Showing posts with label critiquing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label critiquing. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 9

When Should You Send Your Short Story Out For Critique?

In her blog post today, Jody Hedlund brought up an important issue, one I've been thinking a lot about lately: critiques.

I don't mean what critiques are or how to write one but about when, in the life of a project, we should send our 'word babies' out into the, potentially hostile, world?

When Should You Send Your Short Story Out To Beta Readers?

After the first draft? The second? The third? Should we let others read our stories while they're still in development or wait until we've ironed the kinks out, as it were, and are (we think) ready for a larger audience?

Every writer is different, has different requirements, different expectations, different vulnerabilities, so what works for me might not work for you and vice versa.

That said, here's my take on it.

I like to involve beta readers at an early stage because they have something I almost completely lack: objectivity.

My process for a short story

1. Write the first draft

2. Read over the first draft and do another couple of drafts.
- Check the draft for grammar and spelling mistakes.

3. Give the first draft to a trusted beta reader, someone who has read my work before and given me valuable feedback.
- Wait patiently for him to read my story. 
- Receive the feedback.
- Ask questions only for the purpose of clarifying the feedback. Never defend. Never explain.

4. Give myself time to think about what my beta reader said. Decide how I'm going to incorporate the feedback into my draft.

5. Write another draft, one that incorporates some of the feedback just received.

6. If my beta reader is up for it, I give the revised draft back to the same reader and ask for his feedback on the changes.

7. Depending on the feedback, I may go through this process a few more times.

8. After I feel I've ironed out most of the bugs using this process I give the story to my other beta readers for feedback. 

9. I accept the feedback, change the story where I think it needs it, and give it back to any of my beta-readers that are up for it. I repeat this process till the story seems as good as it's going to get.

That's it.

Let me put on my business hat for a moment.

I'm an independent publisher/author/writer so that means I want my stories to sell. Reviews help my stories sell. And even though a one star review is preferable to no review, I'd prefer to minimize them. (Every writer who does this for a living will get a one star review at some point. Like death and taxes, it's inevitable.)

So. To maximize sales and minimize authorial angst I like to get as many eyes on my manuscript prerelease as I can.

Now let me take off my business hat and put on my scuffed and worn writer hat.

What are stories?

Stories don't live on paper. Like dinosaur bones, they reside deep in our conceptual earth or, like stars, exit 'out there' in a conceptual sky.

We put bits and pieces of them down on paper, sometimes doing funky things with flashback sequences, but the stories themselves exist without us, though they do need us to dig down, find them, and reveal them to the world--or at least to the world of our readers, those wonderful people who make our creative madness possible.

Here's why I need beta readers:

When I read one of my stories my eyes are still on the stars and I don't see the words. I don't know if what I've written will be adequate to communicate what I saw.

Over time the vision will fade and I'll lose a bit of the shocking immediacy that blurred my sight. I'll then be able to read one of my stories and see how the language flows--or doesn't, as the case may be. I will then be able to see the vessel (the words, the language) and not just the thing itself.

I hope that doesn't sound too 'artsy'; I think we each have our own mythology about where our stories come from, each as true as the other.

When I write, I try to use words that will evoke the story I'm discovering within myself. I try to write something that will evoke that thing, that story, that experience, in another.

The only way I can know if I've done that is to get other people, lots of other people, to read my scribblings and tell me what they 'saw', what they experienced.

Then I tweek my words so the story I uncovered within me is the same thing they connect with within themselves.

Or something like that.

I look at critiques both these ways, sometimes with my business hat on, sometimes with my writer hat. What I say about critiques, and about why they are important, depends on which hat I'm wearing, which perspective I'm seeing the issue from.

I hope that makes some sense! (grin)

Nasty Critiques

Some of you may be worried about having your manuscript brutalized by a reviewer/reader/critiquer having a bad day, or otherwise out for blood.

I wish I could say it'll never happen, but it will. Just like getting a one star review is inevitable, having some clod do a vivisection of both your and your story is like a right of passage.

It changes you, but you survive to write another day.

I remember the first time my work was brutalized. It was the first notes/critique I received on a particular manuscript so I was crushed. I cried, I felt like crap. I figured if this was one so bad, what were the rest of the critiques going to be like? But I did one good thing: I didn't respond and just waited.

It turned out the other folks liked the manuscript, though (as expected) they pointed out a few places where it needed work.

My point is that when you get a hateful review know that person isn't responding to you, they aren't even responding to your work, they are either having a bad day and using the opportunity to vent or are the sort of person who thinks belittling others is fun.

Whatever the case, ignore the critique. Stop reading, set it aside.

I think I'll always be affected by nasty critiques, but you learn to shrug it off and move on.

The only time the bully wins is if you stop.

Never stop writing.

Question: When do you send your story out for critique? What is your process?

Other articles you might like:

- Find Out How Much Traffic Your Blog Gets
- Using Language To Evoke Emotion
- How To Create And Maintain The Habit Of Writing

Photo credit: "143/365 Come Sail Away With Me" by martinak15 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, December 10

The Dark Art of Critiquing, Part 2: Formulating A Critique

The Dark Art of Critiquing, Part 2: Formulating A Critique

Yesterday I was going to write a post about how to critique prefaced by a few words about what I mean when I say a story is good. Well, the preface grew and grew and became a post all its own. Today, though, I will talk about critiquing. (For part one in the series see: The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?)

Story Elements

A story is boring if it doesn't elicit emotion; in other words, if we don't care about the characters and what happens to them.

A number of things go into making a story interesting and I've talked a lot about them over the past while. Stories have themes, arcs, deeds of daring and (occasionally) cowardice. Good stories have strong protagonists and strong antagonists. Good stories can whisk us off to other places, other times, even other universes.

Three Ways A Story Can Go Wrong

To conclude, there are three ways a story can go wrong:

1) An unintentional departure from the rules of grammar
2) Infelicitous word use
3) Boring story (one or more story elements are either mangled or missing)

(I discussed the first two points in part one of this series, yesterday.)

How To Critique

When I say, "how to critique" I mean how I critique. There is no One Right Way so do whatever feels right to you, whatever you're comfortable with. I've spent a lot of time setting the foundation for explaining why I do things this way rather than another, but your mileage will vary.

What To Include


I only talk about a departure from standard grammar if I am explicitly requested to. Although there are exceptions.

For instance if a writer uses "affect" as though it meant "effect" or vice versa, if they (and here I am self-consciously using 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she') used "advice" as though it meant "advise", and so on. Why? Because that sort of word misuse kicks up a lot of static.

That said, if the writer qualified "unique" or used "decimated" as though it were synonymous with "obliterated" I would keep silent. Why? Because from the context I think it would be clear what the person meant and because the error is widespread.

But that's me. I know it is painful for some folks to let any departure from standard grammar go unmentioned.

Here's a trick I wished I knew years ago:
When you give someone your story for critique be specific about the kind of feedback you'd like.
If having someone comment on grammar drives you nuts, then, when you give someone your manuscript, tell them you're not interested in that level of feedback.

If someone wants to point out all my silly mistakes, that's fine, but I never request it. My manuscript is going to a line editor and I trust her to catch everything. Also, asking for a critique with this level of detail is asking someone to do a lot of work.

By the way, on the subject of grammar, an excellent book is: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. The book is hilarious! And highly informative.

Word Use

As with grammar, I only talk about awkward word use if the writer specifically requests it. And, honestly (and this is true for grammar as well), I might just decline to give that sort of feedback. I'm not a line editor, I don't have that skill set. Knowing your limitations is part of giving a good critique.

 Where I would be torn--and this is part of the reason it makes me SO LONG to do critiques--is over constructions like:

"I love you," he said huskily.

Gah! Where does one start?

I'd probably say something along the lines of 'show don't tell' and 'as a rule of thumb, I try to avoid using an adverb directly after "said"'.


There are wonderful people called developmental/story editors--they probably have other names as well ("angel", "saint")--who will look at your manuscript and give you a detailed analysis of your story's elements along with tips on how to improve them. This is a LOT of work and they charge accordingly.

Critiquers are busy people and I don't request this level of feedback. If someone wants to talk to me about my protagonist's arc and says they think it's weak and suggests how it could be strengthened, I'm all ears. But I would never expect that level, that depth, of analysis.

How I Critique

If accept a manuscript to critique I'll tell that person four things:

1. Was the meaning clear?

I will flag any constructions that seemed awkward to me, that I had to re-read before I realized what was being said.

2. Were you bored?

I will indicate where my attention waned, the places where I wanted to put down the manuscript and do the laundry.

3. Did you believe it?

I will indicate anything that seemed unbelievable or implausible. Anything that didn't work for me. For instance, let's say I'm reading about a fight between a 300 pound, six foot eight inch tall linebacker and a five foot four inch tall chess champion. And the chess champion wins.

I'm not saying the fight couldn't work. It could. But you see the challenge. It's almost like a contest between you, the writer, and the scene.  I'll tell you if I think the scene won.

4. Was it cool?

If I read a passage and think, "Wow! That was cool," I'll tell you. I like it when critiquers give me this kind of feedback because I cut a lot of passages as I revise a manuscript. If someone thought a passage was especially good I'll flag it and save it if possible.

By the way, I added "Was it cool?" after I took Mary Robinette Kowal's workshop, "The Mysteries of Outlining." Thanks Mary! :)

Before I leave, here are two rules of thumb I use:

Find at least one thing nice to say about the story.

Try not to say more negative things than positive.

That's it!

If you take anything away from this article please let it be this: Find out what kind of feedback the writer wants, preferably before you read their manuscript.

If someone hands you their story and they don't specify what kind of feedback they want then ask. If I ask and the writer says something vague like, "I'm interested in what you think," or "It doesn't matter," then I give them the four point analysis I just covered.

Oh. One more thing. Someone asked me the other day what they should do. They were given a manuscript to critique by a new writer and it was ... well, it probably looked like the first story any of us ever wrote! Which is to say, something that is a long (LONG!) way from being publishable and which will, mercifully, end up living (or should I say lurking) under the bed.

"What should I say to them?" this reluctant critiquer asked.

Given my two rules of thumb (say at least one nice thing and try not to say more negative things than positive ones) situations like this can be challenging. Then I realized that there's always one nice thing you can say: Good for you, you wrote something! You had an idea, you turned that idea into a story and you finished the story. That is awesome!

Now do it again.
The more we write the better we get. In the beginning my biggest fear was that someone would read my story and tell me: Stop writing! Just stop. Put down the pen and back away sloooowly. You're horrible and you're not going to get better.

Thankfully that never happened. Instead, people encouraged me. I try and do the same.

#  #  #

If you'd like to share the criteria you use to do a critique, please do! There is no right and wrong in this area and wisdom is often found in a multitude of opinions.

(By the way, this will be my only post today. I'm taking a day trip down to Seattle. To ... er ... research. Yes. Research. Nothing to do with shopping. Nope.)

Other articles you might like:
- The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?
- 12 Tips On How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate
- Editing & Critiquing

Photo credit: "Ancient Dragon" by ToastyKen under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, December 9

The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?

The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?

This was going to be a post about critiquing with a short introduction about what we mean--or what I mean--by "good writing". That post turned into the first of a two part series on critiquing!

Today I'll discuss what makes a story good. Or, more to the point, what can keep a story from being good. Tomorrow I'll talk about how to critique a story, or at least how I do it.

The Difference Between "I like it" and "It's good"

Everyone has their own idea of how to critique. If something I mention resonates with you, great! Use it. If it doesn't, that's fine. Forget it.

Use what works for you.

A critique is, at its core, an evaluation. An appraisal. But in order to appraise we must have a measure. For instance, in order to say whether a man is too fat or too thin we must know the correct weight for a man of his age and height.

But evaluating a story is very different from evaluating weight. Saying whether a man is too thin or too fat belongs to medical science but writing is an art. And the arts do not admit of the same kind of measure.

This doesn't mean writing can't be evaluated, it means the metric for evaluation isn't objective in the same way as it is for science. I think that, like beauty, the worth of a story, the value of a story, resides in the eye of the beholder.

Example: Movies

What do you think? If you disagree with me, let me try and persuade you. Think of a movie you loved. Chances are, if you picked 10 random people out of a crowd at least two of them wouldn't even like that movie.

Does that mean you're wrong to love that movie? Does it mean you were foolish to spend your money to see that movie? No! Of course not. Tastes differ.

Even great works of literature like "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde have their detractors.

In fact, I would go so far as to claim that for any creative work you'd care to name, there will be folks--sane, reasonable people--who don't like it.

And that's fine. That's the nature of art.

Why Bother With Critiques If It's All Relative?

You might wonder, if the worth of a story really is in the eye of the beholder, why do we bother with critiques? Isn't it impossible to say, "That story is good" or "That story is bad"?

Yes and no.

We know what we like. We know whether a story was interesting, whether it was difficult to read, whether we were able to suspend our disbelief (whether we 'bought the premise'), whether it made us feel inspired.

And, in certain ways, humans are pretty similar in what they like and dislike.

It's All About Emotion

Really, what are we asking for when we give someone a story to critique? Scratch that. What is it that we, as storytellers, want to know? We want to know whether the story grabbed that person's attention. Whether it rocked their world. Whether it made them feel something. Anything!

As Stephen King said in a recent talk to a group of students at the University of Massachusetts:
“I’m a confrontational writer. I want to be in your face. I want to get into your space. I want to get within kissing distance, hugging distance, choking distance, punching distance. Call it whatever you want. But I want your attention.” (Stephen King: My mother-in-law scares me)
Perhaps a better question than "Was the story good?" is "Did the story move you emotionally?", "Did it grab you?"

I used this quotation from Chuck Wendig in my article yesterday about how to create a great antagonist, but it's so good I'm going to use it again:
I hate that I love Hans Gruber. I love that I hate every Nazi in every Indiana Jones movie. For #$%$’s sake, make me feel something. (25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists)
So what we need to ask is whether there is anything that a story needs to have in order to elicit emotion. Is there some one thing that is absolutely essential for a story to stir the emotions of readers?

I don't think so.

Now hold on, don't throw anything at me yet!

There are some things that will turn readers off, that will prevent your stories from eliciting emotion. We'll take a look at those in a moment but first I have to tell you what writing really is:

Writing is telepathy.

Writing Is Telepathy

If you think I've gone completely batty you can blame Stephen King. It's his analogy from On Writing.

I hope Mr. King will forgive me for quoting extensively from his book but this is a terrific concept every writer needs in their toolbox.
And here we go—actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours.

Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To colorblind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

.... The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy. (Stephen King, On Writing)

Good And Bad Transmissions

Think of an old-fashioned radio. There are two reasons my grandparents turned off their radio.

Static. If there was a lot of static then whatever was being transmitted, music for instance, sounded horrible. The radio would get turned off even if it was playing everyone's favorite song.

Boring. If no one liked the song the radio would get turned off even if the signal was clear as a bell.

This corresponds to the two major ways stories can go wrong:

1) Static = Unusual grammar and infelicitous word choice

2) Boring = Boring

How To Test For Static

Unsure if a certain word or sentence or scene is static? Ask: If I removed it would the meaning be unchanged?

a) The cat was very fat.
b) The cat was fat.

I prefer (b).

As for sentences and scenes, ask whether they push the story forward. If they do, great! If they don't, cut them. Kill your darlings.

Unusual Grammar Adds Static

Writers sometimes consciously decide to not use correct grammar--in dialogue for instance--because this can help communicate something about the speaker.

That said, in general, the rules of grammar are there for a reason. If you follow them your writing will be clearer and easier to understand than if you don't.

Clear writing = no static.

Clear writing is good.

Anything that prevents your writing from being clear is bad. Why? Because, continuing with my radio analogy, it adds static to the signal and makes it harder to hear the song.

Infelicitous Word Choice Adds Static

Every writer has their bugaboos, their pet peeves. These are mine:

Very unique
- "Unique" doesn't admit of degrees. Either a thing is unique or it isn't.
- "Very" is an adjective that, generally speaking, can be taken out of a sentence without changing its meaning.

- "Decimate" is not a synonym for "obliterate".

English is my first language and yet I am continually learning, continually amazed by the complex and evolving nature of language--and of my often frail grasp of it. Everyone makes mistakes.

Remember, even if there is a tiny bit of static in the channel folks aren't going to turn off the radio as long as they like the song.

Creating A Clear Channel

I've compared writing to a transmission, or to the channel through which a transmission is made, and discussed various ways the signal can degrade.

Now I'd like to talk about clear channels; zero static transmissions.

I'd love to be able to say, "If you do this and that and the other thing, then your writing will be awesome. But then, of course, machines could do it and we'd all be out of work!

No, the best I can do is give you examples of writing that reaches into my soul and makes me want to write like that.

Neil Gaiman, M Is For Magic

Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.

Horror stays with you hardest. If it brings a real chill to the back of your neck, if once the story is done you find yourself closing the book slowly, for fear of disturbing something, and creeping away, then it’s there for the rest of time.

Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
‘What should we drink?’ the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
‘It’s pretty hot,’ the man said.
‘Let’s drink beer.’
‘Dos cervezas,’ the man said into the curtain.
‘Big ones?’ a woman asked from the doorway.
‘Yes. Two big ones.’
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.

If you haven't re-read Hills Like White Elephants recently, perhaps you'd like to. I just did, it took me five minutes. Each time I read it that story amazes me. Especially how I know what the characters are talking about even though they never say it. That story is all about subtext, about what is not being said. Brilliant.

As I wrote at the beginning, this was going to be a post about how to critique prefaced by a brief discussion of the nature of stories. (Sigh) I really do have trouble writing short!

I'll talk about critiques and critiquing tomorrow. Till then, happy writing! :-)

Update: Here's a link to The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 2: Formulating A Critique

Other articles you might like:

- 12 Tips On How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate
- Editing & Critiquing
- The Albee Agency: Writers Beware

Photo credit: "Le Jour ni l’Heure 2225 : autoportrait avec un glossaire, Plieux, bibliothèque, samedi 12 mai 2012, 24:28:31" by Renaud Camus under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, December 7

Editing & Critiquing

Editing & Critiquing

NaNoWriMo is over and we're in the trenches again, this time editing our manuscripts.

For me, editing is EXCRUCIATING! I far prefer writing first drafts to editing.

That's probably why I loved Joanna Penn's blog post: Writing A Book: What Happens After The First Draft? You know what they say, misery loves company! (grin)

The Process of Editing: A Bird's Eye View

I wrote a post about this a few days ago (11 Steps To Edit Your Manuscript. Edit Ruthlessly & Kill Your Darlings) but here it is in a nutshell:

1) Write
2) Edit
3) Re-write
4) Repeat steps (2) and (3) until done.

By "done" I don't mean completely finished. No. At some point your manuscript will feel as though it's completed. You've told the story you wanted to tell to the best of your ability and now you need other folks to read it and give you feedback.

In other words, you need beta readers.

After your beta readers get back to you you'll then revise your manuscript and send it out to a line editor and there will be more rounds of revision (see: How To Find The Right Freelance Editor For You). But, now, I'd like to talk about beta readers and how to respond to critiques.

Beta Readers/Critique Groups

Beta Readers are wonderful people. They give up their precious free time to read material that may not be their preferred genre or style AND then they spend even more of their time formulating a thoughtful critique. And all for free. (Well, they'll probably want a critique from you at some point in the future.)

Dealing With Destructive Criticism

It's not always easy to receive criticism. Especially the first few times. And, occasionally, you may receive a critique that is an attack, not just of your work, but of you as a writer. When that happens--and I know this is easier said than done--ignore it. I guarantee you that by the time you've sold, say, 100,000 copies of your books you'll have at least one review so vitriolic it could scorch the hide off a dragon.

Receiving unreasonably harsh criticism of both yourself and your books is, unfortunately, inevitable. If you receive a critique like this now, look at it as practice. You can get used to dealing with this stuff now and be ahead of the curve, because you're going to have to get used to it eventually.

Dealing With Constructive Criticism

In some ways dealing with constructive criticism can be more difficult, especially when it's not phrased in terms of an opinion. (By the way, a fantastic article on how to give a critique is Andrew Burt's article The Diplomatic Critiquer.)

Here's what I try to do after I receive a critique:

1. Read the entire review first and make sure I understand it before I form an opinion about the worth of the advice. 

If I don't understand a particular point being made then I'll ask (politely!) for clarification.

2. Don't decide whether a certain point is worthwhile until you've heard from all your beta readers.

If two of your readers say exactly the same thing then pay special attention to it. If most of your beta readers say the same thing about anything, that's something you need to address, even if you don't agree with the criticism.

For instance, let's say you feel that your description of your main character isn't campy at all, or that a certain character doesn't have the sex appeal of a drunk sea slug. Whatever.

For you I'm sure that's true, but if a good percentage of your beta readers are saying your protagonist is 2-dimentional then that's probably what your readers will think too, but your readers won't tell you. They'll just drift away and never buy your work again.

Beta readers are doing you a huge favor so treat them like the treasure they are and, even if they hurt your feelings, look on it as an opportunity to develop a thick skin, because you'll need one as a professional writer!

Do you have any tips for how to accept criticism, constructive or otherwise? What have your experiences been like, either as a critiquer or as the critiqued?

Other articles you might like:

- Kristen Lamb: Don't Let Trolls Make You Crazy
- The Albee Agency: Writers Beware
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Photo credit: "Paradise" by Andréia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.