Who Critiques Your Stuff?

Critiquer 1: “I love it! Delightful characters, beautifully developed scenes, lovely story arc, I cried at the end!”

Critiquer 2: “You’ve got a good idea, but frankly Sam falls flat. Can a man really just think of only one thing all the time? Surely you can add a little depth. And I’d develop the relationship between Susan and her mother a bit more, and tone down Jennie’s attempts at humor—they’re not really relevant.”

Which critique would you rather get? Critique 1? Sure, it makes you feel great! And Critiquer 2 just doesn’t understand what you meant. You’re headed straight for a Pulitzer, right?

I disagree. I think Number 2 is more useful. You’ve got to take into consideration your relationship with Critiquer 2, of course—perhaps he is trying to be hurtful. But the chances of that are slim, assuming you’ve chosen your critiquers carefully. Critiquer 2 gives you real information. Something meaty. Something you can sink your teeth into. And I assure you, since you chose the critiquers, if Critiquer 2 “doesn’t understand,” then the rest of your readers won’t either!

Let’s go back to Sam. Is he really one-dimensional? All he thinks about is his golf game (or other kinds of games…). But Sam’s probably also worried about his investment choices. He’s worried his wife doesn’t care about him anymore. So he takes it out on golf, something he’s good at. Maybe you ought to dwell on that back story more.

When you get “honest” critique, you’re getting something remarkably helpful. Sometimes authors pay editors good money (several hundred dollars to review a novel), and you want to get more than praise for that money. If all you want is praise, get a dog. Editors are paid to point out the difficulties and work with you to fix them.

I’m currently working on the third book in the Flying Broomstick series. I’m almost there. About a year ago, I thought I was there. I gave it to the critiquer I trust the most. He handed it back and said it didn’t work. So I bought him lunch and let him bend my ear for two hours. I asked probing questions. What about Hardy? What about Brian? Although my trusted critiquer is not a professional editor (he owns a ski resort), he pointed things out to me that, upon reflection, were on target.

I rewrote the book.

Big chunks came out—chunks I thought were pretty cool. But they didn’t contribute to the story. And the main character, Hardy, develops nicely but I suddenly abandoned him. He got the attention he deserved in the rewrite. This critiquer thought a death I inserted was gratuitous. Hmm…I thought. I wanted that death to be significant, but apparently it came without foreshadowing (hence appeared gratuitous, because I hadn’t prepared the reader for it), so I dug through all the sections where the foreshadowing should’ve been and adjusted things.

The book is now shorter by about 20% and far crisper. The characters are multifaceted. The plot motivation is clear.

Some sections stayed pretty much as originally written. That’s because those were the sections that carried the story. Oh, I tweaked them, but not much. Now that I’m (almost) done, I think it’s a far better book. The book was originally scheduled for release on Oct 31, 2008. It’ll come out in a couple months. It’s worth the wait.

What if my critiquer had just raved about the book? What good would that’ve done me? None! Was I disappointed when he handed the manuscript back to me and said it just didn’t do it for him? Sure! Did I like to hear about the book’s shortcomings? No! But I realized what a valuable asset I had and poked and prodded to get as much out of him as I could.

It is absolutely true that what we write is an extension of ourselves. When it’s panned, it hurts. I don’t think there’s any way around that. But your critiquer is critiquing your book, not you. So buck up, suck in your gut, tighten your belt, take a deep breath, and make the most of it.

And, if you need a little ego stroking, you know which critiquers will tell you it’s wonderful. Sure, let Critiquer 1 have a go, but don’t pay much attention after the initial glow wears off. It’s Critiquer 2 who’s really helping you.

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