Sunday, June 15, 2008

After the Critiques

I love my writing group. And I also know them very well. Which means when I have something critiqued/workshopped by them, I can kind of guess what they will say - but only in terms of how they will approach it. Some members will pay particular attention to sentences and grammar, and making sure they understand what I meant to say. Others will come at it more organically, and focus on what they think is underneath the words. One person might talk about structure and pacing, and tell me where things slow down or don't sound credible. Another might pick on particular bits they didn't like and try to explain why.

What am I to do? Do I regard all of these critiquers as pseudo-editors and try to please them in the hope that this will lead to publication? Do I throw up my hands and say they are all wrong, and they just didn't "get" what I was trying to say? The first thing I do is put away the copies of my work with all their comments on and just leave them to sit for a few days. Immediate intake is ill-advised. That's when your feelings are sensitive and you are most prone to dive into defensive mode. It doesn't help. Each person had their reasons for saying what they did. A knee-jerk reaction to their comments is a waste of energy.

Sometimes I leave the comments for several weeks or more. It's amazing what I see when I come back to them - I understand and interpret their suggestions in a very different way. I am removed from them now, so I can be more clinical. I have had time to think about what I was really trying to achieve with the work, and now I can look at my group's comments and put them in context.

The rule with workshopping is if nearly everyone is saying similar things, you'd better take notice. If everyone is saying different things, you choose what is most useful to you. But what if the workshop group is your class? And what if they are also new to this whole critique idea, and are pretty shy about saying what they think? Or they dive in and are too brutal? You have to take that into consideration too. Where are they coming from? Have they genuinely tried to be helpful? It's only by listening (sometimes to tone of voice) and thinking and reading the comments later, when you have calmed down, that you can decide on this.

My problem is that most times in a workshop (not with my group), I am the teacher. I am immediately imbued with the status of "she who knows best". Yeah, right. There have been a few times where I have hated something that has gone on to be published and done very well, thank you, for me to know absolutely that my opinion is not absolute. In a classroom, I will certainly be the most experienced person there, both in terms of being able to critique effectively and also in terms of knowing a fair bit about the publishing world. But I am not the editorial goddess there.

So I have students who dispute what I say. Who question my comments. Who say, "What do you know?" And they are right. To a certain extent. But only so far. They haven't yet accrued 100 rejection slips. They don't yet spend several hours every week reading industry news, blogs, newsletters and information, looking at new books, what is being published and how the market is currently operating. They are just focusing on writing the best they can, and hoping they might get it published. I figure part of my job as teacher is to make them aware of how publishing works, how editors think - and guess what? Editors can be just like the rest of us. They can love something and want to publish it, when a lot of the world is saying, Good gracious, why?

So I am never going to tell a student that what they have written is unpublishable. How could I possibly know that? But I am going to give them my best opinion on things like grammar, presentation, characterisation, POV, setting, plotting, theme, preachiness, dialogue, and voice. And forgive me for putting grammar and punctuation first, but if they are poorly done, it's very hard to appreciate the story or the characters or anything else. A story needs to be readable and understandable first.

So if you have written anything like the following, maybe you need another edit?
Before she went to the beach, she put moose in her hair. On the way to the beach, they went by the longest root.
In the middle of the night, I tried to crepe up the stairs.
The chainsaw cut me in half. As I walked across the room ... (this last one always gives me a vision of legs walking on their own, which, trust me, was not what the writer intended).

It's like anything else - only experience in a critique group or workshop will eventually help you to recognise what is useful and what is not. It takes time, like improving your writing takes time. And many drafts. And the bottom line is: if you think your critique group or teacher is wrong, then send your work out and test the market. If you want to be published, that really is the ultimate test. But don't automatically disregard those comments. They might be telling you something you don't want to hear...


Anonymous said...

Stephen King explained (in "On Writing") how he needs an "ideal reader" to check and validate his writings. And luckily, his ideal reader is his wife! He knows that if the book is OK for her, it would be fine for the rest of mankind! There is no "market" or publishing strategy, but simply a way to focus on satisfying 1 ideal reader.
This approach is quite *never* mentioned in blogs and books about writing techniques. Maybe because it's *very* difficult to find an ideal reader...

Sherryl said...

Difficult? Stephen King is a lucky man! Most of us have spouses who just say, "That's nice, dear."
I would love an ideal reader who told me exactly what was wrong and how to fix it in my writing. I suspect everyone would! I'd tuck her away in a cupboard and bring her out whenever I needed her.
I think one problem though is that your ideal reader is not an editor who is going to buy your book. I have heard stories of agents (good, knowledgeable agents) who have made their writers change things in their books that the editor/publisher has hated and changed them back again.
Maybe the ideal reader is simply that person who can help you bring your book up to its fullest potential? Without trying to make it into their book?
What do others think?

Kristi Holl said...

My critique group is a widely diverse bunch of writers, and they almost always say different things too. But as you said, some are global commenters (seeing the overall picture and where the arcs don't work) and some are detail people ("Would a girl that age from that background REALLY say that?"), and some are just good question askers ("What's her motivation here?" "Why is he noticing that particular stuff in the room and not this?") We agreed a long time ago that we get our best critiques when we pool all the comments because we all catch different things. A critique group is almost a necessity these days, I think, now that editors no longer have the time to write those detailed critiques to you.

Sherryl said...

Kristi - that's exactly right! In a group, you get everyone picking up different things, and they all come to the work with a different perspective. The hard bit is working out what is helpful to the work and what is not.
It helps to know what people's biases are, too. But it also helps when everyone in the group is genuinely concerned with craft. Nothing worse than someone who says, "I don't read that genre so I have nothing to say." You can *always* comment on characterisation or setting or plot.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm wrong, because I'm not involved in such groups but I feel it's like intermingling roles: writers and readers. I don't think that writers make good readers (even if writers always read a lot). I prefer to focus on a small "team" of good readers I know, and who don't write. No chef cook for other chefs, they intend better comments from expert mouths.

Sherryl said...

I think it depends on the kind of group you're in. I'd rather work with a group of writers who are experienced in workshopping and are looking at issues of craft and providing good suggestions to solve problems (which comes from experience as a writer dealing with this yourself). But you are also right about the benefits of a good reader or two - especially if they read in your genre and are familiar with what that kind of story needs from a reader's point of view.
I know with my children's stories, especially picture books, that the most useful comments come from those who have studied picture books and understand what they need to do. Someone who doesn't know that can still offer some feedback, but it's not as useful overall.