Monday, March 17, 2014

The Importance of Critiques by Ginger Simpson

Being a member of a critique group can be both a blessing and a pain the arse.  You have to make a time commitment to critique the work of others, and depending upon which stage of writing the author has achieved, you might be looking at a lot of effort on your part.  Similarly, others may consider your work time-consuming despite you feeling you're nearly a master.  Personally, I don't know how anyone could ever feel they've mastered writing as the rules change daily, and house-to-house. The challenge is deciding if the rules are right or merely something being passed along by an editor who learned at the knee of another publisher.  Critiquing is a tricky business.

The hardest part of being in a group for me is deciding which suggestions to take to heart and which to ignore.  Trust me, you'll get lots of friendly recommendations, but bear in mind that here again, people are at various stages in writing and may pass along their bad traits.  You have to be careful to pick and choose those comments which apply to your writing, enhance the story and flow, but don't change your voice.  There is something unique about all of us, and we don't want to lose that.  If you happen to be in a critique group with authors who dwell in England, you'll be surprised at how differently they write...lots of "to phrases" and all those extra "u" spellings, such as colour, favour, etc.  You have to keep in mind that writing styles do vary from country to country and what you think is true may not be elsewhere.

I cannot express my appreciation enough to the members of my past and current groups.  They have given me suggestions for improving the story flow, corrected errors, and asked questions that make me stop and think about how better to word something.  One author, in particular keeps me mindful that taste, touch, hear, and smell are just as important as seeing. The senses play an vital  role in “showing” a reader your novel  So put the reader in the character’s shoes even if the story takes place next to a water treatment plant. *smile*

There is one thing you should do before you join a critique group.  Develop a thick skin.
If you plan to submit your chapters for dissection, then expect they will be.  Critique groups aren’t in place to hold you hand, tell you lies about your work, or hurt your feeling, and you do want the truth, no matter how hard it is to take at times..  Honestly can sometimes be painful, and you may just discover that your manuscript needs more honing than you expected.  As said above, the task falls to the author to determine which suggestions to follow and which to ignore.  You'll often get conflicting critiques, so if the “tip” works use it, if it doesn’t, ignore it.

Not everyone critiques in the same manner. I, for one, do a line-by-line because that’s the only way I know to share what I’ve learned in the writing process.  Some skim the chapter, looking for missing commas and misspellings, and others just comment that your story is lovely.  There are some who obviously don’t want to rock anyone’s world with a negative comment. But that’s okay…these types are helpful, too.

Time is important in our industry, so if, after doing a few chapters, I notice the person is not taking note of my suggestions, then I cease offering my help. I don’t mean to infer that I know more than anyone else, but experiences have taught me much more than I knew before.  A good rule of thumb…if more than one person zeroes in on something, then you’d best listen.  Of course it seems like new rules crop up weekly. The ones I share are the ones that make the most sense to me.

My pet peeves are word echoes, redundancy, and chapters that do nothing to propel the story forward and are filled with wasted information and copious descriptions.  And nothing is more annoying than unneeded tags to identify two people in a room having a dialogue.  Continued use of “he said, John said, Mary said, she said,” drives me nuts.  Readers are pretty smart.  They can easily keep track of the speaker with a minimal of hints.  Still feel the need for a tag?  Use action…a phrase that identifies the speaker by something they’re doing.  “It’s rather cold out today,” John said.  might be better read, “It’s rather cold out today.”  John moved to the fireplace and warmed his hands over the crackling flames.  Besides just telling the reader about the coldness, you're showing them a warm and crackling fireplace.

The hardest question is how do you relay those peevish habits to an author without making an enemy?  There is never a need to be cold and cruel, but sometimes even a hint of negativity will send a newbie fleeing from the site.  You have to be prepared to get as good as you give, and that’s the truth.  I’ve never been very good at candy-coating, and I doubt I’m going to start now.  I don’t always like the critiques I get back, but I consider each and every one of them and I’d say I use 90% of the recommendations.  I’m still constantly amazed at the minor issues overlooked by so many pairs of eyes.  I don’t think it’s possible to ever have a “perfect” manuscript...I’ve never seen one, at least.

I hope my post has inspired some of you to form or join a group.  Critiquing can be one of the most helpful tools around, but only it you use the opportunity wisely and honestly. I just rejoined my Historical Critique Group to help me with Yellow Moon.  I just submitted the first chapter today, so we'll see what comments I get back.