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How To Give Critique: The Do’s And Don’ts, PART III

And now we get to the “do’s” and the “don’ts.”

When critiquing someone’s work, either for negative or positive comments, find specific examples of what you are critiquing on. Saying things like, “I felt your word choice was off” but then not being able to point out one instance of it in the manuscript is unhelpful, and can create an awful lot of self-doubt and worry in someone else. When you are saying something positive, it helps to recall that exact moment and tell the writer all about it. Re-describe what happened, talk about what it made you feel when you read it, use your own vocabulary BUT if there was something significant about how it was phrased, quote it. Yes, they of course will know that scene by heart, they wrote it, but it’s always good to be able to point to an exact point and say, “this worked.” It also shows that you actually read it. Which is always a plus.

DO: Point to specific examples within a work to back up your critique.

DON’T: Give a nonspecific critique and not be prepared to point out a specific example.

Sometimes, you might notice an issue with the overall story progression, or a “flaw” in the “big idea.” Before you comment on it, consider:

  • Have I read the whole story? Does it get resolved or addressed later?
  • Is this really an issue or a personal preference?
  • Does the story still function as a story? And, if so, how much rewriting/reconstruction will the writer have to do just to address that one issue?

When I critique, I try very, very hard to stay away from critiquing the idea of a story or the “big picture.” To critique such things is, essentially, to say that the story doesn’t work on the most basic of levels; that it isn’t a good idea.

(I can’t believe I’m quoting this but) in the Vampire Diaries, season 2, a character (Damon) says, “There is no such thing as a bad idea, just poorly executed awesome ones.”

Focus on execution, not on the “big idea” of a story. Also, when critiquing the execution, ask yourself, is this a stylistic choice? If I point this out, will the writer have to change their entire process, story, and voice in order to address it? Is my dislike of things like one-word sentences or clipped, noun-verb-noun sentences a personal preference, not a failing? Do I just not like italics and prefer underlines? Or vise-versa?

Sometimes, a critique just isn’t worth it, and will cause far, far more harm than good. Sometimes, a critique is not a critique, it’s an opinion, preference, or personal conviction, and has no place in this particular arena. Save it for your Goodreads reviews or your personal journal.

DO: Focus on execution. Focus on whether or not the mode of the telling of the story is functioning. Focus on whether or not you understand what is going on.

DON’T: Critique ideas.

DON’T: Critique methods of execution which do not get in the way of reader understanding, but are simply things that you don’t like.

When offering a suggestion, try phrasing it as a “what if” scenario. It’s less aggressive and less authoritative. It also draws the writer into the creative process and merely opens a door, instead of shoving them through it headfirst. If there isn’t a way of phrasing it as a “what if” without sounding moronic or condescending (“what if you spelled ‘cat’ correctly?”), just preface the suggestion with, “This is a suggestion.” Remind them that you aren’t telling them your way is the only way, just that your way is a different way. Sometimes, it works really well and your idea fits perfectly and they use it. Sometimes, your idea sucks, but it jostles something in their brains and they write something stronger because of it.

DO: Use “what if” statements and reminder that what you are saying is a suggestion.

DON’T: Give your ideas in a way that makes it sound like they are the only ideas of any value.

Never utilize leading questions. If they aren’t allowed in a court of law, they aren’t allowed in a critique session, okay? If there isn’t an answer to the question which won’t put the person being critiqued in a position where you’re right, they’re wrong, and nothing they say will mean anything, DON’T ASK THE QUESTION IN THE FIRST PLACE.

However, do ask questions. Asking questions is a way of interacting with the work and the writer. It’s a way of showing you were an attentive reader who engaged with the work and cared about doing so. Sometimes, questions can, like a good suggestion, jostle something in the writer’s mind and suddenly, everything snaps together with clarity and they know how to edit/rewrite their work. Writers are selfish creatures, at heart, and want to be asked about their work (usually). If you engage with questions, you are not only giving credit to the work but also to the writer.

HOWEVER, do not ask silly questions. I know, in first grade, we were all told “there is no such thing as a stupid question” but sometimes, there is. Asking questions like, “Why is your main character female?” or “Why is the sky blue?” are silly questions, and they will, ultimately, just frustrate the writer you are critiquing. This is especially true if you are critiquing writing that could be termed (in certain circles) as “speculative fiction” (to the rest of the world, it’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and everything in between) or as other forms of “genre” (like Romance or Mystery). These forms have certain accepted norms (like in a murder-mystery, someone will be murdered. In a series, more people might die than there are available in the core cast). Asking about these will only perpetuate frustration and confusion. ESPECIALLY if the answer is apparent, and you are just asking questions to ask questions.

DO: Ask questions.

DON’T: Ask silly questions.

When giving a critique (and I cannot express this enough) never, ever, ever REWRITE ANYTHING. You can give suggestions, you can scribble in the margins of the manuscript, you can add punctuation or circle grammatical and spelling issues, you can write words you thought were typed incorrectly or missed on a separate sheet of paper. You will NOT rewrite something that someone else has written, even if they give you their permission. You will NOT write up what you think is a better way of phrasing a whole paragraph and give it to the writer. If you have a digital copy of the work on a word processor, you will NOT delete things, add things, and rewrite things WITHOUT either using the comment function OR writing your suggestion in a different color beside the original work. To rewrite another writer’s story is an insult beyond insults, as you are, essentially, not only saying that you are a better writer than they are, you are more qualified to write their story.

And if you are so arrogant to believe that you ARE more qualified, this is perhaps the wrong field for you.

DO: Write comments and suggestions in margins, mark up the manuscript (IN PENCIL!), and/or write on a separate sheet of paper OR using the comment function on a word processor.

DON’T:  Rewrite another writer’s work (and whatever you do, NEVER then demand that they agree it’s a better way of doing it).

Ultimately, though, if there isn’t a problem with a work and you cannot think of anything to critique it on, DO NOT invent problems. Do NOT give negative critique for the sake of giving negative critique. If you run out of negative critique stop critiquing. Or, better yet, segway into talking about the positive things. If you have nothing negative to say, or if you cannot think of a way to phrase a critique without being insulting and rude, DO NOT speak. Utilize the (other) silver rule:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and if you can’t, duct tape your mouth shut.”

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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How To Give Critique: The Do’s And Don’ts, PART II

In the previous post, we talked about “I” statements. In Part II, we will talk about body language.

How a person holds themselves in a conversation, especially a critique, is extremely important. A critique is very personal and it can be a moment of extreme vulnerability, both for the one being critiqued and the critic. While we’d like to think that our writing is a separate entity from us and anything can be said about it and we won’t react, this is more often than not, an incorrect assumption. On one level, it’s a piece of art, something that someone has created essentially from nothing remarkable (words are not remarkable; stories are remarkable). On another, writers pull from their own experiences in order to craft authentic stories, and sometimes, stories act as a way for the writer to put some emotional demon on paper and explore it in a safe situation. You can’t be sure how close someone is to the work being critiqued.

Which is why I suggest paying attention to body language.

For example, if you are critiquing someone and they effectively “shut down” (stop giving detailed responses, avoiding the questions, avoiding eye contact, if their body language goes from relaxed to shrunken and tense, mumbling, changing the subject abruptly, etcetera),  BACK OFF. For whatever reason, your critique is hitting a nerve. It might be that it’s something they already felt was wrong about the story and haven’t quite come to terms with accepting that. They will get there. Be patient. However, it could also be that it’s something highly personal and touching on a part of them that’s scarred or raw, and the critique is no longer about the work, it has suddenly become about THEM as a person.

If someone who was previously calm and open to critique suddenly has an extreme reaction, like anger, lashing out, turning the question over and demanding it of you, there might be a similar reason for that too. Some people react to pain by avoidance, hoping that the stimulus will go away. Some people react to pain with anger. If either of these two reactions occurs, step away, hand the critique over to someone else or start critiquing a different person’s work, and let the person who has been hurt recover.

Be aware of how people are holding themselves, how they are interacting with you, and how they are reacting to your words. Sometimes, this need not apply. Sometimes, those in your critique group will be close friends, and knowing them, you’ll know what’s okay and what’s not okay to talk about. Sometimes, a person may seem aggressive or upset, but it’s just simply how they interact in a critique session, and should probably just be termed “intense.” Sometimes, they will be total strangers and all of you are uncomfortable, which skews body language reading. Sometimes, everyone will be at different levels of critique experience, some having been critiqued often and some never having been critiqued before at all.

In summary, be aware. Watch the person you are critiquing and if you start noticing warning signs, stop critiquing. You may have touched on something that’s crossed this critique over from talking about the work to talking about the person.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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How To Give Critique: The Do’s And Don’ts, PART I

There are many blog-posts, web-pages, articles, and essays about how to give good critique, how not to be a jerk, and how to get the most out of a critique session. These are awesome articles, and I do suggest that you take a look at them.

However, last Friday, I had what can only be termed an “abysmal, heart-breaking, and cruel” critique session, which has taught me a few things about how to approach critique and giving critique, and I wanted to share.

I think the most important part to remember about critique is its definition:

Critique

/kri’tēc/

Noun

  1. A detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.

Verb

  1. Evaluate (a theory or practice) in a detailed and analytical way.

Note, the definition says nothing about a critique being inherently negative nor positive.

Secondly, the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten (and am still working on internalizing) is that the reader WANTS to be there; they’re only looking for an excuse to keep reading, not an excuse to put the book down.

Without further ado, the basic tenant, the golden rule, the most important part of critique: USE “I” STATEMENTS.

Remember how you used to be told, as a kid, that you need to use “I statements” in confrontational situations, especially when it involves bullying? Bring back those lessons and use them in critique. Phrase negative critique with “I” statements, saying things like:

  • I didn’t understand…
  • I feel…
  • I think…
  • I wasn’t sure…
  • I read it this way…

Prefacing negative commentary with an “I” allows the one being critiqued to recognize that this is your opinion, and your personal experience, NOT necessarily a failing on their part. When there isn’t that lens of an “I,” the critique begins to sound absolute, that everyone will always have this experience with the work, regardless of who they are. The “I” also reminds everyone that you are critiquing the work not the person who wrote it.

Avoid statements such as:

  • This didn’t make any sense…
  • It’s not written right…
  • If I were writing this story, I would… (deceptively an “I” statement, this is extremely rude and hurtful)
  • I don’t like it. (also an “I” statement, but it’s simply unhelpful)

Just as important as avoiding absolutes, avoid directing the critique at the person using “you.” This removes the barrier and recognition that you are critiquing the work and it begins to sound an awful lot like you are critiquing the person who wrote the work:

  • You didn’t make this clear…
  • Were you trying to say…
  • You went on a tangent…
  • Your work lacks…

Use “I” statements and, if you need to ask what the writer’s intention was, explain EXACTLY what confused you using an “I” statement and centering around the work itself, and only THEN move to asking the person directly, “Was this what you meant?”

However, this can invert when you are giving positive critique. When you are giving positive critique, you most certainly can continue using “I” statements. That’s totally acceptable. Yet, you can also involve the writer by saying “you.” In this situation, since the critique is positive and you are, essentially, praising the work and the execution, it can be supportive to acknowledge that the writer wrote the piece and involve them more than you might for a negative critique. For example:

  • This section you wrote here is really powerful, I understood the implications immediately…
  • Your voice is so authentic, I believe totally that you know exactly what you’re talking about…
  • I thought you did a great job describing this character/scene/location…

Not only do you support the work, but you support the person making the work. It’s a quiet form of validation, and regardless of what point you are at as a writer or at what point in your career you are at, validation from a reader is always a wonderful thing.

In short, be polite. Don’t attack the person doing the writing. Be aware your words have power.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Removing Things

After a great deal of consideration, I’ve decided to remove some of my old posts, especially those darned book reviews. They were important when I wrote them. At the time when I wrote them, I was in perhaps the worst period of my life so far. My parents had divorced suddenly, I’d started college and felt like the perpetual outsider (I still AM the perpetual outsider, but it’s getting easier now to raise a single finger at life and say, “suck it”), and, toward the end, I was in the middle of a major MS attack (which is a disease that eats holes in my brain, turning it into swiss cheese if I’m not careful). I needed something to scream about, to pour my hurt and my anger into, and book reviews were an easy way for me to do it.

Those reviews are caustic.

I don’t particularly want them on my blog anymore.

However, I’ve struggled with the question, “if I remove them, and people know they existed at one time, will it be assumed I’m trying to lie?” I still have that question, but I think it’s better to sever my ties to that awful point in my life rather than leave it there as some kind of symbol of my accountability.

So goodbye old reviews. Goodbye blog posts of stress and anger and hurt. I don’t want to see these anymore. I don’t want people to comment on them anymore. They are gone.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Mutant Genre-Blending Offspring…Where Do You Go?

Chibi Cthulhu by micer

Image (c) micer

Partly for a class assignment (it was pretty lenient), partly for fun, I wrote a novelette spin-off of my current novel, something I’ve been trying to do for ages (to no avail). Not only is it the first one I’ve been able to complete, it’s also the first one that’s a standalone story that comes to a satisfactory conclusion and requires no prior knowledge of the novel-universe to function.

This issue, however, is where do I send this mutant baby? It’s a(n):

  • 11,000 word novelette (and trust me, there ain’t much of a market for something this long).
  • Is historical (set in Chicago, 1882).
  • Has a mystery plot.
  • I want to call it “urban fantasy,” except, there aren’t too many magazines out there that take UF nowadays and definitely not anything over 5,000 words.
  • Has fantastical elements that, twenty years ago, would’ve gotten it classified as “horror” but it doesn’t fit the modern horror bill.
  • Has blood, murder, throat-cutting, and an ill-tempered, highly-opinionated 500+ year old surgeon as the first-person narrator. Prepare for old geezer snark.

Now I ask: where the hell does this thing go? 

On a different note, funnies! Not only funnies, but editing-related funnies.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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A Little Theory On Book Length

I have a theory. Or, perhaps, it’s a hypothesis. I’m not a hundred percent sure at the moment.

For awhile, I have been considering book length; more specifically, book length in word count. Google word counts, and inevitably, you’ll find something talking about how a newcomer to the publishing world can’t be published unless they write a book of X-words long or less. Sometimes that’s 100,000, sometimes 95,000 (I had someone inform me that no one will publish a book longer than 76,000, though he wouldn’t cite his source on that). Sometimes, people will say, “it doesn’t matter. Write the book the length it wants to be.” But at the same time, that seems to feed into the Special Snowflake Syndrome that we are oh, so often warned against.

So I started thinking: what was it that makes it okay for a High Fantasy novel to be 120,000 words whereas a Military Science Fiction novel should only brush the 100,000 word mark? Why are Urban Fantasy novels longer that 80,000 words a no-no?

True, there’s a marketing aspect to it and book-binding/cover size one, too, but I wanted to focus more on the question of what caused these word count trends to be trends in the first place.

Image

This image is awesome and beautiful, yet I found in on a website that gives no credit to the artist. If anyone knows who did this one, leave a comment?

While some might argue it’s a world-building thing (that a secondary world Fantasy novel requires more world-building than a Contemporary Fantasy novel), I disagree; just because it takes place in the here-and-now, a novel still needs to build setting, make the location breathe and act almost as another, secondary character, the fantastical elements need to be grounded and explained, and the characters described through action and interaction. In other words, there isn’t that much difference between the two on the craft-level of world-building, which is why I decided to look elsewhere for my explanation.

My initial theory was viewpoint. Since I know more about Urban Fantasy and Fantasy than I do about other markets, I’ll talk about those. Fantasy, say, George R. R. Martin-level of complexity, often has multiple viewpoint characters, all of which need to be built up as believable characters with depth and three-dimensionality to function properly (and not be called cardboard cutouts). Urban Fantasy, on the other hand, is almost exclusively first person, singular viewpoint at this point (with a few exceptions, though that pool is steadily dwindling).

First person gives the you, the writer, the wonderful ability to recognize there is an audience and have the narrator directly address said audience. In a third person, multi-PoV, you have to get clever in order to present information, unless you fall back on what’s usually termed the info-dump or As-You-Know-Bob (the first of which is not inherently a bad thing, though can strain scene-tension and lessen reader immersion; the second one just sounds ridiculous in prose and can totally break reader immersion).

But this only seemed to scratch the surface, and it also didn’t account for those books that broke these unspoken “rules” (for example, Carol Berg’s novels are first person, usually with a single viewpoint character, and secondary world Fantasy; Tanya Huff’s Blood Books are third person with three PoV characters, yet are incredibly slim Urban Fantasy novels). So what was it that added to book length (and it couldn’t be “poor editing” on the writer’s part; sometimes, books are long and to cut out whole sections in order to fit it to a word count, one might end up slashing important plot points that helps the reader understand why point D connects with point E, or perhaps excise an entire viewpoint character’s role in the plot).

Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

My new theory: time.

The more time the book covers, the more likely it will be longer. If a novel only covers a span of fourteen hours, it will, likely, be short, since the complexity of the plot will be restricted by the time constraint, the number of character interactions will be limited, simply because you can only fit in so much in fourteen hours, and the number of subplots will be small (same reason as point two). However, if the book takes place over the course of fourteen months, it will likely be a whole lot longer. For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is 600+ pages, yet covers the span of months of planning, training, and setup for the eventual final conflict (and I’d argue that it actually covers very little; main plot and two subplots and not much else for the span of time that the novel takes place in). Many Epic Fantasy novels take place over the course of months and the mass-market paperback editions are easily two inches thick because of it, whereas many Urban Fantasy novels take place over the course of a few days, and thus, are shorter.

My theories on book length shall continue in future, no doubt; book length is a topic that eats at my brain quite often, since I tend to write long novels and it’s often pointed out to me that the length is why my writing will, inevitably, never see the light of publication. True, this is self-serving, as I am trying desperately to find out why it is that the novel I’m working on right now is going to end up being 120,000 words long (probably). Why has this occurred? What did I do in the planning stages of the novel that made it be this long? Is this okay? Have I failed in the first leg of the race?

                Any theories of your own as to book length? Why is it that some books beg to be longer than others? And, as a reader, do you judge a book based on its size?

 Helpful Articles on Editing Down A Novel: 

Nine Ways to Shorten a Long Story By Rayne Hall

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2014 in Uncategorized, Writing

 

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Questions I Want To Ask

As I sit in my writing courses, trying my damnedest to stay awake and, for all intents and purposes, participating when someone is reading something out loud whipped up in the last five minutes, I sometimes wonder: are you (and I speak of a hypothetical “you,” not “you,” the person reading this, unless you want to be “you”) in love with writing or are you in love with idea of writing?

If you were suddenly struck with the inability to ever express a story again, would the stories keep happening in your head, no matter what even though you could never share them?

If someone offered you a million dollars if you never thought of another story again, could you, honestly, take the money?

I haven’t asked these questions. Honestly, I don’t think I want to know the answer.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

 
 
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