Tags: critiquing

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Sandra Tayler and Amy Sundberg both posted excellent posts about critiquing this week. I have little add on the matter except that I think they've both hit the nail dead on.

My favorite excerpt from Amy's Post:
FICTION: A critique should always be followed by a revision.
REALITY: As long as you’ve learned something from a critique, it doesn’t matter what you do afterwards. Sometimes you need to revise to complete the learning. Sometimes you want to revise. Sometimes you want to chuck the story into the fire and never think of it again. Sometimes you nod, say hmm, and make a few small changes before submitting. Sometimes, if you’re Dean Wesley Smith, you submit the story before the critique so you’re not tempted to revise the life out of your story. (And oh yes, it is so possible to revise your story to death.)

My favorite excerpt from Sandra's post:
This is the hard truth about critiques which rarely gets mentioned: If the critique hits one of your writing insecurities, or if you’re uncertain about the relationship with the person critiquing you, then the process can be emotionally injurious. And the writer is not the only one at risk, the critiquer is taking a risk as well. People can get hurt. I got hurt.

Critique Groups as an Unreliable Narrator

I've touched on this before, but I believe it's worth revisiting.

Critique groups are invaluable to a writer. In fact, I don't know anyone who's achieved professional caliber writing without support from either a dedicated critique group or an editor who's chosen to take the author under his or her wing. But critique groups can also be intimidating, even depressing, for new writers.

Over time, writers and their critique groups learn to understand each other. Experienced authors have an almost instinctive ability to separate useful critique data out from the noise. I'm not talking to those folks. But if you're new at writing -- and especially if you feel overwhelmed by piles of Thou Shalt Nots emanating from your critique group -- it might be helpful to know that critique groups are unreliable narrators.

What do I mean by that?

In fiction, an unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator whose own account of events cannot be believed. He's a narrator who lies to the reader. Who conceals information. Or he's the guy who's mistaken in his interpretation of the situation. In any case, no matter how likable an unreliable narrator might be, readers quickly learn that he's not to be trusted.

Critiquers aren't liars, of course, and I doubt they conceal information on purpose. But they do have a tendency to say: "It needs more action" when they actually mean "I'm bored." Dropping a couple of corpses into a scene might be a remedy for boredom. Then again, it might not. Similarly, critiquers often say, "Stop infodumping" when they actually mean: "You're giving me information I don't care about. Either cut it, or make me care."

Let me be perfectly clear: Critiquers are your friends. I'm not trying to claim that critiques aren't helpful or that the act of critiquing and being critiqued is not a noble one. But I do think it's helpful to realize that you shouldn't take everything said in a critique group at face value. In the end, all any of us know about a story is whether we liked it, or we didn't. Everything else is just extrapolation.

What I've Learned From Critique Groups

Ok, I'm sure this has happened to all of us: You've just written a story, one that's close to your heart. You feel really good about this one. You share it with your critique group...

...and they nearly-unanimously insist that you change your favorite part. For the sake of discussion, let's pretend it's the ending. They don't like it. They feel that it's unexpected, and leaves the main plot question dangling. They all say it has to go.

What's a writer to do? If only a few readers felt this way it would be easy to ignore them, but with so many complaints it seems clear that the end isn't really working. You feel trapped between the proverbial rock and the hard place. Changing the story will destroy its soul, yet if you leave it alone it will likely languish, unsold, for decades to come.

This is the False Dichotomy of critique groups, and it used to be my nemesis. It seemed I always had to choose between changing a story or leaving untouched, and neither option felt right.

I finally realized that the dichotomy is an illusion. Here's the truth: If you wish to satisfy your audience with regard to a plot point, you must either (1) Change it, or (2) justify it.

See? It's not about 'change' vs 'don't change'. It's about 'change' vs 'justify'.

Your first reader didn't like the ending? You can either change it or lay the necessary groundwork to make the ending you've chosen feel right and proper. Your best friend doesn't think Julian should dump Margaret for Cynthia? Well, you can either hook Julian up with a different girl, or you can get the reader farther into Julian's head so his actions make more sense.

If your story feels right to you, it probably means you have information you neglected to share with the reader. Put it on paper. Justify your story, don't let it be cowed into inferiority by people who are missing half the data.

Why We Need Editors

As in most aspects of life, so it is in story revision: Fixing the problem is easy. It's finding the problem that's hard.

Repairing a flawed story is usually relatively simple; often a matter of changing only a few lines or paragraphs. The challenge lies in deciphering ambiguous and often contradictory feedback in order to determine what the problem actually is. I have seen stories murdered in revision by authors struggling to address random symptoms rather than searching for the as-yet-unidentified underlying problem.

This, I think, is why a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold. I've heard people claim that editors edit because they can't write. I don't think this is true. Or rather, I think it is irrelevant. Editing -- that precious skill of being able to sift through pages of prose and spot the one key flaw that is causing all the others -- is a very different skill from the ability to paint a story with words. Most writers train both skills over time, but there's no rule that says they must necessarily both be present in the same person. A good editor may also be a good writer. Or he may be a lousy writer. But an editor's writing ability says, in my opinion, absolutely nothing about how good he or she is at editing.

Disguising the Cavalry

When I was a new writer I spent a lot of time in critique groups and frequently saw a familiar pattern. Critiquers would like a manuscript overall, but complain that the ending felt too contrived, or too sudden, or too unrealistic. The harried author would then proceed to rewrite the entire ending: even if it was his or her favorite part of the original piece.

Oh, the atrocities that have been committed in the name of revision!

I'm going to share a little secret. When critiquers complain about the end of the story, it is not always the ending of the story that is broken. The end of the story is merely the point at which readers noticed a problem.

Case in point: in my current work in progress the protagonist defeats evil enemy troops by triggering a landslide. "Yeah, right," I can hear my readers saying, "How does this girl from a primitive society know which rocks to loosen in order to begin an avalanche? And what makes her so sure it will work?"

The solution, it turns out, is to go back two dozen chapters, very near the beginning of the book, and work in a scene in which she and her tribe flush quarry out of the mountains by -- you guessed it -- strategically creating a landslide. The previously unrealistic ending suddenly feels believable because my heroine is working on her home turf and she's triggered dozens of avalanches in these cliffs before.

See how easy that was?

My point is, don't give up on your ending just because critiquers complain that something feels unexpected or unrealistic. It's perfectly fine to have the cavalry come charging across the desert to rescue your hero from certain doom. Just make sure the reader knew the cavalry was somewhere nearby already, and maybe dress them up as extraterrestrials so they blend in better with the milieu.