Saturday, December 6, 2008

Critique, and the Writer's Compass

I'm thinking about critique today.

No single thing has been more critical for my progress as a writer. Showing my work to other people and asking what they think helps me to step back from the words and look at them from the outside. I can work and work and make a story the best I think it can be, but then when I show it to others I find my eyes opened to entirely new parameters of consideration. This is why I always, always have my work critiqued before I submit it anywhere.

Taking critique is an acquired skill. It's not just a matter of listening to someone tell you what they think you should do with a story, and then doing it. If that were all, then you'd never have a finished product, because everyone who reads it has different tastes, different preferences, and brings something different to their reading of the story. You'd just get pushed around. This is why it's important to have what I call the Writer's Compass.

The Writer's Compass is basically an instinct that holds onto your own idea for what you want the story to do. You want character A to come across as sympathetic. Or you want the city to be impressive. Or you want the scenery to be bewilderingly complex. When you set down a first draft, you make your first shot at achieving an effect, and you (hopefully) achieve it at least partially.

Then people start to critique. Remember that a great deal of the meaning of a story does not come from the story itself, but from the mind and experience of the reader. A reader will say, "I'm confused." Or they'll say, "I pictured him with black hair." Maybe they'll say, "The dialog sounded stilted to me." Or "I don't like him/this whole story."

This is part of where writers develop their thick skins. The other part is of course from the editors who say the same kind of things, along with the words "alas" or "I'm sorry."

But let's not think about editors yet - or at least, consider them as another voice in the process of critique. Say you wanted a particular effect, and you didn't achieve it for one of your readers. The next step is not to do what they think you should do. The next step is to try to figure out why they said what they said. Dig in and analyze the critique along with the manuscript. They may have pictured a character with black hair simply because you didn't specify his hair color early enough. Or because they found dark elements in his character. They may have felt the dialog was stilted because of the dialect that you used when writing it. Or because there was something unnatural about the situation in which the dialog occurred, which made the words themselves come out oh-so-slightly funny.

What I'm trying to say is that the effect you want to achieve should never be forgotten, and a critiquer isn't always going to suggest exactly the way to get there. So evaluate your manuscript with an eye for the difference between what you wanted, and what the reader wanted, and try not to say, "They just didn't get it." Try to ask yourself, "Why didn't they get it?"

It's a hard question to ask, but if you can find the answer, sometimes it can raise the story to a new level.


  1. One problem is to find the right reader. By "the right reader" I do not mean an uncritical reader who will simply say she/he liked it or not. I mean a reader with some sensitivity for the genre your story belongs to. It is not at all helpful to ask someone who dislikes Fantasy to read a Fantasy story, though in some extreme circumstances such a person may be the only reader available. The results tend to be disheartening, such as: "This story isn't worth the finger power it took to type it." A comment I actually received on one of my Dragon Christmas stories. By contrast, someone interested in and very knowledgeable about Fantasy made the observation that he wasn't clear whether the Dragon Christmas stories are aimed at children or adults; an observation which I found both helpful and surprising. BTW I'm still not sure of the answer.

    Of course, if one has the luxury of being able to attend writing classes or belong to a writers' group or workshop, there may be less difficulty finding the right reader. Even so, though, you need to be discriminating and firm. Not all suggestions are equally helpful. Yet, everybody who makes a suggestion thinks you *have* to implement *her/his* suggestion, or else you're stubborn and refuse to take criticism.

    I guess the bottom line is, find some one person or small group of persons whose judgment you trust to show your work to, and ignore nonhelpful criticism and suggestions, even when they are kindly meant.

  2. Interesting, Cat. I'm not sure I entirely agree. Yes, there is a level beyond which a reader naive to the genre cannot help, because many of the meanings that will resonate in a text come from the reader's prior experience with other works in that genre. However, I do find that non-genre readers can be helpful, provided that they are not given to insulting one-liners. :) Since I tend to work in alternate worlds of my own creation, I find it very helpful to hear a non-genre reader speak about the problem of world entry. If they can start to get it, then I feel like the world entry is sufficiently smooth so that the story can have wider appeal.

  3. World entry can be tricky to handle, I agree. This problem may be related to the problems of varisimilitude and, for lack of a tidy word, staying in keeping with the world.

    On the one hand, the world has to be internally consistent. I agree that a reader coming to a tale cold can point out inconsistencies that the writer overlooked and that this is very helpful. On the other hand, it is vitally important that the reader understand and accept the world as real. For that, not only internal consistency must be maintained but varisimilitude. however fantastical the setting or characters, if they feel real, the reader can suspend disbelief, at least in theory. It has been my sad experience, though, that some readers can't suspend disbelief. Such readers sometimes struggle even with mainstream fiction, complaining that such an action isn't believable or such a character as drawn by the author isn't realistic. They may be right and they may not, but they can't get beyond these ideas and are thus constitutionally incapable of providing helpful or even useful criticism.

    Perhaps you've never been stuck with such a well meaning but unhelpful reader. If so, you are very lucky.

  4. Oh, certainly I've met unhelpful readers. The problem you describe, where someone just can't suspend disbelief, is common to movies as well. I call it the "premise problem." If you can't deal with the premise, then it's hard for you to judge the execution. On the other hand, one of my best readers is a non-genre person who comes from the area of mainstream literary criticism. She picks up on entirely different issues from the ones my genre readers typically point out.

  5. Interesting. It makes sense that someone trained in a particular discipline - lit crit, say - would see different things than someone not so trained. That's analegous to how I, a Medievalist by training, sometimes spot inconsistencies and anachronisms etc. in Fantasy novels. Presumably, neither the author nor the editor was aware of these rough places. They tend to be minor mistakes, and I've never been totally put off a book because of them. Still, they are there, plain to see, if the reader is equipped to see them.

    I guess the old saying is true: If you make a mistake, however trifling, some reader somewhere will catch it.