Mark Terry

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Being Critiqued

June 26, 2008
As I mentioned yesterday, I've asked a number of people to read my work-in-progress. To-date, two of you generous folks have read it and responded with your comments.

A little confession: I don't usually do this.

I did early on in my writing. My brother, Pete, was often my beta reader. Later on my friend Rick was. They were both very useful in some ways, less so in others.

This is essentially the first time where I decided, hey, I know a bunch of professional writers, let's ask them for a favor. Also, because the narrator is a 16-year-old girl, I decided to ask some teenage girls if they would read it. (Or as I told one of their mothers: "I need a teenage girl. Guess that sounds kind of odd, huh?")

So far, Erica and Natasha's comments have been extremely useful, although both of them seemed to think my post yesterday displayed an awful lot of self-doubt and induced an existential writing crisis (my life is an existential writing crisis, Erica). Well, yuh, but I'm a writer, what do you expect? Natasha sort of chastised me for it and told me to get over it. (She's a teacher and I bet she's a damned good one, too. Some of her personal comments made me sit up and think.)

I just wanted to comment a little bit about critique groups, suggesting that my experience with this has been a little slim, but I have, over the years, had critiques from a variety of people, including my agents and other friends.

Ya gotta be careful about becoming a weather vane.

Really. One reason I'm hesitant to ask for critiques isn't my fear of being savaged, it's my fear of getting ten different comments and I then feel I should act on all of them. Truth is, if I get 10 different comments, then I'm pretty safe and can go on my merry way. If everybody, or even several sombodies indicate the same thing, then I've got trouble and need to deal with it.

The question then becomes how many and to what degree? Natasha offered suggestions on fixes, sort of self-deprecatingly saying, "But I guess I'm not supposed to offer ideas."

Well, yes and no. I understood exactly what she meant. When I couch ideas to writers to fix problems I tend to say, "Have you considered cutting all this backstory?" or something sort of general but specific all at the same time. Too specific a comment can be a problem sometimes. But that's not what she meant. She was actually suggesting possible story changes. It's easy for writers to get sidetracked (blown off course) by that kind of thing and what I'm doing at the moment is just reading their comments and digesting them. I'm playing my personal chess game with the comments: if I make this change, it will change this and this, but fix this, but then I'll have to do this...

Wouldn't it be nice if someone said, "If you do X then this book will sell."

Like, "If you just change the character's age to 12, then it will sell."

It might, as a matter of fact, but like any amateur who's tackled a plumbing problem on his own, you realize your fixes tend to create more problems, sometimes crucial, critical problems. Before I do something like change the main character that much I have to decide how many plot problems and restructuring is required.

I also have to decide if it's worth it.

And I have to decide if they're right.

There is a definite school of thought out there that suggests you should just stick to your vision and say to hell with everybody's opinions. Sometimes that really works. After all, Tony Hillerman was told by his then-agent (or editor, I forget which) that the mystery was fine but he needed to get rid of all that stuff about the Navajo.

If he had, where would Tony be today? Probably an retired journalism professor from the University of New Mexico.

Still, writing is so damned subjective and when you're inside the frame it's damned hard to see the picture.

The key is to accept the criticism graciously, sift the wheat from the chaff, accept that it's just everybody's opinions, no matter how well-educated, and think for yourself. After all, nobody knows your work the way you do.

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

To be honest, these two (last post and this one) posts could be expanded into an essay and sold to a writers' magazine. Not the specifics of it, but HOW to approach getting beta reads and then how to react to them. I can suggest a half-dozen "fixes"--some of which may work, some of which may not. For me, the adventure is brilliant, the voice needs fixing . . . and the "how" of making her seem more real for a 16-year-old girl . . . in the genre as it is . . . that's the trickiest of all.

I have seen writer friends "fix" their books until they've piled on quirks and added plot bells and whistles until their book is a mess.

Weather vane is a brilliant analogy.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks. Because my first reaction was to jump in and you know, start tinkering. Then I decided, hey, let's give everybody a chance to voice their opinion and really think about this before I start making changes.

You and 'tasha seem on the same page, but like you said yesterday, let's see what the teenagers say.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thing to consider is whether the person critiquing actually likes the sort of thing you're doing and is suggesting how o make it better, of doesn't like the sort of thing and is really suggesting you make it something else, maybe something you don't want.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

This is true and I've had that problem before as well.

10:05 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

You make me blush, LOL.

I totally get the hesitation. I need to have the whole thing finished. I need to know my story completely, have it polished completely to the best of my ability, before I can show it to anyone.

Otherwise, I am way too impressionable. I would totally start writing to please the person critiquing me, and that's dangerous territory. That's the only reason I don't do the critiquing thing that much. I can't, as you say, separate the wheat from the chaff and figure out the story I meant to tell.

11:12 AM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

Absolutely. This is not to knock ANYONE here. Great writers that you had reading your work not-withstanding, I told someone else the other day when asked about critique groups that I didn't do that anymore. I use a handful of select, and trust readers, ones I know will not pull punches, and also be objective. Critique groups have a place, I told him, but can also be quite destructive. Everyone has comments coming from all directions, and not all of them know what the hell they're talking about. LOL

In those cases it's often the inexperienced writer feeling overwhelemed about what to do, and who to follow, or throwing it all in the air with a 'the hell with it, I'm great' attitude. Neither of which is really helpful.

The hardest thing to do is to take all advice, consider it, and then decide what is truly right for your writing style, and your storyline.

Great critiques from trusted readers are invaluable, but it's still a judgement call. No one is 100% right all the time, and like you said, there's still no guarantee that a specific change will sell the work.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I think choosing who you want to critique you is important. I learned years ago, that some peeps are better critiquers then others. And when everyone agrees you know you have a problem there.

I'm still amazed how many writers want to help each other. This is a profession unlike any other.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Reposting my comment because of punctuation retardia:

How have I skimmed over your blog over and over? holy hell. Yeah, I get you on the "10 different comments" thing. Then I'm more confused than I was before. Pretty much if the same something gets pointed out to me more than once, I consider it definitely legitimate. Then whether I change it, or become more clear about what I was doing, something has to give. The other stuff, you have to make decisions on, which sucks.

And I love your banner. Did you make it?

12:56 PM  
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