My point of view, Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: Critique Nightmares

If we lived in a perfect world, critiquing other people’s work would be a joy.

A writer asks me to critique her work. We exchange e-mails, and things look good as far as a match between our mutual expectations. Her piece arrives when I have free time to work on it. Her first sentence makes me groan with delight. I am immediately jealous. How come I can’t write this well?

Several paragraphs into the story I find not only material I like a lot, but things that can be tightened, improved, etc. Now I’m no longer jealous and I can look forward to the task ahead. I read the piece and make comments. She respects my comments, but doesn’t slavishly follow every one of them. Goodness knows I’m wrong as often as I’m right. We exchange a few other e-mails and both walk away from the experience satisfied.

In my dreams.

Here’s critiquing reality:

A writer asks me to critique her work. Yes, I know I said I’d read her stuff. I thought twenty, maybe fifty pages. It never dawned on me she’d send her entire 400-page novel, AND expect a critique by next Tuesday. My husband has the flu, my car’s transmission died, and my editor wants a rewrite a whole subplot three weeks from now.

I plunge into her book. Not only is it horrible and likely unfixable, but she confides to me in an e-mail that her main character, Bob, is based on her brother who committed suicide when he was sixteen. She’s adamant that changing a single word pertaining to Bob would be a travesty to her brother’s memory. This whole experience is likely to turn out terrible for both of us.

Here are some preventive strategies and first aid for when you’ve said yes to critiquing, but have this horrible feeling you should have said no.

 Start by asking questions

  •  How did you come to write this story?
  • What stage is the story at for you?
  • What was the most fun about writing this?
  • What was the hardest thing about writing this?
  • What is your timeline?

Agree on what will be critiqued, by what date, and to what level. Confirm all of this by e-mail, so you both have something in writing.

I will usually do 20 to 30 pages (or close to it – If a chapter ends on page 33, I really do want to see the entire chapter) for free. The writer gets to pick which pages she wants. Over that, I have a sliding fee scale depending on what critique level the author expects, and how long the total work it.

 Critique levels

  • Does this book work? — a fast read, in the same way I’d read a library book — with a few comments. Those comments include if the book interested me; why or why not; what I think are the strongest and weakest points.
  • Fix this/keep this — what works and what doesn’t with some suggestions about how to approach what isn’t working. No grammar, spelling, or punctuation comments. Most writers like this level of critique best.
  • In general, I don’t do extensive edits or line edits. An extensive edit would be what an editor at a publishing house does. A line edit is tidying up every bit of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I’d have to charge so much for these that no one would take  me up on the even if I had the time to do it.

Working through the questions and agreement for critique level and deadline are often enough to identify three common critique night mares: the Painting Book Writer, the Writer in Therapy, and the Wouldn’t Turn it Down Writer.

 The Painting Book Writer

Let’s start with a line from Dylan Thomas’s, A Child’s Christmas in Wales: “ . . . a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds.”

The Painting Book Writer writes for the sheer love of story. Grammar doesn’t matter, nor spelling, nor those pesky “writer things” like motifs, themes, character development and so on. To be a Painting Book Writer means to tell yourself a story on paper.

In fact, this is one of the easiest writers to critique because both of us can have fun with it. I’m not going to try to whip her story into shape for publication because that’s not what she’s after. She wants to share her story with someone else, so I know that my comments can concentrate on how well the story is told. I can usually end with something like, “If you ever decide to publish this piece, there are some things you’ll need to work on. Get back to me any time if you’re interested in going further with this.”

Likely, she’ll never get back to me. I’ve saved myself the experience of tearing my hair out over something that’s nowhere near ready to be published, and she’s gotten some positive strokes about her story.

I believe that all of us need to keep a corner for our own Painting Book Writer. No matter how good we get at the technical details, how well we come to know the writing business, we should always have at least one story that we are writing just to tell ourselves an enjoyable story. In the past two years I’ve written two novellas— a Steampunk adventure and one Harry Potter fan-fic — which are unlikely to ever move beyond an audience I can count on the fingers of one hand. But I had a great time writing them.

 The Writer in Therapy

Unlike the Painting Book Writer, who is often fun to work with, the toughest critique to do may be one written by a Writer in Therapy. Basically, this person has something impossibly difficult lurking in her past. She’s using writing as a way to make sense of what happened and to search for a firmer mental health footing than she currently has.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to jump the queue from healing to publishing. When a person achieves the first hard-won insight into abuse, alcoholism, rape, or a relative’s suicide, there is often a tremendous need to share that first insight with other people. By writing for others, she doesn’t have to continue to work on her own issues; her mission now becomes bringing the recovery she hasn’t yet experienced herself to others.

Writers in therapy are fragile. When writing is therapy, the writer needs to write; she does not need to publish. At least, not yet.

For a writer at this stage, I would never do more than a Does this work critique. She’s simply not ready to rewrite. At the same time, I’d keep telling her how important it is for her to keep writing and encourage her not to try publishing for several years.

 The Wouldn’t Turn It Down Writer

Like the Painting Book Writer, the WTID Writer pays little attention to grammar, spelling or those pesky writer things. She often writes the same story over and over, and has trouble finishing anything. If asked about her intention to publish, she says shyly, “Oh, I’m not good enough be published, but I won’t turn it down if it happens.”

Secretly she means when it happens because she knows, just knows, that what she writes is so wonderful that a famous publisher will come along, recognize her hidden talent, and give her a beneficent contract.

The hardest part about critiquing the WTID Writer is that she can’t yet hear comments such as, “You need to get a basic grip on plot, character development, managing tension, grammar, spelling, and how to format a book.” Her likely responses are, “Oh, I don’t have to worry, when I get an editor, he’ll fix all of that.” of “That doesn’t matter because I’m going to self-publish.”

Sometimes all I can hope for is to suggest that she focus on one thing, such as, “Let’s concentrate on how you developed Nancy as a character. As a reader, this is how Nancy affected me . . .” Truthfully, who am I to say she’s not right? Maybe that publisher will come along. Maybe she’ll get a terrific contract. If she does, I’ll try hard not to be jealous.

There’s a hormone secreted into the bloodstream of most writers that make them hate their own work …. This, coupled with the chorus of critical reaction from those privileged to take a first look, is almost enough to discourage further work entirely. ~Francis Ford Coppola, director

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, June 17th, for Writing the Novel – Book Killers – Filter Words to Lack of Attitude as we explore what deadly book killers reside in the middle of the alphabet.