Here’s a question for all you writers out there who are or have been members of critique groups. How do you critique the books you read?
I ask because I thought I knew how, but a recent experience has made me question that certainty.
When I first started writing, I was excruciatingly nervous about what other people would think of my work. To the point that I often revised the work to the third or fourth draft stage before I would show it to anyone. And, I’m ashamed to admit, in the very early days I did not react at all well to negative feedback.
As I grew into my craft, I learned a lot. A lot about writing and a lot about criticism.
I learned that yes, negative feedback is hard to hear, but it is also extremely valuable. It gives me glimpses into how people not close to the work and not intimately familiar with its creation react when they read it. It shows me the flaws I cannot see myself.
(This is much like parents’ inability to recognize that they have produced an exceedingly ugly child. They need friends (and strangers!) to walk up to them and say, over the vomiting, “Oh my God, that is a hideous child! Did you spray acid on its face right before you clubbed it with an oversize cheese grater?” You’re performing a public service: the parents learn never to take the child out without a paper bag over its head, and everyone else is spared having to look at a really ugly baby.)
My critiques evolved the same way. Very tentative, gentle, and for the most part, useless in the beginning. Over time, as I gained more experience and learned the value of honesty, I was more honest and less worried about offending.
So until this recent experience, I adhered to the philosophy, “Be honest. Be brutally honest. Do not lie, hold back, gloss over, or otherwise let any issue or flaw you see skate by. To do so is intellectually dishonest and a disservice to the author, the intended readership, and the craft.”
Given the level of impersonal rejection that an author faces when attempting to find someone to publish their book, you need to have a pretty thick skin to succeed in this racket. Thick enough to endure that rejection, and thick enough to not only face down this sort of critique, but to say ‘Thank you!’ afterwards, even if you’re choking on your own bile as you say it.
(And yes, I have experienced the delectable flavor of my own up-chuck while saying ‘Thank you!’ to a reader who found a lot to dislike in something I’d written.)
However, there is a risk to this approach. You risk so upsetting the author over a few serious issues that they completely reject the entirety of your critique, and they take away nothing from the time and effort you spent on their book.
Now the seasoned authors I’ve worked with, including one who will be having his third book published by a major house in the near future, have received and handled critiques that, at times, were devastating in their frankness. And said ‘Thank you!’ after it was over.
But I’ve also dealt with writers who took the critiques very personally. Their response was to be defensive, histrionic, and so busy trying to refute my feedback that they didn’t listen to it.
(I know, I know, how can you refute something if you aren’t listening? I don’t understand it either, but I’ve seen it happen more than once – usually in Congress.)
Honestly, my view is these writers aren’t ready for prime time. If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen, right?
We now live in the age of easy access to print-on-demand self-publishing where the cost of entry to the author, aside from the time spent writing, is zero.
Think about that. You can write a 1000 page book that consists of nothing but the phrase ‘Mmm, pie!” typed over and over again, upload it to Amazon, pick a generic freebie cover with the words, ‘Mmm, pie!’ on it in a large, friendly font, and put it up for sale. I bet I could do it in less than ten minutes. (Well, get it to the proof approval stage in less than ten minutes, anyway. And I’m guessing Amazon wouldn’t refuse to offer that book for sale as long as the formatting met their standards.)
I know agents and editors at publishing houses like to tout themselves as ‘gatekeepers’ of quality. While I think the traditional publishing system makes it a little too hard to break in due to economies of scale (X agents, X times 1 billion writers), there is some truth to that argument.
But now anyone can go on CreateSpace, Lulu, and a host of other sites to arrange for their books to be printed on-demand, or use free software like Calibre to create their own e-books, all of which can be sold on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Which means authors going the self-publishing route can entirely bypass the editing process.
Now I’m not knocking self-publishing. At the end of this year, that’s exactly the route I’m going to be pursuing for one of my books. So I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.
What I am saying is, if self-publishing is ever going to completely lose the stigma associated with it, we need a very high ratio of polished manuscripts to poorly rendered rough drafts.
Which takes us back to critiquing. If I’m working with people who are self-publishing, and I give honest but brutal critiques that trigger tantrums rather than thoughtful contemplation, I’m not just not doing any good, I’m actually making things worse for the self-publishing scene. Because now that author has decided I hate their book, I don’t get their book, I’m a complete idiot, or some combination of all three. And that means they will disregard everything I say, even the points that would normally be considered non-controversial.
So what should I do? Should I scale back the intensity of my critiques? Should I try to get to know each individual I’ll be critiquing before I read their book, so I can gauge just how much honesty I can get away with? Should I try to cushion the blows with excessive praise and compliments elsewhere, even if it isn’t fully deserved? Because I’d rather do some small amount of good than no good at all.
(It would also be nice not to be considered ‘the villain’ of a cohort because I give the ‘meanest’ reviews.)
So writers out there, what do you think? How can I save the legacy of English-language publishing in the 21st century, one critique of the time?
30 July 2011 at 9:16 pm
There is always a balance when it comes to critiques. When I sit down with someone’s work the first thing I do is make a list of strengths. That way I go in looking at the work with a positive eye, even if it turns out to be really bad. Once I assess the strengths, I make a list of things that aren’t so strong. The trick from here is to figure out how to use the strengths of a piece to fix what’s weak. This not only encourages a writer, but also addresses the problems I find as a reader.
Critiquing should always be honest, (which means it is sometimes a brutal process) and constructive above all else. There should be open lines of communication to let readers and critiquers respond to one another in a respectful way, even when disagreement arise.
Of course, the most important thing to remember is critiques are just one opinion. Critiquers have to bare in mind that they may see the work one way while others will have an entirely different perspective. Writers have to take each opinion with a grain of salt. 🙂
31 July 2011 at 9:25 pm
You bring up a really good point about balance, and that is definitely an area I could improve on. I do try and find positive things to say about every book I critique, but it’s easy to coast past the good writing (because if it’s good, you shouldn’t even notice it, right?) and focus on the bad.
I like your idea about using those strengths to come up with suggestions for how to fix the weaknesses. That would help immensely.
And yes, each critique is the opinion of the reader. Unfortunately, if you’re in a critique group, a bad reaction to a harsh critique can cause inter-personal problems. It shouldn’t if everyone is adult about it, but I can see how some people might struggle to be adult when someone is tearing apart their baby. But that goes back to the thick skin requirement.
Thank you for your feedback.
Commander in Chief
30 July 2011 at 11:19 pm
I have actually critiqued your work, and received your criticism and enjoyed doing both. I hope I’m not the one that you’re labeling “histrionic,” (and if you are, I don’t take offense, I swear), but brutal criticism has never bothered me as much as being handed a three-inch stack of paper that represents hundreds of hours of my labor and only finding three or four marks on it, and perhaps three sentences on the back that say something lukewarm and nonspecific. I see that situation (and I think everyone who has worked with a critique group has encountered that) as showing disrespect to the author who is putting himself out there and saying “Help me improve” by saying “It’s not worth my time to actually help you.” I think it violates the spirit of a critique group.
When we’re clear about your mutual goals – I want to improve my craft, you want to help me create a work that will sell to a commercial agent/publisher – I think that sets the tone for your interaction. The writer is then free to say “I understand that you don’t think it’s a good idea to name my lead character Hitler, but I feel strongly that it’s integral to the story.” The critiquer is free to say “My opinion is that if I were an agent, this particular point would be a deal breaker for me.” These are both valid responses, and each person has to be open to having their mind changed.
At the end of the day, if someone really hates your opinion and hates you for having it, I think you have two choices. You can either back off and commit yourself to finding another way of commenting on their work to which they’ll be more receptive (something like only commenting on parts that worked for you and why, and remaining pointedly silent on the rest), or you can back off working with that person entirely.
That said, I completely agree with you that the ability to give and receive good, useful criticism is directly proportional to the length of time someone has been writing seriously. The meanest, most hurtful critiques I’ve ever gotten were from young writers, and the biggest hissy-fits I’ve ever gotten when critiquing someone else were from the same folks. It’s easier just to back off and let them grow up than to try to coddle them into liking you.
I don’t see how you can give “mean” reviews if what you have in your mind is “How can I help this book garner the attention of someone who can sell it?”
31 July 2011 at 9:35 pm
Definitely *wasn’t* thinking about you when I talked about less-than-optimal responses. 🙂 And I have to say, having ‘evolved’ my approach to critiquing since last we met, I have a newfound appreciation for your … blunt … critiques! 😉
While I don’t take offense when someone’s critique of my book is light on comments / red ink, I definitely wilt a little when I see it. Those sorts of critiques don’t help me grow. At the same time, if my book comes back looking like it’s soaked in blood, my ego insists I question the merits of that critique. Though even when someone rabidly hates my writing, I can always find some truth in their feedback.
In most situations, once the critique is over and presented, I let the writer take from it what they want. Because it *is* their book. It gets a little stickier if my name is going to be associated with the book when it’s published. It’s harder to let go of my concerns at that point.
Commander in Chief
31 July 2011 at 10:21 pm
I also think that this is why I don’t like online critique forums. I liked meeting with the Zombies in person and having the conversation. When there was a lack of understanding about either the material or the critique, we could drill down on it until we all felt like we had a clear idea of what was going on. That’s so much harder to do in an email exchange where every time I send *another* email to someone saying “But when you say that God’s motives are unclear, why is that? Because you don’t understand them, or because you feel that his actions contradict his words?” I feel guilty because I know that I’m taking up someone’s valuable time in making them write me another essay about my work.
31 July 2011 at 8:05 am
I think the best you can do is warn them straight-up. Say, look, I am serious about writing and the editing process. I will tell you what I see, good and bad. If you can’t take any negative criticism, say so now, and I will not proof your book. No harm, no foul. If fact, some good may come of that, as you will be able to admit to yourself that you are unable to take criticism of any kind.
Also, another lesson is that people who use the term “Sqeee!” should not be allowed into editing groups. Ever. They are not helpful, and the term is 12 year old girl annoying.
31 July 2011 at 9:39 pm
Ah, the old “I will shoot you dead if I think this book sucks and you will be paying for the bullets, so you’d better be damn sure before you give it to me” approach. I like it. 🙂
Of course, I may find myself with a lot of free time and little to read if I go that route….
I think “12 year old girl annoying” is my new favorite phrase. I must find ways to worm that into other aspects of my life, such as at work meetings:
“We need to improve our cycle time by 50% or the company will fail!”
“That is just 12 year old girl annoying!”
*finds himself being escorted to the door by security*
Oh my! 😉