Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.
More than one person, doubtless like me,
writes in order to have no face.

Michel Foucault

Thursday, June 9, 2011

TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK

I am part of what was a small critique group. Joining them a few years back, the six to eight of us would huddle in the expanse of an old downtown library to scour our five double spaced pages of prose and then critique. We were the only population on the entire floor and met among the collectibles of old books and casual art displays as we dialoged savagely in a corner conference room.
Budgets, and things we don’t like, had us move to a newer and more modern library void of the musty smell of old books (and some homeless) which sometimes I long for. The new place is nice and it’s clean and orderly and shiny. There is something about the smell of books and writers—something a Nook or Kindle (although I believe the technology will save the literary public from dying a slow death) will never understand.
Our most recent group gathering held twenty-one writers and some were not in attendance. Having a group this large and reading, critiquing, reading, critiquing, takes a lot of time: with a full house, something like five minutes each. That is not much time to provide anything substantial. Of course, you can’t read and critique five pages in five minutes, so reality is we get through about six writers.

So, for what it is worth, here are some tips on critiquing.

Read the piece thoroughly. This will or at least should give a sense of story, flow, and theme.
Ask yourself a few general questions from a reader's perspective.

Did you find the piece interesting, enjoyable, informative?
Ideally, you should read the story again, but if you are attending a critique group, this normally is not possible.

Begin your critique by listing the elements that worked well.

A strong grasp of dialogue?
A well-constructed plot?
Was the pacing effective?

As a critiquer (is that a word), you should be like Bing (Crosby) and accentuate the positive. A respectful critique of the writer’s work helps. Face it…most of us are not editors, agents, or grammar gods, and we barely know what to do ourselves (or we wouldn’t be in a critique group to begin with) so relax and be cautious of your advice. Most writers are lousy critquers and with that, most of what you say doesn’t count. Still, starting out with the positive can help writers feel better about the critical assessments of their work and we should probably stick with characterization, dialogue, plot, continuity, theme and pacing.
If you are the average writer you don’t know a lot about grammar or punctuation other than what your high school English teacher kicked you for (Dang it…a preposition). You think you do? Define a dangling participle. Give up? It’s a participle intended to modify a noun but having the wrong grammatical relationship to it:

“Falling hundreds of feet into the river, we admired Niagra Falls.”

You were falling hundreds of feet while admiring Niagra? Simple, eh?

Let’s talk about adjective phrasing, or adjective clauses.

My head hurts already. 

The truth is, I don’t think about these things while writing and seldom if I am critiquing, except for the Niagra Falls sentence—that was kind of obvious. Nevertheless, if someone said, “Your adverbial clause should be eliminated” I would politely ask them to mark it on the paper and try to figure it out later.
With any writing critique group (exception of one I have attended), the general population is unpublished, struggling, needing advice, and only think they have something to write about. Sounds mean, I know, but so is the publishing industry. The chance of a publishing offer is minuscule  Less than one-half of a percent. Now that’s encouraging.
Oh, but wait. First you have to secure an agent….

Hate to burst the bubble, again, but another less than one-half of one percent.

So let’s say there are 10 writers in your group. Yeah, right. Do the math. If you have 100 writers, you may see one of them publish one say. Still, it’s unlikely. If you have the slightest notion that you will write a novel and said novel will become a published novel ending up on the shelves of your fav B&N, think again.

But we all need something to do; right?

If you are providing a critique try to address certain specifics in the structure and tone of the piece. Perhaps a checklist of each elements and go through the work to determine what works well and what doesn’t.

Does the plot hold the interest?
Does the character fall flat?
Is the dialogue believable?
Would the character really say a particular line.

A word of caution. In my latest novel, a mystery thriller, the main character being a police officer, I was recently critiqued in that my character said, “Freeze. Drop your weapon.” The challenge received from the critiquer was my protagonist didn’t identify himself as a police officer and THAT is required.  I politely absorbed the advice, but here is what was missed.
In a critique of work, one hears only a portion of the dialog or scene. With this group, we read about 5 double spaced pages. In this case, the protagonist not identifying himself has now created a conflict for later in the story when the case comes to prosecution. So, point being in this case, it was purposefully crafted dialog in order to move the story and provide a point of conflict in the future. Know what you write and write what you know.
I really dislike a rough draft brought into a critique. There are often typos, misspellings, and ungathered thoughts. It happens, so be patient, and unless the writer has specifically asked for help with this, or the errors are so bad that they impede your ability to focus on the story, do not dwell on small mistakes like typos.

Overall, be kind and honest in your critique.  You may not have all the answer, but you will know if the story has what it takes to move on. Sometimes a response like, "I love your writing" is enough.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't really want to have to meet in person and do critiques. It's a lot easier to hurt someone's feelings on the Internet. Plus you can work on your own time. And no hobos...unless you're critiquing with your laptop under a bridge or something. Or one wanders in to steal water and cream as happened at Panera Bread once.

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