Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Critique Week continues

Tip of the Day: If you haven’t done so already, you might want to browse over some of the American Library Association award winners here.

I can’t speak enough about the value of having someone critique your work before submitting to agents or publishers. Not only to get valuable feedback on improving your book, but also in the often over looked value of opening yourself up for criticism.

Writing a novel is such a personal act, and it’s so easy to guard your work and passion with your life. But the second you are willing to have someone else point out ways to improve the book, I think it speaks volumes of your willingness to grow as a writer and learn the craft.

When critiquing someone else work, there are several things I look for:

1.) The positive: I can be a pretty harsh critiquer, but only if I know the person can take it. If I’m taking my time to read someone else’s work, I what it to actually be beneficial for them. Otherwise what’s the point? So no sugar coated, “it’s great,” despite the fact I’m thinking 20 ways it didn’t work for me. In giving them concrete suggestion on things to improve, I’ve found it’s just as important to point out what worked as it is to point out what might need changed.

2.) General feeling (i.e. gut reaction): just the general overview or feel I get from the novel. Obviously, my opinion could be very different than someone elses, which is why multiple critique partners is helpful. If more than one person has an issue with a character, plot, chapter, or something else, than you probably need to revisit the issue in length. But it’s pretty easy to give a general feeling of what does and doesn’t work for you personally when looking at someone else’s work. I almost always start with a “General Overview” of my feelings, much like an editorial letter. And then I’ll give specific thoughts and comments in the text itself.

3.) Likability of characters: since I’ve had issues with this in my own work, I’m more in tune to looking for it’s effectiveness in my critique partner’s books. And I’ve found it’s far easier to make suggestions for someone else to improve the likeability of their characters than it is to change the ones you are attached to in your own books.

4.) Importance of secondary characters: characters are my biggest weakness, so it’s something already on my radar. If a character feels flat, like it’s just coming into the scene to serve a purpose and then abruptly leave, I’m probably going to point it out.

5.) Pacing: this is a big thing for me. I have a short attention span, which is one of the reasons I like YA writing. It’s often tighter, more conscious, and stays on point. As a result, I’m super big on proper pacing. If I’m not seeing the importance of a chapter I’m going to point it out. It doesn’t mean it needs to be removed completely, but maybe the important aspects of the chapter could be combined with another. Or the chapter could be expanded upon to include vital character info, a plot twist, or something more than it currently has.

6.) Plot: I don’t see this as much anymore, since my critique partners now are amazingly talented writers. But in the past when reading some people’s work, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of plot all together. If something doesn’t have a point, then it’s going to be an issue. Even if a plot exists, it still needs to make sense, so if a plot feels flat, involves too many sub-plots, or doesn’t fit together, I’ll try to point it out. A lot of this is opinion, but again if five people tell you a plot twist didn’t make sense, maybe expanding and foreshadowing more are needed.

7.) Consistency: everything needs to flow together. If names, cities, locations changed mid-way through. Dates don’t line up, that sort of thing. It’s usually something I noticed.

8.) Over-used words: after several books, I now have a list of overused words I need to eliminate. I try to help others with the same and point out words I keep feeling have been used in excess.

9.) And last, I try to make sure I’m not making suggestions merely because it is what I’d do to a book, but general things that might help improve the authors take on things. Which is almost always why my suggestions start with: “Maybe you could…or…do this…” Variety is key, and might trigger a much better idea for my critique partners. Because ultimately they often know what will and won’t work in the book better than anyone else.

What I don’t look for in critiques: grammar, spelling, or punctuation. I’ll notice big things, but I’m not really a copy editor with critiques. I’m incredibly grateful for my critique partners that help me with these aspects of my own work. Because goodness knows I need this. In my own work, I’m so focused on characters, plot, pacing, action, and other stuff that I forget about the words themselves, until I set it down and come back to it later. Hopefully one day, I’ll get it to all come together in the appropriate amounts, but this is one reason why critique partners are so amazing. All of them bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. So thank you to my critique partners who are awesome!!!!

--Emily, Miss Querylicious


amuse me said...

You put so much into perspective, but particularly your comment about a willingness to grow and learn as a writer if you are able to put your work out there for critiquing. I had never thought of it quite that way.

Emily - looking forward to tomorrow at the adult writing group.

Kate Fall said...

I definitely want a critique from Emily now! I love the way you broke this down. I think I'll start looking at my critiques from others like this: someone questioned me on plot, someone marked me on pacing. Then rather than seeing a bunch of different comments, I can see "OK these are all questions on my pacing" or whatever the case may be. (Pacing is something I need to work on this month!)

As a critiquer, I look at dialogue a lot too. Writing dialogue is about my favorite part of writing, but it rarely comes out the way I want it to on the first draft.

Emily Marshall said...

Marion, see you tomorrow. Looking forward to it!!!

Kate: yes, dialogue. Duh. Forgot that one. But I agree, dialogue has to sound right. There's probably 30 other things I could have added to this list, because there's just so much to pay attention to. And if you want a critique exchange--I'm open to it. Maybe we should do a big Fast Draft January swap in a month or so.


Lisa Schroeder said...

Wow, great list! I haven't made my list yet, it'll be interesting to see if there are many of the same things on my list. :)

Emily Marshall said...

Lisa, it will be really interesting to compare lists!!!

Denise Jaden said...

Great breakdown, Emily!

Yes, critique partners are the best, aren't they? Amazing how many people are blogging about this! Great minds... :)

DeenaML said...

You are SO GOOD at pointing out the pacing stuff! I have had to kill some darlings bc of you, but you were so right that they had to go. :)

Christina Farley said...

That's a great list to go through as I do my own critiques and critique my own work.