Monday, November 26, 2007

Looking For Guidance

I'm hoping you can help me as we did Genene a few months back when she was looking for help for an upcoming talk she was giving.
Myself and another writer are going to give a talk to the local writer's group about critiquing. I have felt so bad for the people who come to the meetings, read their work, and then get so many differences of opinions about their work. Especially the writers who are just coming out, so to speak, and looking for guidance. They have some great stuff, but no one ever tells them it's great they just hammer on the bad. We want to talk about asking for the specific advice they want-i.e. tone, does it flow, I'm looking for grammar help, is the character sounding too ___ .

And to teach those critiquing not to harp on a word, when it is the writers voice. Not to nitpick the grammar unless it is asked. Some of the people who come to these meetings have little writing experience and some of the people are just writing these stories to be passed down to their children and grandchildren. I can't believe some of the things that others tell them when the story should be in their words and sound like them. I guess in a way you would have to be at one of these to understand where I'm coming from.

But from you today, I'd like you to tell me when has a critique thrown you totally off and why. Also what was something valuable you learned from a critique (if you did).


Alice Sharpe said...

Paty, I can understand perfectly where you are coming from.

A critique means an assessment of a work, citing both the good and bad. Perhaps if you start out by reading the definition and by explaining just as you have here, that the good must be stressed along with the bad, it would help. And I think asking people to state what they would like the listener to focus on is a great idea, i.e., grammar, point of view, what have you.

The trouble with critique like this with new writers is that they tend to sway toward what people say to the obliteration of their own judgment. So understanding the criteria before hand is good as well as asking the person what their eventual goal is. Striving to be published in a church newsletter is a different ball of wax, obviously, from setting your sights for Simon and Schuster. And if the goal is to leave a record for the family, you are so right that their "voice" shouldn't be tampered with. if you are leading the discussion, then perhaps you can bring the focus back to what the writer intended.

Of course, none of this is what you asked for and all of it is stuff you already said. LOL

Personally, I have received some very helpful critiques. I learned the it's/its thing from a woman who wrote it in the top margin and to this day I can see her note: "it's= it is." (This after multiple infractions! An editor later set me straight with "then" and "than" by saying, "I wish you would learn the difference," in a weary voice and trust me, I learned the difference immediately.)

I can't think of a devastating critique that threw me off track. That's not to say they don't exist, just that I can't remember any. I think I've always had a pretty good idea of which remarks matter and which don't. You always have to consider the source of the remarks and stay true to yourself.

No good stories. Damn! Maybe someone else will have a horror story. Dare to dream?

Thanks for a fun blog and good luck on your talk. I can't think of a kinder, more compassionate person for the new writers to encounter than you.

Danita Cahill said...

"Me, me! Pick me!" Danita says with hand raised. I have critique horror stories. Well, maybe not horror exactly, but definitely disheartening stories. Two were from contests and one was from a critique partner:

"You should try using present tense instead of past."
(The story was written in present tense.) ???

After I had stated the story was not a romance, but only had romantic elements, I got back: "This story needs more romance." ???

The book I entered in a contest was set in a small town about the size of Albany, which, as a past crime reporter, I know has mega meth problems (I covered 6 murder cases, all 6 were linked to meth). A subplot in the story I wrote dealt with a meth issue tied to a murder. The contest judge commented, "A meth problem in a town the size of this is unrealistic. Now, if it were set in, say, Chicago, that would be different." ???

So, while none of these comments should have bothered me much, because they were all errors on the commentors parts, I let myself be bothered by them. I still have a problem putting my work out there for critiquing, except to a select few who I trust not to make stupid comments.

Also, it would help if I grew a thicker skin...I'm working on that part.

Don't know if that helped much. Maybe you could tell critiquers to pick their words carefully, and make sure they know what they are talking about before they open mouth and insert foot.

Good luck, Paty.

Karen Duvall said...

Paty, I used to belong to a couple of in-person critique groups in Colorado, but both were excellent and professionally run. We used the "sandwich" method of critique: praise/criticism/praise. The critique group I use now is through email only.

In one of my groups, we had a very passionate critiquer who delivered helpful criticism, but it was her severe tone that put me off. That's the only really bad experience I've ever had, and even so, she was and still is a good friend, and an excellent writer.

I'm with Danita on having experienced some silly contest critiques, but I've only entered 2 RWA contests in my life, and the experience wasn't that bad. The only bad one was the judge who offered number scores and no comments at all, so I had no idea what any of her scores meant. I paid for numbers? Like the GH, which i think is a pretty worthless contest as far as feedback goes and I would never enter that one.

The silly feedback I got on one of the two RWA contests was from a very thorough judge who was really trying to help. Problem was, all her suggestions were in exact opposition to the 5-page revision letter I'd received from the Silhouette Intimate Moments editor I was working with at the time. I always worried about that writer after that, thinking she really believed what she was saying and it would only hurt her, not help her.

Critique is an artform. Effective critique needs to be taught, so I'm glad you're doing this, Paty. I'm sure you'll find lots of helpful critique guidelines on the internet you might want to share with RW. Good luck!

Alice Sharpe said...

Danita -- I think what you win is the title, "She who has received the dumbest remarks" award. Wow! Startling. AND I might add, absolute proof of my adage, if a person can't buy your work, write you a check or further your career, be careful of soliciting their opinion.

I had a few dumb ones, too. Kate Duffy once read the first page of one of my books and commented (via a rejection letter) that the heroine was crazy as in bonkers and therefore unappealing. Huh?


Paty Jager said...

Thanks Ladies!

I'm looking for any and all info I can get on this before we put together what we're going to say.

Alice you always have a nice way of putting things. And your right about the new writers they take everything to heart. There have been some times when I've wanted to tell them to stop writing down everything everyone is telling them and listen for the true information. Which of course is what I'm going to tell them when I give my talk.

Danita, you have had some doozies from judges! LOL

Karen, thanks for the info.

Now to take all of this and other things I'm digesting and make it interesting and helpful.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I love this:

if a person can't buy your work, write you a check or further your career, be careful of soliciting their opinion.

Well said, Alice.

Paty, the best advice I would offer other writers intent on having their work critiqued, regardless of genre, is this: grow a thick skin. If all you're looking for is praise, don't put your work out there. If you can't handle criticism, don't put your work out there.

I don't have any horror stories, but I definitely learned along the way. The first time I critiqued anything for Danita she kindly said, "can you add in some positive comments as well?" That one hit home. I also had an online critiquer who rewrote all my sentences. Basically, that was an example of the critiquer not liking my voice, so I let it go.

From a critiquer POV I *do* have horror stories. I had one person who argued every comment I made in her chapter - good and bad. That one killed me. If you can't handle feedback - of any kind - why are you asking for a critique? I don't want to argue what I comment on, so I never critiqued for this person again. I also had another person who obviously didn't like my opinion because they never said thank you (good critique etiquette in my book) and got upset over what I'd commented on. ;) And just so you don't think I'm a harsh critiquer, these are a few random incidences and most of the time I critique with no problems.

Oh, and Karin, the GH is not intended to give feedback. Entrants usually know this up front. The goal of the GH is to give writers an idea where their work fall in comparison to others and for name recognition. In that respect, I will say, it's a success for those writers who are trying to further their networking or make their names more well-known. That doesn't mean it doesn't have flaws, it simply means if you're entering the GH for feedback on your manuscript, you're entering the wrong contest.

wavybrains said...

I got a critique from the very first contest I entered that totally threw me off for several months--they harped on little nitpicky grammar errors and wording choices as well as formatting errors. Not a kind word to be found. Seeing as how I was a straight A english student, the comments about grammar particularly stung.

BUT the thing is, the critique WAS right (mainly). I'd sent in a sloppy MS, I just didn't know it at the time. I needed to learn proper formatting.

When I teach my students to critique, I always make them write one nice thing first, THEN move onto the whole. I encourage them to read the piece through WITHOUT commenting, then start picking it apart on the second read through--this allows the value of the work to come through.

Genene said...

Hi, Paty!

I hope this group listens to your wisdom and takes it to heart. You will have good comments for them.

I agree with Karen to use the sandwich method: praise/criticism/praise.

No horror stories. I've been very fortunate with critiques. And I did a newsletter for years that was reviewed by half a dozen people with differing opinions, so I was used to writing by committee. That didn't make it any easier to share my babies, but I was able to sort through comments fairly quickly and decide which to take seriously and which to ignore.

I also like the advice if you hear something about your work once and disagree, just let it go. But if two different people mention the same thing, you might want to listen more closely.

Have fun with your presentation!

Paty Jager said...

Thanks Eli, Wavy, and Genene! Everyone has had a tidbit I can use.