Thursday, April 22, 2010

Handling critiques with grace, skill & minimal bloodshed

I'm spending the next couple days at my parents' house (which, tragically, is smack-dab in the middle of Oregon wine country). My apologies in advance if I don't respond promptly to tweets or blog comments.

Yesterday, I had a 2.5 hour drive over here to mull the feedback I just received from one of my critique partners, Cynthia Reese. She's the one I rely on most in the early stages of a manuscript when I find myself staring in bewilderment at my screen muttering, "now what?"

As usual, she gave me plenty to chew on with her commentary on the first few chapters of LET IT BREATHE. We've been critiquing each other's work for five or six years now, long before either of us had a book deal or reached the grim realization that an author's "I have arrived" moment is not the day an editor calls with a contract.

There's an art to critiquing someone else's work, but there's perhaps a greater art to handling critiques without tears, bloodshed, or the unnecessary loss of other bodily fluids. Whether you're digesting feedback from you agent, critique partner, or the exotic dancer you picked up at the bar last night, here are a few easy steps to facing it without police intervention:

Step 1: Say thank you. This can be hard when all you want to do is take a tire iron to the skull of whoever suggested your hero is a weenie, but this person has just done you a big favor. Whether or not you agree with the input, you just received the invaluable gift of an outside perspective on your writing. Say thank you and mean it. Better yet, pick one or two observations the person made and share why they were valuable. Critiquing can be as thankless as the writing itself, and the person giving you feedback deserves to know what you appreciate most.

Step 2: Be pissed off quietly. No matter how glowing the feedback or how thick your skin, there will always be something in a critique that makes you want to moan, "she just didn't get it!" This is a dangerous thing. Your gut says you must defend your masterpiece, while common sense suggests that if you just mull the feedback for a day or two, you might discover you're the one who just didn't get it.

Step 3: Give yourself time to marinate. Even if you're revved up and ready to start hacking, wait. Take a day or more to mull the suggestions consider your best approach. You might be amazed at what your brain cooks up while you're busy swilling Chianti or walking the dog.

Step 4: Make the small changes first. Things like typos and awkward sentence structure are easy fixes, and they'll give you a sense of accomplishment while you prepare for the next step.

Step 5: Tackle the big changes last. These are the tough ones, and by the time you reach this point, the marinating you did in Step 3 and the confidence you gained from Step 4 will have you fully prepared for it. Maybe your ending is a hot mess, or your heroine bears a striking resemblance to Charles Manson. By the time you reach this stage, your brain will have switched from wanting to beat itself against the keyboard to thinking, "well, maybe this could work..."

One final word of advice: trust the person giving you feedback, but also trust yourself. This is one of those things that comes with experience, but it's a crucial lesson to learn. I've worked with the same two critique partners and three beta readers for many years, and would honorably surrender a glass of sub-par wine to any of them if they were really thirsty. Even so, there are times I'll read a critique and think, "are you smoking crack?"

That's one reason I make sure I get multiple viewpoints on my work. What rubs one person the wrong way might be peachy keen with the other four, and while I always hear feedback with an open mind, that doesn't mean I have to use it.

So how do you tackle critiques? Any tips or hints you can share? Please do so in the comments. I'll be over here swilling wine with my dad while my poor mother shakes her head and considers dumping us on the side of the highway.


Unknown said...

Critique feels like a good kick in the face if you think about it the right way. I consider my drafted work to be real wallflowers~ the kind that believe in themselves but still use their palms to wipe their noses all the way up to their foreheads. They have chunky glasses and Saturn-ring retainers.
Then, some hot dude comes along and the girls suddenly knock off their glasses and blow off the headgear. They douse themselves in war paint and they get their man.
So, yeah, critique is a great kick in the face when delivered by a motivating source.

Southpaw said...

I feel for you. You must be miserable "smack-dab in the middle of Oregon wine country."

Great advice for receiving the big bad critique, it’s very hard but I try to be as gracious as possible while I’m hearing. “I don’t get it”, “Huh?”, “Was that suppose to be funny or just sad?”

Cynthia Reese said...

I'll say this, critiquing Tawna's writing is more pleasure than work, because I love her voice and her quirky characters. (AND YOU WILL, TOO!!!!)

Now I'm wondering, "Self? Does Tawna think I was smoking crack last night??"

Candyland said...

Great tips, Tawna! I usually read the feedback a billion times, slam some cupboards, stomp my feet, re-read, put computer away, and spread my foul mood across the house. Then, the next day, I re-read once more and clearly see the points made with a smile.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Tawna, great points. Maybe I should try taking wine to critique meetings, just to stay ahead of the curve :)

One thing I've noticed with my group is that different people notice different elements, like one member is a non-fiction writer with great attention to detail, so she makes sure all the timing and details are consistent. Another is a great "big picture" person. So if I know which areas need lots of work, I give that person's comments more weight.

Theresa Milstein said...

Being near wine has its upside, if you drink wine.

I agree with all of your suggestions. My advice to all unpublished writers is to get the thick skin now. How will we deal with agent and editor suggestions if we can't process them from our critique partners? It's good to have more than one person look at the manuscript, so if both are saying the same thing, I have to say, "I guess it's me, not them." If they disagree, I can leave as is, if I choose.

There's nothing more stressful than trusting someone to read and critique your work.

Unknown said...

Like most people dealing with negative reader comments, once I get back from my midnight stroll down the middle of Main St, drunk on brown liquor, shooting into the air -- the first thing I do is re-load. Of course, generally I pass out before I get the whole chamber refilled again, which is just as well because by that point, my aim is way off, and I'd probably just shoot myself or one of my loved ones rather than the bastard reader who deserves it. When I come to a day or two later, I'm usually in a better frame of mind and by day three, once the hangover is gone, I stop my muttering altogether and remind myself how much time my beta has put in on reading my work. No fellow writer gives of her time unless she has faith in your talent. Always a good thing to remember.

Linda G. said...

Wise (and funny!) words. :)

I have three critique partners and three fantastic betas. The feedback I get from all of them is invaluable--I would be crippled without it.

When they all agree on a point, I go with it unhesitatingly. I figure their minds are converging for a reason. Probably to give the universe a way to tell me to get my rear in gear. ;)

Now, when my CPs disagree ("I love it!" & "Eh." & "Wow. What were you thinking?") ... that can be confusing. So I'm looking for a good three-sided coin. ;)


Misty, LOL, I love your take on the critique process!

Southpaw, the research is tough, but someone has to do it! I certainly know the sinking feeling of hearing a CP say, "was this supposed to be funny?"

Cynthia, I always wonder if you're smoking crack. Kidding, kidding. Your critique was spot on, as always, and I had a good breakthrough yesterday on how to fix that first scene. Thanks for all you do!

Candyland, I've done some of that cupboard slamming myself, followed by exactly what you described...uh, maybe she had a point after all :)

sarahmullengilbert, I've always found that wine makes a critique go down easier. I agree that having CPs and betas from different backgrounds is invaluable. One of my CPs writes literary/commercial fiction, and the other is transitioning from category Harlequin romance to inspirational. Both bring a terrific new perspective to my writing and I couldn't live without either of them (nor without my three lovely betas).

Thersa, amen on the need for thick skin! It's one of the best tools an author can have in her arsenal.

KLM, agreed, it's probably best not to shoot the critique partners, betas, or yourself! The drinking and muttering is OK though!

Linda G, I get a lot of those confusing critiques where one person loves it, one person was indifferent, and one person thinks I'm an idiot. Generally, the latter is correct.

Thanks for reading, guys!

Christine Danek said...

Great pointers --thanks!

Claire Dawn said...

I;m doing a chpater by chapter exchange with my first critique partner ever. When I receive a chapter's critique, I glance over it. Then I file it away in my critiques file, and I'll look back at it when I'm ready to begin my next round of edits.