Don’t sabotage yourself by doubling your workload. Keep your first draft word count in line.
Giving Helpful Feedback is a Craft in itself
Being a good critique partner is not reading someone’s story and saying “This is the best-est thing I have ever read.” (Even if it is.) It is also not saying “Wow, this sucks.” (Even if it does.) Most importantly, it is not telling another writer how to write their story. All three of these are useless as feedback.
Don’t give bad feedback; follow these guidelines.
Learning to be a good critique partner is like learning any new skill: it takes practice to develop. You will make mistakes and so will your critique partners. But learning to give better critiques will not only make you more valuable as a critique partner, it will also give you a set of tools to evaluate the feedback you receive.
Every time I critique a first chapter I always spend a good part of the e-mail reminding the author that opinions are subjective and something that doesn’t work for one person may work for another. This is the unavoidable problem with getting feedback on your work, and the more feedback a writer gets, the more likely that feedback is to be contradictory. That is why it is critical for an author to be able to evaluate the quality of the feedback they receive.
The first step
Always start by exchanging samples (Usually the first 10 pages or so.) This will give you an indication if you like the story well enough to give feedback on an entire novel. Also, make sure that you and your partner are avid readers in the genre/category you are critiquing. As you read through the pages, keep this list in the back of your head, or download a print copy:
Checklist for Critique Partners
Is the world consistent: Do all the rules make sense? Do they change for “plot” reasons?
Is the world believable, i.e. could a human society reach the conclusions that govern this world?
Character’s personal world:
Do the character’s circumstances match with their conflict?
Is the problem realistic?
Do you believe this character could find himself in this situation?
Does the character react in a believable, consistent manner, i.e. do they always panic, or do they sometimes act defiant and sometimes aim to please?
Is the dialogue natural?
Does it move the story forward?
Is it filled with useless chit-chat?
Does the conflict make sense?
Is the character’s response proportional to the seriousness of the conflict?
Does the conflict begin on the first page?
Does the conflict chain continue unbroken through the sample?
Does it continue to intensify throughout the sample?
Are there unnecessary info dumps? (Overt or hidden?) Are there any useless interactions? Small actions? (daily living things not plot related: getting dressed, brushing teeth)
Is there a good balance between high-intensity and low-intensity elements?
Are the transitions clean? Do the transitions happen too soon, too late?
Je Ne Sais Quoi:
Were you hooked? If so where?
Were you turned off? If so where?
Is it clean or flowery?
Overuse of adjectives/adverbs?
Repetitive words? Clichés?
Do the word choices match the character/setting?
Is there too much setting in the prose? i.e. Is there too much slang? Or too grandiose?
Does the POV work?
Does the action feel too distant?
Are there too many filtering words? Does intentional distancing work?
Are there POV mistakes? Head hopping? Action/elements described that POV character could not have seen?
Try to answer all or most of these questions. Feel free to add your own as well.
What to do when the pages are great
We all know this feeling. You click open the file and suddenly are transported to another place and time. Words wrap around you in a blissful embrace. The pages are amazing. What are you, a mere mortal, possibly going to say to improve them?
First: It’s OK to say the pages work
Second: It’s not OK to throw out random suggestions just to have something to say.
Now that you have said you like the pages, give detailed reasons using the list above about what you liked. Chances are, the writer will need to hear this because someone else might have told her to change it.
What to do when the pages are not great
We’ve all been here as well. Every time this happens to me, I’m crushed. I know how much work goes into writing, and when I see pages that need to be scrapped, I’m devastated. Some pointers:
You can say, “This doesn’t work for me.”
Now, you must go through the above list and tell the author, very specifically and without editorializing, why it doesn’t work. What do I mean by that? Don’t try to soften to blow by dancing around the issue and using soft language. You are not saving their ego; you are insulting them by treating them like a child. Keep feedback clear and specific.
Example: “Concrete” is a contemporary word and it jarred me out of your ancient Aztec setting.
is better than
Example: Have you thought about whether “concrete” is the best word choice here? I’m not sure if an ancient Aztec person would know about concrete or not.
Really? If you’re not sure about whether someone with stone age technology would use concrete construction, you should probably watch more PBS. The second example insults both you and your CP.
After you have gone through the list and made very specific criticisms, I would also encourage you to find something positive to say about the sample. Usually, I find that if a person struggled with plotting aspects, her prose might be really strong, or vice versa.
I’ve never seen a sample that did not have one redeeming element. Was there a particularly well-drawn character? Or a place where the story pacing finally clicked and the wordiness evaporated? My favorite: look for places where an element that was a problem previously was handled well. This will let the author know she where her writing shines, which is the best encouragement.
Good Critique Partners Never:
- Blindly apply blanket advice without considering whether it works for this story. (Don’t tell your CP to cut her prolog just because you’ve heard they are out of fashion.) Same goes for telling her to write in 1st POV because all YA is. (Not true)
- Tell a CP something doesn’t work without offering a specific reason why. It is OK to say you aren’t sure why, but don’t just say something sucks without further comment.
- Tell a CP to change something for the sake of change. (If you suggest a change, make sure it actually is an improvement: i.e. raises stakes, fixes a plot hole, etc.)
- Tell a CP to add something just because it’s trendy. (Writing to trends is the fastest way to make your MS cliché.)
Being a good CP isn’t about giving each other a pat on the head. A good CP will challenge you, call you out on your mistakes, and ultimately make you a better writer. But being a great CP will also give you to tools to properly evaluate your own work. The more you critique pages the better you will become at spotting these problems and avoiding them all together in your own work meaning you will spend less time editing/revising with better results. And isn’t that what we all want?
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Don’t let bad writing advice ruin your manuscript
Bad writing advice, or good advice that doesn’t work for your story, can completely ruin your manuscript. Trying too hard to follow someone else’s writing rules is letting someone else author your story. Don’t let that happen.
The week’s shredding was a resubmission from a year ago. She had completely reworked her opening, and I was excited to see what changes she had made. I also re-read my original comments to compare the two and see what advice she had taken and what she had left. I’d like to say I did this so I could tailor her feedback and not retread old issues, but really I wanted to know if the advice I gave a year ago was complete crap.
Even now, I still have a panic attack every time I e-mail someone my comments from their shredding.
There are tons of people out there giving writing advice. Much of it is just regurgitating the same basic points over again in different ways: Death to prologues! -ly is evil. Deep POV is the only way to tell a story. All from bloggers, myself included, trying to help beginners make their manuscript sound more professional. Everyone is trying to nail down the “rules” that will guarantee a spot on the NYTBSL. While some of it is very sound, some of it is just bonkers, and ALL the rules have plenty of exceptions.
I opened the submission and was immediately confused. The author hadn’t done a rewrite of the first chapter, she had written a completely different book. Everything that I loved about her original draft: the authentic teen voice, the richly (notice I used an -ly word there) detailed setting, and one of the best opening lines to have crossed my desk, had been edited into oblivion. All in favor of faster pacing. I was stunned.
I guessed that the author had in the past year likely gotten multiple CP’s to give her feedback and then made changes trying to accommodate everyone’s advice. As a result, she ended up with a story that had lost all its individuality. The authored ignored all her good instincts and lost her voice. The story was no longer hers. It had been written by a committee.
You can’t take a set of rules from an article and blanket apply it to your story. All advice, yes even mine, needs to be considered in the context of the story that you want to tell. Right now 1st person deep POV is ruling the advice circuit, but it doesn’t work for every story. Could you imagine Winnie the Pooh told from this POV?
My tummy is rumbling, always, always rumbling. I’m so hungry. I am always hungry, but there’s nothing here. Just sticky, empty pots lining my walls. Dozens of them. Stacked to the ceiling, leaning, tumbling, scattered on the floor. I searched them yesterday, I’ll look again today, but they are always empty.
In this POV the bear of very little brain takes a completely different tone.
If everyone follows all the same rules, then everyone will be writing the same story.
There is no right way to write a book.
Some rules for ignoring the rules:
The only real rule for writing is: Know what story you want to tell
Do I want to tell the story of a hungry bear’s unrelenting quest for a meal, or do I want to tell a story of friendship through the eyes of a little boy’s imagination?
When you know what story you want to tell, then you have something to use as a guideline for processing your feedback.
Consider each piece of feedback and ask: Does this serve or undermine the story I want to tell?
Does it reflect my character?
I’ve seen characters whose inner voice is choppy and scattered. This is their voice. Cleaning up this for the sake of pretty prose would destroy the character. Instead of having someone who is an impulsive flake, the author would end up with an inconsistent character who acted like an idiot and somehow spoke like someone with a BA in creative writing.
Does it actually make the story better or is it just a change for the sake of change?
I’m guilty of this in my feedback. We are all writers, and it’s easy to get inspired by someone else’s story and add suggestions for things we like: a change of costume, setting, or intensity of the dialogue. Adding a “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” comment. The answer is always “maybe.” Make sure the suggestion would actually be better than what you already have. You can always tuck their ideas away and use them in your next novel.
Does it implement a rule for the rule’s sake or for the story?
In my own MS, I was advised to start en media res, but this meant I lost all the relationships that made revealing moment meaningful. It didn’t work. Chopping off the opening chapters to get to the action sooner didn’t serve the story.
You are allowed to ignore advice
I give you permission to ignore any advice. Yes, even mine.
Do read articles, get feedback, and work to improve your craft, but ultimately you are the author. Only you can tell the story you are meant to tell.
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