Critique Enlightenment – What you can learn from critiques of your creative work

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

My debut adult sci-fi novel, Divided Elements, is currently going through its final pass by my critique partners before it gets shipped off to the copyeditor. (Yes, it turns out that I still love this manuscript and we are finally ‘tying the knot’). Getting your creative work critiqued by an objective outsider, while crucial for elevating the work to its maximum potential, is never easy. For insecure writers, critiques can lead to wholesale changes. For stubborn writers, critiques can trigger lots of defensive replies about why their work doesn’t need changes. So, which response is the correct one?

A recent blog post by a fellow CP, Angela Sylvia, got me thinking about this and here is what I have come up with:

For every critique I receive, I have one of three reactions:

  • The lightbulb moment, where I say to myself “How did I miss that? (despite the seven times I’ve already re-read it!)”
  • The dig my heels in moment, where I say to myself “Nope, you just don’t get it”.
  • The let’s agree to disagree moment, where I say to myself “This is more about you as a reader, than the writing itself”.

The lightbulb moments are great – they are an immediate call to action to fix something you can see is broken (even if it took a critique to reveal it as broken). I tend to find lightbulb moments gravitate towards:

  • Areas I know that I am weak in (e.g. overcomplicated sentences, dialogue tags, adverbs)
  • Areas I have a limited grasp of/exposure to (e.g. dangling modifiers)

When you can recognise your weaknesses, it’s easy to be grateful to critiques that point them out and offer solutions.

The dig my heels in moments usually fit into two categories:

  • Stubborn, obstinate author ego (e.g. “That’s my darling, how dare you demand that I kill it!”
  • Confident author authority (e.g. “I can see this objectively and know that it is right for this scene/chapter/story”)

Correction - Dave Mathis

That being said, it’s hard to know at the time which category my response falls into, which is why I employ these two methods for finding out:

  • Look at other reviews by the critiquer – do you agree with them? do they seem reasonable?
  • Review the critique again in time (usually on the next edit pass) – does it seem more relevant/necessary now?

If the answer is ‘yes’, I then have a begrudging acceptance moment (“Okay, you may have a point”) and enact the required changes – sometimes as suggested, sometimes with my own spin.

If the answer is ‘no’, then I sit back and try to understand the motivation of the critiquer – which inevitably ends up at the let’s agree to disagree moment. I find there are generally three reasons why a person is critical of something:

  1. It legitimately doesn’t work – in which case, you fix it.
  2. They don’t have the skills/expertise to offer accurate critiques (e.g. someone telling you that you need more adverbs in your dialogue tags) – in which case, you run a mile! (Or maybe just ignore that criticism)
  3. They are projecting their preferences, rather than pointing out an issue – in which case, you politely thank them for their suggestion and move on.

The third reason is an interesting one. It reminds me of a point made in the writer’s manifesto of Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat):

… most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.

The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction… Fiction is often uncomfortable; often unexpected.  Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.

The manifesto was most likely penned after this incident, where Joanne responded to a critical review of her book – labelling it as a “Terrific example of the “if I’d written this book I would have done it differently” review”. Now, I’m not going to get into that whole ‘authors behaving badly’ debacle, because that is just a nuclear bomb waiting to go off (everyone gets so twitchy around that button…) – but I agree with her point – “A review should be about the book you’ve actually read, not the one you wanted to read, or worse, the one you wanted to write.”

Same goes for critiques. Sometimes a reviewer will have an issue with your protagonist’s characterisation, or the tone of your opening chapters, or your word selection, or the pacing, or… (you get my drift). Sometimes these can be legitimate, objective concerns rooted in a solid understanding of best practice. But, sometimes, it can just be what they like as a reader OR how they write as an author.

If they are your target audience, you may wish to listen to them a bit closer,  but never forget that there are two goals in writing a book:

  1. Engaging the reader
  2. Creating something in your unique voice from your unique perspective

Long live the benign dictatorship!

How do you respond to critiques and/or deal with ones you disagree with?

 

Image courtesy of Dave Mathis via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

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Critique Enlightenment – What you can learn from critiques of your creative work

Writing for your readers…and yourself

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

During the initial drafting of Divided Elements, I realised that I needed more eyes on it than just mine. As an untested author, I was unsure whether I was on the right track, whether the story idea was genuinely interesting, whether I had the chops to pull it off. To that end, I joined two online critique groups and found a local critique partner with whom I could exchange ideas and chapters. Feedback is critical for any writer, but sometimes reviews and critiques can seem like a version of ‘how I would write this book’, rather than ‘this is a problem for your story’. In this post, I talk about how to manage reader expectations to avoid the former criticism…

Getting feeback

Honest feedback and constructive criticism from other writers and readers can be incredibly useful in identifying technical areas for improvement, such as:

  • plot holes
  • crutch words
  • writing flaws (spelling, grammar, punctuation,etc)

Feedback, especially when critique partners are also assessing your WIP as readers, can also become more subjective. Personalities, reading preferences (genre, style, audience, etc), and whether they are in a good or bad mood when it comes time to reading that particular chapter, can all impact on how these readers assess:

  • Your characters – are they likable, sympathetic, competent, intriguing?
  • Your world – is it believable, over the top, too dominant, too generic?
  • Your plot lines – is the midpoint what they expected/wanted, does the ending satisfy their need for a perfect resolution of plot?

This is where the subjectivity of reviews and critiques becomes tricky. Yes, you need to write for your readers. But you also need to write for yourself.

This is your project, your creativity on a page, your piece of soul and worldview in ink.

Your responsibility as an author

That being said, you also have a responsibility as a writer to not mislead your readers. Readers may not like your characters or enjoy your world, but that is something that will become apparent early on in the story. It’s okay for this to happen, because at the beginning of the story, the reader’s investment in the book is still low. They may have only spent half an hour reading your novel before realising it is not for them.

No harm, no foul.

But what happens when a reader gets halfway through the book, or worse – to the climax, and their expectations or desires for the story are thwarted? They’ve been rooting for the protagonist to enter into an epic sword fight with her arch nemesis, but at the final moments she is disfigured and loses all of her strength and sword-wielding abilities, ruling out this plot line…

Or they’ve been reading eagerly through the chapters, enthralled by the developing attraction between the two main characters and awaiting that moment in the climax when they just know the two are going to finally put aside their resistance and actually admit they love the other, but just before the peak of this build up, one of the characters dies…

These are the sort of things that can send Goodreads review into vitriol territory – Hell hath no fury like a reader scorned.

Ned Stark - Brace Yourselves

Now, while it is not the author’s job to pander to reader desires – it is the author’s job to manage reader expectations. That is the whole purpose of a story – to take a reader on a journey with the author (and the characters) – and to set parameters within which plot twists and key events will be surprising, but in a way that enhances the reader’s appreciation of the story.

Managing reader expectations

The key to this is managing reader expectations from the start.

This is why the start of a book is so critical – it not only establishes the characters and the world – it should also establish the style, tone and theme. In a way, the start of your book is its constitution – the set of rules and laws by which your book will abide from beginning to end.

George R.R. Martin did this expertly in “A Song of Ice and Fire” – *** WARNING – Spoilers for those who have been hiding under a rock, living in another universe, living a life without television or internet and do not know about GAME OF THRONES ***

– when he killed off Ned Stark early on in the piece he illustrated his story’s constitution – indicating that killing off beloved characters was not something he would shy away from. Because it happened early in the piece, readers and fans were able to forgive him this (they were still orienting themselves to the story), and future instances of untimely deaths (they were, by then, used to his sadism).

So, dear authors, by all means introduce plot twists and intense character arcs and story surprises in your novel – just ensure that you have adequately prepared readers for the possibility of these things by successfully establishing your story’s constitution in the opening chapters where you introduce style, tone and theme.

 

Have you ever been disappointed or infuriated by a story plot point later in the piece? Has an ending ever made you regret picking up the book in the first place? Tell me about it in the comments section! 

 

Writing for your readers…and yourself