The Critique Process: How to Chop Liver

Adlai Stevenson, one of America’s great orators, had this to say about oratory: “In ancient times, when Cicero finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke!’  But when Demosthenes finished, they said, ‘Let us march!’”  In other words, the one got praise for his skill, but the other got results.

I feel a bit like Cicero, as I am once again struggling with my writing and trying to find the motivation to continue.  One resource that most writers can find very helpful is critique groups.  There are a couple I attend, and, while they are good sources of connection, I’m starting to think they have outlived their value for me.  A recent session suggested that in particular.

I took a submission for critique, a chapter that is central to an entire section of the novel that I have gone on to cut.  I am endeavoring to meet the deadline for a publisher’s “Open Door,” and one of their hard and fast requirements is that the manuscript be less than one hundred thousand words.  I have revised mightily but have been unable to get below that figure.  I took this chapter as one I had recently worked on.  The response was harder on me than I expected.

It wasn’t bad, let me be clear.  It just wasn’t good.  They praised the fluidity to my prose, my humor, my creativity.  I realized I hear that on a regular basis.  “You’re a really good writer…BUT…”  That’s where Cicero comes in.  I don’t want them to tell me my writing is good.  I want them to tell me my story is good.  But that’s something I don’t hear all that much.  In the end it tends to come out a clear message: “You’re a good writer, and maybe someday your writing will reflect that.”

Okay, that’s me being oversensitive, but I couldn’t help noting that many of the others got responses on the theme of, “I love your story,” and “You always write such great stuff” (as opposed to “you write so well”).  There it is:  I write well, but the others inspire them to march.

Again, I suppose I’m being oversensitive, but their response actually showed some fundamental problems with the critique process itself.  For one thing, it’s hard to really get feedback on a story, because the readers are only seeing little tiny fragments.  They critique minutiae because that’s all they have to work with.  More than one writer has expressed frustration about that, but it’s very hard to fix the problem.  I suppose that’s what beta-readers are for, but it does skew the feedback towards things that actually may not matter as much as they are made to sound.  This isn’t always productive.  In one group we had a new member with a publication history who sat in one session, chewed us all out for focusing on trivia, and never returned.  Sounds like a jerk to me, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.

Critique is hard, and all groups have rules and procedures, and one that is nearly universal is the requirement for positive feedback.  This is important because people need to know what they are doing well, and, unfortunately, it’s much easier to focus on the negative.  I’ve been guilty of that more than once.  I tell my students when they read each other’s drafts that they must point out good things.  One critique group I’m in has even made a procedural rule that we always begin with something positive.  This has led to a standing joke that someone hard-pressed to find something good might end up complementing the choice of font.

In my case, I have to wonder if the constant praise of what amounts to abstract skill on my part (rather than the quality of the story itself) might come from the struggle to find something good to say.  I am famously unconfident so they work to be sure to give me something that’s feel-good.

But, while requiring positives is a good rule, the obverse rule is also needed.  Just as you have to say something positive, you should also have to say something negative.  Well how hard can that be?  You’d be surprised.  I have to require that of my students as well, telling them they cannot simply write “Good job!” on the draft and hand it back.  That’s worthless.  No writer is so good there’s no room for improvement.  But that’s not always how it comes out in writers’ groups.

It will always be the case that different people in the group are at different levels of skill and accomplishment.  Some will be approaching genuine success, and will be lauded for that.  Others might be inclined to offer them bountiful praise and say, “I can’t find anything negative to say about it.”  I’m guilty of that too, on occasion.  Some people go overboard: “It’s awesome, amazing, don’t change a thing!  This is ready for publication!  You’re such a great writer!”  One person went so far as to say, “Whatever anyone else says, ignore them, don’t change a word.”  While we all laughed, it was actually very insulting to the opinions of the others.  And to their skills.

I would love to have someone tell me that my submission is perfect, but they never have.  Okay, good, there’s always room for growth, and I don’t go in looking for empty flattery.  But somebody new (or even more vulnerable than I tend to be) might not take it so well.  Sure, any group will have its “stars,” but coming in and hearing them heaped with praise while getting no such thing yourself can be hard.  “Who am I,” you think, “chopped liver?”

The point is, writers’ critique groups are for writers to come together and help each other.  As equals.  It doesn’t work when you heap praise on some but not on others.  That doesn’t mean you should offer backhanded compliments about how easy to read my style is, but rather that maybe you should scale back on the effusiveness toward the stars.  It would also be nice if the “stars” didn’t disappear once they reach their goals, but that sometimes happens.  Nor should any members set themselves as some sort of authorial experts because they picked up some buzzwords from reading a book or attending a conference, although that happens too.  As a composition teacher, I have to hope I don’t do that, and I suspect my lack of self-confidence keeps me from being a blowhard about the writing process.  But maybe I’m fooling myself.

As for the chapter in question, one thing that more than one reader said was, “You need to fix this, but I’m not really sure how you are going to.”  Gee, thanks for the help.  That’s about as useful as when the grammar checker says, “Consider revising,” or “No suggestion.”  That’s why I tell my students to be specific.  Just telling me it’s not working doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, since that’s why I brought it to them in the first place.  Again, perhaps this is a deficiency in the process, but in the end I decided trying to fix it would be more effort than I want to spend at this point, and I ended up gutting the entire sequence that it was the centerpiece of.  I need to get my word count down, and I won’t accomplish that by focusing on nice prose and creativity.

That was the problem.  I was revising to improve my story.  I was tightening things, sure, but mostly at the sentence level.  I was also strengthening character, adding setting, tying elements together, foreshadowing, all the things good writing is supposed to have.  That was my mistake.  I’ve been trying to write good fiction, when I should be writing young adult fiction.  And my reading endeavors have made it clear those are not the same thing at all.

Young adult readers are not interested in nuanced, layered characters; they want them simple and “relatable.”  They don’t care about lavish setting; the setting is simply the place where the plot takes place.  And that’s what it’s all about: they want a straightforward, clothesline plot that pulls them along at breakneck speed with nonstop action.  I was managing to do that in part one, but in parts two and three, where the real story gets underway, it fell apart.

So I have removed that huge series of events in the middle, followed by another long sequence later that did tend to repeat things that I’d already done.  I also realized I was spending way too much time developing the character relationships.  And, related to that, I finally came to my senses and accepted that sex and nudity have no place in YA fiction.  All that’s gone as well.

So what’s left?  An empty shell where my story used to be.  But it’s fast, simple and, most important, under 100 thousand words.  Yay.  And I hate it.  Which means I’m back to the same place I’ve been before: I can either write the story I want to write (as people tell me to do), or I can write a story that would have a prayer of getting published.  I can’t do both.

But that’s for me to deal with.  Perhaps this has accomplished something.  Maybe my words here have inspired those of you who are in critique groups to reevaluate your procedures and identify how the feedback you give could do more harm than good.  But more likely, given my track record, you are simply noting how well-written this is, and will have to turn to others for inspiration to march.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Critique Process: How to Chop Liver

  1. Of course you can write both stories. Write the story you want, and then edit it for publication, like a director’s cut. After you publish and become famous, you can release the extended version for your die-hard fans.

    And your assessment on critique groups is spot on. I try to tell the author how I felt from their piece and what I felt needed expanding or beef-upped, but sometimes I feel like, “who the heck am I to give you advice?” That’s what I prefer in feedback of my submissions, honest feedback even if it stings. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to change my story to make one or two people like it more, but at least I’ll know how my reader might interpret my words.

    • I can answer the question, “Who am I to give you advice?” with the answer I give my students: “You are the reader.” That’s why groups often don’t work so well: they read your work as writers, not as readers. I’m less interested in hearing “Your dialogue is realistic,” than “This was fun.” When I first started I was advised not to show my work to anyone other than fellow writers, but I’m starting to think it should actually be the opposite.

      Thanks for your response.

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