Desperately Seeking Critiques

I lifted the requirement that all comments must be modified, but if the serious spamming sets in again (as it may already have), I’ll reinstate it, so if your comments don’t instantly appear, please understand and be patient. I’ll hate having to do it, because I want you to have the satisfaction that comes with seeing your comment right away. And it’s more work for me, and I can’t always get to the comments immediately. We have a spam filter in place. Spam is slipping through, though–one of the mysteries of the internet!

Also want to announce that Transient, my book of poems for adults, was released a few days ago. If you’re an adult (at least high school and up) and you like poetry and you think that themes (among others) of aging and dying friends won’t make you too sad, here’s a link to the website David created:

On May 11, 2016, Mary E. Norton wrote, What do you do when none of your beta readers give any advice so you’re not sure if your writing is good or not? Because whenever I give my writing to someone they usually say they liked it, but no more than that. I just want to know what they liked about my story, what they didn’t like, how they felt at certain times, if it was confusing at some parts, and what characters they liked the best! But everyone just says the same thing, or they just put the story aside and end up never reading it. Its so frustrating! What am I to do, keep nagging them or just let it go?

I feel your pain! When I needed blurbs for my poetry book, I had to chase after poets to get them, and I didn’t want to be a pest! It all worked out in the end, and I’m very grateful for the kind words–but the experience was miserable.

Several of you had thoughts and experiences to share.

Christie V Powell: I had that trouble with beta readers who are related to me (especially my younger sisters). I have started giving them a list of questions to answer. This last time, I gave my sisters the story without the ending, and said they had to answer my questions or I wouldn’t give them the ending!

Sounds like a great plan. Giving readers a list of questions may relieve them of the worry of not knowing what to say. And withholding the ending is genius!

If I were doing this, I would put on my list of questions one or two that solicit positive feedback. I’d want to know what they liked or even loved as well as what didn’t work. Criticism usually goes down easier if it’s leavened with praise.

I’d also be sure to include these questions: Were there any spots where you were confused? Were there any gaps in the story? Were there places where you got bored? I’d ask them to mark those spots.

And I’d ask an open question or two, because we may not always see clearly what’s going on in our story. (We may have much more clarity about other people’s work than about our own.) We can ask, Are there any other things not on my list that bothered you? I’m always surprised by some of the concerns my editor raises.

Kitty: Lots of talk about beta readers here, so if it’s okay to do so (sorry if this sounds spammy, I’m not being paid to promote it or anything), I’d like to recommend a website I use, Scribophile. It’s basically a site where you can critique work for karma (the currency on the site), which you use to post your own work. It works like an actual economy, “buying” and “selling” critiques (with fake money, of course), which I like a lot more than asking people to critique my work out of the goodness of their hearts. You can also find whole novel beta swaps with the group’s feature. (the group The Novel Exchange hosts beta swaps every month or so. I’ve had both some good and some bad experiences with those.) It’s a freemium payment model, but I’ve found that the free basic account is more than enough for me.

It’s a great site, but just a word of caution if you do join. Be careful in the forums, especially the cool hangout chill zone, which isn’t really that cool or chill anymore.

Me at the time: Are the critiques on Scribophile helpful and not mean?

It’s certainly okay to recommend a website if one isn’t profiting from driving traffic to the site. I’ve recommended sites and so have other people. We’re helping our fellow writers!

Lady Laisa: My younger brother is my go-to for an opinion on anything I’ve written. He and I have different taste in our reading material but are still more similar than others I might go to for advice, so I always run my writing past him first. He often picks out any grammatical mistakes I’ve made, which is super useful and points out things he thinks ought to be worded differently. Then I usually have to ask his opinion on a specific character/description/bit of dialogue. He’ll tell me and then I might have him read the excerpt through again to see if he has any new insights. He’s invaluable!

I think mainly you just have to ask questions and prepare for the possibility of having your darling story torn asunder. I asked for someone to read one of my excerpts once (a young lady who does critiques on her blog) and I didn’t mentally prepare myself to have my treasured creation dissected and I kinda lashed out a little. Not something I’m proud of. I mean I actually ASKED for it, and everything she pointed out was correct and I did end up changing things that needed to be changed. But I still felt awful when I saw all the notes and scribbles and changes. Next time I’ll be more prepared though, and can take it better.

So you have to realize that you are ASKING someone to tell you what they think is garbage. People are usually super-extremely-ever-so-very-polite when they critique, but it will still feel like you are coming under attack, and you have to prepare yourself for that. Just a warning.

Lady Laisa later revised her comment: I think I worded that one sentence awkwardly. “You are ASKING someone to tell you what they think is garbage.” A better way to put that, I think is: “You are basically ASKING someone to tell you what parts of your story are garbage.”

Not that I think what you write is or may be garbage, it’s just that when someone criticizes something you’ve written it kind of feels like that’s what they’re saying. And I’ve had to realize that yes, a lot of what I’ve written would probably be better off in the garbage disposal.

I have a little visceral reaction to the word garbage, because it sounds harsh and possibly hurtful. I understand that Lady Laisa wasn’t applying the word to Mary E. Norton’s writing or anyone else’s, but she was applying it to some of her own. Ouch!

I’m trying to think of what writing I would call garbage and the only thing I can come up with is writing that is meant to hurt someone or some group of people. Beyond that, some stories and some writing I love and some I don’t love or even like, but applying the word garbage goes further than I would venture.

I think I’ve said before that asking someone–anyone–if one’s writing is good or not good is the least useful question we can ask. We need specifics or we don’t know how to revise.

There may be a few writers who can do all their own editing and whose work, when they let it be read, is as good as it can be–I won’t say perfect because no piece of writing ever is, in my opinion. But most of us need outside eyes and opinions. I always do.

If I can’t get other writers or a professional editor to look at my work, then someone who is a good reader, who loves to read, is the next best choice. But if we think we may be able to involve other writers, we should go after them. If it’s an exchange, then we don’t feel like a beggar.

There’s something else. With friends or family, as opposed to other writers, we may have more motives than wanting a critique. We may want to be admired or for our worth to be recognized or to be liked. These motives may get in the way of how we ask for criticism and how we receive it.

Here are three prompts, which you can approach realistically in a contemporary world or which you can move back in time or transform into fantasy:

∙ Since we’ve been talking about feeling a little like beggars, your MC is a panhandler on the streets of a major city. Write a scene in which he or she tries to get people to give her money. If you like, write the beginning that leads to this scene and continue on to tell the whole story.

∙ Your MC is a visitor in this major city. He or she–well-meaning, soft-hearted–does something surprising in response to the beggar’s importuning. You decide what that is and write the story.

∙ The above visitor to the city is neither well-meaning nor soft-hearted. He or she is your villain, preying on the vulnerable. Write the encounter with the panhandler and continue the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Madame Red Pencil, the Editor

Before I start the regular post, and in case you missed it, on the website there’s now a color sketch of the cover for A Tale of Two Castles.  In your comments after my post about covers, many of you expressed a preference for painted covers, and that’s what this is.

Also, I’ll be signing in Kingston, New York, this Saturday and in Fort Thomas, Kentucky in November.  If you’re nearby, check out the details on the website.

Last week I  wrote about this question by Erin Edwards: How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them?  But I didn’t get to her second question:  Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?

Before I had my first contract, when I was sending manuscripts out, most of my criticism came from the teacher I mentioned last week, Bunny Gabel, and the writers in my critique group.  But occasionally an actual editor would send a suggestion along with a rejection.  If the editor went to the trouble of giving advice, I took this as an invitation to revise and resend – if the advice felt reasonable and seemed a good fit for my story.  Way back then I had total freedom: the editor certainly wasn’t eagerly waiting for a revision.

In every case, when I revised and resent, the manuscript was rejected again.  Further suggestions might be made, with less enthusiasm, and I might revise and resend again.  This wasn’t a fast process.  If I was fixing a novel, revising would take at least a month, and the response always took many months to arrive.  But with the exception of the picture book I described last week, I always felt that I had improved my story.

However, although I had no success, some of my writing friends did.  They established relationships with editors, understood what was wanted, and were rewarded with contracts.

Eventually I did get to work with editors, and of course there are differences.  When a criticism comes from another writer or from a friend, I have context.  If I’m in a critique group, I know my critique buddies pretty well.  I’ve read their stories and seen how they react to other writers’ work.  I’ve experienced their strengths and their blind spots.  When a critique buddy offers a criticism I usually know how to understand it.  Almost the same was true of Bunny.  Although I never saw her writing, I did watch her response to my classmates’ material.

With an editor, much of that is missing.  Usually we have available to read only editorial letters and emails.  The editor – let’s call her Madame Red Pencil – may never have written fiction as an adult – and can still be a marvelous editor.  We can’t tell how she evaluates other authors’ work, only our own.  If, for example, she hates flashbacks, everyone’s flashbacks not just ours, we won’t know unless she tells us.

In both cases, there’s a relationship to preserve.  I don’t want to lose a friend over criticism or to reach an impossible place with an editor.  And with an editor, even if there is a contract, she can decide not to publish the book or that she can’t bear to work with me ever again.

Naturally some editors are better than others, and certainly there needs to be a good fit between the editor and the writer.  In general, Madame Pencil won’t acquire a manuscript unless she loves it.  This is because she has to read it again and again during the editing, and she has to be its booster in the publishing house.  So the most important relationship ingredients are there from the start.  She adores your work, and she’s primed to adore you because you created this marvel.  And, most likely, you’re primed to feel good about her because she gets you.  Maybe she’s the only one who noticed how gradually and carefully you built up the cruelty of your villain.

With luck, her edits will be even more helpful than the suggestions of your critique pals.  It’s her job to crawl inside your story, to see it from within itself.  Then it’s her job to grasp it as a whole too, and also to figure out how it can become its best incarnation, and to present her ideas in a way that you understand, and if you don’t get it right away, it’s her job to rephrase.  When all this happens, yes, an editor’s criticism is easier to take.

When I first handed in the draft that eventually became The Fairy’s Return, my editor wrote in her editorial letter that my heroine was a buffoon, and she didn’t mean it in a good way.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew she was right.  Luckily she had a suggestion that showed me what to do.

The editorial letter I got in response to Fairest was eighteen single-spaced pages.  In it my Madame Red Pencil told me to cut entire chapters.  I reacted as I usually do to a long editorial letter – with fright.  Could I do what was being asked of me?

Editors don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes Madame Pencil can see a problem but not how to solve it.  Or she may make a suggestion that doesn’t suit my approach.  When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, my editor and I both knew that the beginning was a mess, and neither of us had a clue as to how to straighten it out.  Eventually I got it on my own.

By now I’ve worked with a bunch of editors, some more gifted than others.  The worst edit – absolutely useless – I’ve ever received was the most enthusiastic.  This editor wrote Ooh! and Ah! and Eek! here and there in the margins, and that was it.  The only suggestion she made was wrong.  Sometimes I have complete certainty, and this time I had it.  When I explained my reason, she agreed.  This reminds me of the comments from some of you on the last post that friends give you only positive feedback, and you don’t know whether or not to believe it or how to proceed.

But even if the overly enthusiastic editor hadn’t agreed with me about her sole edit, I wouldn’t have done it.  Madame Pencil’s edits are suggestions, and this is understood by both of us.  Ultimately the book is yours, and you have final say.

My editor and I initially disagreed about The Wish.  She wanted a different book and I wanted the book I’d written.  For a little while it looked like she was going to reject it.  In the end she didn’t, and she edited it, and I took her edits seriously and worked to understand and use them as much as I could –

Which is my policy in general.  In minor matters if I disagree with an edit, I just don’t do it, but in major matters, I explain and discuss, and sometimes I can be persuaded, and sometimes the editor can be.  Our interests are exactly the same.  Your critique pals and mine and Madame Red Pencil all want the book to fulfill its potential and find lots of readers.

No prompts again, but save what you’re writing, and have fun!