Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Importance of the Second Opinion

High time I did another post. I've been working my fingers to the bone after RWA Nationals, because of course conventions happen right when I have to do about fifty other things.

I haven't said much about critique partners, writing groups, and critique groups but it's a good topic.

I offer this advice:

1. Don't expect to find the perfect crit. partner/group right away. In my opinion, it's better to be on your own than be with a bad critique partner. Take time to find just the right person/people.

2. Find someone who "gets" you. If your goal is to write novels for Silhouette Special Edition, that will take a different kind of voice and storytelling style than if you're writing gritty thrillers for Random House. Your crit. partner should understand the genre and subgenre you are writing. (They don't necessarily have to write it themselves, but they should have read it and understand what the audience wants. This is true for everything from Young Adult fantasy to Harlequin to gritty thrillers at Random House.)

3. A critique group isn't a bashing session. Constructive criticism is helpful, saying "I can't believe you wrote that crap" isn't. A critique is pointing out weaknesses and saying why they're weak, and pointing out strengths and saying why they're strong. (I always start by saying what I loved before I get down to what bugged me.)

4. Wait 24 hours after getting the criticism to respond. The immediate instinct is to explain what the CP didn't think was good or didn't understand. Let it sink in--then decide whether to agree with the critique, ignore it, or ask for more clarification.

5. Find people who can turn your material around quickly, like in a day or two to a week. When you get published, deadlines are tight, and you need someone who can read fast so you can revise quickly. Likewise, if you decide to enter a contest, you need that critique so you can fix things before the contest deadline. Turn their material around just as quickly.

6. Don't believe everything your CP or crit. group says absolutely. Everything is subjective. If you have four people agree your hero is weak, your hero might be weak. If you get four different responses, then it might just be different tastes.

A true story: I once had a partial ms. critiqued by two different published authors. Each circled the same paragraph (description of the hero). One told me it caught her attention because it was wonderful and vivid, the other told me it was putrid (she used more diplomatic words, but that was the gist). Who was I to believe? (I never finished that book, btw.)

7. Don't let your ms. get critiqued to death. Give your CP or group a chapter or chunk and have them critique it ONCE. Fix it and move on. If you radically rewrite the entire book and want their opinion on the rewrite, that's fine, but again, ONCE.

8. Don't let your CP change your voice, your characters, and your plot into something they want to write themselves (and don't do that to your CP). It's ok if they don't like what you're writing, as long as they understand your audience and what you're trying to do. And a bad transition is a bad transition no matter what the genre.

9. On the other hand a CP or critique group who gushes about everything you do ("Oh, it's wonderful. Oh, I love it!") and offers no constructive criticism isn't helping you. Stroking your ego, yes; helping, no.

10. And last: Don't get critiqued to seek validation; get critiqued to make your writing stronger.

There it is, ten thoughts on critique groups.

I'm sure there's more. Feel free to add.


Gillian Layne said...

Excellent advice! I am a part of a crit group, and we are learning with each exchange how to help each other. It's a skill that has to be learned through trial and error, I think, combined with a great deal of trust. And I think you can be wonderful friends with someone but not be able to crit them.

I appreciated your "once over" advice. I really wasn't sure how much was "enough" but that's good to know, as it would certainly keep the process moving along.

Alexis Walker said...

I was recently asked to join a critque group but felt that I didn't have the time to do justice in my critiques to multiple writers. So I found myself a critique partner through one of my on-line groups. My only concern with this route is that it makes it harder to decide if I should make the change suggested or not. Like you said, if more than a few people tell you a charcater lacks depth, then you know you have a problem. But if only one person does, that makes it a bit harder. Still, it is so much better than writing in a vacuum!