Tag Archives: criticism

Gaining Some Perspective on Criticism

15 Nov

by Susan Dennard

~~~

We talk a lot about the importance of giving critiques, the soothing of one’s ego in criticism, the why and the what of finding crit-readers. I have to points to add — two idioms tailored to the Writing Critique World.

1) Too much criticism can spoil the broth.

So, let’s say you’ve been writing a while — months, years, centuries – and you follow the age-old advice: “Get feedback and lots of it.”

You share your manuscript with 4 people, then 6, then 8, then 25. You want to make sure you have the best possible novel before you try to find an agent/editor.

Good for you. That’s the best attitude to have. Like milk, criticism does a manuscript good. Like weight-lifting, criticism helps us find our weak points and fix them.

But, like analogies, criticism should be taken in moderation.

A friend of mine recently critted a paper, and she had this to say: “It’s clear that this writer has done a lot of work on it, and that she knows enough about the craft, but she has had too many people crit her book. It’s hard to find her voice because I can see the effect of so many others changing her MS along the way.”

Too much criticism can be the death of your novel, just as too many cooks can spoil the broth. It is ultimately YOUR story, and if you try to take in too many perspectives on YOUR story, you’ll lose sight of what you were creating. You’ll end up with a Frankenstein-novel built from the feedback and tweaking of others.

While I fully support finding beta readers or crit partners, be careful about how many you work with. I also support crit groups like the OWW or Critique Circle, but again, be careful about how many people’s feedback you take to heart. Honestly, you can’t please everyone, so be sure to evaluate criticism critically and choose whose advice you do want to follow.

And that leads to idiom #2.

2) All criticism should be taken with a grain – nay, a handful of salt.

A story to illustrate: In August, I entered the first 30 pages of my novel (The Spirit-Hunters) into an RWA contest, hoping to gain valuable feedback from professionals.  At the end of October on the very same weekend I signed with NCLit, I got the contest results – and you know what?

I got DEAD LAST. Out of ~20 contestants in the YA category, I was LAST FREAKING PLACE. Now, I’ll admit the pages were different from what the pages I submitted to agents – but only in terms of a few story events. Not in terms of voice or character.

And those were the aspects I got smashed on. They hated my main character – too introspective. Not logical. Deserves what she gets. They hated the voice – felt forced. Not accessible to modern readers.

Ouch, right? Even though I’d had so much agent success during the two weeks prior to getting these results, coming in last place really stung. And even though I knew I had written a good novel, the judge’s criticism made me want to curl into the fetal position and groan like a zombie.

Had I received this feedback two weeks earlier – before I started querying – I would have been CRUSHED. Devastated. I would have done nothing but eat ice cream and cry. I probably would have given up on The Spirit-Hunters, in hopes that I could write a better novel with less FAIL in it.

But thank the merciful heavens I received the contest results after taking the plunge into the querying world. Thank heavens I was able to apply some much needed perspective to those contest results. Otherwise, I would not be on submission to publishers right now. I would be belting “All By Myself” à la Bridget Jones and considering going back to freelance statistics (bleh!).

Perspective Gained:

  • Because of the timing, I was able to see that maybe the judges weren’t qualified to judge my novel. They were first and foremost romance novelists, which is a very different genre from YA. Additionally, none of them were published writers or represented by agents (which I thought they would be when I first entered the contest).  This doesn’t make their judgement wrong, but it’s something to consider.
  • What they didn’t like in my novel (the main character or the voice) was their own personal opinion. The main character and the voice were also what attracted several agents to make offers of rep. And think about it: how many books do you love but your friends hate? Different strokes for different folks.

Moral of the Story:

  • You need to be really careful when choosing with whom you share your novels. You want feedback that makes sense to you. It should fit:
    • your writing style (ex: my style is quirky YA)
    • your writing goals (ex: my goal is a career in commercial publication)
    • your writing skill (ex: someone who is at the same stage or further along in the path).

It took me a while to find crit readers I trust – I started with too many and found readers from every place imaginable.  I was constantly adjusting my novels according to the newest feedback rolling in.  It was exhausting, and I lost touch with the stories I’d originally set out to tell.

Now I have two crit-readers plus my agents. I’ll let other people read my novels, but when it comes to feedback, I’m only willing to rely on the people whose advice I know matches what I need. And, perhaps most important of all, the people who trust and can use my feedback in their own novels.

How about you — critique horror stories?  Feedback you shouldn’t have trusted or regret following?  Or, do you have any criticism-perspective of your own to share?

~~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her manuscript is currently on submission to publishers. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

Advertisements

Providing Useful Critique

22 Sep

by Vahini Naidoo

~~~

I’m going to be totally honest – when I first started critiquing other people’s work, I was bad at it. In fact, that’s an understatement. I was awful. I’d write stuff like, “This is good. Yeah…I feel pretty unhelpful”.

So, in order to spare anyone else the pain of knowing that they’re not critiquing well, and to spare any writers from critiques like my initial ones, I bring you a sort-of idiot’s guide to critiquing a manuscript.

Anyway, my biggest problem was that I’d regularly stop and ask myself this question: What right do I have to be critiquing so-and-so’s work?

The answer to this question is every right, so long as you’re a reader. Thinking that you don’t have the authority to critique is really counter-productive to providing helpful feedback, because you lose the confidence to truly make not of the mistakes you catch. When a scene is confusing, you assume that it’s your fault, not the writer’s and so on. In other words, you won’t be totally honest with the author because you’re limiting yourself.

And the first step towards critiquing a manuscript is a willingness and ability to be straight-up with the writer about what you think. Even if you don’t feel particularly qualified – and you are! – you have to deliver your critique with clarity and honesty .

My other problem? I never really tried to accommodate the writer’s needs.

My awesome fellow contributor, Kat, wrote a post on Monday about critique partner relationships. She mentioned that all of them are different.

My mistake was not recognising this, and just diving straight into reading a manuscript. Instead, I should have been asking the author what they were specifically looking to fix with this revision, or whether there was anything that they were worried about, or felt wasn’t quite working.

Often, people are quite specific. They’ll tell you that an agent told them that their prose isn’t quite shining, even though their premise is great – and that means you focus on the nitty gritty little stuff. Or they’ll tell you that they’re worried that their character arc isn’t coming full circle, or something, and you’ll know to focus on that.

It can be really helpful to dive into critiquing a manuscript and have some clear direction. So, if you can get that out of the author, that would be step number two.

But what if the author says something like, “Just looking for general stuff” or “Not really sure” or, worse still, “Everything”? Then what, huh?

You stare at your computer screen and burst into tears, obviously. Just kidding 🙂

If the writer doesn’t give you direction you have to follow through with the third step in any case. That is, you have to read the manuscript – I know, I know, I’m a genius.

It’s important to know, at this stage, to know what kind of critique you like to give. Do you like line by lines? Or do you like to make more general comments? I’ve found that if I try to give detailed line comments on more than a chapter, I often find myself unable to get through the manuscript. This is because I’m incredibly nitpicky, and detail-oriented and will often write 6000 words worth of comments on 3000 words.

I’m pretty sure that this kind of over-critiquing is not helpful to either the author, or the never-ending piles of homework lying in wait for me.

So that’s me, I don’t give line by line critiques, although you might. I focus on the macro stuff, and I tend to think that even if you do focus on the micro and give a line crit, you need to give the writer a sense of how the manuscript stacks up overall for the critique to be truly useful. After all, someone can have seriously awesome prose and be completely unable to plot.

One of the mistakes I often made when giving this overall critique to a writer, was not being thorough enough – I’d just forget to talk about entire aspects of a manuscript. For instance I’d say something about the characterisation, but the plot would totally slip my mind.

 In order to be more thorough, you should probably carefully think through the big elements of a novel. That is, character, plot, setting, and depending on the manuscript, theme. Thinking through those elements, and really asking yourself whether there was anywhere it could have been improved allows you to spot more potential areas for improvement.

Final tip? Sometimes you need to think about things for a while. I finished a mind blowing manuscript two weeks ago, and initially I couldn’t think of anything to say. The author was firing on all cylinders – she had characterisation, a great plot, a wonderful voice and prose that was both beautiful and evocative.

But I gave it a week, and reconsidered the manuscript. Then I sat down and wrote her a two page critique – the manuscript is still mind blowing, and is probably already publishable, but there were areas there that could be improved upon. I just needed time to see them.

Lastly, so that you can all SEE for yourselves that different readers work in different ways, and also get some shining examples of how to give good critiques, check out THE BETA PROJECT. It’s a blogosphere experiment where six blogging writers critique one brave author’s first page, and post it so that everyone can get a handle on different critiquing styles. Check out the critiques from  Cory , Kate, Meredith, Sarah, Windy and Raven.

 ~~~

Vahini Naidoo is a high schooler who eats instant noodles like she’s already in college. She writes contemporary YA novels and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can find her over at her blog.

Critique Partners

20 May

We’re really excited to officially announce a new part of the blog today–the Critique Partners page! After a reader suggested a sort of “Critique Partner Speed Dating,” we couldn’t wait to try the idea out. A few people have already taken the plunge and put up profiles. If you’re looking for a CP, please take a few moments to fill out the information. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up with the critique partner of your dreams…!

And while we’re on the topic of critique partners, here’s Kat Zhang with an article on just the thing.

~~~

Critique Partners

by Kat Zhang

As a writer, you quickly learn that one of the most prized gifts you can receive is an honest critique. Sometimes (or should I say most of the time?) our work is too close to our heart for us to see its imperfections. I like to say that my stories are my best friends, my babies, and my worst enemies all at once. I simply don’t trust myself with them. When I love them to bits, I wonder if it’s just my motherly instinct telling me that my child can never be less than perfect. When I hate them and want to throw them out the window, I wonder if it’s that enmity coming into play.

So when I find someone who will look over my bundle of joy (or worst nightmare, depending on the day—or hour—or minute) and tell me straight up, no frills, what he or she thinks, I count myself extremely blessed. A good critique partner is often hard to find. Some turn out to be more cheerleaders than critiquers—they love everything you write! Nothing should be changed! Not a word!

I’m not putting down the value of a good cheerleader (or saying that a good critique partner will never say any of the above—maybe you just wrote a really kick-ass book!), but as writers, we need to be continuously growing, and there are very, very few of us who really “don’t need to change a thing.”

I say all this now, but I’d have to be the first to raise my hand if someone asked “But don’t you just feel bad sometimes when people say they don’t like something about your story?” I think I’m thick skinned, but there’s always that twinge in my heart when someone points out what needs to be fixed in one of my works.

Writers, I think, often tend to be more sensitive than the average person. We need to be in order to throw ourselves into other people’s lives and capture them onto paper. But the same sensitivity that allows us to write can make it hard to take critique.

So whenever I find myself getting depressed or even hurt by something a reader has said, I remind myself of the following.

It is much, much easier to bang out a “Great story! I loved everything. Can’t wait to see what happens next!” than it is to type out a list of things that didn’t quite work out. Your reader put effort into expressing his or her thoughts. They gave up their time to help you—and you know what that means? It means they like you, they really like you!

Just kidding. Well, no, I mean—they probably do like you, but—okay, getting back on track. The point is, your critique partner is not saying these things to make you feel bad, or because they secretly hate you. Quite the opposite! We all know this logically, but sometimes the best of us are insensible when it comes to taking feedback.

Of course, there will be times when you and your critique partner may simply disagree. I wouldn’t say either of you are “right,” since so much of writing is subjective (a good reason to have more than one critique partner!), but if you’ve really thought about a suggest a CP has made, and in the end, you just can’t see where they’re coming from, it may just be a case of differing opinions. Your critique partner’s job is to tell you what they think, and your job is to put aside your prejudices and consider each one of their comments. If, after careful consideration, you still find yourself disagreeing, then it’s perfectly fine to leave your story the way you like it.

Finally, I would like to mention that being a critique partner usually means giving as good as you get. The best way to say thank you for a good, well thought out critique is to write one in return. But don’t think that reviewing your CP’s work is just “paying your dues.” I have learned so much through critiquing other’s work. By forcing yourself to analyze a story, picking out its strengths and weaknesses, you start to see these same factors in your own story.

I’ve heard people say that writing is a lonely profession. Well, it may be true that we spend more time than most isolated at our desks, tap-tap-tapping away. But few people truly write a book totally alone, and you certainly don’t have to! As someone who never had a true critique partner until recently, I can tell you—they rock my world.

~~~

Kat Zhang is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing. She spends most of her free time either preparing to query HYBRID or pounding out the first draft of THE FINEST OF LINES. Both are YA novels. You can read about her writing process and thoughts at her blog.

Dealing With Criticism

5 May

By Sarah J. Maas

~~~

You finish your novel after months—if not years—of writing. Then you revise, revise, revise until your manuscript is so polished that it gleams. Then—querying. The ups and downs, the moments of hope and despair—and you start thinking: if I can get an agent, I won’t ever have to worry again! Of course, you eventually land an agent, and you start worrying: if I can get a book deal—no matter how much or little I get paid for it—I won’t ever need to worry again! All the dark days will be behind me! I’ll be set for life just as long as I can see my book on a shelf!

Well, let me tell you something: it’s not over. Getting a book deal doesn’t mean Happily Ever After. Within a few hours of getting The Call, I was already fretting about a dozen different things. Perhaps the most pressing of them is the question of: Will people like my book?

Seriously, that’s the question that haunts my every step—the question I ask myself every time I read my novel or edit a sentence or have someone tell me that they’re excited to read QUEEN OF GLASS. Will people like my book?

The answer is maybe. Maybe some people will love it. Maybe some people will hate it. I can’t control that. But I can control how I choose to react to it.

Learning to gracefully deal with criticism is one of the most important skills a writer can attain. That’s why having a critique partner is great, and why querying and submissions are wonderful learning experiences.

There will ALWAYS be people who don’t like your book. And there will always be people who go on Goodreads to give your book 1 star without having read it. I’ll never forget how furious I was a few years ago (when QOG was still on FP): one of my fans created a series of Wikipedia pages about QUEEN OF GLASS, its characters, and me (as an author)—and one day, it was all gone.

I looked it up, and in the deletion records, it showed that someone had anonymously sent a message to Wikipedia, demanding that they take down the pages because I wasn’t a REAL (i.e. published) author. I thought that was pretty hurtful—but it was made worse when I spoke to a friend about it, and she confessed that a mutual acquaintance had been the one who wrote to Wikipedia.

I wanted to throw my computer through a window. No—scratch that. I wanted to throw my computer at his HEAD. I seriously started and deleted about ten different emails that all began with a series of profanities and insults. Ultimately, I never called him out on it. Why? Because I realized that he was just a miserable, jealous person who couldn’t stand to see other people getting ahead.

That is NOT to say that every person who gives you a bad review is a miserable loser looking for attention. Far from it. But I am saying that I am SO glad I never confronted him—because it would have made ME look bad.

With reviews, I’ve come to realize that sometimes people’s personal tastes just don’t jive with mine. I mean, I can’t count the number of times I’ve HATED a book, only to have a friend love it—or vice versa. That’s what’s so great about this industry, and about books in general: people will react differently to everything. And when that happens, awesome debate begins.

It’s really hard not to take things personally when someone slams your book: your book is your baby, after all. But it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will love it. Not every agent or editor will go gaga over your book and beg to represent/publish you. If you’re the kind of person who is devastated by bad reviews, then don’t look at your Goodreads ratings, or your reviews on Amazon and other sites. I’ll admit: I’m nervous about those bad reviews—I’m nervous about how deeply they’ll cut, or if they’ll make me never want to write again.

But I know that even when I get my first bad review, I can’t lash out. Because that’s unprofessional—because readers are entitled to their opinions, and because without debate, this industry wouldn’t thrive.

So, will people like my book?

Maybe.

Will I react to every review—no matter how good or bad—with graciousness and professionalism?

You betcha.

~~~

Sarah J. Maas is the author of several novels, including QUEEN OF GLASS, a YA fantasy retelling of Cinderella that will be published by Bloomsbury in late 2011. Sarah resides with her fiancé in Los Angeles. You can visit her blog here.