Like most critiquers, I’m willing to give other writers that time at least once or twice. But if I seen the same thing over and over again, I’m going to start feeling like my time is being wasted. And that, as Don Corleone used to say in a very different context, I do not forgive.

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Recently, I sent a chapter to my critique group from a new MS I’m working on, an urban fantasy. I knew it was rough, and I needed some outside opinions. I got a lot of good advice from a couple of critique partners, but I found myself automatically rejecting the advice I received from the third. Her first comment was that I had a lot of narrative at the beginning of the chapter (true) and that her editor had told her she should never have more than three pages of narrative in a romance.

Now there are a lot of responses to that. One is to say, “You mean three pages of Courier New double-spaced or three pages as they’d appear in the actual print edition, which would be more like five pages of Courier New double-spaced?” Another would be to look at a couple of romance writers to see if it was true (I checked the Nora Roberts I was reading at the time and immediately stumbled over five pages of narrative relatively early in the book). But realistically, I knew the thing that had set me off was the idea that there was some kind of absolute rule for the length of narrative. Had the critiquer said, “Boy you’ve got a lot of narrative here—I’m getting lost and/or bored,” I probably would have gone back to the MS and looked more critically at the passage. But something about the idea of a rule about how much narrative is enough based solely on number of pages rather than quality of narrative just rubs me the wrong way.

I feel the same way about a lot of “rules” that people cite with romances. For example, “The hero and heroine have to meet within the first ten pages.” Now the idea that the hero and heroine need to be introduced fairly soon, like within the first couple of chapters, makes sense. But the idea that they have to meet and meet quickly is just nonsense unless you’re writing a category romance with a very stiff set of rules provided by the publisher. If you don’t believe me, check the romances on your shelf. I’d be willing to bet that a significant number of them don’t have hero and heroine meeting within the first ten pages. The “No adultery” rule is another one that writers continually dance around. In Roberts’ Dancing On Air, for example, the heroine is an abused wife who’s faked her own death to escape her homicidal husband. Technically, she’s committing adultery with the hero, but I doubt any reader holds it against her.

The only romance rule that seems absolutely unquestionable is HEA. But even here, writers like Nicholas Sparks seem to slide by occasionally. Of course, he’s also dismissed by a lot of romance readers as not really writing romance. I tend to agree with that assessment.

The bottom line is this: if you, as a critiquer, don’t like something in my MS, fine. Tell me so, and tell me why. I may wince (and I may call you names, but since most of my critiquing is on-line, you won’t hear them). But don’t claim that my stuff is bad because I’m violating some kind of cockamamie rule. Rule or not, the problem is that you don’t like what I’m doing. I need to know that and I need to know why you don’t like it. Then I can either fix it or not, depending on whether I think it’s a legitimate complaint. But trust me, if you try to hide behind an artificial rule, I can guarantee I’ll ignore you.

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As I’ve said time and again, I love critique groups. They provide a writer with that most valuable of commodities, feedback. Not all of the feedback is good, mind you, but even lousy feedback can tell you something. I can still remember when I started critiquing, though, and I remember the biggest problem I had—what do you say to good writers?

Figuring out what to say to somebody with difficulties isn’t usually an issue, although figuring out how to say it without bruising the writer’s tender feelings may well be. But what do you say to somebody who’s smokin’? “Love it, keep up the good work” may be accurate, but it may not be what the author’s looking for. This is particularly tough for someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience in critiquing others’ work before. After a while, you learn how to see minor problems even in well-written things. But at first, that’s hard to do.

However, a frequent response to this problem is to manufacture weaknesses so that you have something to comment on. You change the wording (becoming a dreaded Rewriter), you  tell the author you need more information on a character’s background (although you’re reading chapter four in the book and can pretty much guess that background has already been provided somewhere else), you make global assumptions without much basis in the MS (I once had a reader tell me to change my story to M/M because she didn’t think the hero really cared for the heroine—who didn’t appear and wasn’t really mentioned in the pages she’d read). This kind of thing is almost guaranteed to piss off the writer, while not providing her with much in the way of useful advice.

So here are some things to keep in mind as you, a very new critiquer, approach those pages:

1. You may not have done much critiquing, but you’ve undoubtedly done a lot of reading. Approach the MS as you would a book. What appeals to you? What doesn’t? Some of that will probably be personal taste, but even so the writer might like to hear about it. Chances are other people in her potential audience will share the same tastes. On the other hand, telling a writer “I hate paranormals” won’t be much help.

2. Be aware of where this particular set of pages is in the total manuscript. If it’s chapter one, then you can talk about whether you need more backstory or whether the backstory is too dominant. But if it’s chapter five, you can’t really complain that you don’t know the hero’s background—although you can make a comment to the effect that you assume this background was covered earlier, which implies it should have been.

3. Don’t make changes in the writer’s language unless you can explain the reason for making them. Some changes are legitimate (repetition, for example—but that may be handled better by simply highlighting the repeated words), but some are just a matter of your style differing from the author’s style. If the only reason you have for making a change is that it “sounds wrong,” it’s probably best to let it alone.

4. If you don’t have many comments to make, don’t worry about it. If nothing else, that tells the writer she’s on the right track.

And good luck. Trust me, the more you critique, the easier it becomes.

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