Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How Do You Crit?

I’ve often mentioned that blogging, for all its time-suck-ability, has been the best resource for me as far as a writing circle. Most of my beta readers, whom I adore and are the most helpful giving people ever, have started as blogging buddies. In those scenarios, I’ve gotten to know them pretty well over the course of months, and in some cases years, and developed email relationships that surpass regular blogging relationships (and some of those can be pretty tight, too).

That type of writing relationship works for me because I have a good idea, before work is exchanged, what they’re looking for in a crit and they have a good idea of what type of things I’ll point out... except maybe for Travis, because I couldn’t find a single thing to tell him might need work, and I doubt he knows how rare that is for me.

In my experience, every crit partner offers something a bit different. Some come at it in an overall type of way, giving you a feel for the characters or themes that hit and miss but not necessarily specific lines or places that lose them in the story. Some crit partners will focus on the specifics and let you worry over the larger things. And, like any relationship, you’re not going to get along with every crit partner and not all of them will have a benefit on your work – usually I think this has more to do with personal conflicts than with the actual writing.

I’ve had a few crit partners that I didn’t particularly mesh with, and I think in most scenarios it’s because either the type of writing we’re into aren’t similar enough that we’re any help to each other, or because we don’t work the same way, sensibility wise.

I had one crit partner, a while back, that made a particular impact on me... partially because I should have seen the storm brewing and walked away before I lost my temper, and partially because I still feel like my specific crit wasn’t the problem. I didn’t know this person in the real world, and they weren’t a blogging friend, so we pretty much exchanged some long emails before getting down to the critique work... After the first few exchanges, I started omitting things that I would normally have mentioned – that should have been the red flag. I didn’t want to hurt feelings, and it shouldn’t have been about that.

Like any relationship, the minute you have to omit things to be ‘kind’ is when the honesty breaks down... when the honesty breaks down the tension begins. From my end of things, over the course of many exchanges, I started to get the feeling that this writer felt that I was beneath her. When I commented on grammatical issues, the response I got basically gave me the impression that she had better educated sources to go over that, I was there to look at the overall, and more specifically, to point out mannerisms to flesh out the scumbag characters... okay, so you can see how I felt slightly insulted.

But looking back on this now, I doubt that she understands why I was so insulted. At the time, I was pretty sure it was intentional... there are still comments ringing in my ears that couldn’t have been meant as anything other than an insult, but in retrospect, some of that was after the relationship had become more than tense.

Like any failed relationship, I think it’s important to learn from it. The writer in question isn’t a bad person or a bad writer – in fact she’s a rather good writer, to be fair. The problem was, we have very different mindsets about writing and about life. Had we bumped into each other in person, or met at a writing conference or something like that, I doubt we would have clicked personally – and that’s okay. Not everyone has to like me... and here we get to the heart of what went wrong.

Honesty. Honesty is essential in critique. It is. It is sometimes painful to hear and you need to approach it with tact, but it’s a waste of time for me to read someone’s pages and not tell them the truth. Honesty means that not only will I give you my honest opinion, but I will not take offense if you find that it doesn’t work for you. Critique isn’t a mandate, it’s an opinion.

So, for me, I’ve taken a valuable lesson into all of my other writing relationships. If I start to feel that I need to sugar coat things or can’t be honest, then I can’t work with you. That doesn’t mean I’m going out of my way to be mean, I’ll phrase things as nicely as possible and I always include things that work, because I think it’s helpful... but still, life is too short to work with people that irritate you (and vice versa) especially for free. It also means knowing that their critique is valid and they will point out what they see, which is not necessarily the thing you’re concerned about... but in the long run you’re getting fresh eyes on the ms. That can see things you might miss... So, I take all crits into consideration... that doesn’t mean I use all of the advice, but I at least give it careful thought.

So how about you guys? Have you ever had a crit relationship not work out? Are there specific things you look for in a crit partner, or specific things you want from a critique? Are there specific things you hate for people to crit (for instance, do you hate it when they’re nitpicky about grammar or tense, or do you hate it when they don’t mention these things?) How do you crit?


Travis Erwin said...

First let me say thanks for the kind words about the stuff you read for me. I needed to hear a bit of encouragement today as my faith in Plundered Booty took a hard hit yesterday.

Second I'm still waiting to return the favor when you need it.

And third. I have had good and bad experiences, but the worst was when I got in a forty-five minute argument about the use of the F word with a seventy year old woman.

In hindsight not one of my proudest moments.

Merry Monteleone said...


I only read the first fifty, but I thought it was brilliant. If you want to email to talk about it, I'd be happy to listen and offer any input I have.

I have you earmarked for the one I'm working on right now - it's all voice and I think you might have some really good input on that, as your voice is fantastic...

I took a pretty hard hit on Raskin's last week, too, if it makes you feel any better. I'm shelving that one for a while, because I think I must be missing something with it. It's a good story, maybe my writing falls a little short... I know the flow of words is not completely me, in the effort to make it commercial, I might have cut a bit of my voice out...

If you want, I know a 73 year old that uses worse than the F word that might like to read for you:-)

The Anti-Wife said...

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, "Some people can't handle the truth." Sounds like the person you critiqued for was one of those. I'm grateful for any input. That's how you learn and grow.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi AW,

I'm grateful for any input. That's how you learn and grow.

To quote Spanky, "And how!"

I'll add, too, that I've learned as much from critiquing other writers and working with them on their revisions as I have working on my own. I know some writers do quite well on their own without any beta readers, but for me it's invaluable - both for the insights I get in writing and the support system from other writers who've become very good friends.

How was your birthday, AW?

Zoe Winters said...

I've met my beta readers through my blog as well. And I try not to let things get to me. People are doing this for free.

One thing that I know is...sometimes people DO skip over certain errors, knowing they are there. Though most of the time I don't think it's an honesty issue so much as they don't want to look like they're harping on things.

So I always hope I find enough different people to read that things don't fall through the cracks.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Zoe,

You know, that's true, too. I'll often omit simple typos from my crits because I just figure they'll find them... or I'll mention there's some typos throughout or overall things, like 'you fall into passive writing a lot, you might want to go through and make sure you know where it is... etc.' I'll never make specific suggestions about passive / active because I feel like that's the writer's choice and it has an impact on the flow of their voice - but I think it's helpful when we go through and consciously look for it, so we're making a choice with the way we're wording things.

Learning the rules for fiction is tedious, and different from any other form of writing. Once you know the rules, though, you can break them at will as long as it's in favor of your own story.

Thanks for stopping in, great to see you.

Mary Witzl said...

Good post, Merry. I have missed visiting your blog.

I'm always worried that I'll offend someone when I offer my honest opinion. I think I've done this unwittingly a time or two and I genuinely hate it. Lately, I haven't had the time to write or even think about the last critiques I got from my writing group. A few of the comments were hard on my ego, but I've come to see that they were true -- and helpful. It can be so hard to accept the truth, but so terribly important.

We're still trying to get internet access here, but I've just discovered a whole bank of internet-connected computers at my disposal. Heretofore, I had no idea these were here, but I will certainly be making good use of them!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Oh wow you're from Chicago. I grew up in Naperville.

As for critting and editing, I've done my fair share of both, and I can usually tell in a heartbeat who will make it and who won't. It's something I call "important voice," and it's always been a red flag. I can't even give you an example, but critting writing that takes itself too seriously scares me because I can almost feel the backlash coming.

Also, just to throw it out there, I'm always willing to look at pages unless I'm running up against a deadline.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary,

I've missed you, too!

I'm always worried that I'll offend someone when I offer my honest opinion. I think I've done this unwittingly a time or two and I genuinely hate it.

I hate that, too. The problem is, some people don't really want a crit, they want someone to validate their ability. When I crit, I'm actively looking for things that are wrong - it doesn't mean I don't like the writing, but I think you're doing another writer a diservice if you let them send it out to editors and agents withough pointing out everything that could possibly hurt their chances. So, when they don't really want a crit, but a back pat, anything less than glowing praise sounds harsh.

I don't think we can blame ourselves as critters for these scenarios... I think the key is laying it out honestly ahead of time. Then again, most people won't admit that they don't want an honest critique.

Glad you guys are settling in so well - I'll stop by soon and see if I've been missing posts in my sporatic bloggy absences.

Hi SS@S,

Well, hello there, neighbor! I'm about twenty minutes from Naperville, halfway between them and the city... I'm still a little bummed that I'm depriving my kids of alleys, though, where else will they learn to spit and swear?

You know, I don't usually see through the writing when there might be a problem giving constructive criticism, but I can often tell by the way the writer talks about writing.

Thank you for the offer!!! Actually, I have a short story that I'd love to have some editorial input on - it's been rejected a few times (which I know is par for the course) but I'm wondering if the writing is weak. I'd be happy to exchange and give you a second set of eyes on something of yours.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm happy to look at it. I am currently under deadline, as well as preparing for a conference, but I think I can fit it in this weekend or next week. Send it on over.

tamingthetiger at gmail.com

ChrisEldin said...

Merry, when I read posts like this, I realize how fortunate I am. I belong to an online critique group --there are four of us, all women of different ages--and I love them dearly. And we're all honest with one another. We all have different strengths and have supported each other through the ups and downs.
Writing is such a personal endeavor to begin with. If the critique partner(s) isn't a good fit, I can see how it would be a nightmare.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Chris,

It is fabulous to have great beta readers! Ello and my friend Shelly (also a blogging buddy) are both fabulous, both working with critiques and talking about the industry and writing in general. I've worked critiquing with a few other bloggers who've also been fabulous and on the boards at kidCrit at compuserve (they are awesome)... so I think this case scenario is probably in the minority, at least from my experience.

But when they happen, well, not pleasant.

You're lucky never to have run across it and to have such a great, supportive group.