Thursday, January 8, 2009

This is How to Critique

just kidding! :)

In all actuality, I've been thinking about critiques a lot lately, in part because I used them so much in re-writing, in part because my stack of TBC (to be critiqued) is growing daily :)

I think that I am more nit-picky than most people, and I blame my education for that. I'm old-school English lit major/teacher. I am used to making my students' papers bleed with my terrifying red pen; I have the reputation in school for pounding kids with essays (although many students have come back to me in the past thanking me for it).

So I do point out more grammar issues than I have seen from other crit members, and I do focus on things like word choice and language on a more minute level than is probably wanted by the person I am critiquing. I am trying to work on that, I promise.

However, my critiquing style also come from my own experience. The Amnesia Door is the 9th manuscript that I've written. The ninth. Two of them are un-save-ably bad, they are under the bed and they are staying there. Six of them are decent. One of them made it all the way to the acquiring committee at Random House, and although one editor wanted it, it was ultimately voted down.

And that rejection hurt. I felt like I was tripping at the finish line, that I was almost there, then sent back to the beginning.

The acquiring editor at RH was nice enough to send me a very extensive letter of feedback with the reasons why it ultimately wasn't right for RH and what should have been different. I showed the letter to my mom. "Oh," she said, "I thought that, too, you totally should have changed X." I showed the letter to my (then) fiance. "Yeah, I always thought Y should be Z." I showed the letter to the close friends who'd read the manuscript for me. "We didn't know why you didn't write W instead of V; we figured you knew what you were doing."

They all agreed with the editorial letter; they all had secretly felt that those changes (which were significant, such as POV, age of characters, resolution of the plot) should have been made, but none of them said anything. All I got back was smiley faces and "You can do it!" and "It's perfect the way it is!"

Now, this is my fault--I went to people who would inevitably give me positive feedback (relatives, friends). And, to be fair, I myself may not have been mature enough to take critical feedback for what it's worth.

But this is why I always try to point out everything that I think could potentially trip a person up when submitting to an agent or editor. Not because I'm a meanie, but because that is exactly how I want to be treated. Now, I seek out the harshest criticism I can find. I beg anyone and everyone to read my stuff, and in crit groups, I will sometimes go back to members and dig deeper--not because I'm a masochist, but because I want to know every little thing that can be changed. And I do believe in treating others the same way that you would like to be treated, so I do give as honest critical feedback that I possibly can.

I have only been a member of a crit group for a year, and I've come to realize that I do need to tone it down a bit--for time's sake, but also because there is a point where I can be too critical. Sometimes (probably often-times) it's the big picture critique that helps the most. I find myself skimming over comments on word choice and specifics in a sentence or a paragraph, but major revisions have stemmed from comments on bigger things, like plot, voice, characterization.

I think I've lost whatever point I was going to start off making. I guess it's just this: everyone critiques differently. Some are nitpicky (like me) some are supportive (like my mom). In the end, it's good to get many different opinions and many different sides of the story so that when you revise, you can consider others and thereby become more critical of yourself.

How do you critique? What are the most helpful kinds of critiques to you?

PS: This post in no way reflects anything about anyone's work that I am currently critiquing, now or in the future. I just found myself being very reflexive of my own critique practices and though I'd share.
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