Friday, June 3, 2011

Critique Clinic

by Cat Woods

I won't lie to you, sometimes getting feedback from critique partners can stink worse than a riled-up midget skunk. Sometimes it makes us want to fling ourselves to the ground and pummel our fists onto the floor.

Is all feedback good feedback? No...and yes.

No, not all commentary on a piece will resonate with the writer, and not all feedback works with the writing style or the story. However, every single snippet of feedback can, and should, allow writers to see their work from a fresh perspective. Because not every reader will get the same message from our words, we need to pull on our big-girl panties and learn how to gracefully accept and use critique and commentary.

Please enjoy the snippets from seasoned writers and learn how feedback shaped their writing.

DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS: A crucial scene in an agented writer's manuscript didn't ring true to a crit partner who works in the juvenile court system. Having his young MC detained overnight in a jail cell would never happen in real life based on the story events. And yet it was imperative that she would be locked up and supervised to make her escape appear magical. Our diligent writer had to tweak the scene to make it believable for all the hoodlums who would know the system and call him out as a liar.

AUDIENCE FEEDBACK: One writer--finishing up her soon-to-be published book—needed group discussion questions. She found a beta reader who is active in the kind of book clubs where she envisions her book being read. This helped her weed out redundant questions, as well as those that typically shut down a book club discussion.

Successful juvenile lit author, Donna Jo Napoli, once stated at an SCBWI conference that she "bribes" kids with a box of chocolate to read her WIPs. They are allowed—nay, encouraged—to quit reading whenever they feel like it. Her only caveat is that they must tell her exactly where they stopped reading. Not why, but where. In this way, she can pinpoint where her writing fails to engage her audience.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: An agented writer told how she used a sounding board of fellow scribes to help her brainstorm motives for her MC. The complaint by critters had been a lack of overall character oomph. The only thing that kept an otherwise delightful MC going was...well,, the writer talked through her problem and hit upon a motive that resonated within the heart and soul of her MC—an unrealized pregnancy. No longer does she pine for love, but she has a reason to move forward. Her broken heart forced her to make choices she never would have made otherwise. All of which drastically changed the way readers perceived her MC.

UPPING THE ANTE: One MG writer told how crit group commentary changed the payment of the vet bill in his story from Dad's checkbook to the contents of the MC's piggy bank. By creating a scenario where the MC had to gamble with her pennies instead of her dad's paycheck, she felt the pinch. All of a sudden, she had a decision to make and a stake in the outcome. This gave readers something real to connect with—ah, yes, we've all had to weigh our spending habits carefully—and something to root for where the MC was concerned.

SEQUENCING: Have you ever tried to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg? A chapter book writer described her timeline faux pas. A mad mama who assaulted a grumpy king for calling her family a demeaning name. Yet the king didn't actually shout his expletive until after his toes had been smacked. "Hmmm," said Writer's Agent, "how does this work again?" And so, the scene was rewritten to create a believable timeline.

BOOKSHELF BLUNDER: An amazingly gifted storyteller once tried to sell her crit group a false bill of goods. Within the first few paragraphs it became apparent the manuscript was not a middle grade novel, but rather begged to reside on the shelves in the adult section of the book store. Listen up if more than one reader hints that a manuscript is something "other." Weigh a critter's words carefully, and be prepared to take your writing in an unexpected direction.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: Winter-worn tar roads aren't the only things that need filling. Sometimes our manuscripts have more plot holes and missed opportunities than we dream possible. A journalist/aspiring novelist described how his crit group almost unanimously cried out for a key character to have an affair. All the signs were present from the first chapter and yet he was the only one who didn't see the growing attraction and potential hook-up. Whether the affair actually happens or not remains to be seen, but the writer is now aware of the vibes these characters were sending out and has consciously incorporated these feelings into the plot.

There is nothing wrong with honest feedback. It's how we handle the information that counts. Click here to see the actual evolution of a critiqued passage—pre and post feedback. To get a better understanding of how feedback affects writers and what to do with those feelings, stick around for RC's words of wisdom on wearing those big-girl panties (slated for Monday).

What feedback have you received that drastically changed a portion of your manuscript? How has feedback from crit partners helped your writing? How do you know what to accept and what to reject in terms of crit commentary?

And to answer Wednesday's question: will a crit partner lay down his/her life for you? Darn right. When things kick into high gear and agent requests roll in or edits are due to publishers, it’s important to have at least one critter who will literally set aside their real life to read an entire novel on a moment’s notice. Deadlines can be tight in this business and writers need to count on their buddies.


Andrea Mack said...

These are great tips for thinking about how to revise your novel. Thanks!

Christopher Hudson said...

I grew up in a world where the client was king and writers peons (my boss figured writers were worth a dime a dozen ... and pretty much paid them accordingly) ... critiques of my stuff was usually swift, often brutal, and frighteningly accurate ... so, in the interest of preserving what little self-esteem I had, I learned not to be married to my words ... accept the criticism and rewrite accordingly.

Matt Sinclair said...

Not being married to one's words is an excellent approach. I've been edited professionally for about 20 years and that's one of the most important lessons we writers can ever learn. Words change.

Jemi Fraser said...

I've been lucky to get some great feedback. One in particular felt like a stab in the heart initially - probably because I already knew it - and knew how much work it would be to fix. I was SO hoping it wasn't obvious, but of course it was :)

scubasteve4 said...

Timely post, Cat. I enjoyed reading it. I believe a good critiquer accepts a work for what it is, then he or she goes from there, being helpful but not destructive.

Rebecca Kiel said...

I love feedback from my readers. They are honest and intelligent and whether I agree or not, they provide greater clarity. Going through feedback and deciding what to do or not to do just makes my writing sharper.

Leslie Rose said...

Loved the way your broke down the categories in the post. My awesome crit partners found that the second act of my MS was a series of anecdotes cleverly hidden beneath humor instead of actions that advanced the plot. They were so right. *Hits self on head*

Janet Rundquist (@ProfeJMarie) said...

True criticism is invaluable. I love it when one tells me "this is too over the top" or "he wouldn't do this, he is too professional - and if he would, well then I don't like him like I thought I did". Or, a recent comment over 2 characters having gone through a traumatic experience: "they need to stop apologizing to each other - get over themselves already!"

I love my characters, but if my readers don't, then my feelings don't matter. The first time I sent my MS out for critique was nerve-wracking... now it is exciting and I feel like there is real potential after getting useful feedback.

Cat Woods said...

Andrea~ I hope the break down helped. I always see my own writing in a new light after I've critiqued someone else's. It's always easier to see the perils when I'm not so close to the words!

Best luck with your revisions.

Cat Woods said...

Christopher and Matt~ what a great way to look at critiques and a fabulous reminder for writers. We must truly be able to kill our darlings because even the most poetic turn of phrase may not make the final cut--and that's okay.

Getting comfortable with that idea is the best way to prep your mind for a critique.

Thanks, both, for your astute comments.

Cat Woods said...

Jemi, Leslie and Janet~ great insight. Sometimes those words that hurt the most are the ones we most need to hear.

We can fall in love with parts of our writing and--even knowing they should go--fight to keep them throughout our self-revisions. That outside look then becomes so important to the evolution of our manuscripts.

Thanks so much for sharing your tidbits! It's nice to know we're not alone in this wild world of writing.

Cat Woods said...

ScubaSteve and Rebecca~ I love how you both point out that it is ultimately the writer that must decide what to do with the feedback. This is so important for us to keep in mind as writers and as critiquers.

The process of critiquing another's work always makes me a stronger writer. Sometimes I would rather crit than write!

Hugs and thanks for joining us!