clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Critique, Finding Fault, and Advice

 Cheeto the cat provides a little needed input at left. I'm interpreting this as "not quite right for us."

I'm talking tonight about the solicited and unsolicited input we writers receive.

First: the Critique. When I hear someone ask for a critique or they send me something to read, I pretend I heard them say "I need an attaboy because I worked like a dog on this thing and just need to know it was worth it."

This might not be what they wanted, but it is relatively harmless to point out the bits of the piece I thought were working or the parts that I enjoyed reading. Having someone say "I liked the introduction of the dragon character" is far better than saying "I didn't understand the Gwain character at all. He was wooden and contrived." If they want the true reader's impression of what wasn't working, they need to ask for it another way.

Second: Finding Fault. This is the snarky workshop trick of some (frequently poor) writers who seem to believe that increasing their stock comes by devaluing the other writers around them. I think this was called destructive criticism when I was in school. It's the sort of thing written in haste across a paper that just crushes a student. [ This is American Lit. If you want to write for Letterman, enroll in a different section. Otherwise, your observations should be expressed in facts you can support with a  footnote. ]

Now, I've made a  joke or two in passing in sessions before that I regretted when the words left my lips because my reference was poorly received. [I get it .. The baby is the whale. The mother is Ismael and the Paul character is Ahab in a station wagon driving them on ! .... The writer didn't know the characters in Moby Dick. Ooops. ] Now, in sessions I refrain from any joking or encouraging others by responding with laughter. It isn't worth hurting someone's feelings for a fifteen second diversion into mirth.

I will however joke around in a social writing group. Thin skin beware. If someone complains about some aspect of prose deficiency and it seems to hit home, it probably wasn't aimed at you personally. If you're in my writing circle, just mention "typing like a chimp" or a "simian editing style" and move on...

Finding fault comes in many forms. It is unsolicited advice (I just "don't get" the protagonist's mother). It is an unsolicited example (Here, I've re-written the paragraph and this reads better. You can use it). It is a snarky comment meant to win favor from a particularly unpleasant workshop leader (I'm not sure I fully see you channeling Mary Shelley in that passage for an emotional palette of the Gothic form. It had a little of an Erma Bombeck and Steven King love child thing going for it). It is an unsolicited realism observation also known as Die Hard Syndrome where unbelievable events just keep coming ( Nobody keeps a safari rifle in the back of a Jeep. It all lost me there when they decide to kill the dinosaur.)

We all try not to be "that guy" and trust me, "that guy" shares a little more opinion that is EVER solicited.

Third: Advice. This is the true feedback that a writer often wants but really doesn't want to hear. If they want advice, they have to explicitly instruct the reader (me, in this case) what is within bounds. I'll offer this feedback when I clarify what they want me to include. I do this for someone who says "I want to hear what's wrong ...what's not working." If an opinion on the quality of the dialogue isn't requested, I'll not say "I found Mary's speeches to be poorly disguised info dumps that made me dread the six hundred times I've done the same bloody thing." I'll restrain myself to what I'm instructed (See how the scene transitions work for you. I saw Hemingway do it and I wonder if I got it right).

When actively solicited by the author, I will offer something negative if indeed I can see the issue. I won't say "Jeeze, it seems a little loose here and I didn't like the iguana in the bedroom part but I don't know ...maybe it's OK for  romance novel." I might want to, but I won't.

I'll either pull out of the author specifically what they want me to look at or, I'll just mention the parts that work very well and let them figure out what I did not mention.

Maybe that's a poor policy but I do not want to be the guy who crushed someone's fragile little dream of a story by treating with the it delicacy of a Sunday Morning Political Show (say, Beat The Press). I'm not going to watch anyone tear up.

I've gone on too long here. My point is that agents send form letters because they don't have any stock in the makers of facial tissue. "Not quite right for us" is far nicer than "The character Molly is poorly rendered."  When a writer asks for an opinion, they might not be asking for what you hear out of their mouth at first. Be careful. Friends are hard to make and easy to loose.

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