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Critique, round 1: Bruised but standing

women sparring

Ever taken a punch to the face? I have.*

Reading comments from my critique partners (CPs) on my latest manuscript can be like going a couple of rounds in the sparring ring. I’m a bit bruised. And I need a nap. And maybe some dark chocolate.

Well, I did ask them to be honest.

Taking criticism isn’t easy. Even when you ask for it. But that’s okay. I must deal with it if I want to create a good book. My trusted cadre of writing friends wants the same on my behalf.

The difference between a helpful critique and a TKO is intent. 😉

I’m lucky my CPs are honest with me. Their insights are gold. I’ll take their punches and ask for more.

They can see the issues that I can’t, the things I’ve failed to address because they’re clear in my head if not on the page, the threads I dropped three chapters back because I was so focused on writing a kick-ass finale.

But my friends don’t leave me bleeding on the mat. They brainstorm solutions and tell me what they like, what’s working, and what made them laugh or cry (in a good way).

A CP/editor/beta reader is sort of like a trainer. They break you down to build you up. They reveal your weaknesses and force you to grow stronger. In the end, they help you become the best you can be.

The pain is worth the result. I’d rather get beat up by my friends now than in the ratings and sales after I publish the book.


*While sparring in Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu, just so you won’t worry. 😉

 

33 Comments

  1. Reply

    It’s a blessing to have CP’s that are honest yet helpful. I love my writer friends that give me constructive criticism largely because I’ve had lousy CP’s along the way too.

  2. Reply

    Hi Gwen, what a nice text on ‘critics’ and your last sentence is the right conclusion : ‘The pain is worth the result. I’d rather get beat up by my friends now than in the ratings and sales after I publish the book.’.
    Again, thank you for this letter, it is a good ‘encouragment’. Lison,

  3. Reply

    Thanks Gwen, I needed that. Being in the middle of a major edit, with lots of red all over the place, it’s easy to feel a little sorry for yourself.

    Now, back to to the rewrite.

    • Reply

      Yes, Ferd, I can’t recommend it enough. The local library can be a good start. Writing groups are great for connecting with people who “get” you. For critiques, sometimes it’s good to share a few sample pages to get a feel for the other person’s style. It’s a bit like dating. I know some groups do a weekly read-aloud of new pages and such, but I’m not sure that’s for me. Having a few trusted writers give me feedback is about all I can handle. 😉

  4. Reply

    Well said. When the focus of the CP/group is on your work, great. When focus strays to the CP’s needs instead of your manuscript’s, watch out.

    • Reply

      Good point, John. You definitely have to have a certain level of trust, and an understanding of what each person wants from the relationship. 🙂

  5. Reply

    Long ago, when I was in my early teens, I was offered the chance to join a writing class which was led by a “freelance” teacher — that is, he was hired by the school for that one class, I think, and was not a full time teacher there. We met outside, on the school campus, at a particular picnic table. There were 3 students and the teacher. We would write short stories and submit them to him, and usually the class after we submitted our stories, he would critique each submission, one by one. I think the points he was making were excellent and as far as I could sense, they were very gently made points. It was a bit difficult to digest all of them. For me there were several problems. The first is that I was deaf, and I couldn’t really understand what the teacher was saying, or what my 2 classmates were voicing, either. I probably missed 90% of the class discussion content. The second is that my home life was just awful. It was hard to keep self-disciplined and get homework done. I liked writing, though, and I could vent onto paper, so I did my best to keep at it. The teacher in turn did his best for me. He would pen comments into my manuscripts, and sometimes would hand write or even type up whole pages of advice for me. He gave me the sense that my writing was worth the effort to improve through rewriting, even if that process had to be repeated. He saw value in my writing, and he conveyed it to me, even if I couldn’t hear him. That encouraged me a lot. Perhaps my classmates thought my writing was okay, too, and they were a source of encouragement. I do not think we shared each other’s writings. I’m not sure why. Now I wish we had become friends and met after school and shared manuscripts. The teacher would discuss each student’s writings during class — he read passages from each submission aloud. (I would try to get glimpses of the text.) I’m sure his very gentle instruction was effective on me, because my desire to write, write, write continued very strongly for years after. I can’t remember what his advice was, however. Perhaps in the end it was the feeling that at least one person saw value in my writing, that inspired me to keep on writing.

    But wait! He was not my only writing teacher. There were several others and they all offered me something. They often worked with me one-on-one. They were all editors at heart. That is, they preferred to take someone else’s work, and show how the prose could be made better. A few of these understand how to bring out the best in a budding writer. Some made their points to me through their own writings, others tried to teach me verbally, others tried to highlight the points made in “The Elements of Style” without discussing my story progression, plot development, or general writing style, and hope it would sink into my brain. I got something from all of them. The editorial advisor I liked the best was a successful published author whom I’ve never met and never will, since he died long ago.We never corresponded, or talked on the phone. He taught me through one of his books. Anyone remember Leon Uris? I just ate up his book “QB VII” because he makes the points through character Cady that rewriting a manuscript and the willingness to keep on rewriting is a key to success. John D. MacDonald, the mystery writer who invented Travis McGee, said much the same thing of his own writing. I’m sure that Dorothy Sayers wrote and rewrote and rewrote prolifically and there are masses of material that she did not publish.

    To me, the purpose of having someone review a manuscript is to provide support to the author and encourage her to write more and to keep rewriting a manuscript until that magic point “it is ready!” is achieved. A reviewer helps the author to write for the love of the art; to write because she truly enjoys it and wants to write, and she does this until a plane of style and expression is reached that makes her unique and encourages her to go on, just for the love of achieving that plane of self-expression through words.

    Keep on writing!

    • Reply

      Wow, Bob! I’m so glad you had teachers who not only encouraged you, but went out of their way to do so. Early feedback for a new writer can determine whether they stick with it or give it up entirely. And feedback never stops being important because we lose the objective view pretty quickly once we’re immersed in our story. Writing is rewriting, right? 😉 Thanks!

      • Reply

        Hello Gwen and all the writer of you group,
        ‘Writing is rewritng’. You cannot be so right !
        One of the three most famous french writer of the XXe Century, Louis Ferdinand Céline, said that he wrote 6 times its most well known book ‘Voyage au bout de la nuit’. He said he could pass a week just on one sentence. This book was writen in 1932 and when you read it you feel it was writen yesterday.
        ‘Write and rewrite’…
        You are wright Gwen ! or write or right ! Let’s creat a new word ‘wright’ !
        Lison,

  6. Reply

    Know the feeling, Gwen. Thought I re edited the best I could do. When my CPs critiqued it, I wondered if I could be a writer. BUT, now I’m so proud of what has happened. Yes, it’s hard to take criticism. If we couldn’t take it, we shouldn’t ask for the honesty. Hang in there. You’re a really good writer.

    • Reply

      Sandra: Amazing, isn’t it? I love the feeling that comes after I make changes to the story and realize how much better it is. You hang in there too. 🙂 Thanks so much!

  7. Reply

    Lison’s reference to Celine (according to Wikipedia, his real name is Dr. Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches) makes me wonder: did he share his written work with “critique partners”? It must have been much more more difficult at that time to submit written work for review. The miracle of email hadn’t happened yet. I doubt whether Celine had access to a Xerox machine (smile.) He must have found it a major task to submit his work to publishers and then hope one of them would accept the manuscript. I read in the Wikipedia article about him that his house burned down in 1967, 6 years after his death, destroying much of his work. So this makes me wonder about another issue. How does a writer ensure that future generations can read her work? How can a writer provide access to her work, to future generations, 100 years from now? Or later? Supposing that “critics” of the writer’s work had felt it was not very good, how might this affect the access that future generations have to that same work?

    • Reply

      Hi Bob, I see that you are curious. Congratulations !
      Dr Destouches was a loner and he never accepted that is ‘editor’, Denoël or Gallimard, change one line of is writing. His books have more than six hundred pages exept may be the last one ‘Rigodon’. His wife, Lucette, said that he wrote normaly six versions of each book. He used to hang each sheet on a cloth line and read them aloud. That was is Scrivener’s binder pane ! He loved words and he loved playing with them. Céline is the first name of is beloved grand-mother.
      Lison,

    • Reply

      Not everyone wants or needs a critique partner, I guess. I once read that Dick Francis wrote his books from start to finish without ever editing. And when he was done, the book was done. I can’t even fathom it, especially since he wrote twisty mysteries. Maybe he had the whole thing figured out in his head before he wrote a word.

      Good questions about preservation, especially since we put so much on digital media rather than paper these days. Though digital preservation might have been a good thing for Celine’s work. Registration with the library of congress works, but for unpublished works and notes, I don’t know. And most of us will never be important enough for the critics to take notice of either way. So what does that mean for our work?

      • Reply

        I had a lively talk with someone to whom I put the question, “Why does the work of Homer survive today?” A lengthy reply resulted, which distilled is: “those who came after Homer were interested enough in his work to ensure it survived.” This is just as true today. People, hundreds of years from now, will still be interested enough in your work to make sure it survives. One could assist the process. Kyle Simpson, the JavaScript author, did something rather interesting and open sourced his books on GitHub.

        • Reply

          Hi Bob, how pleasant conversation you started.
          Iliad and Odyssey were the first two books to be written in Occident from the oral legacy. This written version was ordered by ‘Pisistrate’ (in french) around 530 B.C. Samuel Butler published ‘The autheress of the Odyssey’ in 1872. In this book he explained why ‘Odyssey’ was written by a women, suggesting it was Nausicaa. Thesis rejected by all the ‘bonze’ of this period… of course !
          Since that time I call the author of the Odyssey ‘Homérie’.

          • Reply

            Hi Lison, thank you so much for your compliment! Whenever you write, I learn a little more about literature. I am learning from you. I am not schooled in the work of Homer, and never before thought about it. Tonight, I started to read about Butler, and Nausicaa, and the Odyssey. I will learn about Pisistrate next. How very interesting! I can see it will be good for me to study further and learn more. It seems reasonable to me that Nausicaa was very much a part of Homer’s life, and also part of his circle of intimates and family, and she certainly could have written the Odyssey — and perhaps she felt compelled to do so at some particular point, because perhaps this circle of intimates were also her her literary critique partners. Perhaps she recited tracts of Odyssey’s text to them and asked for factual corrections, and rewriting advice? Perhaps she wanted them to do this before each person died? It is fun to guess about Nausicaa’s and Homer’s lives! Of course, I am very uneducated and need to devote time to learning.

            You told us about Celine. Can you tell me about other French writers, or of writers who wrote entirely or primarily in French, and whether they made use of critique partners, or rewrote their work extensively as Celine did? I’m very poorly educated about the literary heritage that surrounds us. I am happy to learn more.

  8. Reply

    I hope everyone is enjoy the snow. It is wonderful writing and reading weather. The skiing is probably great, too. For the last few days I think to myself — here is an idea — it would be great for a writer to have a group of interested neighbors come over at some point each day. At least one guest should be someone whom the writer dislikes. Seat them comfortably, and provide refreshments. Read aloud the latest passages from the book or other work in progress, and ask the audience they think about it. At least one person, possibly all, will enjoy this ritual and so will the author! Sometimes, just the act of reading to others can give her new ideas and sentences and paragraphs to try out. Audience participation will vary — but that is okay. Some audience members will respond by stating what they think the author wants to hear. Some will will tell what the author does not want to hear. Some will have nothing particular to say. But through continued daily readings, eventually the author will get worthwhile nuggets of commentary as the guests, the written work, and its author learn more about each other, and find comfort zones with each other, and develop together into a team. It is a combination reading and storytelling club. The focus is entirely on the author’s work in progress at that moment, and it meets at least every other day and preferably daily. This could also be accomplished with family members but is best done with neighbors. The author can then consider the comments supplied, for however long she wishes. It may become a very helpful part of the writing process.

    • Reply

      Bob: That would be an interesting experiment, though I do think there’s such a thing as too much feedback, especially in the early days of the process. I’ve had story ideas shot down before I even had a chance to write a scene. I lost my confidence in the story and quit writing it. I think if I had written it first and then sought feedback the process would have been more instructive. The tempatation of some critiquers is to change your story to fit their voice, style, preferences. And the temptation of those seeking feedback is to change their story to suit everyone else. But you can lose your own sense of your self and your voice. I think it’s important to protect the story until you get it out the way you want it. Then get feedback. But everyone has their own process and sense of what works for them. I hope you find a group, Bob!

      • Reply

        Gwen: You make excellent points. I didn’t consider what you say about your ideas being shot down from criticism before you had a chance to develop them further. Well said, and I agree with you. I have had that happen to me. It is traumatic. I entirely agree that you have to protect your story and ideas. So we can drop my suggestion. I had this wonderful mental image of a “bruise free” critique group when I wrote my post above, but that is not very realistic I suppose.

        I’m a software developer. Perhaps also an aspiring writer. I still need to develop goals for what I want to do when I reach retirement. Writing may be one? For now I will just stay on the sidelines and feel fortunate to have the privilege of posting to the blog of a writer.

        • Reply

          Oh, no, Bob! Don’t let me shoot down your critique idea before you’ve even had a chance to try it out! If you think a “bruise-free,” daily critique group would benefit you, it probably would. It would hold you accountable and provide encouragement, as well as help you learn. But you’d have to find the right people who share your vision and you’d have to lay some ground rules.

          And you can be a software developer AND a writer. I’m kind of averse to “aspiring.” No one requires that a painter have sold a work for him to call himself an artist. Why do writers feel like they have to be published to call themselves writers? If you write, you’re a writer. And please, keep writing, even if it’s just here! 🙂

  9. Reply

    It’s like cooking a new recipe for the first time. Your family will give you an honest opinion on what needs changing– before offering it to other friends and first-timers. Having relatives and friends read your unreleased manuscripts is always a good first test for both content– and misspellings. (I hardly ever set up for spell check– and should, despite my confidence in my own vocabulary.) We’ve all felt the punch.

    • Reply

      loujenhaxmyor: That’s a good analogy. I find with family that they’re either too honest, or too afraid to hurt your feelings. Friends can be the same way. It’s all about finding people who’s opinion you trust, who want to help you without completely changing what you write. And I always needs spell check! Our brains are so good at fixing things on the fly, it’s far too easy to miss something obvious. 🙂

  10. Rod Burns

    Reply

    Way back when, I was a member of the Novel Writers’ Workshop on Compuserve. We each took turns critiquing each others chapters and it was a really useful, fun way to go about it. With any chapter I’d post, I was sure to get 8-10 really good critiques within just a few days.

    I’d love to get into such a group again. Since I live in a very small rural area, there aren’t live writing groups around that I’ve found. I’m looking for something similar to what we had on Compuserve. Gwen, do you know of any online writing groups that you could recommend? I’ve seen a few here and there, but without knowing anyone in them, it’s a bit intimidating to try and get into one.

    • Reply

      Rod: I guess I’d start with your genre. For example, I’ve met my writing friends/CPs through involvement in Romance Writers of America. Some of them I didn’t meet in person for years (or still haven’t). There’s Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime (which does take men) for suspense/thrillers, and others for Christian writers, military writers, and children’s book writers. Try a quick search. Many of these groups have robust online communities where you can “meet” people, and some even offer critique-partnering services.

      Another option might be a regional writing conference. I’ve been to several great general ones (Flathead River Writers Conference in Montana, DFWCon in Dallas/Ft. Worth, PennWriters in Pennsylvania) that welcomed all types of writers. They’re all over the place. Some are genre-specific, others not, but you’ll meet like-minded people with whom you can stay in touch after the conference ends. Check Writer’s Digest magazine, or search online for listings.

      Another option is to join writing groups on platforms like Google+, Reddit, Facebook, Yahoo Groups, or even LinkedIn. For example, the Scrivener Users groups on G+ and FB are very active and incredibly supportive–full of writers who specifically love Scrivener. I’m sure there are other writing groups on those platforms as well.

      I know it’s not easy, but this writing gig would be incredibly hard and lonely without the support of the other writers I’ve met over the years. I wish you luck finding your own group!

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