C is for Critique

This post is part of an ongoing series, the Author’s Alphabet. Click on the tag below to read more in the series!C is for Critique.

Criticism. Most of us hate it. We make excuses. We get defensive.

But criticism is the best way for an author to discover the flaws in his book. After days, weeks, months of working with specific characters and a specific plot, most authors lose some perspective. They need an outside opinion about what is working and what is flawed. Enter the critique partner.

C Block

Critique partners are trusted individuals who read and evaluate a book it’s in a final state. These people go by many other names—you might call them your beta readers, or your critique group, or your writers group.  Most authors have more than one critique partner, and they learn different things from different critics.  One partner might excel at catching plot mistakes, gaps in storytelling or oversights in timeline that destroy the credibility of a story. Another partner might be best at noting character inconsistencies, those times when an author makes a character do something completely unexpected, solely to advance a plot. Yet another partner might point out factual mistakes or grammar errors or any of a million other details that keep a book from being its best.

Ideally, an author assembles a team of critique partners who address all these areas, along with any other known weaknesses. It’s difficult to hand over one’s work, purposely presenting it to people who are likely to tear it apart. Yet, the improvement in the ultimate product is worth that challenge.

There are multiple methods for receiving criticism (most of which are designed to minimize the sting.) Some authors conduct all critique work online—they submit their files electronically, and they receive comments electronically. That computerized distance translates to an emotional distance. The author can temporarily stop reading criticism if it becomes difficult to process. She can rant and rave in the privacy of her own home, without building permanent barriers to communication with her critique partners. This method, though, can lead to a lack of understanding; without direct time-synced communication, the critic and the author might inadvertently be at cross-purposes.

Other authors conduct critique work in person, at weekly or monthly meetings. Many of these sessions follow a workshop model, where each member of the critique group presents his comments within a limited time period (for example, three minutes.) During that presentation time, the author must remain silent (except, in some cases, to ask for a clarification of a specific point.)  The author then has a limited time period to respond to all the issues raised. This method allows each critic and the author to present points in a planned, methodic fashion. It also reduces purely emotional responses. This method, though, requires real-time communication, either in person or through an electronic tool such as Skype. It also requires restraint on all parties, who must stick with time limitations and speaking restrictions.

Yet another model involves direct, ongoing exchanges between the author and his critics, without limitations on time or subject matter, either in person or by a Skype-like tool. Critics and the author make statements and ask questions without restraints on time or subject matter. This method allows everyone to flesh out ideas more completely—critics can state their problems with a work, and authors can delve more deeply, pinpointing specific issues. This method, though, has the potential to dissolve into debates. Aggressive critics and defensive authors can quickly derail the effectiveness of direct, unlimited communication.

Most authors both receive and give criticism. A few simple rules make it easier to deliver critiques that can be processed productively by an author:

  • Begin with a general introduction. This is the place to state that you’ve never liked farmboy-saves-the-world epic fantasy novels so your comments should be taken with a grain of salt, or you had a bad experience at a high school pep rally so you have trouble finding a gym teacher a sympathetic heroine. Put your own biases on the table to allow the author to better understand your critique.
  • Move on to positive statements. What works in this book? Why? Always find something positive about a work, even if it’s the formatting or enthusiasm of the author.
  • Follow up with critical statements. What needs work in this book? Why? Start with larger topics (“this romance novel has no conflict between the hero and heroine”) and end with smaller topics (“the White House is on Pennsylvania Avenue, not Connecticut Avenue.”) Consider grouping smaller topics into catch-all paragraphs (“Geography: review a map of Washington DC to double-check locations for the White House, the Capitol, and the Convention Center.”)
  • Present potential fixes as suggestions, rather than as mandatory statements. (“Consider making the heroine a blind orphan to heighten the tension with her fellow boarding school students” instead of “Make Sally blind.”) If you don’t have a potential solution to a problem, admit as much.

Critique partners offer authors valuable insight into what works and what does not work in a book. Sometimes, that criticism is directly on point—the mere statement of the problem is enough to help an author see what needs to be fixed. Other times, an author concludes that a critic is mistaken—she doesn’t understand the book, or she isn’t familiar with a particular sub-genre, or she was having a bad day as she wrote her criticism. Even in those cases, the rational writer considers the criticism as a warning that the reader was pulled off track at that particular point. Often, a critic finds fault with a particular aspect of a book (e.g., “your heroine sounds whiny when she talks to her best friend”) but an author discovers a completely different fix (e.g., the heroine shouldn’t be talking to her best friend in that scene; instead, she should be taking steps to solve her problem more directly.) Critics aren’t omniscient, but they can be good barometers of when a story succeeds.

Some authors find that critique relationships have a limited lifespan. Most critics have “pet peeves” and most authors have “darlings.” If a critique partner cannot abide an author’s recurring theme, character, or plot point, it might be time to make a separation. Some critique partners focus on minutiae, losing track of the author’s sorely needed big picture issues. Others present their critiques so abrasively that a reasonable author cannot process the criticism.

Similarly, some authors choose not to follow any advice from any critic; they present book after book containing the same issues. Or authors may shift into writing sub-genres that a critique partner cannot adequately review.

At these times, authors and critics owe it to each other to speak plainly about their needs. If minor (or major!) changes in the relationship can fix the problems, they should be made. But time is too valuable for authors and their critique partners to continue working together without productive criticism. If accommodations cannot be made, critique partnerships should end so that new bonds can be formed with other partners.

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5 Responses to C is for Critique

  1. Zena says:

    Oh my – this just piqued a memory of a writing workshop I took in university. I presented a story I had written which related the events leading up to the tragic death of one of my classmates in elementary school. But I was mystified by the reaction of both my fellow writers and our instructor: they laughed. Uproariously. My professor, in between chuckles, declared it “a delightful story.”

    While it was gratifying that they were amused (I do like making people laugh), how could I have so completely failed to convey the actual horror and sadness of the situation? This was the story of an ostracized child who ended up dying. It was an event that traumatized me (and likely most of my classmates). And yet.

    I suppose I may have written it in a lighthearted tone which was meant to convey the fresh-faced and confused perceptions of a child, but I was sure the underlying shock would have seeped through. They just didn’t see the irony. Or maybe they didn’t want to. Laughter can be a funny thing.

    I might still have that story kicking around somewhere. I should try to dig it up and see if I can identify where I went wrong. Or if, in fact, I did.

    Memory can be a funny thing too…

    • Mindy Klasky says:

      Interesting! I wonder how much of it was people laughing, because they didn’t want to confront the horror of the subject matter?

      It *is* mystifying how we sometimes completely fail to find our readers. Sigh…

  2. Mary says:

    One trick is taking notes. That can help distance it, too, because you are just trying to get down what the complaint is, not judge whether it’s the truth.

    • Mindy Klasky says:

      Great idea – I find that taking notes keeps me focused in all sorts of meetings! I hadn’t thought of it as a distance-er for critiques…

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