Thursday, April 8, 2010

Criticism: The Less Is More Theory

I remember my first meeting with my writer's group like it was yesterday. We met at her house and sat in a loose circle in the living room. The idea was to do a round-robin critique, and I squirmed. For someone who had been writing my whole life and who made a living ghostwriting books at the time, I'd never really been subjected to this kind of criticism. I'd never belonged to a writer's group.

First off, I'll admit it: I was surprised how GOOD everybody else was. It was nice, though, because it gave me confidence that I was in the right place. After all, you want critique partners who are at least as good as you are. Hopefully better.

Second, I was surprised how much their criticism stung. I thought it wouldn't be a big deal. Ha ha. Yeah. Right. Stung like hell, and they weren't even all that harsh on me. It was more like, "This is pretty good, definitely has potential, but you need to work on a few things."

Fast forward six or seven years and I'd like to think I've learned a few things about criticism. Lord knows I've gotten enough of it. I might not know squat about getting a book deal, but I sure know a lot about giving and receiving criticism. And now that I'm deep in the critique phase of yet another book, I've been thinking about the process a lot. So without further ado, and in no particular order, my Great Critique Manifesto:

1. Get it early. Here's the thing: if you work without a critique group or partner, you're not avoiding criticism. You're only pushing it back later in the process. Instead of identifying issues at the drafting stage, you'll have potential agents and editors offering criticism, often packaged in the form of nice rejections. So I say get out ahead of those rejections. And speaking personally, I've been through the revision process with professional editors at big publishing houses and it was about 100 times more intense than I expected. You have to earn every word.

2. But don't get it too often. Personally, unless the circumstances are extreme, I think it's a good idea to finish your book, then start revising. A lot of people start, get 1/3 of the way through, then start revising because they're not comfortable. I say go ahead and power through the rough spots. Finish it, then come back. You'll have better perspective on the beginning when you know how it ends.

3. Limit your critique partners. I once sent a book to everyone and their grandmother and their dog for critiques. I figured it would be helpful to get input from "regular readers" and kids and basically anyone who was nice enough to give me their time. While I appreciate this effort, I was wrong. Readers aren't writers and writers often aren't editors. I have since limited my critique partners to a handful of people whose opinions I trust and who are skilled editors. Anyway, too many opinions can only be confusing.

4. Sit on criticism. In fact, sit on the manuscript itself for a while. Wait until the emotion drains away. Wait until you stop focusing on the critique itself and start thinking about the book again. Then start revising.

5. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. This can be tough, especially when you're dealing with critiques from agents and/or editors who have the power to represent or buy your book. And in fact, this happened to me in one of my books. I got a rewrite letter that, after I read it, I just flat-out didn't agree with one of the points. It might have made a good book for someone else, but not for me. I didn't take the advice during the rewrite, and ultimately, the editor never mentioned it again. (The book went down for different reasons.)

6. Believe. A good critique partner will challenge your book on every level. It's like when they pressure-test submarine hulls. They're looking for cracks. But challenging doesn't always mean changing. Sometimes a challenge is merely a pressure test to make sure it holds water. And sometimes your book will hold water and you just have to believe in it.

7. Give back. I believe that critiquing is a group activity. There's a trust issue there, a balance in the relationship. You're putting yourself out there and exposing yourself to the slings and arrows of outrageous readers. But the balance can be easily screwed up if your partner isn't also risking something. A little reciprocal fear is a good thing. I've found that critique partners are much less likely to go off on my writing, expounding on this and tearing apart that, if they know their turn is next. Let's just say it encourages civility.

8. Don't deal with people—even people who are way more experienced than you and might be much better writers—if they are douchebags. I don't know why, but the writing community seems to be full of them. There's nothing more destructive to the confidence than a condescending, dismissive and micromanaging critique partner.

Personally, I feel lucky—my critique partners rule, and I bounce EVERYTHING off them before it goes anywhere. Because that's the other great thing about critique partners. This is a solitary business most of the time, and every writer's journey is completely different. But just because it's solitary and unique doesn't mean it has to be lonely.


paulgreci said...

I love this thorough treatment of critiquing. I was in one group that fizzled out and have a few writers I trade manuscripts with. I'm still looking to create the kind of situation you describe!

Erica Orloff said...

Amen on #8. We had a #8 (a woman) one time. It nearly destroyed us (before you came on board). Then we had a regular kind of turn into a #8--a milder version, but nonetheless.

I consider myself fortunate that most of the writers I know are pretty cool folks, but you know, the three or four that really stick out to me as Major #8s . . . I find here it is years later in one case, and I still would hate to be in a room with her.

Look . . . you can be tough but supportive. You can be tough but have grace about it. If you can't, then I don't want to have much to do with you . . . just my half a cent.

And for the record, you ROCK. :-)


LurkerMonkey said...


Thanks ... and good luck finding the right crit situation. It's been invaluable for me.

LurkerMonkey said...


I've heard horror stories about the #8s who preceded me. And I've had a few experiences with my own #8s.

And thanks :) You're the best.

Natasha Fondren said...

I don't mind critiques in the slightest. I mean, you just can't possibly bother me, LOL. Conservatory fixed that, for sure.

I do have a friend, gosh, she's a GENIUS, probably the best writer I know, who won't allow editing, except for copy-editing. Hey, she sells better than anyone in her genre, and why shouldn't she work on terms that make her happy?

Critique groups aren't for me, I just don't have time to critique, let alone get stuff done early enough to be critiqued. And I'd rather make changes for the person who writes the check. I would, however, love to meet with a group of writers and shoot the shit every week. :-)

Mark Terry said...

Good advice. I confess, I don't typically look for a critique group or critiques. I really need to trust my gut and when I start getting multiple feedback it sometimes really causes me problems continuing to work. That said, some people have given me great help over the years, but for me it works better if I have a specific section or question, I think.

I would also say #3 can be kind of important. When I asked for regular feedback from non-writers I get a lot of weird useless comments that don't help me at all. One woman read my manuscript for Fortress of Diamonds and went on about how the main character was apparently raised by a good family and had a good upbringing. I guess that was important to her, but it seemed like really strange comments in terms of helping me with the manuscript.

Jude Hardin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jude Hardin said...

A little reciprocal fear is a good thing. I've found that critique partners are much less likely to go off on my writing, expounding on this and tearing apart that, if they know their turn is next. Let's just say it encourages civility.

Unlike our friend Stephen Parrish, I do believe in giving praise when something is working; I also believe in brutal honesty when something is not. Civility, yes, but I don't think it helps anyone to tiptoe around an issue in fear of retaliation or hurt feelings or whatever. Like you said, an editor at a publishing house isn't going to give you a milquetoast critique, so to me a good group would be one that doesn't either. A good group would be one that prepares you (and your manuscript) for the real world.

I know yours is a good one, just saying...

Melanie Avila said...

Another fabulous post.

I especially like the comparison to the hull of a ship. It's easy to doubt yourself when someone whose opinion you value questions your logic, reasons, or whatever, and I sometimes feel like I'm being defensive if I try to justify why I've written something the way I have. Thanks for the reminder that it's okay to stand up for myself.