Monday, July 31, 2017

Put It Out There...Then Shut Up!

My friend and colleague Gary Zenker recently wrote an article for writers on "How to Get the Most Out of a Critique."

It's a good article with some important ideas. However, I have a few points I want to add:

1)  Present Your Work...Then Shut Up!

Time and again I've seen new writers try and defend their work from every criticism. Some people find it almost impossible to just sit there and take criticism.

But that's what a critique is supposed to be: the chance for OTHERS to say what they think of your work. If you keep defending your choices, people will give eventually give up giving you honest critiques.

If someone ASKS you a question, answer it. Or, as Gary suggests, redirect their question to others in the critique session. (As in, "What did you mean here?" "Well, can anyone else answer that question?") Otherwise, shut up.


2) When You Have to Preface Your Work, Keep It Short

Sometimes you are presenting the middle of a work for a critique. In that case, you may have to give some backstory. Preferably, it should be written down, and no more than a few paragraphs long. Keep it as simple as possible.

An example is this: "This is the 15th chapter of my novel. The protagonist, Waldo Pickens, is a Junior in High School. He's being raised by a divorced mother, who has grounded him. In the previous chapter, he and his mother argued about him going out to a party. He has now sneaked out and gone to the party. We pick up the story after he's gotten drunk for the first time and is trying to walk home."

Keep it short, and relevant to the pages being critiqued. We don't need to know about his dad, the name of his dog, where he went to summer camp, or how he's doing in school. Maybe those things are important in subsequent chapters, but not in the part being critiqued.


3)  Save Your Own Questions for the End. (This is a point on which Gary and I may disagree.)

When you ask the critique members to focus on something up front, you're dragging out the process. Plus, it's important to get their honest impression of the entire piece, rather than focusing on one aspect.

If you want to ask them, "I wrote this in the First Person. Do you think it would be better in Third Person?" -- that's better asked after everyone has had their say.

One thing I like to ask is, "What do you think will happen next?" Usually, they will give you the most obvious answer. Then I'll go ahead and write the opposite. I want to surprise my readers as much as possible.


4)  Finally, Ignore the Outlier Opinions.

Act like an athlete having their performance judged, and ignore the lowest score and the highest score. Go with the majority opinion.

The guy who hates your work is probably wrong. There's a former member of one of my critique groups who often said, "I hate your characters so much I wish a meteor would fall out the sky and crush them." Yeah, that's not useful. Ignore him.

The one who loves it to death is probably wrong, too. I've actually had someone say, "This is as good as anything Mark Twain wrote." Hey, I'm good, but I'm not Mark Twain good.

The exception: if that outlier opinion is from a publisher or an agent. If someone says, "I'll publish this and pay you money if you cut out this character"...well, you might want to follow their suggestion. Or if someone says, "I'll take you on as a client if you rewrite this in the Third Person." If there's money (or the potential of money) involved, you might want to take an outlier opinion. But that rarely happens.

Happy critiquing!

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