4 Myths About Critiquing

IMG_2068Over time, I’ve made changes in the way I critique. I read articles on how to critique and tried to follow the “rules.” But through giving and receiving critiques, I’ve found that there were some “rules” I agreed with, and others I didn’t.

Here are a few of the most popular ones I disagree with.

Don’t suggest big changes.

This is an interesting one. On the surface, it seems logical. After all, it’s the writer’s story, and there’s nothing more insulting than a critiquer trying to remake a story into something they’d write rather than the story the writer envisioned.

But let’s dig deeper. My goal is getting published, a goal I share with many of the writers I  work with.

I’ve heard stories of agents who want different endings. For one of my published stories, I was asked to cut the entire first section. Right now, I’m making a major edit to the novel I was, until recently, querying.

Big changes to work are intimidating, but sometimes necessary. If you, as a critiquer, feel that a big change is necessary, isn’t it important to say so? How is it helpful if you think that a big change would improve the story, but you keep it to yourself?

I don’t think it is, which is why I call this one bogus.

Don’t rewrite

In my writer’s group, one of us uses Hemmingway’s short, terse, style as a model of good writing. Another person loves the meandering flow of literary fiction. I’m somewhere in between those two extremes.

If the Hemmingway guy were to rewrite the sentences of the meandering flow guy, it would be silly because their styles are at opposite ends of a continuum.

But rewriting a sentence doesn’t mean that you think the person should copy your style; it means that giving an example is the clearest way to illustrate your point.

I’m all for rewriting. Sometimes when I get feedback like, “This sentence doesn’t flow,” it frustrates me. What does that mean? If the person critiquing rewrote it to show me what they meant, that doesn’t mean I have to take it and include it verbatim; it just means that perhaps I now have a more concrete way to understand their feedback.

I rewrite sparingly, but I do it sometimes because it’s easier than explaining. I have a good relationship with everyone in my writer’s groups, so I think (hope) that they all know that when I rewrite, it’s not because what they wrote was terrible (though we all write terrible sentences sometimes), but because I think it can be better.

Don’t argue/ discuss

I believe I said this myself… when getting feedback, be quiet and listen. And I do believe that. What I meant was to not argue with the opinion. If Person A hates your character, don’t argue that the character is actually a great person, as they’ll see if they just stick around until the second act. Readers don’t stick around.

In a small group, sometimes a discussion can be exactly what the writer needs to figure out what they need to do. Through discussion, the writer can parse out why Person A hates your character, and then when they mention that they hated the part where the character ignored their mother, maybe others will say that part bothered them too, but they didn’t think that one moment was worth judging.

At that point, maybe you as a writer understand something that you didn’t before and you can address it.

One of my favorite quotes on writing comes from Neil Gaiman:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Sometimes a discussion among the group is the best way for the writer to assess what it is that wasn’t working for people in the group and how they can best address their intention.

Having people suggest changes, even if you aren’t going to use those changes, is a fabulous way to brainstorm. I’ve had some of the best ideas come out of the most frustrating discussions.

Be careful of others’ feelings.

Okay, this is a tricky one. I don’t want to give anyone permission to just be consistently negative and horrible and disguise it as a critique. At the same time, if you’re being too careful of people’s feelings, it can lead to those ridiculous, “It was fine!” kind of critiques.

More important than being careful of people’s feelings is being respectful of them. Because I respect everyone in my writers’ groups so much, I want them to make their stories as polished as they can. I want them to be published. Because of this respect, I’m going to be honest and concrete.

It doesn’t always feel good to be honest. I know that sometimes, in my group, I would prefer not to point out a major plot problem. Sometimes I have so much to say that I feel like I’m “picking on” one person. When I’m the only one who says anything about a particular section, that’s hard. I feel like I’m just being a jerk. It’s even harder when all of us, as a group, say the same thing. Then I feel like part of a bullying gang.

But if we want to improve and want others to improve, we have to say the hard stuff and trust that they can take it. It’s important to focus on what you liked when there’s a lot that needs to be improved. It’s easier to build on a strength than to undo a weakness.

For example, people often tell me that they like my supporting characters and my dialog. They often struggle with my main characters (who tend to be “blank”). Knowing that I already know how to build interesting characters (secondary characters) made it easier to identify how to improve my blank main characters. I’m still working on it, but knowing what I do well helps me to generalize those skills.

 

 

Bottom line, be respectful and honest. In the end, other people own their own feelings, and you aren’t responsible. It’s hard to put your creative work out there, but there will always be people who would rather destroy than build. As long as your goal is always to build someone else up and you’re coming from a genuine place of wanting to help, it’s hard to go wrong.

Is there anything you’ve heard about critiquing that you disagree with?

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Book Challenges- Week 19

 

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My 75-pound lapdog…

 

I didn’t finish a single book last week! Weird, right? I’m halfway through The Stand, and while I’m enjoying it, it’s one of the longest books I’ve ever read. I’m over halfway through, but I’m starting to think I’m going to be reading it forever. So, tune in next week, because I hope I’ll have it done by then!

Popsugar Challenge

(17/50)- No progress this week.

While I Was Reading Challenge

(4/12)- No progress this week

The Unread Shelf

Running Total: 3 Um… is that really all? I’m not doing so well on this one.

5 Classic Books

(0/5) I’ve started reading The Stand.

Miscellaneous Reading

None this week

Abandoned

None this week.

2018 Running Total: 53

Have you made any progress on your TBR or book challenges? What’s the longest book you’ve ever read?

9 Things To Remember When Receiving​ Writing Feedback

IMG_1714You have a story (or novel), and you’re ready for others to take a look at it. But taking feedback is a learned skill, like any other.

In the past, I didn’t take criticism… any criticism!… well. I was one of those people who’d say I was fine while fighting back tears and gnashing my teeth. I was supposed to be perfect, you see, which meant that every word that came from my pen was also perfect. Any criticism, no matter how well-intended, was an attack on me.

You can roll your eyes at young me. I frequently do.

When I first started thinking about publication, it was only after I’d gotten a number of form rejections that I figured out I needed to get critiqued first. When I found my first online critique group, it was a humbling experience. In this online critique group, we were supposed to give feedback about the feedback, and luckily for me, I read some of that feedback and realized that if I wasn’t careful, I could be the person ranting about how no one understood me and basically spend all my time rebutting criticism.

Most of those people were not great writers.

I didn’t want to be that person.

So, I started taking time out to really think about the criticism before I responded to it. After a few times where people gave me critiques that basically amounted to, “It was great!” I decided that those critiques were even wore than the critical kind. So I developed a policy of thanking people for any criticism, no matter if it was actually helpful or not.

Here’s what helps me deal with feedback.

Step away from the criticism.

I sometimes need a little time to think about the criticism before I can do it justice. In the moment, it can be hard to be objective. After a little while, it gets easier to assess what to keep and what to discard.

Remember, they’re just opinions.

When I first started getting critiqued, one person would say, “More setting!” so I’d add more. then the next person would say, “Less setting!” so I’d take it out. The point is that you shouldn’t make changes based on every single critique someone offers. In many cases, it’s a matter of taste. If I had to critique anything by JRR Tolkien or Stephen King, I’d cut wide swaths with a red pen. Evaluate the critiques to see what resonates and what doesn’t, then edit based on that.

Don’t argue about what your intention was.

I’ve seen this happen in groups more than once. Someone offers a critique, and then the author defends the reason that passage was written or why it was written that way. The problem is that, if your work is published, you don’t get an opportunity to explain. If someone didn’t get it, then maybe you didn’t succeed in doing what you intended.

Not everyone will like your work.

There are people out there who don’t like Harry Potter. Stephen King threw Carrie in the trash can (back in the days of paper manuscripts) and his wife picked it back out. If someone doesn’t like your work, it’s possible that it’s just not to their taste.

Always say “thank you.”

Critiquing isn’t easy, so when someone makes an effort to help improve your work, thank them, even when you don’t feel like it. Maybe especially when you don’t feel like it.

Identify the strengths of people within your group.

I weight criticism based on what I know about the people in my group. If one person loves romance, then I weight their criticism more heavily in scenes with smooches. If another person is great at actions scenes, they’re the person I listen to when fists start flying.

Look for patterns.

I’ve lost count of the times people have told me to take the preachy message out of my story. I didn’t listen the first couple (dozen) times, but eventually, it got through. If one person says that they don’t like your main character (and you meant for him or her to be likable), maybe it’s the person reading. If most people who read your manuscript don’t like your main character, then it’s probably an issue.

It’s YOUR story.

You wrote the story for a reason. An idea sank its teeth into you, or certain characters wouldn’t stop talking until you put them on paper.  People are going to offer lots of different opinions on your story, but don’t lose sight of your original visioin, what made you excited in the first place.

Be quiet and listen.

This is probably one of the most important points in this post. You can’t learn if you’re talking or formulating a defense. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to listen to criticism, no matter how well-meaning, but it’s an essential skill to learn in all parts of life. You can learn something from everyone. Sometimes it’s not what they intended for you to learn, but that doesn’t make the lesson less valuable.

What would you add to this list?

Related posts: 8 Things To Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

 

 

8 Things to Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

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Over the next two weeks, I’m going to cover topics about giving and taking feedback about writing. While I’m going to talk specifically about writing, I think some of my tips could come in handy for other creative pursuits as well.

The topics I’m going to cover are:

How To Give Writing Feedback

How To Take Writing Feedback

Myths About Critiquing

Things I’ve Learned From My Critique Group

So… lets jump in, shall we?

Giving and getting feedback on writing (or any creative pursuit, I imagine) is an intimidating endeavor. We writers pour our hearts into our stories and getting critiqued feels a little like sitting in one of those dunking booths. For this reason, it can be difficult to know how to give (or take) feedback.

1. Know your relationship with the person you’re critiquing.

I’ve been in online writing groups and small groups where the same people meet every week. I know larger writing groups with changing attendees also exist. I’ll give different feedback to a stranger than to a friend, and I’ll give even different feedback to a sensitive friend vs. someone who’s fine with blunt criticism. In one of my writing groups, a friend critiques me in such a harsh manner that we’ve had to assure new members that he won’t critique them like that. While it may bother other people, we’ve negotiated a particular way of critiquing one another.

2. Be open to feedback about your critiquing.

This means both verbal feedback and non-verbal cues. Sometimes when I’m critiquing someone with the best of intentions, I notice them start to get uncomfortable. They shift around or they start to look hurt. At that point, I’ll edit my review on the fly, trying to soften criticisms and pointing out more positives. In one group, I was told that I was “too mean,” and I appreciated the feedback. After further discussion, we identified things I could do better when giving critiques.

3. Use the sandwich technique.

People tend to best remember first and last comments, so it’s important to start and end with a positive. People can hear criticism better when it comes packaged in a way where they don’t feel attacked. Plus, if you’re using the sandwich technique, it makes you focus on the positives as well as the negatives.

4. Remember that your goal is to be helpful.

This is such an important one. Your goal is not to make the work perfect. It’s not to make it something you’d want to read (especially if the story is romance and you only read science fiction). Your goal is to help the writer reach their goals, not yours.

5. Find something to criticize.

This is seriously so important. The worst critiques I’ve ever gotten are not the ones that made me cry (and there have been one or two of those). The worst critiques are the ones that get a lukewarm, “It was good.” I’ve actually had one critique in my entire life where the person had nothing to say, but it was still an effective critique because they were so moved by the piece that they couldn’t talk about it. Other than that single instance, I’ve never had a “praise only” critique be useful. If you can’t find anything to criticize (and don’t just pick on something for the sake of being contrary), then react. “This part makes me think you’re foreshadowing something.” “I didn’t expect this character to do this!” “This made me gasp.” And so on. Sometimes it can be helpful for a writer to know how you’re reacting so that they can tell if it was what they intended or not.

6. Keep it impersonal.

Especially if you don’t really know the person. This is one area where passive voice works well. Instead of “You didn’t capture my interest right away,” try “My interest wasn’t caught right away.” It can soften hard to hear information.

7. Make sure to mention when you’re critiquing outside of your interest area.

It’s fine to critique something outside of your preferred genre, but be aware that different genres have different norms. I belong to a critique group with a bunch of guys who read mostly science fiction and/or literary fiction. So, when I bring in horror stories, they’re sometimes a bit out of their realm. I still get great feedback most of the time, but the one frustrating comment I often get is “This isn’t horror” because it has more real world than speculative elements. Obviously, the person saying that isn’t familiar with The Lottery or We Have Always Lived in The Castle, by Shirley Jackson (to name two examples). If something doesn’t work for you, absolutely note it, but it’s best to also say something like, “I don’t know what the convention is in Nordic Noir because I mostly read Bildungsroman stories, but when Sven said…”

8. Remember to say if you liked a story, even if you’ve said it before.

This is so important. I told the tale of a writer who left my group because she got a difficult critique (I imagine). I still think about it, even though it happened a year ago. I can’t remember if, the last night she was with us, I told her how much I loved her story. I had a ton of critique for it, but that’s not because I thought it was bad; it just needed a lot of work. I truly believe she had something special, and I know I’d said it before, but I can’t remember if I said it in that last group or not. In my mind, when you love a story, you can’t tell the author that too many times.

Do you have anything you’d add to this list?

Book Challenges- Week 18

I’ve gotten a bit off track with book challenges. It’s because when life is stressful, I basically stress consume books in the way other people might go for pizza. (Though, truthfully, I do that too.) But starting next week, I’m getting back on track. Actually, I’ve already started The Stand. Hopefully it won’t take me much longer than a week, but we’ll see. It’s an interesting book, but so loooonnnngg.

Popsugar Challenge

(17/50)

While I Was Reading Challenge

(4/12)- No progress this week

The Unread Shelf

Running Total: 3 Um… is that really all? I’m not doing so well on this one.

5 Classic Books

(0/5) No progress… I think I’d better get started.

Miscellaneous Reading

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Mr. Darcy’s Diary, by Amanda Grange (romance): This book is one of my secret pleasures. It’s like watching a bad movie while eating an entire bag of M&Ms. Not to say the book is bad; it isn’t. But it’s obviously a rip-off of Pride and Predjudice, focusing on the “good parts” with Elizabeth and Darcy but skipping over all the fluff in between. I usually end up reading this book when I need something mindless and enjoyable.

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I Hunt Killers, Game, Blood of My Blood, by Barry Lyga (YA mystery/ thriller): These books are a trilogy about Jasper Dent, the son of the world’s most prolific serial killer. He killed a known 126 before he was caught, and he was teaching his son everything he knew. Jasper didn’t want the legacy; he just wants to get through high school and not kill anyone. But when a series of murders happen in his small town, he believes he’s the only one who can catch the killer.

The first book started off slow. Not slow enough to stop, but I did think about it. I liked the characters enough to keep going, and once I hit a certain point, it was a thrill ride. Each of the three books is better than the last (which is rare for a trilogy). The second one required a bit more suspension of disbelief than the other two (one of the characters does some “too stupid to live” stuff), but I went with it. I loved the conclusion to the books, and if there was ever a book where grown up Jasper Dent becomes an FBI agent or something, I’d be all in.

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Lucky Day, Career Day, Neutral Mask, by Barry Lyga (YA): I included these separately becuase they’re short prequels to the I Hunt Killers trilogy. They’re not essential to the series, but if you’re like me and can’t get enough of characters you like, they’re worth reading. I got Lucky Day from the library (it’s a novella), but I had to join Wattpad to get the other two (they’re short stories). Of the three, I especially liked Neutral Mask, which is from Connie’s point of view.

Abandoned

None this week.

2018 Running Total: 53

Have you made any progress on your TBR or book challenges?

Do Happy Endings Exist?

 

IMG_1486For the most part, I prefer books with happy endings. I’m not opposed to a sad ending, but it has to be the right one.

I recently had a friend say to me that they prefer “hopeful” endings, and that makes a lot of sense. What’s the point if we don’t have hope?

A while ago, I read A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. It is an amazing book, but it’s also horrifically sad. That’s not to say that it’s unrelentingly sad, but the ending is not a happy one.

It got me to thinking that where authors end the book makes the difference between a happy, hopeful ending, or a sad one.

A Little Life ebbs and flows with happiness and hope, where it seems like Jude will finally get the life he wanted, and devestatingly sad parts, the kind of sticky sad that stays with you and makes you question your own life.

If Yanagihara had ended the book during one of those upbeat, hopeful moments, it would be an entirely different book with a whole different meaning.

Books only tell the story of a slice of time. They don’t tell you what happens after, if the character suffered a tragedy. Romance novels often end with a marriage or proposal, but they don’t tell you if someone got cancer after they were married for a few years or if someone had an affair with an ex. Mystery novels end with the detective finding the criminal, but they don’t talk about the detective descending into alcoholism  or having a car accident which causes them never-ending back pain.

My point is that anything can happen when a story continues, and it won’t exclusively be happy or sad. Life is about the whole spectrum of emotional experience. My life is just a series of stories I tell myself (and others). Sometimes I don’t get to pick what happens in the story because sometimes life happens to me, but I get to pick the frame.

For example, I was recently supposed to go to a Taylor Swift concert in Arizona (I live in Texas). I didn’t get to go because I had a sick 17-year-old cat, and I was worried what would happen if I left. So I stayed, and my friends went to the concert without me. I looked at their pictures on Facebook and imagined what a great time I would have had with them. 😥

If the story ends there, it’s kind of a downer, right? But what if the end of the story has the sick cat making a full recovery? And knowing that my elderly cat is healthy today because I missed a concert? And that my husband agreed to go see Taylor Swift with me when she comes to Texas? Does it change the story?

I think it does. I like happy endings in fiction; I prefer them in real life too. Life has its ups and downs, just like fiction does. And just like in fiction, I can usually choose where to end that particular short story.

Related post: 10 Reasons I Love Happy Endings

Book Challenges- Week 15-17

As you can probably imagine, I burned out on blog posts during the A to Z Challenge. I love it, and I’ll talk more about it in my reflection post, but I decided to take a break from reporting in on my book challenges.

Popsugar Challenge

(17/50)

A book with a weather element in the title: Black Lightning, by John Saul (horror): When I was a teenager, I read a ton of John Saul books. Full disclosure: I have no idea if I read this one before or not. It’s a good, straightforward book about a serial killer and some weird paranormal stuff that happens. I enjoyed it, but didn’t love it.

A book that was published in 2018: The Woman In The Window, by AJ Finn (thriller/ mystery): I generally hate the trope of “unreliable narrator who drinks too much and basically causes all their own problems.” This book started off that way, but I stuck with it because a trusted friend recommended it. When it hit 50% or so, there was a twist I loved so much that I was all in, and I couldn’t put it down until the conclusion.

A book about twins: Blood & Salt, by Kim Liggett (YA horror/ paranormal): I decided that I needed to start reading more YA horror, because that’s what I write and enjoy. So that may be why I’ve had a run of particularly enjoyable books, and this is one of them. Ash and her twin know their mother used to belong to a cult, but she got out… or so they thought. When their mom disappears, they find and infiltrate the cult in order to help her, but there’s so much more going on than they bargained for. This book kept me on the edge of my seat, and kept me guessing as to who were the good guys and who were the bad guys up until the end. They wrapped it up enough to satisfy me, but be warned… there is a sequel…

While I Was Reading Challenge

(4/12)- No progress this week

The Unread Shelf

Running Total: 3 Um… is that really all? I’m not doing so well on this one.

5 Classic Books

(0/5) No progress… I think I’d better get started.

Miscellaneous Reading

Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer, by Susan Reynolds (non-fiction): This book has a lot of interesting information about the brain and different techniques to work with how the brain likes to do things.

The Girl From the Well, by Rin Chupeco (YA horror): This book is on my favorite books of 2018 list. It’s a fantastic story that draws from Japanese legends. The narrator is a vengeful ghost who kills people who murder children. But when she meets a teenage boy who’s got a demon inside, she starts to think about things other than vengence. It’s a good standalone book but does have a sequel.

Famous Last Words, by Katie Alender (YA mystery/ horror): From the cover (and the description), this one looks like fluff. It’s not. There’s a serial killer and a ghost, and how those two things intersect is a lot of fun.

The Forgotten Book, by Mechthild Glaser (YA fantasy): I was attracted to this one by the gorgeous cover. The book wasn’t what I expected, but I still enjoyed it. I knew that it was a reinterpretation of Pride and Predjudice, and I love all things P&P. That being said, it made the story somewhat predictible. There’s a definite fantasy element that wassn’t in the original book, so it’s a unique angle in that sense. If you’re a P&P fan, it’s worth reading once.

The Dark Side of Nowhere, by Neal Shusterman (YA science fiction): This was a fast read with an interesting premise. It sets up the weird very well and keeps it going throughout the book. The conclusion is satisfuying. I won’t say this was my favorite book this year, but I definitely wanted to see what happened.

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart (YA mystery): This book. I don’t even know what to say. It’s nearly impossible to discuss with anyone who hasn’t read it. I’ll just say that it was a roller coaster ride from beginning to end, and that if you love mysteries, you should read this.

Dark In Death, by JD Robb (#46) (Mystery/ romance): I am in awe of Nora Roberts (aka JD Robb) for keeping this series going strong for almost 50 books now. I love the characters in these stories, and love how they interact with one another. Having followed this series from the beginning, it’s lovely to see how they’ve all grown and changed over time. I love cop procedurals, but these books are so much more than just that. Some of them I like better than others, and this is one of my favorites. The premise of the murder was creative and a lot of fun.

Abandoned

None this week.

2018 Running Total: 47

Have you made any progress on your TBR or book challenges?