Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to Tell Your Friend Her Baby is Cute (Even If He'd Make Stevie Wonder Flinch!)

Critiquing a fellow writer's work can be a bit tricky. Kind of like team bungee jumping over an alligator pit. Nobody's coming out with nice hair and somebody could end up with sharp, pointy teeth in their ass.

Constructive criticism, like tact, is an art form. And like all art, some forms are prettier than others. There are amateurs and professionals and both can give you the confidence to walk through fire or the desire to down a 12 pack of beer and write a really bad country song.

I've been subjecting myself to professional criticism since I was nine years old. I started piano lessons at the London College of Music at that age and my very talented and dictatorial piano teacher, Mrs. Wright, made the Dowager Duchess of Downton Abbey sound like Mary Poppins. In addition to her ruler knuckle-rapping (unlike MC Hammer, she DID touch this! And it smarted!)  and subtle insults approach (I've seen bahnahnahs play Bach with better skill. If she saw bananas playing Bach she must have been smokin' some primo weed!) I also had to subject myself to examinations in music theory and piano performance twice a year before a committee of piano professors in order to be allowed to continue taking lessons. The British do not believe in wasting time or money on people who can't at least fake talent. (I'm a great musician. I am CRAPTASTIC as a pianist.)

As an adult I auditioned and sang for some of the nastiest conductors, bitchiest opera directors, and most knowledgeable and picky opera audiences on the planet. Trust me, when it comes to my singing my hide is tougher than a rhino's. (We will NOT get into any other similarities between myself and the rhino. That is another blog post entirely.)

Here are some things I've learned about critiquing. They may or may not apply to you. They may or may not make sense. (I speak several languages. Nonsense is one in which I am fluent.)

1. The tone and level of criticism changes (or it should) with the nature or the relationship between
    those people involved. There are things you would say to a really close friend you would not say
    to someone you just met at a writing conference workshop. In your enthusiasm to help someone
    remember they may not know you well enough to get your sense of humor. (Were you drunk when
    you wrote this?) (You stubbed your toe when you hit the comma key, didn't you!) (Why is the gay
    hero hitting on a woman? He isn't gay? My bad.)

    My best friend in college was Mary Nell Bare. She was a cross between Lauren Bacall and Atilla
    the Hun. We went to Lily Rubin to find a dress for me to wear for my senior recital. The
    saleswoman was declaring I looked exquisite in the brown satin and sequined gown I tried on first.
             Saleswoman : "This gown looks incredible on you, Miss."
             Mary Nell :     "Are you kidding me? It makes her look like a brown cow walking away
                                      after wallowing in a pond."

   I still crack up when I think about that poor woman's face! I didn't buy the dress. And for years
   I didn't shop for an evening gown without Mary Nell. If you have a critique partner with whom
   you have that sort of relationship, hang on tight. Don't abuse the privilege. And remember if
   a snarky comment stings, it probably hit something you need to take a look at once or twice.

2. If you go to the trouble of mentioning an issue you have with something someone has written,
    be specific, give a good reason or two why it bothers you, and offer some suggestions as to
    how it can be fixed. Statements like :

             "This didn't work for me"

             "This is confusing."

             "Make this bigger."

             "This doesn't make sense."

    Aren't helpful if you don't offer reasons for your reaction and suggestions for improvement.    

    I run a bakery and we often get customers who order a cake with the instructions "Make it
    pretty." or, my favorite "Make it for a man."

             "Make it pretty?" No, we only do ugly cakes here. How pretty? Pretty enough to date,
             pretty enough to marry, pretty enough to win Miss America? It's a cake!

             "Make it for a man." Sorry, ma'am. We aren't allowed to make cakes with boobs, butts,
              and beer cans on them.

    Be specific. And more important, be generous enough to accept the person you are critiquing
    has the right to throw away any and all of your advice. Your job is to critique, offer suggestions
    and then back away. NOT to remake the book in your own image. The job of remaking things in
    one's own image is already taken. I don't look for Him to retire anytime soon.

3. Learn to take criticism. Even when it ticks you off. Especially when it ticks you off. All babies
    are beautiful, except when they aren't. Read a critique hot and then go back a day later and read
    it cold. Just because someone tells you your baby isn't perfect, or has a smelly diaper, or fell out
    of the ugly tree and hit every limb on the way down, doesn't mean you pitch the critique out
    and "Take your earrings and shoes off to give that heifer an All Day Alabama Ass-Whoopin' !"
    Remember, in all likelihood you asked for this critique. You asked this person for a reason. This
    person may be a fellow writer, but they are also a fellow READER, and as such, their opinion is
    just as viable and important as any other person who picks up your work.

    We've had a new manager at our store for a little over a year. I have come to the conclusion
    Walmart is currently shopping for store managers at ASSHOLES R US and we got the deluxe
     model. This guy couldn't give a genuine compliment if you super-glued it gift wrapped to his hand
     and splinted his arm in the gift offering position. My coworkers have got to quit muttering "Could
     this guy be a bigger jerk?" because I think he's taking it as a challenge. The other day he walked
     through my department and offered the following comment :

               "Gee, I haven't seen this department look this good in a month."

     That's kind of like saying "You don't look nearly as fat in that dress as you did in the one you
     wore yesterday."

You're going to get critiques like that. Hell, you're going to get reviews like that. Some of you probably already have. Deal with it. The fact I still have a job and this guy hasn't disappeared in a
mysterious trash compactor accident (followed by a trip to a nearby alligator farm - Hey! I'm a writer. I KNOW how to make a body disappear!) is a testament to either my rhino hide or my desire to
continue to pay for little luxuries like food, toilet paper and living indoors.

Decide what it is you are willing to put up with in order to make your writing better and find a critique partner or partners who can deliver it. I am beyond blessed in my critique partners. They pull no punches, they take no offense, they are specific, and they make me a better writer every day.

So get out there and critique and be critiqued. And remember, tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way they ask you for directions.

What other tips can you give writers, especially new writers, about giving and receiving criticism of their work?  


R. Mac Wheeler said...

Wonderful Title

Got me reading :)

Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

I love your posts, and your critiques. When you tell me something is confusing, it generally looks like I wrote it under the influence.

My advice is to have more than one CP. In my group we have very talented writers, and they all pick up on something else. One won't let me get away with slacking on emotion, while another calls me out when I rush through parts, and the list goes on. I value each and every comment, and more often than not, take their advice. My books would not be what they are without my CPs. Tweeted and shared.

Collette Cameron said...

This is wonderful! I've been guilty of the "I don't understand this," critique comment.

I tweeted.

Nancy S. Goodman said...

As usual a great post, Louisa. My critique group is invaluable and I know they have made every piece of my writing stronger. Like Ella says, everyone picks up on something different, making mt writing as a whole stronger. they are there to advance you as a writer, not push you back. Tweeted and shared

Ali Hubbard said...

I'm begging you to write a contemporary. Begging. Or I'll start using commas in a very bad way...(take THAT threat. ha!)

OK, this is great and funny and useful, as always from you. So many good points: respect the relationship, be specific (which I need to be better at).

Another point that I need to work on is self-awareness. I am learning that I'm better at some things than others (my CP is laughing at my crappy analysis of cover art...something's covering the face? Sure...I noticed that. Errrr). I was also raised in a way that harsh criticism doesn't bother me now (ah, those fond memories of dad saying I could wipe my you-know with the contract revisions. Hey, I was only 14!). Even though I'M desensitized doesn't mean it's the right way to critique others. It must be HELPUL. It must MAKE A BETTER BOOK. And that is what I want to be as a critique partner. And, in the end, it is my CP's decision to take or leave my suggestions without any hard feelings on my part, knowing that I'm giving them the absolute best I've got.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Great post, Louisa! I am very lucky to have a "first reader" who always says, "now don't get mad at me, but...what the hell were you thinking?" or "I wanted to kill the (hero/heroine) in the first five pages. Fix him/her."

But she's the only one who can get away with that.

I totally agree with not giving an empty "this doesn't work for me"--it's useless. Say why. Say what might work. Gently. And always think how you'd feel to get that feedback and word it accordingly!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Mac ! Glad you enjoyed it!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks so much, Ella ! LOL And one thing I didn't include is that when you critique with someone for a long time you eventually come up with a shorthand and completely understand when one of you says "This is confusing."

Ella is one of my critique partners and she is so right. We have an amazing group of writers and each one has one or more specific insights at which they are the best. As a result when we submit our pages to the group we get a thorough critique that covers all of the bases. I wouldn't be anywhere near as close to getting The Call without out critique group.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks so much, Collette! Collette is another of my fabulous critique partners! And as I said, within our group we tend to understand when one of us says something like "I don't understand." And none of us ever has a problem asking or answering "Splain please!"

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Nancy! Yes our group is worth its weight in gold, isn't it! And we definitely build each other up, even if we have to give each other a kick to the seat of the pants now and then!

Louisa Cornell said...

Ali, critique partners are great at making us more aware of every aspect of our writing. Each of us notices different things about writing - the work, the social aspect, the business aspect and yes, cover art. LOL Anything you learn from a critique partner is another step on the way to becoming the best writer you can be!

And one way to learn to be specific is to read critiques you have received and jot down the things that ticked you off or that weren't useful. Make that your list of things NOT to do! :)

Louisa Cornell said...

Suzanne, I love your first reader! What a treasure.

And suggesting what might work is ALWAYS helpful. Even if you don't do what the critiquer says, it may spark just the right idea to fix the problem.

Louisa Cornell said...

And Ali, one of these days I might just write a contemporary, so back AWAY from the commas ! :)

Cari Hislop said...

Fantastic post! My husband has turned out to be my main critique partner. He goes through my finished manuscript with three different pen inks (one or two chapters at a time) and then takes up to an hour explaining all the different levels of issues he has (with those two chapters). It feels like being stretched on an invisible wrack while being forced to listen to a hated song on endless replay, but it has made my writing and story telling stronger.

My advice would be...

Before getting criticism a writer needs to understand their own authentic voice and writing style. For instance, there's a growing current trend for stories written in present tense (which I can't read because I find it exhausting as well as irritating). If that's part of your writing style you need to find someone who loves reading or writing present tense or you'll get the wrong feed back. The same goes for what I call story-need. Some people need stories with lots of description. Some people find description gets in the way of the story. Some people (like me) value dialogue and character development over plot. Some people value plot over everything else. Understanding how we want and need to write our stories will help us identify whether the baby has mushed up banana all over it's face or if the baby is just really ugly.

Ali Hubbard said...

OK, backing away from the commas ;-) I also like the other comments.

Cari made me think too, because my first series is 1st person present and that's not a good fit for everyone. Fit is important. I almost need 3 partners: 1 for Erotica; 1 for New Adult (1st person); 1 for Contemporary (3rd person). I don't want to make someone who likes mid-heat contemporaries uncomfortable with blistering erotica. And, I don't want it to be a struggle for a CP because of the POV. Great tips. Great tips.

Connie Gillam said...

You are too funny!!!

And yes, I love that title.

Good advice:Give examples of why something doesn't work is must when giving a good critique.

Louisa Cornell said...

Cari, your husband is a keeper. Even if he does sound a bit sadistic as a critique partner. :)

And GREAT tip ! You have to choose a critique partner with the idea they will WANT to read your work and they have some expertise and appreciation of your work.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks for exerting that comma control, Ali! :)

And yes, if necessary find a critique partner (Or partners) for each genre you write. Their insight will be that much sharper!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thank you, Pixie Sister! Glad you enjoyed it.

And giving examples is SO much help in a critique. You can either steal what your CP gives you outright or it may spark just the idea you need. Anything that points you in the right direction is worth its weight in gold.