Friday, May 27, 2011

Hooray for critiques!

I just received an amazingly thorough and extremely helpful critique from Mr. Jonathan Dalar and it made me want to write about critiques.

In general, I find that most writers are eager to get some feedback on their work. Most of us are writing in order to sell -- or at least to know we're providing a quality experience for our readers. "Good" and "bad" are subjective concepts, but still, input from fresh sets of eyes gives us access to new approaches to our works in progress.

I loves me some critiques.

More about critiques below the jump!

Jonathan told me he'd never given a critique before and that he was somewhat apprehensive when he first approached my book. It can be intimidating to offer feedback on writing, for sure. We all know that our own writing feels very personal; we've put a lot of time and energy and emotion into it. We've sweated over jut the right words, we've deleted and rewritten the same scene five or ten times until it feels just right. Any writer giving a critique to another understands that it's fraught territory.

But Jonathan did an awesome job. He told me exactly what he loved about about Baptism for the Dead (so far...I've only got a little more than 25,000 words written), and he broke down his suggestions for improvement into helpful categories -- description, plot, characters, voice, etc. This was such a well-organized and well-thought-out critique that I felt it was far more thorough and more persuasive than any I'd received before, including critiques from agents! (Can't blame 'em -- they usually have a lot of critiques to get to.)

Because he took the time to really explain his impressions on my book, I felt that he'd devoted some real deep thought to my work and that I could trust his opinions. What was especially nice was the fact that many of the areas he found unsatisfying were parts I also had trouble with. He and I agreed about which scenes were the weakest.

And of course it's always wonderful to hear that he felt compelled to keep reading from the time he opened the file, and that some of my descriptions stuck in his head long after he'd finished. That reassured me, because I've had some misgivings about this book, worrying that it's too narrow in scope, that it will be appealing to too small a group of readers to sell, and that there's nothing special about my prose. A good, useful critique certainly put a lot of those worries to rest!

Thanks, Jonathan!

I do think it's extremely important for all writers to do regular critique work. I've noticed that problems became easier to spot and resolve when I began critiquing with regularity. When you really put some thought into a work in progress -- what works, what doesn't, and WHY -- the scales begin to slowly flake off your own eyes, and revision of your own work comes easier and faster. It's just like building a muscle -- the more you do it, the more of it you've go to use.

Online critique circles or forums are wonderful for this, and I encourage you to use them. In-person groups are also great, because they provide some important social interaction, which writers can skimp on unless they are mindful. I go to a critique group every Thursday night and I try never to miss it. It's not only socializing; it's a very important part of perfecting my own craft. For me, a useful and effective revision is 75% of the battle -- the hardest and most exciting part of writing. I've got to stay in practice if I'm going to be any good on my own.

I think it's also very important for writers to learn how to TAKE a critique -- not only to improve the work itself, but to improve their approach to the act of writing. Not too long ago a well-meaning friend invited me to her weekly writers' group. I asked her about it, and she said it was "not meant for criticism, but just a place where we can all feel safe writing."

I feel safe writing on my futon at home. Or at the library. Or in a coffee shop. I don't have any anxieties about the act of writing. I am beyond the point where i need somebody to hold my hand and tell me I'm doing a great job. I want to sell my work -- I want a career. To get what I want, I need to see my writing as not only an expression of my feelings, but a conveyance for a message that I want other people to understand; not a display of my plumage, but the provision of enjoyment for many readers. In other words, I need to communicate effectively for the benefit of other people. I need to know what I'm doing wrong in order to make it right. "Only tell me what you like so I feel 'safe'" isn't a critique. It's a pat on the head. If that's all you're after, fair enough; but it's not going to make you a more effective communicator.

Now I owe Jonathan a critique, and I am looking forward to reading his novel and offering some insight. Hopefully he finds my comments half as useful as I found his!


  1. You're most welcome, Libbie! And if I thought you couldn't handle the bad and the ugly with the good, I'd have never agreed to critique. I think that's one of the most invaluable things a beta reader can do for the author, to pull no punches and say it like it is. Platitudes don't make me a better writer, pointing out what I'm doing wrong does.

    It might be easier to share your work with close friends and family, but they may not give you the best and most painfully accurate critique.

    I find your anecdote on being invited to a writers' group for a place to "feel safe writing" rather interesting. I think I write my best when I don't feel safe, when I know my words are out there naked for the world to see. I can tell myself I write well. I need others to point out the flaws that my artistic narcissism tends to overlook.

    It was a pleasure reading your work, and I look forward to the cold, hard truth on mine.

  2. I love the whole critique process, even though it sometimes feels like I'm ripping off a band-aid when I get my novel back. But in a good way, right?

    Glad you got such helpful feedback!

  3. I may have to find a way to 'up the ante' in my writing group. It's nice to feel safe; it's nice to be told your writing is good, sure, but I want to grow. I do have an idea for how to fix it, however. We'll see what comes of it.