Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Evaluating Critiques: Do's and Don'ts to Follow

Full disclosure: I am writing this out of reaction to a bad critique session I recently experienced, but instead of sitting and stewing on the negatives, the decision was made to turn that experience into a positive one.

Critiquing fiction, short or long, is often dependant on the critiquers themselves being well-read, experienced in collaborating with an editor (which means they have sold work), and taking the time to go out and get training through workshops, at conventions, and even within the critique groups themselves. Good writers are good critiquers because they put the work into their writing, reading, and editing on a daily basis so they can learn the tricks of producing great fiction. Still, there are pitfalls that can plague any critique group. The list below is a series of four Do's and Don'ts when it comes to giving and receiving a critique.

JAY's List of Four DOs and DON'Ts: Critiquing Fiction

DO read the work more than once

As the current Head Organize of Charlotte Writers and as a regular member of some smaller groups beforehand, I can easily say that since 2011 I have read hundreds, if not thousands of pages of manuscript. Everything from my genre of Fantasy, to Science Fiction, to Romance, to Memoir, and even manuscripts that contain poems have passed in front of me, and one of the first things I learned that I needed to do was read a manuscript more than once. I discovered the need to do this the hard way during one critique session where I had read a Charlotte Writer member's manuscript more than a week before their scheduled critique, where the entire membership would discuss the work while the writer remained silent (which is always wonderful in terms of learning body language), and it couldn't have gone worse for me. I forgot key points to the story's plot, characters, everything you could imagine, and in the end I was unable to offer anything of value to the person who had put so much time and effort into their manuscript.

The solution I came up with was to read the manuscripts twice (we usually critique two during a session): once when they first became available for download, and then again on Friday, at which point I would actually start creating my notes that I would explain during the session itself. This way I was always prepared, was familiar with the work, but at the same time, reading the work twice allowed me to learn new things about the author in terms of their style of writing, what they did right, and what mistakes they made that I want to avoid, etc.

Putting in this kind of time can offer huge dividends; both for yourself and for them!

DON'T critique the author; critique the work!

This is a faux-paus that happens more often than not because it is an easy one to make. Writing, especially fiction writing, is a reflection of the writer's very self, and from reading their work in a critical setting can often leave critiquers open to interpret things about the writer that may or may not be true.

For example: I was once leading a critique of a writer whose work featured the kidnapping and very graphic rape of a young woman, two things in today's publishing industry is looked at with less than favorable views, both by professionals and readers (which I agree with, by the by.) As soon as comments were allowed to be taken, the author was hit with "Your creepy prose..", "Your sick...", etc., and it created an atmosphere where everyone had to tiptoe around what they said about the work because they were making value judgements on the person. When the author of the work was finally allowed to address the comments made, they revealed they had written the creepy character in question because it was told by that character's POV. Once it was explained, it made far more sense, yet the damage was still done--critiquers had made judgements on the person AS WELL as their work, and the author stopped attending our group.

Part of the fault for that was mine, and after that day, I made sure that it was the work being critiqued, not the author! Judge their work for what the work is, not as a measuring stick for who they are. What they are there for is constructive criticism of their writing and NOTHING ELSE. (However, it should be said that we do not allow works at Charlotte Writers that contain bigotry or misogyny as positive affectations of a work.)

DO be clear about your expectations

Often when I host Charlotte Writers critique sessions, we often ask our writers who submit work for critique to be clear as they can be about what they are looking for. Are the characters likeable? Does the pace work with the genre? Is the dialogue engaging? These are all wonderful questions to ask and receive information on, but it is equally important that you as the critiquer are also clear about your own expectations. There are some definite questions you have to answer when you go into a critique:

1. What are you looking for as a reader? Are you looking for clean copy? Grammar issues?  Flow and pacing? Content that speaks to you? You have to answer these questions because not every critiquer is great at everything, nor are they supposed to be. Some of them are better at writing characters than they are writing plot, just like some are stellar at dialogue but really need to learn how to write action scenes. You have to know what you expect from the submission.

2. Is the work publishable for its market? This is one of the bigger concerns I try to bring to Charlotte Writers when we critique submitted work, as the stated goal of the organization is to prepare writers to get their work published in the genre marketplace. This often requires our members to put in time by learning about the industry at conventions, conferences, meet-ups, workshops, etc. You have to know the business you want to be in, and you have to know the current conventions by which the publishing business works. It not only helps you with your own manuscripts, but it also assists in allowing you to look at a manuscript from another author and point out the places that would get them sent to the rejection pile.


Let's be honest: critiquing is hard. 

A lot of factors are involved when it comes to a reader enjoying your work, and sometimes no matter what you write, it won't be right for them--and they may be highly critical of that, but that is what they are there for. I cannot tell you how many times a new writer has come up to me and expressed their fear about getting critiqued, and what I usually tell them is that the first time is always nerve-wracking, but if you can get through it will probably never be nerve-wracking again. It's like pulling off a band-aid.

However, just because you are ready to have your work critiqued doesn't mean *you* are ready for the process. It takes a lot of humility and maturity to sit there and let someone put your "Literary Baby" in a corner, and if you are going through a tumultuous time this can be really trying. There have been instances at critique sessions where prospective authors state that they are ready and then fall apart by the end. I have seen tears, passive aggressive responses, and the always aggravating defense of things everyone else found issues with. If twenty readers in the room find something in error with your manuscript, most likely the problem is there, and the best thing you can do with it is take the time to really look at what was said about the issue. Writing is a process of creation and problem-solving, and denial does nothing to solve problems. The best thing you can do is be ready.

To sum up, critiquing is a wonderful way to grow your skills as a writer, but a lot of thought needs to be put into the process just like every other aspect of your work. Be humble, keep your ears and mind open, and remember that this is about identifying problems and solving them. If you can keep yourself motivated enough to fix those problems, you're well on way to the day you sell a story, a novel, or whatever. Be mindful of your own expectations and knowledgable about what you and others write. In doing so you will grow by leaps and bounds.

Critiques are a powerful tool. If you learn to use this tool correctly, you will become a powerful writer.

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