Saturday, May 29, 2010

A breadth of critique

Today I participated in the writers' workshop at BayCon. I have a great deal of affection for this writers' workshop, because it was the first place I ever received professional critique for any of my work - and because this summer, six years after I first submitted it to the BayCon writer's workshop (and after much revision), the story that I submitted there is finally being published in Eight Against Reality! I felt the session went really well, and it also reminded me how important it is to get a breadth of critique on your work.

One of the participants had written an intriguing story in a really fascinating world, and she told us that she was shocked we liked it so much, because always before she'd gotten critique from people who focused on the literary genre rather than the sf/f genre.

I'll admit, this can be a problem. Many people from outside the sf/f genre will be turned off by science fictional or fantastical premises and be unable to evaluate a story for what it's actually trying to achieve. However, this is not always the case.

The best thing, to my mind, is to try to get a wide breadth of feedback. If you only give your work to the precise audience you intend it for, then you'll be getting only a partial view of how your work will be received. Readers who typically read different genres will be sensitized to different aspects of a story. For example:

  • Literary readers will be sensitive to vocabulary use, to parallelism and to patterns of words that create impressions in a reader's mind.
  • Thriller readers will be sensitive to issues of pacing.
  • Mystery readers will be sensitive to information control and the development of hypotheses about what's going on behind the scenes.
  • Naive readers - and by that I mean readers who aren't especially allied to any particular genre - can serve as a great measure of entry point success (how easy the book is to get into and understand at the hooking-point)
This of course is just a small sampling. I will note that I find it really useful to get naive reader opinions because I work with points of view that can be difficult to "get into." The important thing, I think, is to listen to where the critique most speaks to what you as a writer are trying to accomplish. A critique that just says "I like it" or "I don't like it" has no value at all as a guide to revision, but any critique that is able to address specific points in the text or specific aspects of the work can potentially be very useful.

I need to add a caveat here. That is, the things that other writers point out to you and tell you to do should not necessarily be taken at face value. Advice needs to be assessed in the context of what you, the writer, are trying to accomplish with the story. This is in fact a fine point, and a critical one for me. I do mean to say that you shouldn't simply follow advice. I don't mean to say that you should ignore advice and simply say "that reader doesn't get it."

The simple fact that a reader doesn't get it is worth your notice, every time. I never like to alienate a reader if I can help it. So I always suggest that someone doesn't get it, you should be asking why. The answer to that question why is sometimes in the reader - such as when someone can't accept your premise and that colors their judgment of the rest of the story. But more often than not, if you look hard, you can find the basis for their confusion in your text. And that will allow you to take action in your revisions to make things clearer for readers, even if it doesn't mean taking the critiquer's advice. Have enough confidence in yourself to remember that even if your reader can't see a way to fix a problem they've identified, that doesn't mean you can't fix it. It's your story; if anyone can fix it, you can.

So what I typically do is run my stories by a number of groups. If my story is intended for Analog, I go through my main critique group first (Written in Blood) to get their varying opinions on what it needs, and then once it's the best I can make it, I run it by a critique group of Analog readers to make sure I'm responding to their very particular needs (they're a wonderfully exacting group!). Then before I send it off I always make sure to run it by my special literary reader, because I know she can catch things that none of the others can - things that stand out to her because of her special point of view. When I've gone through all these steps, I can feel ready to send a story out.

I know that some people don't work with critique, and each writer needs to follow his or her own process. But at least for me, critique has been the reason for my success, and I like a lot of it, because I find it helps me raise my craft to a higher level and reach a broader audience.


  1. Speaking as the writer mentioned above, it was an amazing experience to be critiqued by people who understood what I was aiming at and who appreciated it. This was a milestone for me, and thank you.

    Mary Holland

  2. I'd like to add that giving critique is the best way I know for improving my own craft. Certainly I've benefited from critiques of my work, but learning to analyze writing by doing it with someone else's work has changed by writing life for the better.

  3. Very good point, Amber. Looking at others' work can really help you understand your own.

  4. Good thoughts--I've had the "don't get it" response to some of my unpublished work before. You made me think twice about dismissing that!

  5. Thanks for the comment, jadesmith. I'm glad you found my post thought-provoking.