Saturday, 13 March 2010

Critique or not to critique?


Thomas Cromwell by Robert Hutchinson is a good source of information on Tudor England. I'd already read his book The Last Days of Henry VIII and find his style readable, even entertaining and I recommend them both. He really brought home to me what it would mean to be living through the Dissolution of the Monasteries 1536-1539, and of course it's all good for my latest wip.
I'm writing the last chapter, and because I'm keen to get started on the second draft, I'm doing some of that too while I wait for critique partners to do their worst - or best, depending on your point of view. Not that I always agree with them, but lots of the time they're right on the button. I learned very early that six critiques could seriously screw your self-confidence in writing. If they all say the same, that's wonderful; if they say the same and tell you it's marvellous, that's even better. But if six people tell you its wrong, for six different reasons, and then give you six ways to improve it, then the beginning writer can feel seriously disorientated.
I think there is a case for progressing alone until you have some sense of your style and what you want in your story. If you then feel able to take criticism from colleagues without feeling depressed or hurt, and feel able to filter out what you can use and recognise what is best left alone, that's the time to think of joining a critique group.
We all have our own style, and we critique, subconsciously perhaps, with that style directing our comments. But of course, my style does not necessarily suit the writer whose work I critique, and vice versa. It's one reason why I try and critique work that is a similar genre, setting and period to my own, so the baseline is the same - or if not the same, then very similar. It would be very hard work for me to critique something written in the 1920's and set in New York or China, even though it would still be historical genre. The difference would be just too great, and my anchors would be all adrift! There may be people who can critique anything without turning a hair, maybe do historical, modern and then a thriller, but I'm not one of them, sad to say.
I'm sitting in the amphitheatre at Dougga for the picture and I'm blinking because I've just shoved my sunglasses up into my hair. The sunlight was so bright!

14 comments:

Linda Banche said...

I think you're right about not jumping into a critique group. All critiques, like all reviews, contain some personal preference. You have to remember that about them both.

Anita Davison said...

I empathise, Jen. Critiquing without imposing your own style is something you learn with experience. I only hope I didn't mess up too many author's work with my comments. You have to discard what doesn't feel right or your work loses its voice. You are a great critiquer by the way.

Debra E Marvin said...

I just posted last week on a similar subject - receiving contest feedback with conflicting suggestions. I don't know how we can avoid either critiquing with our own 'flavor' in mind, or letting critiques do more than they should. When I was first writing, I would try to adapt everyone's suggestions into my work! With time, I began to feel more confident in what I would change and what I would put aside. But I would never consider any critique useless; we all need to hear what this story looks like from outside our head!

An added bonus is when your critiquer has a beautiful style of their own that you admire--each one has a gift for certain aspects of the craft. I'm very blessed to have that kind of feedback.

Anita Burgh said...

For me asking others to critique is a dangerous thing to do. It would confuses me to get input - if bad I'd want to slit my throat; good I wouldn't believe them; mixed I'd have a breakdown. But I know others find comfort in doing so, I always suggest they only show their work to those who undersand their genre.

Lesley Cookman said...

I've just commented on another blog about the same subject. I couldn't either critique or be critiqued! I don't really like showing a work in progress to anyone until it goes to my editor, and I'd be scared that any comments would disrupt me, or that comments of mine would be disruptive to the author's voice.

Having said that, before I was published as a novelist, little pieces of my work would be seen by others, notably Anita Burgh, who was a major influence, and helped carry on!

Diane Scott Lewis said...

Jen, your idea of finding your own voice first, before being critiqued, is a good one. Some people want to rewrite our work in their own style. I've left other critique groups because of this. The HF group we're in now is perfect, so very supportive.

Nell Dixon said...

I work with critique partners and find their input invaluable. I get too close to my own work to see the wood for the trees and need another set of eyes to look at it. Do I act on all their suggestions? No, nor do they act on all of mine. However they do show me where things that were so clear in my head just aren't visible or clear to readers.

Sarah Duncan said...

It depends who your critique partners are. Mine are ones I met on an MA in creative writing and at first their input was invaluable. Now I'm published I need their input less and less, partly because my working style has evolved - my first drafts are now very rough and there's no point in others critiquing them. Generally I only take part when I've finished the second draft.

As a creative writing tutor I critique all the time, and have become used to commenting on all genres. There's a lot of overlap - good writing is good writing.

N. Gemini Sasson said...

In many ways I wish I had become involved in critique groups earlier. However, I think all time spent in my writing cave developing my own voice was critical and much needed. Early on, gentle and supportive critiques are helpful. But as you become more confident in your work, you really need someone who respects and understands your style, but can tactfully tell you where it falls short, either on a broad scale or in the details.

Vonnie said...

I think it's essential to have a critique group - a GOOD bunch of critiquers, not destructive ones. I've had both.

Yes, it's difficult to critique outside of your time period, but not impossible. It's just the same as judging a contest where the genre is not what you write. It's the STYLE of the writing more than the facts that you're critiquing e.g. I belong to an amazing crit group. I'm a NZer living in Australia, the others in my group are based in Seattle and PA. Usually we have critiqued each others' Regencies, but one of us has gone into writing alternative histories and I also write contemporary romantic suspense. I've found their comments on my contemporary to be interesting and in some cases, apt. Looking at it with new eyes, perhaps?

But oh, a destructive collection of critiquers can have you shrivelling up and dying. They can do so much damage can't they?

Jeev M-M said...

I don't think you can help critiquing with your own 'flavour'. On the other hand, good writing is good writing and you know when your feedback makes sense - even if you don't like it.
I've tried all sorts of crit groups, some were destructive, almost worse were the ones that were too nice and didn't actually tell you what was wrong (what was the point?).
Six critiquers sounds like a lot. I don't think I could take it all without wanting crawl under a rock and die.
I think three is a good number for a crit group - if both your crit partners agree (and they usually do!), you probably need to change things. It does help if your crit partners have a style and skill you admire.

Jeev

A J Hawke said...

Insightful blog post.
One of the things that I appreciate about the critiques I receive from you is your respect for my voice. thanks as always.

A J Hawke

Janet MacLeod Trotter said...

I've gone a giddy step further by putting OVERLANDERS my novel in progress out to reading groups to critique - I'm probably mad, bad or dangerous to know! But I'm changing from writing historical sagas (which I've done for years) to mysteries, and so really wanted to test the water with this one. The results so far have been positive and now my agent can use this when approaching publishers. I didn't circulate the review copies until I'd thoroughly worked on the novel and done many edits - and had critical input from agent. It's a high-risk strategy as the critiqing is more public, but then authors are having to be more proactive when publishers are cowering behind the barricades!

Vicky English said...

You make a good point about keeping the integrity of your style. I think we critiquers have to be sensitive towards the genre we're critiquing and also towards the author's unique style. But "style" doesn't excuse problems in writing. By that I mean, plots that lack logic or are predictable, and characters who lack motivation, act out of character, or over-react to a situation without proper emotional build-up (what I've seen some experts call "melodramic".) These are problems found in any genre and style.

Another thing is being sensitive to the writer's skill level. And which draft this is. I think one of the most challenging things for a critique partner is making comments that are appropriate to the level of the problems. It doesn't make sense to criticize how something is being said if aspects of the plot need rethinking.

Having said all that, I don't know what I'd do without my critique partners. I've learned so much from them! But for all of us, learning to take criticism gracefully and sift the wheat from the chaff is part of our own path towards maturity as writers.