Tuesday, April 21, 2009


As some of you know, I'm part of a twelve-strong novel critique group. It's an incredible learning experience, both to receive critique on a finished novel, and to offer it on someone else's.

It's difficult, sometimes, though, to identify what is 'wrong' with a piece, as opposed to what is simply not going down too well with my own personal tastes. Take this latest novel: I'm struggling to read it, right near the beginning, completely turned off. I can give reasons, but are they valid in any sense other than 'I don't like this'?

The work in question has a patchwork quality to the presentation, the scenes are only loosely connected, and the 'story' follows different characters with lots of backstory and summary in relation to each. After fifty pages, I don't know who the focus is supposed to be on, or even if there's a story here.

There's some early anthropomorphising of an elephant and a monkey (to the point at which they think in English) which I think is just plain silly.

And there's a big Voodoo woman who appears early on who seems to have nothing either original, nor credible, about her. What she says provides the only real intrigue to the story, but both her, and the characters she talks to, then take a back-seat for the next thirty pages.

Sound like this novel needs work?

Well, the work in question isn't from my crit circle. It is, rather, my assessment of the bestselling author, Isabel Allende's, Forest of the Pygmies.

I picked it up in the library after being unable to find Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows which was recommended by a writer at FM. In defence of the work, I should say that Allende's novel is part of a series for younger readers, so I'm not the intended target market at all. The work is also a translation, so might have lost some pizazz, although even allowing for younger tastes, I can't see how anything can lose that much pizazz.

Bear with me, though, I didn't write this post just to harangue everyone with my crass misdirection. There's a point to this, and that is: Surely, if I can feel this sour toward a published novel, almost entirely because it is outside my own genre, even though it is written by a well respected international bestselling author... and! I can give 'sound' reasons for my discomfort with the story... how valid are the crit-points I'm making at my novel club?

We all acknowledge, sooner or later, that it isn't the crit that's the important part of exchanging critique, but what the author does with the information in that crit. I'm not saying, for example, that I think I'm unknowingly sabotaging the work of my peers. But I am saying that the numbers are dangerous. Six billion people in the world, and we're going to listen to just a handful about what to alter in our novels?

Given how much the 'rules' don't really count for anything, apparently, (sometimes), in the world of publishing, are we doing each other any good?

On balance, I suspect, 'yes', we are, as long as everyone is careful about what they highlight as possible shortfalls, and about what they accept/agree with as being shortfalls in their own work.

Indeed, it can all work out very nicely. Check out the acknowledgements from the front of Sasha Miller's 1996 fantasy novel, Ladylord:

This work owes a lot to the Gang, who alternately pummelled me into abandoning the entire project (Kevin O'Donnell, Jr., in particular, for his infernal Standard Lecture 47) and encouraged me (Donald Robertson, crying "More dragon! More dragon!" and Marina Fitch telling me how, in spite of her being so hard on the manuscript, she couldn't get the story out of her mind). Then there was Lisa Swallow with her steadying influence, and John Staley, who translated the name of one of the characters as something really bizarre in Japanese, and Jim Aikin, who liked it from the start while being just as tough and uncompromising as anybody else in the critique group. Thanks to Kent Brewster, who enthusiastically approved, from the start, and thanks to Tony Bryant for helping me with the details of the duel and an important point of honour. Thanks also to the other dozen or so people who laid hands, one way and another, on the project and whose reaction was, for the most part, favourable. And special thanks to Susan Graham, who finally got the thing off high centre, and to Jim Frenkel, who carried it through.

Because of you, and sometimes in spite of you, I got it finished -- because it wouldn't let go of me, either.

Sounds like a very harsh crit group! Well done to Sasha for persevering, and to her Gang for helping so enthusiastically. Obviously, the alchemy worked, both for the story, and among the crit group.

Acting on crit, I think, in its purest essence, is about broadening the appeal of a novel, making it 'generally' more accessible, and/or more exciting. Every crit-point might be a ticket to 'hone' the story in some way, but perhaps it's best to be aware of how far from 'general' reception, a singular crit-point might be.

I guess this is also why we need multiple crits -- to enable a more rounded perspective. Even then, though, there could be hidden dangers.


Ink said...

Getting a wide array of crits is usually helpful, particularly if they cover a variety of different readers and opinions. But in the end it always comes back to the writer.

Crits can suggest whatever they want, and try to push and pull my story in every direction. But I listen to what resonates with me. Really, I'm not thinking about what's generally accessible when writing or revising - I just have a vision of a story, and I try to push that vision to the best of my ability. Whatever suggestions allow me to do that better, well, those are the ones I take.

I'm really not too worried about the stuff that's not write, either as a writer or a critter. It's the good stuff that's important. As a writer, maybe it's only 20% of what you take in... but the story is better for that 20%, and that's all that matters in the end. And as a critter, well, all I can do is offer an honest appraisal of how I see it. I try to take into consideration what I like and dislike... and it's up to the writer to take that into consideration too.

I always think that's one of the tricks about critting - you're not necessarily trying to push the story towards something you like better, but towards something that's more effective. A subtle difference, maybe, but it might be important. I think you can crit something you don't like, you just have to see what the writer is trying to do and help them do that (even if that is something you wouldn't want to write... or read).

Ink said...

I'm really not too worried about the stuff that's not write... Sheesh. Not right... brain is in a state of numbness. Pardonnez moi.

Bookworm1605 said...

You know, this is exactly the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. I've had these exact same doubts/convictions/insidious thoughts about the crit system for some time now. I'm slowly learning that every comment thrown out there by well (or not so well) intentioned critiquers doesn't necessarily have to be taken to heart.

Being a purveyor of Weird Menace I think I suffer sometimes because critters just don't 'get' the genre. Recently I had a reader, whom I think writes mostly romance, comment that she couldn't relate to my MC and I've had several comments about my stories being weird in general, but mostly from mainstream writers. Then those same stories will resonate with a fan of the genre and I'll get effusive praise on the same pieces that drew calls for rotten fruits and vegetables from others. So I think it helps to specifically get feedback from readers within your genre.

On the other hand, sometimes there are benefits to the out-of-genre experience in critiques. People outside your genre usually key on grammar and composition and are less likely to overlook gaps in the plot just because you write a good alien/werewolf hybrid.

I'm beginning to think the trick is a balance between recongizing valid feedback and maintaining a level of self confidence in your work. If you have a deep conviction that your MC's love interest in your Victorian drama needs to be a two headed bugblatter from the third moon of Regulus five, then so be it. Go with your gut. It's gotten you this far, right?

Ms Kitty said...

"Benefits to the out-of-genre experience in critiques."

I'm guilty of having these pet peeves that follow me around.

I'm a romance writer, and I have a hard time reading certain genre. The Pet Peeves throw "keg" parties and invite ALL their buddies.

They jump on the story that I'm critting and shout out nasty things.

"Oh NO! Not ANOTHER first person narrative!"

"Oh GAG, another vampire!"

"Six POV switches in one chapter?"

"Do you really expect me to read 42 chapters of this? Shoot me now!"

This one is usually followed by a 'gun' to the forehead and a shout of 'bang' then the little Peeve does a prat fall. The rest of them crack up.

With these little monsters flailing around, I can't read for the noise they make.

I give it my best shot, but those Peeves - they just never shut up.

Anonymous said...

When I'm critting, I always try to keep Yeat's words in mind:

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with gold and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the helf-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread under my dreams.

The author of whatever piece I've got in front of me for reading & critting has put their soul into it, in some way, and to put a novel or even a short story out for critique is difficult - such exposure takes courage. So before let the 'peeves' put on their size 12's and trample through, and even if I'm thinking "this is the biggest pile of horse-dung I've ever had the misfortune to read. This person should never be allowed to write another word, not even a letter to their bank manager" (only once: it was my mum) I try to bear in mind that they have 'spread their dreams beneath my feet' and that I should treat them as carefully as if they were indeed 'heavens' embroidered cloth'.

In terms of receiving crits, well, it's always difficult to stomach negative comments on 'big picture' items, but I always make myself acknowledge those comments & work to understand what aspects of the work in question triggered those comments. Once I understand it, I'll either do something about it, or I'll discard the information & stick with what I already have, on what comes closest to *my* understanding/vision of the story I'm trying to tell.

Ink said...

Nicely put, Ellsea. And you, too, Mr. Yeats.