Monday, February 25, 2019

REPOST: Battle of the Critiques

This a post from almost 4 years ago that I came across accidentally while searching for something else on the blog (go ahead--ask me how many bunny trails I go on every time I do a search!). With an influx of new readers here, I felt this might be timely for some of you.

Critique is such an important part of our journeys as writers--we simply cannot grow without it. Our stories will never be the best they can be without the eyes and words of others. But what happens when we receive conflicting opinions? How do we sort out the good from the bad? What does it even mean when we receive feedback on opposite ends of the spectrum?

I hope this article will offer you some clarity--and encouragement!


Battle of the Critiques

Anyone who has sent out a manuscript to a group of readers (which may or may not include your agent) knows what it feels like when those critiques start to roll in.  Each one that lands in your mailbox makes your stomach do this weird, twisty thing that's a combination of excitement and dread.  You're dying for the feedback, but you're not too excited to have your work's flaws highlighted in lime green for all the world to see.

Okay, it's not all the world.  But it can sort of feel that big.

The collective wisdom of the critiques--assuming you're sending them to the people who should be reading you--can either gently or not-so-gently open your eyes to inherent flaws in your story.  A gaping plot hole that you might have missed will be easily spotted by those who've never read the story before.  A protagonist who does a big Thing without having a believable motivation is going to be crucified by those who just aren't buying it.  Good readers will ask questions like, "Why is she doing this right now?" and "Could this have believably happened in the time frame you've outlined here?" and "What the heck did he do that for?"

And, too, there's the ever-useful "Huh?"  I've used it myself.  Sometimes it's just that the reader missed something she shouldn't have.  But more often than not, it means "this thing you just wrote makes absolutely no sense and I'm not even sure how to address it".

I see you nodding.

As your writing matures, the nature of the critiques shifts.  It's likely you've learned, at some point, how to avoid plot holes, and how to write dialogue that doesn't sound like Lord of the Rings fan fiction.  Your critique partners will pull out things that are more subtle, like a protagonist whose arc isn't strong enough, a supporting character who doesn't add anything to the story, or information that is being shared too early or too late.

The key to knowing which advice to hold onto is twofold: 1) You need to be hearing it from more than one person, and 2) It needs to resonate with you and with your vision for your story.

So, if one person says "Ed the Janitor has no real purpose in the story, and I think you should delete him", and five people say, "Ed the Janitor is my favorite supporting character", then probably Ed's role in the story is safe.  But if more than one critique partner is pointing out the inherent weaknesses in Ed's character, then you need to listen.

It takes an open heart--a combination of vulnerability and teachability--to be able to receive what people are saying so that you can then move toward allowing it to resonate with your story.  That's when you start asking questions like, "Okay, what does Ed really accomplish?  Do I need him?  Is that scene in chapter 12--the one I love so much that it's going to be engraved upon my tombstone--really adding to the plot?"

Those questions can be painful!  But so it goes.  As a general rule, if more than one set of eyeballs sees the same problem, YOU'D BETTER PAY ATTENTION.

You probably know all this already.  I certainly know it.

So you can imagine my reaction when, earlier this week, I received two critiques on the same day that were polar opposites.

I'm talking, there is no way that these two people read the same story.  

Reader #1:  "...spellbound and incredibly invested in the characters"
Reader #2:  "I had no sense of any of the characters...there was nothing to like about them."

Reader #1: "I had a hard time putting the book down and I feel like you hit all the really big moments beautifully."
Reader #2:  "...there was nothing to hook me..."

Now, before you make the assumption that Reader #1 was my mom--she wasn't.  Both of these readers are highly qualified to critique a manuscript.  Both are talented and experienced.  Both are honest and forthright.  

Reader #1 went on to point out (beautifully) all the areas she felt needed work (I agreed with every single one).  So it wasn't all cotton candy and fairy wings, for sure.  And Reader #2 made it clear that she was this level of honest because of our relationship and her belief in my abilities.

Meanwhile, my head kept spinning.  Counterclockwise, rapidly.

So I sent a mildly frantic message to Reader #3, asking if she had time to read my first chapter and tell me everything she hated about it.  (Yes, those were my exact words. I wanted all the ugly up front.)  This reader is also highly qualified and experienced.  And knows how to be brutally honest.

Reader #2: "The biggest problem I found was no real worldbuilding."
Reader #3:  "Your world is solid...but almost too detailed."




So I did what I always do when I don't know what's going on -- I asked Jodi Meadows, who is bossy and likes to always be right.

Her response?  "It's probably a good sign, actually."

I had no idea what she meant.

So she clarified, and it made sense:  People are having different reactions.  They're not all pointing to one inherent flaw, like a broken plot or a superfluous character.  They are reading the same words and seeing different things.  Some of them pointed out similar flaws (like too much telling when I should be showing, or a lack of clear motivation for my main character), but there was no single, enormous flaw that ALL or MOST readers have pointed out.  (Others have read, too, besides these three.)

Know what's most encouraging of all?  I am incredibly motivated to revise this based on ALL the feedback, including the heart-knotting response from Reader #2.  Which speaks well for my ability to get slammed with conflicting (to a high degree!) critique and to move on quickly.  Already, I've done work on the first chapter with which I'm really happy.  As in, I am eager to pull it out this morning to continue fine-tuning.

Honestly, I'm sitting here thinking, Who am I?  I'm so thankful to be not only emotionally stable this morning, but incredibly excited to write today!

Because, oh, this story.  It's on the cusp of becoming what I dreamed it would.  And I'm digging in and not letting up until I'm finished.

Reader #1: Thank you for your incredible support and brilliant insight.  You rooted for me all the way through the first draft, and you're still working your magic.  It is my intention not to let you down.

Reader #2:  Thank you for your courage, and for honoring me with raw words that you self-admittedly would not have sent to someone with whom you didn't have a relationship.  Thank you for loving me instead of fearing to offend me.  Because of you, I have discovered within myself depths that I didn't know existed.  And that's no small thing.

Reader #3:  Thank you for rescuing me!  And for your incredibly thoughtful and encouraging critique.  I covet your eyes on my work, because they've always produced good things.  You are kind, you are gifted, and you are appreciated.

Jodi:  You are bossy and you are beautiful.  And you, my very first critique partner, have walked me all the way through this journey--with grace, selflessness, wisdom, and humor.  You taught me that I could grow wings and fly.  And you're still teaching me.

To everyone:  We are all part of the same circle.  May you learn from me today as I continue to learn from those around me--and may you go on to share what you've learned with others.

And keep writing, no matter what falls down around you!

11 comments:

  1. An excellent post to repeat, thank you. I've been through similar rounds of critiques on my WiP and reaped similar results: three readers who couldn't put the book down and one who liked it, maybe didn't love it, but identified weak areas and a dust bunny character I cleared away. This is a tough business and we need open hearts, fresh computer ink, and thick skins. Best wishes to you, Jillian.

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    1. I think "dust bunny character" may be my new favorite term. :) You're right on all counts -- open hearts, fresh computer ink, thick skins. Best wishes right back!

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  2. I got conflicting critique today and reading your re-post has been so inspiring! I've always been a shy lurker so I never got a chance to say this before but thank you for all you do for the writing community! Best of luck on your upcoming debut :) can't wait to read it.

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    1. Hi, Maddison, and thanks for de-lurking! :D I'm glad my re-post was good timing for you. These are the things that make me happy!

      And thank you for your kind words. :)

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