Monday, 21 November 2011

Two Pronged Attack

When you write a story and then ask someone to read it and give you feedback, you are asking two things:

1. How well have I said the thing I’m trying to say?
2. Was it worth saying?

Obviously you can give an opinion on both of those, but in order to help the writer improve things, you may also want to offer some suggestions.

The problem with no.1  is that often it isn’t all that clear what the writer is trying to say. Sometimes they get close enough so you know roughly the sort fo thing they're aiming for, but sometimes it isn't clear at all. You can say to them, I don't get what's going on here, but if it happens early on and you have more story to read, you ahve to make assumptions. And those assumptions may well be wrong. As will any suggestions you make based on those assumptions. It’s like giving direction to someone when you don’t know their destination.

In situations like that, it can feel a lot safer to offer generic advice, spelling grammar, use fewer adverbs, that sort of thing. The writer can get frustrated that he’s getting a lot of nits and typos pointed out but not big picture stuff. That’s because it’s not clear what the big picture is supposed to be.

Embarrassment can appear on both sides. The reader doesn’t want to be too negative or critical, nor does he want to appear stupid or admit that he just didn’t get it.

The writer doesn’t want to clearly state his intentions, in case his ambitions are ridiculed and mocked. Oh, the dragon's meant to represent the totalitarian state is it? How very la-di-da.

Of course neither of these things will actually happen, but writing can be a very exposing activity that makes people feel vulnerable.

However, in order to get help with your writing at more than a basic punctuation level, you need to have someone who you are willing to explain yourself to, as excruciating as that might be. It helps if they too are a writer; then you can swap humiliations.

Point no.2, whether what you’re doing is worth doing, is obviously very subjective. Plenty of people will dismiss everything you’re interested in. At the same time, some people will be into the same stuff and give everything you do a free pass. Neither approach is very helpful.

While point no.1 is about the technicalities of getting things as good as possible, point no.2 is much more personal and can be taken as an attack on the writer as a human being. There’s not really much you can do about that, it’s always going to come down to a difference of opinion. I might think my idea of a zombie detective who hunts down serial killers and eats them is genius, you might consider the zombie genre a little passé.

Of course, a mature discussion about whether the characters and their narratives are as good and original as they could be would be very helpful, but that’s not an easy thing to find. 

Personally, I feel the writer is the one who will gain from any comments made—the reader is doing work for free, and even idiot comments take effort to produce—so it's behooves the writer to accept whatever advice or commentary is given, no matter how asinine or wrong-headed, and then move on. Because every now and again someone will come along and offer you the suggestion that helps beyond measure, and that’s worth suffering a few fools for.


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Nancy Thompson said...

Even the most discouraging critiques have been beneficial for me. It is sometimes hard to hear what the reader has to say, but as a reader, they are usually valid in some sense. The hard part is to give feedback that is constructive. Don't just say what's wrong, but also how you think it might be made better. More than anything, you can't make everyone happy so don't even try. It's way too subjective. Writers are readers, so we know that.

Abhishek said...

The problem with me is I never figure-out what went wrong with my story!!

I so love what I have written that I never wanna change!!! LOL!!

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That makes sense. How can someone comment or make suggestions if he's not sure what's really going on or where it's going?
Although I'll take the nit-pick items as well. Any help I can get...

Mary Mary said...

I feel every writer needs to have a good, honest critique group in place. But not one with so many people, otherwise the clashing of minds and ideas will only confuse the writer (too many cooks in the kitchen is what one of my critiquers says). It's also a good idea to have beta readers who aren't necessarily writers, but know what it takes to have a good story. They won't necessarily point out all the grammar issues, but if they've spent most of their life reading then they will know what needs to be in a good story. Very insightful post!

Rusty Carl said...

Brilliantly stated. I think number 2 is really tough. I mean, maybe I shouldn't have given my Satanic erotica novel to my priest to critique in the first place. But assuming I didn't make that boneheaded a mistake, it can be almost impossible to figure out if what I have to say is worth telling... what if I just want to entertain you, and not speak about the ethical arguments of eating meat.

A good critique partner should at least know the story you're trying to tell, and let you know where your story didn't convey the ideas you wanted it to. Hopefully, they won't judge you on whether or not they agree with your statement about the world.

McKenzie McCann said...

If I know I'm editing a fairly early draft, I'll do more of a conceptional edit. My edits mostly include a lot of questions, comments on confusing bits, and things that I like.

However, if it's a later draft, I often just critique the writing. Later drafts are usually pretty good anyway.

mooderino said...

@nancy-I always appreciate any effort to offer something constructive, but often that's the hardest thing if you're not sure what the writer was going for.

@Abhishek-that's why it helps to have someone else read it. And also why it can be so very painful.

@Alex-even spotting a small typo is a step in the right direction.

@Mary Mary-thanks.

@Rusty-I supect a priest would know more about satanic erotica than you might suspect...

@McKenzie-that's a good way to approach it. I do a lot of online critiquing and it can be hard to tell where in the process they are. You can also run into soem very sensitive characters, so it can be a bit of a minefield.

nutschell said...

I never really saw the value in critique sessions until I attended my very first one. Now I try to go to as many critiques as I can. As writers we get too emotionally attached to our work. Having other writers read our work with totally editorial (and fresh) eyes certainly helps improve our writing.


Rachna Chhabria said...

Earlier I was very possessive about what I wrote. After I got my two lovely crit partners, I am eager to show them what I wrote and get their feedback as I feel they come up with fabulous criticism that enhances my story.

Unknown said...

Editing content can be a real minefield. I think part of the process of developing into a good writer is learning good critique from bad. Of course, it's equally important to be able to take something from the critique and improve while also remaining true to your story.

mooderino said...

@nutschell-letting go of that attachment and focusing on improvements was a bnig step for me too.

@Rachna-having people you're happy to listen to no matter what they say makes a big difference, I think.

@Melissa-it's also important to appreciate where the critiquer is expressing an opinion and where they're offering technical advice.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

This is why I never let relatives read my blog. I know blogging is different from short stories or novels, but they always come up with a)sickeningly sweet things to say or b)think I'm weird for writing about books by authors who've been dead for more than a hundred years. It's hard to find someone who can give you their honest opinion about something. In this case, opinion = criticism that might sting a little but can actually help.

Unknown said...

Too true. That was a lesson I learned the awkward way.

Maeve Frazier said...

You are right! As writers we have a lot to gain from our critique partners. We can take the good comments along with the bad comments, our stories growing as a result from it.

Christa Desir said...

yes, this is why CPs you trust are absolutely essential. and why you also need to learn how to say no to reading for other people if you don't love their writing. hard lesson.

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