Monday, January 26, 2009

Critiquing: Can You Take It and Can You Dish It Out?

Tip of the Day: You know what? Writing is hard work. When was the last time you rewarded yourself for the sweat you've put into it? If you find yourself procrastinating, try positive reinforcement. Like ordering out for dinner instead of cooking!

Part of being a writer is opening yourself up to constructive criticism and learning to give it. Critiquing and writing go together like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. As I learn to be a better writer, part of my process is learning to be a better critiquer. And then the magic part will be applying the good critique skills to my own work. But honestly, how do I know I'm any good at critiquing? Other than working on the assumption that none of my crit partners have tried to throw heavy objects at me. I mean, we have our crit partners and we critique each other's writing, but we don't critique each other's critiques. (If you have a group where you critique each other's critiques, I'd love to hear how that works for you!)

Well, what kind of critiques do I want? The ones that are the most useful to me are the critiques that tell me where I can cut scenes that run long or where I haven't explained things well enough. I tend to explain my character's situation and motivation too much and then cut it back, but often I cut too much or too little. Also, I tend to think I have a really tense scene, and then a critiquer might point out how my main character could be even more stressed. Those are the types of critiques I love, so those are the types of critiques I try to give to others.

But then there are the critiques that make me discouraged. You know. The ones that make me doubt I have any talent for writing. I'm talking about the critiques that make me wonder where my instinct was.

Because sometimes I'll write something and submit it for critique knowing there are issues. I'll think, OK, I don't know how that character got to the gym without being spotted but let's see if I can get away with it. And when my critiquers say "Um, wouldn't someone have seen your character enter the gym?" then I might not be happy that I have more work to do, but my instincts are somewhat validated. I suspected there was a problem and I was right.

But other times I have no idea there's a problem. Basically, I like my characters or I wouldn't spend time writing about them. So that might be the hardest critique to hear: "I didn't have sympathy for your main character." I think we all hate that one because it implies that our instincts are off. "What are the stakes here?" is another hard one to hear. If my characters fails to accomplish what she tries to accomplish in a scene, she'll be miserable. Things are going wrong for her! Aren't those enough stakes? No? There needs to be more? How about if I spell out that she's miserable, type "I was miserable" into the manuscript right here? That won't fix it, huh? But ... but I need this scene for the rest of the plot to make sense. Are you ... are you saying it's not interesting? That you've come to dread reading my submissions? Should I just give up writing now? Or am I overreacting to your single question mark in the margin?

I don't want to make my critique partners feel discouraged. I love their writing and I worry that I haven't communicated well enough or often enough how talented I think they are. But I also want them to get some meat out of my critiques, make it worth our mutual time spent. I want them to think "This critique gives me great ideas for revising my manuscript and gives me the confidence to tackle the work!" And then I want to look at my own writing and get great ideas for revising and the confidence to tackle the work.

Frankly, just writing this blog post has made me think about how I critique and how I want to critique. Wow, this is so cathartic ... critters, I love you guys ... sniff sniff. Even on the days you realize my instincts were totally off and I'm all "Ow, ow, my spirit hurts." And on the days I've poked at your tender spots, in the past and the days to come, just remember that I'm sorry ... and I'm expecting to see my name in your Acknowledgment pages.

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


Lisa Schroeder said...

Great post! Where would be without our critiquers? :)

Emily Marshall said...

I agree. Critique partners are so important. And I also tend to critique based on what I'm aware of in my own writing and what type of critique I like to get. I guess that's the only way I know how to do it.

Great post, Kate.

Christina Farley said...

Well, as one of your critique partners :) I have to first say you are talented and your stories totally rock. I always enjoy reading your work.

For myself, I like honesty from my critique partners. If my chapters is aweful, tell me. If the characters are dead, tell me. I don't like sugar coating things because that just doesn't help me.

But I also need that reaffirmation like you were saying Kate. Should I give up? I mean this writing stuff is hard. Or is there a chance that it's all worth it in the end.

Oh my I'm getting long winded! Anway, I hear you Kate. Great questions!

Kate Fall said...

Thank you so much Christy! That made me feel so good today! I sent you a personal message.

DeenaML said...

Kate, you are a great critter and I think all of us are getting better and better at giving and receiving feedback. After hearing you girls' take on my work, I am pumped to get working on it again!