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Sunday, August 28, 2011

7 Common Pitfalls of Critiquers

You've been there. You join a critique group and submit your baby manuscript into the glaring lights of their red pens, and your story gets dissected, analyzed, and sown back together into a Frankenstein of your writing nightmares. To be sure, the bulk of critiquers are good, and may help to fine-tune a story. But there are those who commit what I'll call the seven common pitfalls of critiquers that I've run into. Maybe you've done some of these yourself. I know I have on occasion.

1. Expounding beyond your expertise.

A lot of new writers, after reading a book or two on writing, suddenly deem themselves experts on what is wrong with your manuscript. The truth is, while reading good books, going to classes, and other helpful sources of training, a new writer isn't going to really know why something is or isn't working until they've written a lot of words themselves. The common suggestion is somewhere in the neighborhood of one million words. Once you've written that many words of fiction, and/or have successfully published and sold your work, then you come closer to claiming the title of expert.

Does that mean I shouldn't give my opinion? Of course you should. Just make sure the tone and message is that it is only your opinion and it could be way off base. The problem comes when despite not having written more than a few short stories and/or a novel or two, you present your opinions as if you're a bestselling author who's earned his or her chops and knows the business, and the author of the story you're critiquing had better listen to you, or watch his or her career go down the drain.

One of the big problems with most on-line critique groups is the people are anonymous, and you have no idea what the qualifications are of the person critiquing your story. They may act as if they are on the bestseller's list, but not have one single story of theirs published. Keep in mind when someone sounds very sure of themselves, unless you know they are a long-time author who's written several successful novels, he or she could be nothing more than someone no more experienced than you, giving you a lot of bluster.

2. Being the writing rule police.

First, let me say, it is important that writers learn the basic rules of writing. But how do we learn those? By writing and practicing one or two things at a time. Let's say you are messing up pov, and doing a lot of telling, and characters are using unnatural dialog, etc. First you take one thing, say pov, and practice writing a story with multiple povs until you've learned to hand off the pov from one character to another, or how to set a new pov in a scene off the bat, or how to avoid jumping outside of that pov. It won't work if you try to practice all the areas you need improvement in at one time. You use each story you write as a targeted practice session, whether it ever sells or not.

But you want to know the truth? The first and only really important part of story telling that you have to get down is to tell a great story that hooks readers in. It is exactly this reason that you will see authors who break nearly every rule in the book and yet end up on the bestseller's list. I'm not saying the rules are not important. I'm only saying they are not the determining factor on whether a story you write will capture and keep the interest of readers. If you have a great story and interesting characters, you can tell all you want and show little, and people will buy it. You can have dialog that the experts laugh at, and sell a million books. Following the rules will not ensure success, nor will breaking them prevent it.

Why? Because the number one reason a reader picks up and reads a fiction book is to be entertained. If you are able to do that one thing, the rest doesn't matter. The whole purpose of the rules is to tell new writers what types of techniques create an entertaining story. They are guides to help you to write a compelling story. But if you have a compelling story and break those rules, they don't matter one hill of beans. Could the story be better if those rules were followed? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Depends on the story. But it can still be successful as long as you write and entertaining story, no matter how that happens.

But in critique groups, some will present a writing rule as if you don't fix this in your story, and do what they say, your story is doomed from the get go. But that is simply not the case. Don't diss anyone who offers such a suggestion, you may need to take heed and practice that technique. All I'm saying here is avoid acting like if the author doesn't fix this broken rule of writing, that their story will never see the light of day.

3. Acting like you know what the readers want.

Let's put this bluntly. If you knew what the readers really wanted, you'd be rich. You sure wouldn't be fiddling around in a critique group. You'd be running a publishing company cranking out one bestseller after another. Since most publishers only hit around 20% successful books in their line up, your company would make millions and you'd have so much money, why would you waste your time being an anonymous critiquer?

And yet, I've heard more than once something along the lines of, "...readers will not read past page one unless you do X, Y, and Z." As a matter of fact, I may have said such myself more than once. But the truth is, none of us knows what the readers are going to do. That is nothing more than one person's opinion. And where readers are concerned, that person's opinion may be a very small minority opinion.

Let me help you out here. Writers tend to be the pickiest readers. They notice every slip of the pen, when you forgot to use a comma right, or will complain to themselves that it should be "its," not "it's." For that writer, seeing that "ruins the whole story" for them. Typos cause them to throw up their arms in disgust. But your average reader out there who doesn't train themselves to notice every little flaw? They aren't going to be bothered by such things, even if they happen to notice it. Sure, there are some who will be, but the bulk of readers are more interested in whether you can tell a good story, not if you have down the proper usage of commas. That only gets in the way when it causes confusion and injures the enjoyment of the story.

So, if you get such a statement, realize the critiquer doesn't know what they are talking about, because nobody can predict what the readers will or will not like. Likewise, resist the urge to make such a statement to an author whose work you are critiquing. All you can do is present what one reader, yourself, noticed and felt. Don't try to speak for the other several million readers out there. That's nothing more than an intimidation ploy in most cases.

4. Demanding the author fix a perceived problem.

This goes along with #1 above. I've had critiquers tell me I couldn't move on with my story until I fixed the problems they'd seen thus far. Now, they had good intentions. Maybe that's how they operate, but I don't. I'll go through a story, gather critiques, then at a later date go back through the comments and decide what needs fixing and how I'm going to do it. I don't tend to make changes to my story in the middle of getting critiqued. For me, that isn't the best time to go making changes. Their opinions may change a little further down the story when they see how that part fit into the whole.

When someone gets mad at me for not fixing it before I move on, that says to me they perceive themselves as the expert who must be listened to, and unless I fix this issue, right now, the whole story is doomed because I've broken a writing rule, and readers will put the book down at this point in the story because they can't stomach what I've done.

Rule number 1 of critiquing someone's story: it is their story, and they can write it however they want. You are being good enough to give your opinion, but to expect them to follow all your advice is silly. It isn't your story. Give your thoughts and then move on, letting them do with your suggestions what they want. There's no reason to feel dissed if the author doesn't take your suggestions, or to get angry and stop giving them your best critique.

5. Never saying what is right about a story.

It never happens that even the best of the professional authors never break a rule or mess up in their writing. It happens far more than they would want to admit. Remember #2 above. It's the entertaining story that sells, not the perfection in technique. Likewise, even a newbie writer is going to do some things right.

Some people say they don't want critiques that are nothing more than "pats on the back." And I agree. I want to know if they didn't like something I've written, and if they can state it, why they think it didn't work for them. If more than one person feels that way, it becomes something I should at least check into. That said, neither is a good critique one that never tells you what you are doing right.

Why? Because an author needs to know what they are doing right as well as wrong, in order that they won't change what they are doing right and mess that up as well. They may not be aware they did something right. Or maybe think they did, but they need confirmation on it. You tell them not to stroke their ego, but as further training in what to do to write a good story.

Take a driving instructor, for instance. Maybe the driver-in-training cuts too close on a turn and hits the curb first time or two attempting the move. The instructor might say something like, "Well, that's no good for the tires, and you could hit someone standing on the corner. Wait until the front end of your vehicle is lined up with the edge of the street before you make your turn next time."

What does the driver-in-training do at that point? Does he slam on his brakes, back the car up, and try again? No. He'd risk backing into a car behind him, or hitting the curve again backing up. It is far harder to drive backwards than forwards. Instead, they go onto the next corner and practice it again.

Then what does the instructor say when the driver-in-training successfully turns the curve without hitting the curb? "Now you've got it. Just do it that way each time, and you'll have it down." The instructor will confirm that the driver-in-training did it right, so they'll know to keep doing it that way in the future. Same thing in writing. Once the writer starts doing something right, you want to confirm that for them so they will know they've got it down, and will stop making major adjustments to it, but move to fine tuning. Why? So the next story they do, they'll know to follow the same principles.

And the other side of the issue is that the negative comments you have are easier to swallow when you also note what was done correctly. I try to start off with what I liked about a story or chapter I'm critiquing, and end with what I liked about it. That way the author doesn't get the idea that I thought the whole thing stunk to high heaven.

6. Starting off with, "I'm sorry, but..."

Anytime I read a critique that starts out with, "I'm sorry," I know what's coming. For what the critiquer is really telling me is, "I'm sorry I hate the crap out of this thing, and I've got some bad news for you about your story, so hold on and get through my coming slam-fest, and maybe, just maybe, we'll salvage this thing you call a story, if you do exactly what I tell you."

Okay, I'm over dramatizing it, but when a critique starts off that way, you know one of two things, neither of which is ever very good. One, they feel what they are about to say will be personally hurtful. Why else tell someone sorry unless you think they are going to feel like someone just clobbered them with a tire iron?

When I critique others, and receive critiques, I never treat them as personal. Sure, it can sometimes be discouraging to realize one of your favorite parts of the story sunk like a rock in a pond in someone's eyes, but if I didn't want to hear that and discover that, I wouldn't have put my story up for critique. That kind of feedback is the very reason I put the story up. If it isn't working, best to find out then than after I've sent it in to an editor. So there's no sense in turning something that is simply treated as a professional improvement learning into a statement that sounds like they expect me to take what is about to be said, personally. Maybe because they would.

Or, two, the critiquer is using that opening as their permission to be disrespectful to me, to make it personal. You see, you can correct someone without making it sound like a parent-child relationship. There is never any cause to treat another author with disrespect, as if they are a five-year-old the critiquer has caught with their hand in the cookie jar. And starting out with, "I'm sorry, but..." does not release you from liability of doing that. I'm sorry, but it does not! Treat even the most newbie of writers, who makes countless errors, as a human God has created and deserves to be treated as an equal, not a literary slob.

And number two goes for those who will tell writers that you have to have a "thick skin" as a writer. In some ways, yes, but that should never be an excuse to take a baseball bat to the writer just to see how thick that skin really is. There is never an excuse for being mean or heartless. You can give honest, truthful, and helpful critiques, telling people where they need improvement, without sounding disrespectful in the process. No one should need to have a thick skin for that.

7. You're not Stephen King.

Have you heard that one before? Every said it, or its equivalent? Here's the deal. When someone points out that some famous author has committed the same writing sin as they have, it would be to point out that the writing sin committed would not prevent the author from writing a good story that people will like. Why? Because so-and-so author did the same thing, and that book became a bestseller.

Now, the rational goes something like this. "He's a successful author for a reason, because he was experienced enough to know how to break the rules for a certain affect. He knew what he was doing." The implication being, I do not. This statement effectively "wins" the point, for most certainly I'm not as experienced a writer as whoever was pointed out, and that author may very well have made a conscious decision to break a rule to produce a certain affect. But nine times out of ten, that writer broke that rule by mistake, not on purpose. Or in his or her day, that wasn't even considered a "rule" for good writing.

No, the real point is, as I stated earlier, is all writers on all levels of experience, break the writing rules by mistake and still write entertaining stories that sell well. What they know by experience how to do is write entertaining stories that people want to read, despite those imperfections. And even the newbie writer who is still working on being able to tell a captivating tale, is correct to point out that popular author X got away with breaking these rules and succeeded. But, what it doesn't mean is it is an excuse to ignore the rules. While they aren't irrevocable laws like the law of gravity, to ignore them as one learns the craft is like discarding the wisdom of countless writers from the past as to what works and doesn't work, generally speaking.

But when some new writer mentions that famous author X committed this sin and did pretty well, instead of pointing out that the new writer isn't author X, and doesn't have the skill set to pull off breaking that rule like author X, help them to see that author X probably wouldn't like that he/she committed that sin either, and might want to correct it if they'd caught it before it was published. And that, yes, you can get published even if you break a rule, but why not make it the best story it can be? If following that rule doesn't help toward that end, then ditch it. But if it could, why ignore it? Author X wouldn't have.

So, there you have it. My seven common pitfalls of critiquers. Do you have others you'd add to this list? Do you disagree with this list?

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