Friday, July 24, 2009

Got a Devil on the Right Shoulder and an Angel on the Left

I'm writing this because Mira told me to. And it's always wise to agree with Mira. Something terrible and hilarious will happen otherwise. And we can't have that.

So... what do you do when you have opposite critical advice from your readers? One critter (devil) says "You have to cut this whole section", and one critter (angel) says "You have to expand this whole section." It's not an entirely uncommon experience if you're in a critique group, and there's a tendency for the writer to react with paralysis. What to do? How to choose? I think the common wisdom (Stephen King, for one, seems to espouse this in On Writing) is that you do nothing. The house (writer) wins. In this little game of critical blackjack, the first option is to do nothing, as opposite views cancel each other out.

This is safe and easy, I guess, but not necessarily correct. Two people have latched on to the same element and commented on it - and not because it was working. Just because their solutions (being contradictory) may not be right, it does not erase the fact that there might be an underlying problem.

I think one of the difficulties is that writers want to group the critiques together. They want a consensus, as simple patterns are easy to interpret. So we group the crit comments together, whether it be two, three or four comments on a particular element. I don't feel this is the best approach, however, as it can be misleading. Each comment is its own and separate thing, and should be considered as such. The crit's not important... it's what you do with it. The best crit in the world is useless if you can't apply it and make your story better.

Each comment deserves to be evaluated separately. You have to take time and think, balancing the comment against your own internal vision of the story, of what you want it to accomplish. Evaluate the comment with your own aims in mind, rather than merely looking for crit consensus.

Even complete agreement within your critters can be misleading. If they all trip on the same thing, yes, there likely is a problem. But if they all suggest a cliched solution? Do you take it because there's consensus? It comes down to understanding. Try to understand the comments... and try to understand your story, what you want from it. Try to understand how you can achieve the effect you want. If A and B offer opposing comments, you may find that you want to take A's view, or maybe B's, or maybe a combination of A and B. Or maybe do as King suggests and do C (nothing). Or maybe the right answer is D, something you thought of all on your own, something that approaches the root problem rather than the surface ones.

The true advantage of getting critiques is not the advice you receive, but the opportunity to see your story in a new way, with new eyes. It allows you to step out of yourself and become the reader for a moment, and this in turn allows you to shape the words of the story to more closely achieve the effect you want. Yeah, we're manipulative. That's the job. To create something that is not there, an illusion that the reader willingly adopts - if you're convincing enough, if your manipulations are deft enough. And critiques can help us perfect that manipulation, each in their own turn.

14 comments:

Deb Salisbury said...

You have many good points here. I'll go back to my old crits and look at the *point* where the crit was made, with the comments secondary. If anything was noticed, then I need to smooth it out or clarify. Or, at least, think very hard. :-) Thanks!

Ink said...

Hey, I'm all about the thinking. :) And, of course, ice cream. Hey, it's summer.

Bane of Anubis said...

For you, Bryan, I'd say cut the section ;)

Ink said...

What? Me? Need editing for length? Preposterous. Just allow me to properly format my 312 page rebuttal...

Deb Salisbury said...

I got a crit back today. She added a coda to the end - "A few months later they ..."

At first I was shocked and appalled. I can't introduce a new question on the last page! But now I've realized that she simply found the ending unsatisfying. Back to the drawing board.

Sending some ice cream your way. I won't wait up for the 691 page rebutal. ;-)

Mira said...

Bryan, yay, you posted it! Cool. I'm glad you did - you make good points here, and actually changed the way I'll look at critique.

Besides, anyone who disagrees with Stephen King's On Writing is a friend of mine. :)

Triple scoops with fudge sauce and marshmellows on their way, pronto!

Good job on avoiding the terrible and hilarious consequences, btw. Don't worry though, I'll just save it up for next time. Heh, heh, heh :)

Tricia said...

Good spin on critiques. It is always nice to hear how others interpret your writing.

Bonnie said...

I agree completely that you need to look at the underlying problem -- assuming the comment is more substantive than, "You spelled 'substantive' wrong in the first sentence."

I used to drive myself crazy trying to write something that all three people in my then-crit group would love. At some point I realized that no book existed that would please all three of them. Even odder, most of the time when they all agreed that something was wrong, if I made that change and then had them read the same section later, they would all universally hate what they had previously said they wanted.

I learned a whole bunch of stuff from this.

Like, no matter how much effort you put into making your words precise, your images reinforce, your themes clear -- somebody will manage to misread it. Often repeatedly.

And that no matter what I write, somebody's going to hate it.

And last but not least, there are some people who, if they ever say, "Wow, I love your stuff, I totally understood everything!" I will know I have failed completely and utterly as a writer.....

Ink said...

Bonnie,

Yeah, I think it was important for me, too, learning that there were always people who weren't going to like my writing. There's no way around it. You look at the most successful novelists in the world, the ones who sell in the millions... and the number of people who abhor them are legion. I mean, Rowling, with her mind-boggling sales... but thousands and thousands and thousands of people hate her stuff. I think it helps to come to grips with the inherent subjectivity of the act of reading. I know it helps me keep an even keel when appraising the reactions and comments of readers.

JaxPop said...

New here so I'll be brief n' get outta the way. Never joined a crit group - not 'cause I was afraid of criticism but because, there's no way I could critique someone's work without feeling like a creep.

I attended ONE writer's group meeting. Seemed like everything said was pompous & consistently negative - with lots of not-so-subtle venomous jabs (accompanied by sad eyes & sympathetic smiles).

Nice blog by the way. See Ya.

JaxPop said...

Should have mentioned - It was not my work being discussed - I was only observing.

Ink said...

JaxPop,

Meshing well with the others in the group is important. Not that you have to be buddy-buddies, but your styles of reading and critting have to function well together (avoid antagonism, etc.). I think the two keys are a) being honest, and b) being tactful. I see lots of people do one or the other... but you really need both. If it's not honest, it's sort of pointless. But if it's not tactful, the point won't make it through the writer angst.

I try to be honest on the faults... and honest on the virtues. And do it all, hopefully, in a friendly, tactful way. And I also try to make it clear that this is just my subjective opinion, not the universe pronouncing judgment. Seems to have worked out fairly well so far. Of course, if you see my bullet-riddled corpse show up in the paper one of these days...

jbchicoine said...

I appreciate the different angles you’ve presented for receiving a critique. I’m awaiting feedback on my novel from my first ever, fellow-writer-beta-reader. I’m not sure what to expect, so this is quite timely for me. Thanks for adding this link on Rick Daley’s post at Nathan Bransford’s Blog.

Rick Daley said...

You make a good point: fault identification is different from the resolution.

Five people may point out the saem problem, but offer five different solutions. Or one ill-advised solution, as your example of a cliche illustrates.