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THE ART OF CRITIQUING, PT. 1


I know one word that fills some writers with dread. Criticism. Or worse . . . critique. If you have ever received one, you understand how a single word can make one cower. Writers love their words. They treasure them as much as the people in their lives. Okay, maybe not. But it is true we hate to have our darlings criticized. Well, have I a story for you.

In April I joined a writing forum. Absolute Write was recommended to me by fellow Blogger Jane Smith. Her excellent site for writer bunnies is How Publishing Really Works. On her site I was moaning and bitching about–well, you’ll have to mosey on over and read the post. Man can I whine. Hate to admit it, but I’m very proud of being able to do so. I moped around another few weeks, but eventually tip-toed over to AW and registered. Happy and head swimming with my writing superbness, I next headed over to the Newbie Forum and introduced myself. I received a warm welcome. Everyone does.

Next I posted the opening page of my BELOVED novel (17 chapters of blood and sweat). The heading for the thread was “Does this opening scene peak your interest?” See anything wrong with that title? Well, I didn’t. In my lust for critique I remembered nothing of homonyms–you know, the words that are spelled DIFFERENTLY but SOUND the same? No worries, though. A moderator had my back. She kindly pointed out my error and offered to change the heading for me. Which she did much to my relief and gratitude. Now, in case you haven’t picked up on the mistake, here is what I should have wrote: “Does this opening scene pique your interest?”

Thus was my grand arrival to Absolute Write. As to the critiques for this piece; the opening was too long, but the sample was well received overall. That WAS NOT the case for my second attempt at receiving a critique.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t sit too high on that horse.

Still green and quite gluttonous of a critique, I wanted to wade deeper into the AW pool. My eyes caught sight of a writing challenge: The Wind and Rain Challenge. Ah, a testing ground for my writing abilities. I thought about it briefly, and quickly came up with an excerpt from my book that had a scene where wind and rain was prominent. I opened the door to the Historical Fiction forum and skidded in, like “Here I am! The next great author!” I posted my precious pookie.

Lesson No. 2: If you post a scene from the middle of a Work In Progress (WIP) provide a summary to help readers understand what’s going on. (Err…but don’t expect that to save you from “WTF” and “Where does this take place?” comments)

I failed to summarize what the gist of the scene was, left in a few typos (another homonym caper), and hit the submit button. I was proud of myself. I wasn’t all that nervous. But by the end of the next 48 hours, I was ready for a straight jacket. Not only did my words fail to impress, but I learned that my MC’s voice wasn’t interesting, that my narration read like an essay, there was too much internal dialogue, that Historical Fiction readers HATE First Person, and DESPISE First Person teamed with Present Tense. URRGH! I had about 20 reviewers tear my sample apart verb to pronoun. My critique was so rough, one AW member asked if I was still breathing. Another responded with a crying smilie. A sympathetic gesture. I think.

Lesson No. 3: Don’t park your tale where it doesn’t belong.

First, it’s important to know that I posted in the wrong category (again). I should have posted in the Literary forum. I do, of course, wonder if my post would have received a more favorable response there. Hmmmm. But there’s good news. I did a good job of conveying my MC’s emotion and I wrote decent imagery.

Lesson No. 4: There’s always someone on your side.

After a day of brutal critique, I began to receive responses from those who favored First Person. They suggested I write my story the way I wanted. Those comments were like air under water.

Lesson No. 5: If you want to be a published writer, grow walnut shells for skin.

Not everything we write will be well-received. You CANNOT please everyone. We all have different writing styles, not only our own but those of books and articles, poems, and the like that we prefer to read. I admit that for a few days, especially that first day of critiques, I seriously–well, for the moment–thought of quitting. I moaned, “I’ve spent all these years writing this damn thing, and I’m no closer to being finished than I was X years ago.” I moped and cried and prayed. More encouraging critiques rolled in and I cheered up a little. I wallowed in “Woe Is Me” land for a time, but it wasn’t to last.

Lesson No. 6: Be genuinely thankful.

Now in the meantime, I replied to each responder–a good receiver of critique will be polite and gracious. I thanked each responder as graciously as my numbed, injured pride would allow me. There were a few who were particularly rough. I admit I felt equally mean-spirited towards their critique, but I also knew I ASKED THEM to be brutal. And so they were.

Lesson No. 7: Suck it up, shut up, listen, then learn.

No matter what or how you feel about the critique. Don’t be a fool! Some of those critiquers are published authors and agents, but mostly they are Average Joe readers. You know, the ones who might actually buy your book someday.

It would be an extreme faux pas to be belligerent and defensive. It sends a red flag that you’d be a problem client, that you’re not willing–or able–to edit your work and get it into tip top shape. Because forums like AW are free, it would be naive to waste such a splendid opportunity.

Lesson No. 8: Critiquers are not perfect, but they certainly know what they like.

I learned that if enough people say the same thing, chances are they may be on to something. When I soothed my wounded spirit and calmed my high strung nerves, I realized that my SHARKS weren’t ripping my poor little sample to shreds. They were trying to steer me away from rejection land. When I reread my sample, I knew that most of the critique I received was right. My MC was a boring prude. I created him that way. Okay, so what to do I asked myself, still ask, really.

Lesson No. 9: Critiquing other people’s work, improves your own editing eye.

It’s true! Since I’ve been at AW, I’m learning about what readers want. It’s not easy to figure out since we have different tastes. However, reading other people’s critiqued work, receiving your own and giving critiques, you learn to spot the dead passages that slow your prose. You learn that long flashbacks, endless backstory and internal monologues and paragraphs of description and narrative put many readers to sleep. You learn whether your dialogue takes off or falls to the floor with a thud. At AW I learned to spot pillow fluff. What is that you wonder? Words that do nothing to enhance the story, that are pointless and off topic, words that scream backstory (commonly known as info dumps).

Personal Experiences At Large

Below is a comment from Renu. She’s doing a series of reviews on writing magazines. I encourage everyone to check out her blog, *Write Ideas. Voice your opinion on which magazine is your favorite and listen to great music while you read! (See Note below)

*Turn the volume down on your headphone before clicking the link.

RENU

Write Ideas

May 1, 2009 12:51 AM

I’ve given, but never received a critique on my MS – probably because I’m too shy/scared to share my work. I did get critiques on essays and short articles I’ve written. Can’t call them critiques really because they were all positive! Creative fiction is a different ball game altogether and the one short story I wrote received so many brickbats it remains buried for eternity.

In Part Two, I will share a story about critiquing where I was the bad guy. A good lesson all around. Until next time, Blogger world and beyond….

Blessings to you and whip that prose into shape! Happy Writing!

COMMENTS FOR THE ART OF CRITIQUING, PT. 1
(ORIGINALLY POSTED TO BLOGGER)

5 COMMENTS:

Alex Ellis said…
July 1, 2009 7:45 PM

Good advice for those new to AW! As well as for those of us who’ve been there for years….

Abigail said…
July 6, 2009 3:45 PM

However, it didn’t stop me from writing at all since I knew the entry I posted (it was on a different blog) was just a rough draft and wasn’t even sure that I was going to keep it or change it in a way to make it better.

He put me down though and got very hostile towards me. He started trolling me as well. I told him that my English teachers taught me what I knew and everything and he said I was lied to. o_O Thing is, he didn’t have an English major (he was 18) or degree or anything (not like I do either, but telling me that an English teacher lied to me when I should be trusting an English teacher makes me question their motive.

The first comment he said to me was “Don’t quit your day job.” It wasn’t criticism, it wasn’t saying what could make it better or what could be changed. It was just that, and when I asked what he meant, he never helped me to what could make it better. Nothing.

Never mind about that though–I need to stop rambling. I liked the article.

Penny Manning said…
July 6, 2009 4:49 PM

What! I loves me some rambling…Ha ha ha. Ramble on, girl…ramble on. What you have to say is informative, and I appreciate your taking the time to comment. Maybe dude was jealous. From where I’m sitting you have decent writing skills.

Everyone…This responder can write. Check out an excerpt of a short story she wrote: Moments Of Paralysis (It’s my fav). I believe it’s in the Horror genre.

And C…your soldier story also proves you have some appreciable writing skills. I invite you to join Absolute Write (see link in sidebar) if you’re in need of any honest critiques. Good Luck with your writing!

Abigail said…
July 6, 2009 5:43 PM

Note: What I had before “However” probably was written over (my touchpad likes to highlight things and I don’t realize it until after I hit submit sometimes since I type so quickly). Basically, what I had before it was that I had posted a snippet into a blog of mine on a gaming website that I am a part of (there’s blogs there in the profile, so it was my first blog). I wrote that it was a draft and some guy came along and posted a comment, and it wasn’t a pretty comment either. That’s where the “however” comes into play. xD

And thanks. I don’t know what genre it would go in. Probably a bit of horror and fantasy. I have another short story somewhere. I wrote that one when I was fifteen and I still love it to this day (it was before I wrote Ashes). The other one I have was after I started working on Ashes and it was just something that came out of nowhere.

Dave Keeble said…
July 22, 2009 8:13 AM

That was a great read, I have to say I prefer brutally honest critique to sugar coated opinions any day. The latter can be dangerous, I think.


Copyright Rene Isaiah / Penny Manning 2009
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


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3 comments on “THE ART OF CRITIQUING, PT. 1

  1. […] a better writer because  it “improves your own editing eye,” according to blogger Penny in her post  The Art of Critiquing, Pt. 1. I have to agree with that. As I’ve read and […]

  2. I try never to ask someone to be “brutally honest” unless I’m ready to hear the absolute worst (you know, the “your writing stinks” remarks). 😀 Thanks for giving us yet another place to get critiques (and for the warning! 🙂 ).

    • I try never to ask someone to be “brutally honest” unless I’m ready to hear the absolute worst (you know, the “your writing stinks” remarks).

      LOL! High Five on that! Have any critiquing experiences you’d like to share? I’d be happy to include it in the post. Let me know.

      Thank you for taking the time to respond! If you’re interested, Part Two can be found at:

      WRITER 4 WRITER

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