Friday, March 28, 2014

A word on critiques

Critiques can be wonderful. These one-on-one sessions provide writers with the necessary feedback we need to see how our story is shaping up. 

Does the plot work? 
The dialogue sound realistic? 
Are the characters believable?
Does the story begin where it should? 
Is the voice age appropriate?
Is the tense consistent?

There are so many parts to novel writing which can be addressed during a critique. These sessions are meant to be helpful, to guide the writer into improving their work and changing/adding things during revision. But as writers we need to prepare first, way before we even sign up for a critique. We need to do our homework. I overheard quite a few writers with agents/editors during various sessions at last weekend's Unicorn Writers' Conference. What I took away from these snippets were these authors had chosen the wrong industry professional. That's a shame because not only is the pro's time being wasted on say, a genre they don't rep, but the individual who signed up is losing out on money and on valuable criticism.

I had my first critique with an agent in 2008. I was a newb. It showed. When the agent asked me about my fantasy world, I didn't have all of the answers. I hadn't planned or plotted everything out. Since that time, I've read up on critiques and applied my new-found knowledge with each session afterwards. Writers need to start from somewhere and I guess this was my starting point. Each critique I've had over the years has been an experience--some good, some not so good, and a handful of 'great'. 

It's obvious when a professional has stopped reading my manuscript simply based on the questions they ask or don't ask or their comments. Sometimes I don't receive a copy of the submitted pages or notes. Either are important when it's time to go over the manuscript. I try to take notes, but it isn't always easy when trying to maintain a rapport and listen to criticism at the same time. With the notes or copies I have received, I've been able to pull them out and use them as I revise. They're invaluable advice. It's interesting to note the amount of times my instinct has agreed with valid raised points. Why didn't I listen the first time?

The bottom line when it comes to critiques is that we're dealing with subjectivity

Writers need to remember that the pros are experienced people who have emotions, feelings, likes, dislikes, etc. What one person may hate, another may like. 

Writers need to enter a critique fully prepared

Know your pitch
Know your plot
Know your themes, your characters, their conflicts
If it's a fantasy, know the world if there are other realms.

These are just some suggestions. You'll probably find more and develop more over time. 


Be able to answer questions. 

And ask questions as well. Choose the right individual. Don't go in with unreasonable expectations. Don't become argumentative or get hung up on a sticky note. 

Listen. Respect. Respond.

Maybe you'll receive a business card, maybe not. But always act professionally, be courteous. 

I once submitted the wrong copy of a YA book and the agent called me out on it, suggesting I hire an editor. I cringed when I saw my faux pas-pages with errors and misspellings. Duh! It made me look unprofessional. Despite my mistakes, that critique was one of the best I've had so far because it was obvious the agent had spent time reading what I sent and gave me insightful, constructive, and honest advice to make my work stronger.

What we shouldn't do after receiving a critique is beat ourselves up. 

We are our own worst critics.
How easily writers put themselves down! 
Question our ability, our talent. 
Wonder if our WIP sucks or not. 

Don't do it. 

If you're unsure of a WIP's direction, give it a break--put in on vacation or take a haitus from it--and move on to something else. Don't wallow. Don't waste time worrying. Fretting. 

Don't do it.

Some times we forget the basics. We also need to listen to out gut, our instincts, and learn how to prepare ourselves for accepting criticism. Grow a thicker skin. When signing up for a critique, do your homework. Research the editor or agent. See if they represent whatever genre you're writing in. Submit to the correct people. Make sure your pages are polished and not full of typos. Know your genre(s). Read other books. Study them.

It has taken me years to relax during critiques, to be able to ask beneficial questions. Some of the best critiques have been when I engaged the agent or editor, answered their questions accordingly, asked my own, kept the avenue of discourse open and flowing. That's why the pros are there, offering their time, their knowledge and experience--to help us.

More importantly, writers need to be persistent. What one person may not like or want, another may. I submitted pages of a manuscript to one agent only to find out she didn't like it. At all. Didn't like the tense I wrote it in. Didn't understand my main character. She had stopped reading. 

In between that time, I put that WIP away. I'm ashamed to admit I doubted myself. It was the coaxing of my writing group, my daughters, and that nagging little voice inside my head which finally made me revisit that WIP. With some touching up and some polish, I discovered my renewed enthusiasm and love for that story. 

I submitted the same WIP a year later (with a few changes) to another agent and she loved it. 



I will be working on finishing that same manuscript for April's Camp Nano Wrimo

I made myself a goal: 
I have a business card. 
I (hoped I) formed a relationship with an agent I liked, respected, clicked with.
I want to submit my finished work to her when I'm done. 
I. Am. Determined.

Whatever happens will happen. The bottom line is that critiques can really be wonderful, no matter the outcome. Writers need feedback. We should always strive to learn, to hear, to accept and choose what is right for us. And we also need to be persistent. Even some of the biggest-selling authors have had to handle rejection. It's what we do with it afterwards that's important. I know I've had my share of good and bad experiences but I keep at it. There may be moments of stepping back and questioning, but once I've recovered, the drive to carry on wins out. That's what writers do.

For more on handling criticism, go to Kristen Lamb's website.
Handling Criticism Gracefully from Vision
How to respond to a Manuscript Critique by Nathan Bransford

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