Up the critique without a paddle

texas chainsaw massacreTo be critiqued or not to be critiqued: that is the question.

Or at least, it has been lately: two of my crit group have blogged on the subject. Lamellae offers a five-post selection of pros and cons; Ellen Gregory ponders the ramifications of a recent going-over of the first chapter of a new work in progress.

It’s a bold move, submitting such raw copy to a crit group. After all, the group is looking for problems, and damn but they will find them! The question is, how relevant are they for a still unformed work? The issue for the writer is, what are they looking for from the critique — world building and character weaknesses, perhaps? Does this feel like the right place to start this story? The worst thing is to allow the feedback to derail the work (unless, of course, it’s really that dire; sometimes, you need someone to tell you to ditch stuff, even stuff you love, because it just doesn’t fit — ah, my darlings, dead on the cutting room floor). All those drops of red blood, I mean ink, coming from the marked-up pages aren’t necessarily a death sentence. But yeah, watch your adverbs as you progress, sort out that character’s motivations, make the magic system a bit more transparent … take those informed opinions on board and you might save yourself a bucket-load of rewriting later.

A crit group is invaluable, to my mind, as long as it is a group of peers who will, constructively and respectfully, push you to be the best storyteller you can be. It’s easier if that respect extends to the genres in which you work; my experience in workshops with mixed genres has not been as fruitful as those where everyone came in with a base understanding of how the supernatural ‘works’, or at least were open to the concept. In much the same way that I struggled to care about the minutiae of X and Y’s relationship: when does something happen? Mind you, the uninitiated can be great for spotting logic holes and areas that have been glossed over because of an assumption of what the reader will already know the tropes.

There’s a skill in not only giving critique but receiving it. Thick skin helps. A preparedness to take on board the advice, in hand with an instinct to know what is relevant and what isn’t. Different critiquers have different strengths: some are great at logic and story, others at character and motivation, others again at grammar. A group with a mix of strengths is very handy for getting that story as tight as it can be.

The simple fact is, that the author is, more often than not, a terrible editor of their own work. They know the story, but not necessarily the one that’s on the page. They have blind spots, to both story and to prose. There are two tricks for better self-editing: one is to read the work aloud, the other is to print it out in different fonts for each edit. Both help to highlight poor construction and break down the haze of familiarity. I always edit on paper, once I’m at that stage.

And I rely on my crit group to save me from myself. And hope that, in return, I can also offer some useful advice. Politely, constructively and respectfully.

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8 thoughts on “Up the critique without a paddle

  1. It’s brave to put work in front of a critique group. It’s something I would never do — partly because I am too susceptible to criticism and liable to be derailed (as happened recently when I gave my manuscript to a psychopath) and partly because I don’t believe in writing by committee. I’d much rather work on a manuscript and show the end results to two trusted peers before giving it to a publisher. I admire writers who attend these groups and in some ways I even envy them — I wish I had the guts — but ultimately I think I have confidence in my vision and would much rather trust an editor to guide me towards my final goal.

  2. Cheers, Dmetri. It’s funny, isn’t it: you seem wary of the filter of the critique group and I’m wary of *not* having that filter! And if you’ve had a bad experience, all the moreso, I should think.

  3. I think you summed up why I feel critique is important for me, when you say we make terrible editors of our own work… Long or short form, it’s so easy to get lost in what you know.

  4. I’ve been saved from making a goose of myself too many times to be comfortable flying solo! Hm, I wonder if the burgeoning editing and publishing courses around the country owe their popularity to the growing self-publishing industry?

  5. Nah, I think people just have stories to tell, and the star status of Mr Brown, Ms Rawling and Ms Meyers (did I spell any of those right?) has made it very sexy.

  6. Re: the Brown/Rowling/Meyer influence on the numbers enrolling in PW&E courses. I would say there is ALWAYS a slice of the student demographic who are dreaming about signing their books, rather than writing them. (Rowling can really write. No comment on the other two.)

    There is no way of quantifying the analogy across the arts, but I do know from my music educator friends, that following the first season of Australian Idol, there was a massive increase in the numbers of (wannabe) pop singers auditioning for music courses the next year.

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