Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Critiquing

I glanced in the mirror this morning, and my eyes are green today. A mossy, greenish brown. You might think that's totally irrelevant, but bear with me. My eyes are normally brown. They shift colors with my emotions, what color I wear, and according to what kind of light I'm in. They always have. Depending on how I feel and what I'm doing, they will be anywhere from a golden brown, to deep brown, to green.

My daughter has green eyes, my son has brown. I've seen hers darken to almost brown, and his lighten to almost green. Their father has hazel eyes that change with his moods too.

My mother, my sister, a long-ago boyfriend, and my husband are the only people that have ever commented on my changing eye color. I don't think it's something just anyone would pick up on. You'd have to pay pretty close attention to catch it.

What does my eye color, and that of my offspring, have to do with critiquing? Well, I saw a critic comment to a writer, that eyes don't lighten, darken, and change color. Maybe, she just hasn't witnessed it, because I can tell you they do. Some say eyes just reflect colors around them, that the color appears to change. I've seen mine go from brown to green in a minute, same lighting, same clothes, same mirror, different emotion. I'm also sure that until she witnesses it herself, she'll remain convinced that eyes don't change color. Maybe hers don't. Maybe she's never looked at them that closely. Maybe my offspring and I are weird.

Even if she were right – and my chameleon eyes are some figment of my imagination, the story she was critiquing was fiction. Fiction allows for whole bodies to morph into strange beings. I think eye color could run the whole gamut in any one fictional character, and nobody should bat an eye at it. That is, if it's intentional.

I’m always nervous the first time I crit for someone. Not everyone takes criticism well. Even for those that do, what they know to be true may not be true in my experience. It's subjective to education, to experience, to our own personal understanding of what we've been taught. Like the he said/she heard concept – sometimes lessons are misinterpreted.

Maybe some writers go in expecting a pat on the back for a wonderful story. When instead they get suggestions about where to tighten and polish, it stings. Too many stings, and they get defensive. We don't realize how bad we write before we've suffered under properly wielded crit knives.

Our novels are kind of like our children; we are more intimate, see their traits in a different light than the rest of the world does. What I think is my son's wonderful sense of humor, one of his teachers sees as mouthy disrespect. It’s important to try to phrase things – not sappy or gushy – but in a polite tone. Remember, you're picking on someone's baby.

On the flip side, I’ve seen some crits where the suggestions actually make the work worse. The critter gets the rule confused and insists on changes that actually go in the wrong direction. Probably because someone critted for them and told them wrong.

You have to be able to put in the study time to make sure you understand why you make a change in your ms, don’t just do it because a critter said so. How do you know that the critter truly understands why they make a suggestion? You can’t know, so you have to educate yourself.

I remember the first piece I submitted for critique. I learned a lot from the feedback. I could pat myself on the back for having near perfect grammar and punctuation, my fictional girl and boy were lovable, my narrator's voice rocked. I didn't even know I had a 'voice' on paper. I also learned that I hadn't clue number one about POV, plot, or tension. According to my critics, I got pacing right, but I had no idea how I'd done it.

I hopped right on Google and started studying these foreign concepts. I wanted to write fiction. I enrolled in a class. I discussed my errors with more educated writers. I've spent the last year and a half learning and studying so much that there's been little time to write. I wouldn't have even known what I needed to know if it weren't for my CPs.

So… I got some critiques of my work. They showed me how much I didn't know. I had to return the favors. But, I didn't know anything, how could I help them? My solution – I shared my impressions as a reader.

Reading was what I did best, so I’d let them know what it made me feel, what it made me curious about, what didn’t make sense. I didn’t know back then why these things happened or what to do about them. I left it up to the writer to decide if everything they conveyed was on target – and what to do to hone in on the reader’s emotion they were going for. A lot of times, that's all an author wants, to see if they are making you feel what they want you to.

I think we can all help each other, no matter where we are on the learning curve – we just have to be aware when we crit of what we can help with, and what we can’t. Here are some things I've learned along my critiquing voyage.

If  your strong point is grammar – and the novel is at the polish stage -  go for line edits. But, if you aren’t sure what a crutch word or dangling participle is – why they are considered such, and what to do about it, you should probably just leave it at, “It sounds wrong to me.” Or leave it alone.

If you know the difference between showing and telling, and which works where – because they both are appropriate at times - point it out. If the concepts have you lost, you’re not the best person to help with those issues.

If you naturally see how the tension and pace can be tightened, focus on that. If plotting is what you do best – by all means suggest a twist or point out a hole.

Each element helps tighten a story, but no one of us is an authority on them all, and the writer doesn’t expect us to be. If we were – one critic's eyes on our work would be enough. We wouldn't need groups. Help where you can; skip what you struggle with.

I’m willing to get pretty detailed and take a lot of time doing a crit. That said, if I open an MS that I think really needs ripped into, I’ll leave it. If I get a couple pages in, and it looks like I’ve slaughtered it – I’ll delete it and go on my way. One time I didn't, and I ended up with a nasty troll in my inbox. Never again… If it reeks, it reeks. It's only my opinion and sharing that isn't always helpful.

If I owe them a crit, I may explain a few issues – and summarize - but I won’t keep repeating myself and stabbing at their work. The writer has to learn to spot and fix those issues, so doing it every instance down the page doesn’t help them, IMO. (Unless I’m critting for Brenda – then, I will gleefully throw red all over her MS and explain very little – it’s what she expects from me. Plus I know, without a doubt, she knows what’s wrong when I point it out, and she knows what to do about it.)

There's a humongous wealth of free information on the web about writing fiction – some of it's wrong too – a lot of it is reputable. Make sure you're learning from a reputable source. And by all means, if you found the resource that made showing versus telling finally make sense in your head, share the link when you point it out in someone's work.

I've saved the biggest for last. DO NOT let a critic's word for a concept replace good, old fashioned hard work. Look it up, learn it, then you can explain it when you see someone else struggle with it. DO NOT repeat what a critic told you unless you've researched it and know it to be fact. That little tidbit alone could save a lot of learners a lot of grief.

Happy Writing and Happy Critting Folks! See ya next week.


brenda said...

First, love the pic. And your eyes sound like mine, and oh yes, they change all the time.
This post is fantastic--just what the doctor ordered. It came at just the right time.
Your words of advice at the end are perfect. I have seen this time and again--critters repeating something they were told, but the problem with that is what the critter was told was wrong to begin with.
I've had critters go on a passive rampage where they think all passive should be hacked out. That is so not correct. As long as you limit your passive voice then you should be okay. Same goes for showing and telling. Not all telling should be changed to showing. the trick is is to know where to show and where to tell. And believe me, that takes a lot of practice and a lot of writing.
Anyway, never take just one person's word for it. Arm yourself with knowledge. After all, knowledge is power!

D'Ann Linscott-Dunham said...

I'm always cautious when I get crits from new CPS. For some of the reasons you mentioned. I'm an experienced writer, not a newbie, and it offends the hell out of me when someone starts spouting off the rules as if I didn't know them. Sometimes I use dialogue tags on purpose. Sometimes I use was. Yes, I know the difference between passive and not. But sometimes, I want to use was in the damn sentence.
What I do want is someone to tell me if the characterization, pace or plot is off course. If I have an awkward sentence, tell me. But DO NOT rewrite it. I'll fix it in my own voice.
Too often, new critiquers are over zealous to show what all they know.
I tend to use a light hand when I crit. I point stuff out, tell the writer what I see, but leave it up to them to fix.
That's what I would like in return.

Emma Paul said...

And please no smart asses critting my message above, I'm juggling bedtime tugging in, laundry and writing.... :) (and I admit it spell check is my best friend)


Penelope said...

I was tempted. << just kidding. Thanks for fitting a reply into your juggling act. I learn so much from these exchanges, and I hope others do to.

Penelope said...

Yeah - the hard part is, with all the learning and practicing, more things are jumping out. It's easy to mention everything if you don't have a specific goal in mind for a work.

Charli Mac said...

Hola. Since joining Rom-Critters I have learned more about writing than in any classroom. If I posted my first stab at a chapter you would all laugh your arses off!

I have the BESTEST CPs ever. I mean I found JAWS didn't I? JAWS Rocks. :) I am so kissing her butt as I put this partial together. I LOVE YOU JAWS.