Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Critique Nightmares

Sharon Wildwind

Here’s the perfect critiquing scenario:

A writer asks me to critique a reasonable amount of her work. We exchange a couple of e-mails about our mutual expectations, and things look good as far as a match. Her piece arrives when I have free time to work on it. Her first sentence makes me groan with delight. I am immediately jealous. How come I can’t write this well?

Fortunately, several paragraphs into the story I find not only material I like a lot, but things that can be tightened, improved, etc. Now I’m no longer jealous and I can look forward to the task ahead. I read the piece and make comments. She at least respects my comments, but doesn’t slavishly follow every one of them. Goodness knows I’m wrong as often as I’m right. We exchange a few other e-mails and both walk away from the experience satisfied.

In my dreams.

More often critiquing runs like this:

I like her a lot, but I simply can’t do a decent critique of four hundred pages by next Tuesday. Yes, I know I promised I’d read her stuff. That was before the kids got the flu, my car’s transmission died, and I found out my editor wants a rewrite a whole subplot in three weeks. Oh, gosh, this chapter is so horrible, where do I begin? I feel about three inches tall that I made all those negative things about her main character, Bob. How was I supposed to know Bob is based on her brother who committed suicide when he was sixteen?

I think it’s extremely important for critique partners to talk to one another before the critique is done. These are the kinds of questions I usually ask:

How did you come to write this story?
What stage is the story at for you?
What was the most fun about writing this piece?
What was the hardest thing about writing this piece?
What is your timeline like?

In addition to helping me set the parameters of what I’m willing and able to offer the other person as to kind and depth of critique, they often help me identify, in advance, three common critique night mares: the Painting Book Writer, the Therapeutic Writer, and the Wouldn’t Turn it Down Writer.

The Painting Book Writer

Let’s start with a line from Dylan Thomas’s, A Child’s Christmas in Wales: “ . . . a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds.”

The Painting Book Writer writes for the sheer love of story. Grammar doesn’t matter, nor spelling, nor those pesky “writer things” like motifs, themes, character development and so on. To be a Painting Book Writer means to tell yourself a story on paper.

In fact, this is one of the easiest writers to critique because both of us can have fun with it. I’m not going to try to whip her story into shape for publication because that’s not what she’s after. She wants to share a story with someone else, so I know that my comments can concentrate on how well the story is told. I can usually end with something like, “If you ever decide to publish this piece, there are some things you’ll need to work on. Get back to me any time if you’re interested in going further with this.”

Likely, she’ll never get back to me. I’ve saved myself the experience of tearing my hair out over something that’s nowhere near ready to be published, and she’s gotten some positive strokes about her story.

I believe that all of us need to keep a corner for our own Painting Book Writer. No matter how good we get at the technical details, how well we come to know the writing business, we should always have at least one story that we are writing just to tell ourselves an enjoyable story.

The Therapeutic Writer

Unlike the Painting Book Writer, who is often fun to work with, the toughest critique to do may be one written by a Therapeutic Writer. Basically, a therapeutic writer has something impossibly difficult lurking in her past. She’s using writing as a way to make sense of what happened and to search for a healthier footing than she currently has.

Unfortunately, it’s all to easy to jump the queue. When a person achieves the first hard-won insight about abuse, alcoholism, rape, or a relative’s suicide, there is often a tremendous need to share that first insight with other people. By jumping the queue to reach out to others, she doesn’t have to continue to work on her own issues; her mission now becomes bringing the recovery she hasn’t yet experienced herself to others.

Therapeutic Writers are fragile. When writing is therapy, the writer needs to write; she does not need to publish. At least, not yet.

What’s needed here is to keep a balance between telling the writer how important it is for her to keep writing and encouraging her not to immediately jump into seeking publication.

The Wouldn’t Turn It Down Writer

Like the Painting Book Writer, the WTID Writer pays little attention to grammar, spelling or those pesky writer things. She often writes the same story over and over, and has trouble finishing anything. If asked about her intention to publish, she says shyly, “Oh, I’m not good enough be published, but I won’t turn it down if it happens.”

Secretly she means when it happens because she knows, just knows, that what she writes is so wonderful that a famous publisher will come along, recognize her hidden talent, and give her a beneficent contract.

The hardest part about critiquing the WTID Writer is that she can’t yet hear comments such as, “You need to get a basic grip on grammar, spelling, and how to format a book.” Her likely response is, “Oh, I don’t have to worry, when I get an editor, he’ll fix all of that.”

Sometimes all I can hope for is to suggest that she focus on one thing, such as, “Let’s concentrate on how you developed Nancy as a character. As a reader, this is how Nancy affected me . . .” Truthfully, who am I to say she’s not right. Maybe the publisher will come along. Maybe the contract will be terrific. If it is, I’ll try hard not to be jealous.

Writing quote for the week:

There’s a hormone secreted into the bloodstream of most writers that make them hate their own work …. This, coupled with the chorus of critical reaction from those privileged to take a first look, is almost enough to discourage further work entirely.
~Francis Ford Coppola, director


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting points. I recognize several of the personality types you mention. Critiquing someone's work is difficult to do...fortunately, I've avoided doing it so far.

If I do end up critiquing, I'll keep in mind the questions you pose to the writers.
Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

I believe the most important thing you can do is restrict yourself to critiquing stories that you would actually want to read for pleasure. I have tried critiquing books that simply didn't interest me, books I would be unlikely to buy or check out of the library. I was doing the writers a disservice and wasting my own time. I've also had critiquers who obviously weren't interested in what I was writing and produced hurried, unhelpful critiques after apparently skimming the material.

Now, fortunately, I have a good excuse to say no to most critiquing requests: I simply do not have the time. I have crit partners who understand my writing, and whose own writing I admire. I hope I never lose them.