The Art of Critique: Foundation

Since last week’s post, James and I returned our critiques to their rightful owners.

Again, I learned a great deal about my writing—and how to improve it—from James’s astute observations. Specific lessons will come in a future post: first, it’s important to lay the foundation and explain the processes which have proven most effective both to the writer and the one critiquing.

Expectations

A critique is not a review. Whereas a review explores the general sense of a story or novel, a critique concentrates on the inner workings, the how’s and why’s a particular piece works or not. Consider it this way:

You want to sell your family vehicle, so you pen a description:

1971 VW Camper Van, sleeps 4, a lot of storage, roof rack, kitchenette table.

That’s the review—general and vague.

The critique may go something like this, with pictures:

1971 VW Camper Van, only 10k on rebuilt engine, runs great, new battery and alternator, recently tuned up with oil change, 5 like-new tires, tow hitch.

In the literary sense, a review deals with the reviewer’s opinion if you should read the story or novel, whereas a critique considers the “particulars,” the nuts and bolts of prose and purpose.

The job of the critique is not the same as that of an editor, though there may exist an overlap. Nor is a critique what you would ask of a Beta Reader—more like the reviewer mentioned earlier, except without the goal to convince an audience either way.

A critique is not criticism, even though each is derived from the same root word: criticism is most often thought to be negative (though not necessarily), whereas a critique is affected by an attitude of assistance.

The creator may “feel” items pointed out are negative, but should refrain from an emotional attachment. Instead, face suggestions within an analytical framework—the point of critiquing (like self-editing) and being critiqued, deals with the separation of the two mindsets. It takes practice to improve.

Nonetheless, know this at the outset: being critiqued is rejection’s first cousin.

Critiques hurt. At times it resembles having your heart broken, complete with phases of embarrassment, anger, confusion, and doubt. The pain eases in time, and if we learn from the experience, we can become better writers, better lovers and partners, and the pain is substantiated by improved future endeavors.

James Scott Bell, when referencing how to handle rejection, says to put on the Rhino Skin. Don’t allow the pain to conquer the will to write, to improve, to reach the maximum level of your abilities. By donning the Rhino Skin, you give yourself a gift—the ability to learn.

Approach

Honesty is key: gentle, never harsh. Praise where a description works or a good bit of characterization helps influence the protagonist’s motives and goals; conversely, correcting poor grammar, a disruptive verb tense, or pointing out a viewpoint switch is part of the critiquing purpose, and thoughtful suggestions assist the writer.

When I get a portion of James’s novel, I read it through to get the story flow. Only brief notes about plot questions initially concern me.

Secondly I go through the entire manuscript word-by-word, line-by-line, correcting grammatical and contextual errors. This process is the meat and potatoes of the critique, and the phase taking the most time. I estimate to properly critique 30,000 words takes between 4-6 hours.

It is time well spent.

The third stage incorporates both the first two by editing individual notes I made to guarantee suggestions are clear and concise, and that I am not nit-picking.

Not nit-picking is a matter of attitude, one that needs to be approached with care. Remember that in the same way you agonize over word choice and syntax in your writing, so does the person whose story you are helping improve. Here I would add that it’s unwise to critique a first draft, that too-raw version.

When I finish the three phases of the critique, I write a synopsis of what worked and what didn’t as a whole. Rather than pointing out each passive verb, I highlight a few in the manuscript and then comment in the synopsis what I viewed as an overuse of passive voice (or repeated phrases, words, etc.). In this way, I concentrate on problems of tension (or lack thereof), awkward phraseology, or the use of nouns and pronouns to improve the story’s readability.

Writing, and therefore critiquing, requires discipline and a focus on the rules of the craft, but each writer has their own style and voice. As the one performing the critique, take care to not attack the intended voice.

A critiques’ purpose is to help the writer improve; there is no place for ego or the black and white of right and wrong. You will not correct all the things mentioned in your manuscript, nor will they.

You have undertaken this task to help the writer concentrate on what you perceive as shortcomings—phrases that stopped you or did not seem consistent with the rest of the prose— and to improve your own editing skills.

A word of caution: Do not undertake to critique a writing style or genre you are unfamiliar with; this does an injustice to the writer, and you want more for them.

Next post will detail a few specific suggestions James made to my manuscript.

See you on the next page,

Rick

As promised, here are a few links to critique groups.

http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com
http://www.fantasy-writers.org/
http://www.critiquecircle.com/
http://www.writing-world.com/links/critique.shtml

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Critiquing Another Writer Will Improve Your Skills

Critiquing another writer is a fabulous tool to improve your own prose. In order to embrace the responsibility of assisting another (and likewise releasing your creation to someone you do not know well), you must step from the solitary cave where all writers do their best work. The experience, though at times numbing, can be a great benefit for a number of reasons.

Writers tend to make similar mistakes and exhibit the same flaws and weaknesses; seeing errors in other’s writing illuminates some of those same mistakes in your own.

Critiquing, like self-editing, requires a different mind-set than creation, a sterner attitude requiring development and conscious attention to detail.

Talking with dozens of writers about “judging” another writer’s work (an inaccurate description, by the way) the topic is one task many dread, and thereby avoid, often because of fear they lack the skill or don’t want to hurt feelings. Understandable, yes, but like most writers’ fears—rejection, question of being good enough, etc.—overcoming them pays huge dividends. Simply, critiquing another enables you to better edit your own writing.

Whereas creation is fueled by a driving emotion, critiquing (editing) is powered by the analytical portion of the brain. Learning to better critique another transforms self-editing from agonizing to productive as you prime your brain to look for certain aspects—verb tense, active vs. passive, viewpoint switches, logistical inconsistencies, and a host of others—to repair your own creation.

Writer’s Groups and Clubs can be counter-productive, but at times can be helpful—it’s a matter of attitude. Whether within a group or matched to an individual, there should be a spirit of cooperation with one-upmanship banished to the cold outdoors.

When in one writer’s group—in which we exchanged short stories to be critiqued—another writer pointed out a market for my story I had not considered: that story, “The Accomplice,” sold to Women’s World for $500, but more importantly, a by-line in a magazine with several million readers. I am forever grateful to the fellow writer who encouraged me to submit the story.

Here, though, I want to focus on one-on-one critiquing, and finding a suitable counterpart is imperative. I was fortunate in that regard.

James and I met while walking our dogs at the local park. Soon into our conversation we discovered we are both writers. James writes speculative fiction, so do I; his novel is completed, as is mine; we both wrote from multi-viewpoints, third person past tense; both our main protagonists are immortal. The writing god’s lightning rod struck us both—too much to be coincidence.

One of those instances when the palm of fate’s hand smacks you upside the head.

Before long we agreed to read each others novels. A bit more talk and we decided to critique with the goal to improve our tales, and thus, make them more marketable in our particular sub-genres—his novel is a sci-fi/steampunk, mine is heroic fantasy.

The process began roughly six months ago. We met several times at a local pub to discuss, among other things, our hopes and expectations the budding relationship would unveil.

We discussed the overall process, and after some thoughtful and respectful debate, decided on a line-by-line edit. We also decided to pay close attention to character, plot development, inconsistencies, and general problem areas.

Currently I am critiquing his first 5 chapters, and he holds the second quarter of my novel.

The relationship has been profitable on multiple levels, though not in a monetary way—yet.

I have stated it before: No Writer is an Island. That has once again been proven during the critiquing process.

James and I have far different styles and voices (mine is more flowing with descriptive language—per my selected genre–and James’s is short and pithy with a great deal of action), but it matters little. There are, after all, many ways to tell a story.

Next post will describe the many lessons I’ve learned during our critique efforts, and a few pointers on how to be more effective when working with other writers. I’ll also add links to online critique groups.

The process is all about improving, remember, both your writing and others, so step from your cave and reach out—your courage will make you stronger.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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When Life Gets in The Way

My wife’s recent and serious medical issues caused a downshift to writing. Time slipped away between caring for Linda, our animals (including proxy ownership of a rescue puppy), preparing meals, and the Eight Hour Grind of earning wages.

Reminded by a friend of the John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” I did what I could, wrote in scraps of time when opportunity presented itself, because, after all, I must write to ward off the insanity threatening to creep in and devour me.

(Interestingly, during my research, I learned the John Lennon quote is not his at all, but first appeared in the January, 1957, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes section, penned by Allen Saunders:

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
—Publishers Syndicate).

Sitting down and concentrating on creation proved a luxury beyond my means. I still made notes, jotted down ideas for future writing and posts, but the ability to complete a piece of writing (even a story scene) evaded me beyond the regretfully inconsistent Knights of Writ posts. Although meager in number this year (medical issues started on New Year’s Eve), I am grateful for the Blog and the many followers who helped keep me going.

Lack of writing is not and was not Writer’s Block, which does not exist (more on this in a future post), but time restraints, pure and simple.

I believe in daily writing goals, be it 500 words or an uninterrupted hour: daily is the operative word. But sometimes life gets in the way.

Regardless of what life throws at you, write when time allots, whether five minutes, a half hour, or 90 seconds to jot a note or observation. And don’t beat yourself up. Regardless of the time you have (or the lack), keep the writing wheels greased, no matter how meager. When the maelstrom abates, you will be prepared, and the mind will not have become a rusty and neglected tool.

While besieged by life, note the feelings bombarding you (anger, despair, helplessness, confusion, etc.) as they are fodder for your characters—your emotions are the best source to enhance the readers’ experience with the people you create.

My mind remained active throughout the ordeal, dodging back and forth between preparing Linda’s medications and observing emotions to imbue into a character. During showers, entire scenes played through my mind, hints of character’s subdued emotions and secrets. Despite not writing at the moment of inspiration, which I encourage whenever possible, even now, weeks later, the impressions are cemented into my subconscious, huddling there for future use. This is as it should be.

As to Linda’s current health, she rebounded with great vigor—as I write, she is gardening—and her condition is now a matter of maintenance. For that I am grateful, and though worrisome while in the throes of tests, doctors, and still more tests, the events and emotions are available for future writing. After all, for writers,

Life is what happens between writing it down.

And now, excuse me while I draw forth one of those too-close-to-home emotions and pour it onto an unsuspecting character. I wonder how they will react?

See you on the next page,

Rick

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