Monday, July 30, 2007

On Critiques

"People ask you for criticism,
.....but they only want praise."
Somerset Maugham

I really don't know what I was thinking. Swept up in the auction atmosphere, some months ago I bid on and won, a thirty page critique by an author I admire, Stuart Kaminsky. One month passed, then two, then I shelved the book I was writing and took my series character on a different adventure closer to home. I had just started that book when I got a friendly reminder from the folks at Sleuthfest about my critique. Now, I don't belong to a writing group, I don't have that one trusted soul who sees my scribblings long before anyone else does (every time I show anything to my husband, he tells me I'm great. Good for the ego, but not especially helpful.) So I'm not used to showing anyone my writing before I'm ready.
Stuart Kaminsky is not my husband, and chances are, he's not going to tell me I'm great. How do you handle criticism in the early stages of a book?
HALLIE: With gratitude and taking copious notes. I think the biggest mistake I've seen authors make is to argue with the poor soul whose only misstep thus far in life has been to offer to critique a manuscript. The author goes into overdrive, explaining WHY it's written the way it is when s/he should shut up, listen, and try to understand why it's not working. Hey, everyone's early draft needs work. And I'm so jealous that Stuart Kaminsky is giving your 30 pages a once-over. Can't wait to read your "after" blog.

JAN: You've got to remember, Stuart Kaminisky wouldn't have volunteered to do this, if he didn't think he could do it with diplomacy. Unless a fellow writer is completely insensitive, he's going to understand that you are at a vulnerable stage. In other words, he's not going to rip you to shreds, he's just going to offer constructive advice, which you must have wanted when you bid on this particular prize. I've gone from worrying what my writers group is going to say -- years ago -- to hoping they can figure out what's wrong with a particular scene or chapter. Critique is a good thing. And if it's off the mark for your particular book, you'll know that too. Have confidence, Ro! This is growth!
HANK: Open mind! Insert good ideas. We're so--okay, I'll say it, I'M so-- competitive. I always want to get the A grade or win or be the best or get the pat on the head. But with a critique, we have to remember that's not the goal. It's not like you're getting a grade. You're getting the use of an expert's experience, ideas, opinion, imagination, secrets. And that someone has offered to help you get to another place. Praise is nice, and any thoughtful critiquer will give it. But the real value is in the fixes. The open doors. The pointing in the right direction so you can be the best you can be.
I've had 18 news directors in my 22 years in Boston TV. Each reads the scripts of my investigative stories before they go on the air. Some news directors are so savvy, I can't wait to see how they'll tweak to make the stories better. A critique from an experienced, careful, clever person? It's incredibly exciting.

Ro: You guys are so supportive! I love it.. I'm ready... Bring him on!


  1. But let's say you're critiquing someone. Let's say--you didn't know the person very well. Let's say whatever they gave you to read--was just awful.

    Is the key to find something good?

    Have you ever been in an uncomfortably tough position as a critiquer? How did you handle it?

  2. I have done my best to stay out of this kind of situation, but I fear, at some point in time I will be asked to do it, and won't be able to demur.

    In the same way that I hope SK will be honest with me, I'd have to be honest with the person.

    But, I'd absolutely find something
    good to say, and I'd start with that.

  3. Have you ever been in an uncomfortably tough position as a critiquer? How did you handle it?

    Lied my ass off, of course. :-)

    But this is when the horrible occurs and a NON-WRITER who is a close friend or a dear-one of a close friend decides to "write" a book. And they just hand a pile of poop to you out of the blue. Ugh.

    Still, I'm not on this planet to kill another's dreams. There are plenty of other people who will do that for them.

    Working writers are a different, uh, story. And I usually only critique when I am in an actual collaboration with someone. A situation I adore, btw.

  4. Hank,
    The truth is that SM was right. Many people, especially many people who aren't serious writers, don't really want critique. They want praise. I try to give people the level of criticism that they are ready to accept. In some cases, that level is extremely low. In fact, I usually am toughest on writing I really like -- because there is a point to the critique. It stands a chance.

  5. But it's the greatest gift maybe, to open a door to someone to let them be the best they can be.

    It's a little of Ro, say something good. A little of greenminute, letting dreams survive. And a little of Jan, giving all you've got to someone who'll get it.

    I honestly told a new writer once that I thought an idea she had was a bit cliched. I knew it was a risk, because it really didn't matter, and it wasn't going to change anything, but I thought, you know, we're grown-ups. Just be honest. Maybe it could help. But--SM is right again--she just wanted me to tell her how good it was--and I wasn't listening. She's barely spoken to me since.

    In another life, I would have been upset. Been--hurt? Annoyed? Now I smile. You put it out there, with the best of intentions. It's all you can do.

  6. I love criticism at the idea stage -- because hey, almost no work has been done yet. But people are radically different in their ability to hear or accept criticism. (and new writers seem to be the most sensitive) But I think Ro is right, you start with something positive,no matter what. If its someone I don't know, I then put my toe in the water with the most gentle of criticisms, and watch for the reaction. If the person shuts down or says something defensive, I figure he/she just isn't ready -- I taper off from there. If I know the person well enough to know I can penetrate, I'll take the risk of pushing on.
    Also, I think that even those with the thickest of skins can only take so much criticism at one time. So I usually limit myself to three or four points -- and leave refinement for later.

  7. As an unpublished writer, I welcome any critique I can get from someone I respect and in the few instances I've been in the position to get some feedback, it's been constructive, valid and much appreciated. I've been asked to critique other people a couple of times and my observations and suggestions were well received. Only once was the writing truly not very good, so I commented on what I did like about it and only provided suggestions on the bigger things that could be improved. The person appeared to be pretty proud of his work and I didn't get the impression he really wanted me to find anything wrong. I think maybe the level of critique and honesty depends on how sincere and serious the person asking is. People who are truly looking for honest feedback will usually say just that and people who aren't, won't.

  8. Hi, Jan--
    I just love your blog! I've just added it to my list of favorites, so I'll be visiting often. By that time, I hope I'll have something insightful to say.

    Still writing,

  9. I think it's amazing that you're going to get this critique. Hopefully, it will be honest, supportive, and constructive.

    As a freelance editor and in my critique groups, I do an awful lot of this giving feedback, and I get very angry at critiquers who say they're trying to help writers and then can't find anything positive and encouraging to say. There is always something wonderful in a book, if only that a writer has COMPLETED it--we all know how huge that is. And there are always places to start from that a critiquer can help a writer build onto. That's what it's all about--building an existing book toward the next level.

    Yes, some writers aren't ready to hear this, but there are good ways and bad ways to let them know the book isn't there yet. The biggest gift I think a critiquer can give a writer is ideas, some brainstorming thought, about how a character could be developed, where a plotline could go. The writer may choose a totally different direction, but the critique has shown them at least that there is a path forward, not just a vacuum they have to fall into.

    :) My two cents!

  10. HEY JUDITH!!
    I've been thinking about you and wondering how you're doing up there in paradise. Please email me and give me the update on your life and writing. We miss you,