Monday, May 24, 2010

Stating the obvious about critiques


 Let me tell you, I've read quite a few posts on giving and receiving critiques, most recently over at Query Tracker, and there's one piece of advice I fail to see posted upfront and in bold-ass letters on every single ever-loving post regarding giving and receiving critiques.

So let me say it upfront in bold-ass letters:

KNOW YOUR SHIT!

Sounds obvious, doesn't it. Click on Query Tracker and look for my comment. Here, I'll repost it:

A poor critique can ruin a good piece.

It can also ruin a good writer.

There should be a license for critics.

Personally, I don't indulge in critiques, because there are so few people out there who can do it well.

It's bloody word-surgery for anyone who can hold a knife. Yeah. Eff that!


To which Ms. Kaufman responded:

Eric, work with a number of different critique partners, listen to what they say politely, and dismiss what you can't use. But if they all say the same thing, it's time to check your ego at the door. I suspect that never getting critiqued is the surest route to never getting published.

She's right, you know, especially that last wonderful sentence. You need a good critique partner, or some good eyes sifting over your work. She is absolutely correct.

I fully agree with everything she said in the article. I'll summarize in two words: Be professional.

The thing is, some folks learn how to critique nicely, with gentle words, use the sandwich -- compliment critique compliment. They offer up a thorough critique of your work, well-written and professional-sounding.

But they don't know what the hell they're talking about.

That my friends is why I have trouble finding critique partners. I have high standards. I want someone who knows at least as much about writing as I do.

I need someone who understands the mechanics and structure of writing a good story and doesn't spend all their time poking out the simple grammatical errors.

Grammar errors are the LAST thing you look for, after everything else is squared away. Sure, it's the most obvious, but it's like the floors in your house. The floors in your house are the biggest and most obvious things to clean, right? Vacuum. Sweep. Mop. Obvious, right, everyone knows that.

The floors are also the last thing you clean in your house, NOT THE FIRST! Shutters, windows, the fans, the baseboards, beds, bathrooms, dust, wipe, declutter, those all come before the floors, which you knock out last thing.

Grammar's the same thing in a critique. Don't critique grammar until the structure is refined, the plot makes sense, the characters are well-defined, the scene is CLEAR and CONCISE, the words are punchy, the story is interesting and entertaining.

I'll say it again: KNOW YOUR SHIT!

So my participle is dangling. Thanks for noticing, but that did not help me improve my story. You just helped me make a paragraph much better before I delete it and rewrite the whole chapter.

See my point about doing the floors last?

Anyway, this is why I've had such a tough time finding crit partners. I found an Honors English teacher who was critting my work, but she met a boyfriend turned fiance and I haven't heard from her in a while. Man, she is great. Man, she's happy, and that makes me happy.

She never mentioned grammar. Never said I misspelled a word. She never brought up my red-ink -1 infractions.

Nope. She read the piece, front to back, and offered up a few one-liners that helped me improve my piece.

She was nice. She was professional. She used the sandwich technique.

And she knew her shit.

See my point?

To my fellow bloggers, I'm still getting around to all the Log Line blogfest entries. What a great exercise that was and is. Thank you all for your critiques on my entries.

Some of you sure know your... craft.

- Eric

PS. Ronald McDonald has nothing to do with this post. I simply thought the picture was funny.

28 comments:

Christine Danek said...

Eric,
I love the Ronald photo. Just sayin.
I agree on finding great critique partners. I have found myself a great group. So I'm lucky. I believe to have many different levels of expertise look at your work as well. This has helped me a lot. I know you saw my post about Chimera.
Anyway, I highly believe in critiquing grammar last. It is a distraction when you are trying to get your story down, making sure it actually makes sense along with the structure.
I hope you find some great crit partners because they make a world of difference in writing your manuscript.
Good luck!

Matthew Rush said...

Great post Eric, so true. I've just started a critique group so I'm hoping it will live up to the points you make, but if it doesn't ... I can always follow Ms Kaufman's advice ... if it doesn't fit, don't follow it.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I agree - only a really good writer makes a good critiquer.

Of course, I value another type of critiquer just as much - my target audience. They are the ones who will untimately decide the fate of my book.

Kristie Cook said...

You cracked me up with the bit of polishing a paragraph that you're going to delete anyway. So true!!! Line edits, grammar and typos are the last thing to be done. I leave that round of critting to those who are really good at details and English. Early on, we need people who know about plotting, character development, story structure and arcs, etc. And I totally agree with L. Diane - members of the target audience are very valuable, too. After all, if they don't like it, wouldn't recommend it, don't understand it, etc., why bother with the rest?

Eric W. Trant said...

Christine, yes, I saw the Chimera post.

Matt: I've heard about your crit group through Roland. Yall aren't still looking for partners, are you? I'm going to start critting with Andrew (Iapetus on Write Runner).

Diane: Ah, the reader! Yep. They are valuable, too. I had two perfect partners last year: one the teacher, another a writer who simply read my stuff without critique. It was a great combo, but like all readers, they eventually tire of reading your work and you need new partners.

Kristie: I have edited and then deleted enough words to string end-to-end in 12pt Courier and wrap from here to the moon and back again.

Twice.

I tell my readers this: If you do not ~enjoy~ critiquing me, TELL ME!

Because ENTERTAINMENT is the first thing I must accomplish!

- Eric

Jemi Fraser said...

Critiques are tough. I tend to tread very carefully when offering one. I need to the person pretty well and I also want to know what they're really looking for. Until then, I rarely go beyond the surface. Too dangerous. :)

Jai Joshi said...

You make many very good points.

Also, when receiving a critique it is always a good idea to be open minded about what someone has to say but also to be shrewd and consider whether what they are saying is valid. If several other people agree with an issue then that's more evidence to look at things again and consider changing. When in doubt I always go with my gut.

Jai

Ted Cross said...

While I agree with your sentiments, I would say that there do happen to be different types of people. I am a big picture/little picture kind of guy. I like to see both. But, I find it very difficult to get past grammar errors. Correcting such things should not be hard or a chore; it should be part and parcel to what we do. I often find myself waking in the middle of the night just because my mind tells me I might have phrased something wrong. No one way is right; we have to learn to accept that people think in different ways.

Wine and Words said...

Well I don't know squat...less and less daily. So I'll just say
I came
I read
I enjoyed

catwoods said...

Eric,

This is a valid point. However, I have found that people often want to start the critique process before they have completed the manuscript.

I think this is impossible except on a rudimentary level. Grammar, dialogue, mechanics, etc. Because how do we know the outcome if the author doesn't know the outcome? We can't effectively crit a plot line if the plot is not done.

So my word of caution to add to your word of caution:
"Finish your...shtory...before asking for a critique."

Of course, maybe I don't know what I'm talking bout, but it's a rule of thumb I follow for my own work.

~cat

Donna Hole said...

I'm no professional, but I do think I know a lot about the craft. So far, I haven't had any complaints about my critiques, but I sometimes worry I'm too blunt. Luckily, the people I crit for know my personality.

I'm involved in a pretty good group that has helped my writing along. Without their feedback, I'd still be a lame writer, no matter the self help books I've read. But we had new guy for about four months, and he finally quit, telling us we just didn't get his work and weren't any help at all to him.

So it does work both ways; a writer has to be willing to accept feedback on characterization, plot, POV, etc.

But we also had to ask one member to leave after only three sessions because he thought criticism meant tearing the writer apart. He was very rude.

Since I'm currently beta reading for a fellow blogger, these points are well received, and I'll be sure to keep them in mind for my comments.

BTW: your hook lines were awesome. Concise and indepth, giving just enough info to be enticing. Walk With Me and Evanders Forge are my favorites. Let me know when they're published; I'm hooked.

........dhole

Eric W. Trant said...

Jemi: Sure, tread tough and know the person. I think in addition, you should either write in or near, or at least appreciate their genre.

Jai: Be shrewd when considering critique. Use your gut. I like that.

Ted: I agree that nitpicks have their place, but you said it yourself: You're a both a big picture and little picture sort of guy. Balanced. Not just nitpicky.

Cat: EXCELLENT POINT! Finish the MS before sending it for critique. Now, a beta reader might be interested in a draft, but that's not a critique.

Donna: I'll take blunt. So long as it is honest and smart, blunt away. Thanks for the hook line comments. I think I'll post them on a separate page for reference. We should all do that, you know...

- Eric

Phoenix said...

I'm still laughing at the picture. Sorry, what did you say?

No, no no. Kidding.

Critics definitely need to know their shit. There are usually two types: Those that are bitter and can't, so they try to make sure others don't; and those who are genuinely inspired by the success of others, have already become successful writers or are well on their way, and want to see a piece of writing succeed almost as much as the author does.

Trust the second critic; forget the first.

And Ms. Kaufman speaks wisdom when she says that if everyone mentions the same specific things, definitely take interest and listen with an ego firmly checked at the door. :)

Eric W. Trant said...

Phoenix: I like that categorization -- good critic, bad critic.

I think two things have held me back. One, my ego. It has been over the past few months put firmly in check, trust me. The second thing is my fear of getting a bad critic.

I'm in a metamorphosis here. I've been writing in a cave for almost 20 years, and just now sticking my head out to see the damned old world.

- Eric

Theresa Milstein said...

Great photo. He's had it coming to him.

Stephen King uses up to six readers, none of whom are writers. If three say to go one way and three say to go the other, he does what he wants. But if most say there's a problem, there's a problem.

You definitely need to mesh with critique partners. It ain't easy.

I may not know all my shit, but I know some shit. And that's the advice I give - about the shit I know.

Eric W. Trant said...

Theresa: You always crack me up. And you're right. Knowing something is not as important as knowing everything.

- Eric

Christine H said...

Well, let me put it to you this way:

I don't know any professionals who would critique me for free, and I can't afford to pay one. So I take what I can get, and sift through it.

I totally agree with you about nitpicking grammar. I really don't care a whit about grammar, sentence structure, word echoes or whatever. I need someone to tell me if the characters are appealing and the plot makes sense!

And for that I DON'T need a professional. I just need readers who are somewhat knowledgeable, not unlike me. So I have some crit partners and even their inexpert opinions have been extremely valuable in helping me shape my novel.

One of these days I'm hoping to be able to afford a real editor, but I doubt I'll have a couple thousand bucks to throw their way anytime soon.

Christine H said...

PS If you want to get rid of some ego, I could use a little extra epidermous to toughen me up, so let me know.

Christine H said...

Oh, and I *can't* finish my story before I get input, because I don't know *how* to finish it. I don't know if what I'm thinking of doing will work. So I write a few chapters and then test them on someone to see if they think it's worth even doing the rest, or if I need to rethink the idea some more.

I have a very slow, organic creative process. Nothing is formed ahead of time, it just sort of happens as I write. If I waited for a whole book to take shape in my head before I started, I'd never start.

Eric W. Trant said...

Christine: I'm with you on getting a draft-reader. I at least bounce the idea off a few people, and I've even sent out a few test chapters.

Diane made the point, too, that straight-up readers are as critical to your success as a knowledgeable critic partner (or group).

As for the ego, it is sheared daily into a smaller and sharper point. Sorta like a pencil lead.

This blog experience has been awfully educational.

- Eric

Lola Sharp said...

I am blessed with an awesome group of CP's. There are 8 of us, I chose them carefully, and they chose me carefully. We all have our pet-peeves, areas of superior skill, and areas of weakness. We all trust each other and care about each other.

I DO comment on some grammar/spelling/word choice/mechanics issues if I see it rampant/overuse in their ms...along with continuity/plot/character issues, of course. I believe it is important to point out bad habits...and we ALL have them.

I want ALL the feedback they are willing to give me, even on the little stuff. If I have a propensity to overuse a technique, sentence style, word, etc., and it takes the reader out of the story, I want to know.

A balanced, thorough critique on ALL areas is what I aim to give and receive.

Just my two cents.

~Lola

Eric W. Trant said...

Lola: You are blessed, if you have a great group of critique partners. That's tough to find. A balanced critique is tough to find!

- Eric

Tina Lynn said...

Hello! I've been saying this forever! No one listens to little old me. Grammar, nope, don't care. Not now at least. Is the story working? Are my characters engaging? Is the voice shining through? Do you even care to keep reading? What the frick does grammar matter if my voice is all wrong? Am I right? So, I hear ya:)

Tara said...

I think you're more interested in a beta reader than critiquer? I'm not really sure how it works, but the feel I get is that a beta reader is supposed to just read thru and pick out plot holes and character weaknesses, etc...

I'm thorough and brutal in my crits. If someone is serious about being published, then not only do they need to hear the downfalls of their MS, but they sure as hell better be able to take it.

My [blog] critique group picks out both. I've line edited to death, but they are still finding things as they go thru. A fresh eye is always good for grammar.

I'd really encourage you to check out the forum I linked you to a while back. The critiquing there is top notch (rarely pulling out grammar). A lot of us have been there critting for years (I'm one of the newbies at 2+ yrs) - some have been there for 20+! And there are quite a few multi-pubbed authors and some editors.

As far as the crits that people offer - if someone is a reader then they DO know their stuff. They know what they like in a book and what they don't like. Readers are our targeted audience after all. If I was targeting only other writers I'd be screwed - 'cause boy are we one picky bunch once we get to know the craft!

Eric W. Trant said...

Tara: I would definitely like to check out the crit group, but I did not save the link.

- Eric

Ashley Ladd said...

I had a couple critiquers get mad at me and haul their cookies home when I didn't immediately change everything in my story they didn't like. One came out and told me she'd spent a lot of time on my critique and if I wasn't going to take it seriously, she was never going to critique with me again.

When I offer a critique, I give my opinion and also pass along what I've learned from the editors at the publishers I write for. It's up to the author to agree or disagree. Even my editors give me the option of disagreeing.

I agree with the people who say if you hear the same thing(s) from several people, take a closer look at that part.

Otherwise, feel free to disagree.

I have a book out right now that's getting reviews all over the place. Half the reviewers hate it. The other half like it. A couple love it. Some of the reviews gave good constructive criticism I'm keeping in mind for the story I'm writing now.

Eric W. Trant said...

Ashley: I never expect anyone to take my advice, nor should they expect me to take theirs.

Pulitzer and best-selling books are chocked full of flakey POVs, passive sentences, adverbs, are too long and too short, too descriptive and too vague, confusing, shallow, trite and patronizing.

I'm reading McCammon's Nightbird and his POV is whack, he used the term fuck in a Puritan village set in the mid-1600s, and his characters are vulgar and crass and wildy ungentlemanly. I'd rip him a new one.

But he wouldn't listen. Nope. He'd laugh all the way to the bank.

- Eric

Icepick said...

Doing the floors last is of the utmost importance and I gotta say I've made floor-related mistakes many times. Thanks for this :)