Saturday, June 9, 2012


Today's words of wisdom are on the craft of writing--specifically, about coping with and getting value out of critiques.

(I suspect a large portion of my readership is made up of fellow writers, aspiring authors, and those who like to read and would appreciate insight into the process of writing. Or you might be curious because you have been told you have a way with words or that you're talented, and you'd like to know more. Maybe you just think I'm funny (in whichever sense of the term you like.) Some people will read anything. So there you are.)

Critiques! God! Heaven forfend someone doesn't like our creation! *sob* But yea and verily, thou wilt find those who are too ignorant refined in their tastes to love every word we type.

And sometimes they are even correct. But how do we sort out the useful from the not-so-useful?

Some of that is just experience. You'll learn. Tip: discard everything that begins, "You will burn in Hell forever because you said X about Y." Or anything that casts aspersions on your own personal character. That stuff is coming out of a bad place in the critiquer, and doesn't have anything to do with you. Do not retaliate by lashing out or cursing them. Instead, pray for them (that'll REALLY get their goat!)

So, anyway. Writers!

You know the drill. You get back the eagerly awaited comments from your critiquer, be it a critique partner or a beta reader, and start going through them. A number of them make sense, until . . . the one that's out of left field.

"What does she mean, that CAN'T happen? I specifically set that up to happen!"

"Why does he think April wouldn't know that word? Haven't I explained that she's been working on SAT vocabulary all year?"

"Of course she has his ID bracelet. I said in the first chapter that she had his dresser tray, and when he's not wearing it, he always keeps it there--"

Have you properly set up the events that are being questioned by your beloved beta? If you haven't, then possibly the problem she has is not with the passage she indicates, but with your previous text.

Very often, when you get a note from a beta reader who says, "This is wrong," you won't find anything amiss with that particular sentence or section. Instead, the problem lies earlier in the manuscript, when you failed to signal whatever it was that the reader has missed.

For example, if you have a scene in a parking lot and someone gets out of a car and shouts that she's getting carjacked and needs help, readers won't buy it if your self-centered diva leaps out of her car and begins beating up the bad guy with her Prada bag. You have to establish that the diva is secretly the kind of person who would do that. You can accomplish this by having her "save the cat" early on, while keeping her nasty-diva facade in place for everyone else except the little boy to whom she gives the baseball she has caught, or whatnot. (This is a terrible example. Let's try another.)

All right, in MIRANDA'S RIGHTS I mention early on that a sunbeam is playing around the breakfast room through the round stained-glass window. Later on, I mention that the downstairs is laid out like a typical Texas rambler. This led famous, accomplished author Rosemary Edghill (you should seek out her TWELVE TREASURES series and especially her Bast novels--they kick hindy) to comment that the floor plan didn't make sense. She had assumed from the mention of the window that Miranda lived in a restored Victorian the likes of which line the coast in Pacific Grove, California (or one like the one in the TV series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch"). But Miranda's house is a typical Texas new money McMansion with a few modifications. So I went back to put in a few lines about how her hubby the architect had planned the usual bay window when he was building their dream house until Miranda managed to rescue this beauty from an architectural spare-parts yard.

That's still a cruddy example. I don't know why I can't come up with a good one, but I'll keep looking.

One of the worst problems that you'll have when you have a "fifteen pages a week" critique circle that meets weekly (duh) to exchange markups is the problem of forgetting. By the time your group is reading the third chapter, for example, several months may have passed. They may not remember the wonderful setup you did for Ernie's Harvard diploma or that you've already told them how much Zoe hates shellfish and salad. So they'll carp, and you'll dutifully go back and put in a line or two in the current chapter. Only trouble is that when an editor reads your partial, or a reader starts your book, that will be duplicate information, a repeat that will make the reader feel that you don't know how to write. He'll think you are generally just repetitive or that you hit readers over the head with things you have already written.

So be VERY cautious about this. If you are asked to clarify something, especially in the early pages of the novel or way on down the line (if you're feeding someone the chapters weekly and not all at once), be sure you have not already told the reader this. Sometimes we think that we've implied something and we haven't, such as in the case of mentioning M-theory and assuming that readers know it is the extension of string theory and superstring theory. But other times, we HAVE told readers this. They may have forgotten because of the time span. Or they might've been skimming.

If they were skimming when you mentioned it originally, then you might have a problem. Make that part not so boring. Elmore Leonard says he leaves out the parts that readers skip. So when you hide a clue, be boring in the immediate area (not really!), but don't give readers a reason to skip and skim or you may soon lose them altogether. (Yes, it's ALTOGETHER and not "all together" as in "all together, now." Also, "alot" should either be "a lot" or "allot." And "alright" is alwrong. I don't CARE if John Lennon did that one. But I digress.)

There are two types of criticism that people tend to give. One is sentence-level, in which they go through and add or subtract commas and make remarks about your diction (word choice) or phrasing (awkward or unclear), and they mostly talk about reasonable changes. These people generally are following your plot and understand your characters. The second type of critter will read your work and then say it must be completely restructured and rewritten, proceeding to tell you about what *they* would write and how they'd write it. Ignore them; let them write their own books. Concentrate on the remarks from readers who seem to understand your general drift. Not everyone will be in your possible audience, and you can't do anything about that. (Remember that one-fifth of the people you meet will not like you, and there won't be a thing you can do to change their minds. It's got to do with pheromones or chemistry or something. Must be true, because I read it in Psychology Today years ago.)

I leave you with a parody of the most famous aria from the great opera Carmina Burana by Carl Orff--O FORTUNA. There are worse ways to sign off, trust me. (This link pops open in a new window, so never fear--you won't be leaving the blog site!)

(If you need the mondegreen scrubbed away, the real lyrics are here.)

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