Friday, August 28, 2009

Chinese Menu or Dinner at Nana's - How do you use critiques?

As my buddy, Jeanie, has told you - I am a CONTEST SLUT ! Not a hoochie, not a loose woman, a real slut. OR at least I have been the past couple of years. I've slowed down since I got an agent because frankly getting my book in front of an editor is now HER problem. I haven't hung up my thigh high boots and fishnets yet, but soon.

That said I have often wondered exactly how much we get out of contest critiques and how we all interpret them. How much do we use and how much do we just chalk up to "you can't please everyone"?

I've gotten some great ones over the years - helpful, insightful, real light bulb moments. That is why I started entering contests in the first place. Way back when I started I earnestly wanted to know if I had even a remote chance of making it in this business. I got a lot of great help and really good advice.

Then there were the others. Some of those critiques made me wonder if I had murdered this person in a past life, or maybe killed their cat or something. Some of them I wondered if they had even read the pages at all. And some of them are just a case of they really didn't get it and that's okay. No writer is going to be able to please everyone.

So, I've decided there are two methods when looking at those critiques. There is the Chinese Menu Method and the Dinner at Nana's Method.

I didn't eat Chinese food until I was in graduate school. I was convinced I wouldn't like it. But we were invited out with some friends and we ended up in a Chinese restaurant so I was stuck. I read the entire menu and then found the one thing I thought I MIGHT be able to stomach - Sweet and Sour Chicken. I tried it. I loved it. The next time I went I tried something else. Now some things I just KNEW I was NOT going to like. So I didn't try those. The iffy things I gave a try - some I liked, some I didn't.

You can do the same with critiques. Some things you just know are not going to work for you. You can tell as soon as you read them because your writer's gut says "yuck!" or maybe even just "I feel queasy." So don't try them. Don't waste the time. Now other things are going to appeal to you right away so definitely try them. But the same criteria applies. If you don't like it, if it makes you uneasy then don't try it again. Some things are you are going to try and realize "this was perfect for me." Hang on to that.

Now dinner at my Nana Bolton's house was another matter entirely. She fixed your plate and you ate everything on it because she told you it was good for you. You were not allowed up from the table until you cleaned your plate. And sometimes you went to bed with a bad taste in your mouth and a bellyache because no matter how good the food was for you, you just didn't like it. Period. To this day I cannot STAND boiled cabbage because that tough old Yankee broad MADE me eat it. She was older, she was my Nana, she was the expert. Yeah, right. Ever had boiled cabbage and cauliflower at the same meal. SHUDDER! The only person who ever stood his ground with my Nana was my youngest brother, Brian, who at the tender age of five made family history. He sat at the table from 6 PM until 2 AM because he refused to eat the cauliflower. At 2 AM my Nana gave up. He is a legend to this day to my Nana's grandchildren and great grandchildren - the Boy Who Wouldn't Eat His Cauliflower.

You can treat a critique like that. You can believe this person is older/wiser/knows more about it than you do. You can take every bit of advice they give and totally rewrite your work to fit it. You can "clean your plate" so to speak and eat it all up. And you might end up with a bad taste in your mouth, a belly ache AND a manuscript that is as much fun as boiled cabbage and cauliflower.

So, I guess the bottom line is that there are lots of writers out there - some better than me, some not so much, but all different. There are some people who write a novel by a strict formula. There are some who swear by certain writing class techniques. I'm not one of them. Most of the time if there is a rule about writing I am trying to see how creatively I can work my way around it.

Writing is a CREATIVE adventure. Kind of like cooking without a recipe. Sometimes it may not turn out so well. Sometimes it will be a masterpiece. The most important thing, I think, is that it be YOUR creation. When you write THE END there should be no bad taste in your mouth, no bellyache, and no ten point structure on which to hang your story.

Old Leonardo didn't use a paint by numbers kit to paint the Mona Lisa. I'm sure there were people in his studio who said "Leo, fix her smile." I'm glad he didn't listen. But I'm sure he had some good teachers in the beginning and he took what advice they gave, rolled it around in his mouth, swallowed what felt right and spit the rest out. (I do NOT recommend doing this to cauliflower when your Nana is watching. Dogs do NOT eat cauliflower spit under the table. See, even dogs don't like it!)

So, what do you think? Which method sounds better to you?


Jeanie said...

Louisa, why do I feel like this blog was written for and aimed expressly at little old me? It's like you crawled inside my head, girl! Of course, it might have something to do with the fact you're the one I call when I get totally freaked out about something somebody says about the way I write, or the way I SHOULD write.

Thanks, girl. You're the bomb.

M.V.Freeman said...

Once again, this is an awesome post Louisa. :)

I have to admit the "Chinese Menu" method is someting I could stomach a bit better...

Actually, what I do when a critique comes in is quite sad...I tend to stare at it and pretend its not there for a day or so...then I read it. Yes, its nerves. (its my little secret--I do it even with my Critique partners..I'm such a weenie)


Christine said...

Haha--so timely. I just got back a contest result for the book that finaled in the Maggie--it was a contest I had entered eons ago to get feedback about a certain aspect within the book. Any rate, two judges scored me very high. The other judge barely gave me a passing grade. Seriously, I have NEVER done so poorly, even before I "learned" a thing or two, I never scored anything less than a B in my writing. This was barely a pass! The other two judges loved the scene, (it was a sex scene). One said it was the "best she'd read recently" --the only reason the marked off was because of the fact it was a sexual release, not tension scene. So that was fair. Both LOVED my writing voice. The other judge didn't score me above a 3--a lot of 2s.

I have scored entries in contests and I would NEVER score someone as low as this judge scored me--I want to give a person hope. I, too, was like you Diane--did I do something to this person in a former life? I wondered about it.

If I had received that score 5 years ago, I might have taken the critique and done something with it or MAYBE I might have given up? I do know that I was very glad I had more positive scores over the years. I called my CP and said, What the Heck? Well Actually I used stronger language. Any rate... I KNOW I am a good writer. I KNOW I can write a steaming sex scene, and I KNOW I didn't deserve that score.

You can bet I tossed that lousy menu choice straight into the garbage disposal.

Louisa Cornell said...

Anytime, Jeanie! I get really steamed when I read some of the critiques you get because I KNOW you are a phenomenal writer and I don't want anyone, no matter how great an expert to change that.

Louisa Cornell said...

Hey, it doesn't make you a weenie at all! Sometimes it is a really good idea NOT to read the critique right off the bat. Go back and read what the person was supposed to critique. Get grounded in it. THEN read the critique armed with the knowledge of what you KNOW works and what you think might need a tweak. That way you are better prepared to make that menu choice!

Louisa Cornell said...

Christine, anytime you get a strong reaction - negative or positive - it is a hint that you are going in the right direction. A strong individual voice is going to provoke a strong reaction. Either people will love it or hate it. That is always a good thing!


I'm a slut too!

Some contest critiques I can't even bring myself to read. I used to believe whatever judges told me. They were, after all, judges. Right?

Not anymore. I'm in it to win it.

Jeanie said...

Thanks, Louisa. It's good to have you in my corner. You always bring me back from the land of Self Doubt. A true friend, indeed.

Louisa Cornell said...

There you go, Kelly! I've managed to glean a few useful things from even the worst critique, but frankly if it isn't going to make me a better writer I don't need it!

Louisa Cornell said...

Back at you, Jeanie!

Christine said...

yeah--winning is sweet! And I never thought about it strong negative reaction to my voice as a positive, but that makes sense.

This is why I only dabble a bit in contests. I will never achieve true contest slutdom as a result. I am afraid of getting poked too hard. I need to keep my self-delusional world a happy place in order to create my books.

I don't need more doubt LOL....