Shara Lanel on Critiques

The Plusses and Pitfalls of Critiques

Critiques are not only helpful but necessary in this business of writing. If you want to better your writing you’re going to have to take the risk and let someone read it. Not someone who loves you so much they wouldn’t say a word to discourage you, your mom or hubby or grandmother. And, at first at least, you want to have your work read by someone who knows a bit about writing, as opposed to a reader who may know something’s wrong but doesn’t know exactly what. There is a use for this kind of reader, but I’d wait until you’re a bit further along. To make more sense, let me go through the stages and point out things to look for from a critique.

When you’re learning, you need a gentle person who is further along the learning scale than you. Doesn’t have to be a published author, just someone who can read your work and find the problems that you can’t see yet. Watch out for the forceful writer who wants to change everything you’ve written to what they would write. Start getting a feel for the elements of your story you absolutely don’t want to change and don’t change them unless someone gives you a very good reason. Now, this can’t be your entire story. You want to learn and you can’t learn if you’re not open to what the other person has to say. Also watch for the crit partner that tears you down. You are a writer if you write. Period. Don’t let someone make you quit before you’ve had the chance to get better.

When I critique someone new to the calling, often a contest entry, I’d start with grammar and punctuation and suggest they read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I may see tons of other things wrong with the story—head hopping, too much exposition, not enough setting—but I want to go layer by layer, not overwhelm. If the manuscript is fairly clean, I might start looking at point-of-view and info dumps.

I do recommend entering contests that offer critiques, but beware of the overzealous judge who just spits red all over your page. And always weigh the suggestions against what you feel in your gut can’t be changed. As you get farther along, this may be your style or voice. Someone might not get it, but you know that this is what sets you apart from the rest. Offhand I’m thinking of Mary Janice Davidson and Janet Evanovich as examples of voice. A problem that I, as an erotic romance writer, have encountered is a judge who thinks my story should match a sweet category book. Spend some time reading your genre and preferred book length. Get a feel for language, edginess, sexiness, etc.

Once I’m fairly confident with the basics I start looking for someone to critique my overall setup. Do my characters have good motivations for what they do? Compelling back-stories? Is my plot making sense so far and pulling the reader along? Have I made a wrong turn somewhere? In other words, I’m not looking for a copy editor at this point, because too much is likely to change before the final draft. Why waste time fixing typos in a scene you may chop anyway? This sort of critiquer is particularly helpful when you think everything you’ve written so far is crap and want to throw the whole thing out and start over. Count on them to tell you, do you really want to rewrite 100 pages when the story just needs some tweaking? The pitfall, as I mentioned above, is someone who takes your plot away from you and runs with it until you don’t recognize your story anymore.

After you and your critique partner have gone through a couple of your drafts, your crit partner is starting to get as blind to the story’s flaws as you are. A reader reader, ie. someone madly in love in reading every book they can get their hands on and never want to write a word, can be helpful at this point. Fresh eyes to tell you if your hero is just too mean or your heroine too bossy or your villain too wimpy. They may not know how to help you fix these problems, but they give you a pure reader impression of your story. Then come back to your writer friend to start fine-tuning your hooks for the end of each chapter, your pacing. In other words, down a level deeper.

Lastly, after you’ve cleaned up the final draft to your satisfaction, then you want someone to look specifically at grammar, punctuation, typos, sentences that make absolutely no sense. A copy editor or your critique partner refocusing on the small stuff. This is the time to get nitpicky. Better to send a clean manuscript to an editor so that they don’t write you off just from ten spelling errors on the first page. Give them every opportunity to have a good impression of you.

So, this is what I’ve learned over the years. I’ve entered contests and been pissed off by the comments, I’ve had someone tell me a character I want to kill off should live just because she likes his profession, and I’ve had the opposite: intelligent, helpful comments that take my writing up a notch. I’ve also been on the other side, trying to be constructive when all I want to do is tell them to start over, or trying to figure out what part is bugging me exactly and what I might suggest as a fix. I learned something every time, and I hope this post will help you. ~Shara

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~ by Monette Michaels on March 3, 2010.

9 Responses to “Shara Lanel on Critiques”

  1. Thanks for being here today, Shara. I can not write without my critique buddy of many years — Sherry. She gives me constructive plot criticism and helps me fine tune my novels. I wish all authors could have a Sherry — but she is mine and I am not sharing. LOL

  2. Excellent post, Shara. No wonder you’re such a good writer!

  3. Monette, thanks for having me here and I understand your desire to keep Sherry all to yourself. A good crit partner is hard to find.

    Jeanne, I’m blushing. Thanks!

  4. Anyone seriously considering writing as an author would benefit from a class in grammar. Most community colleges teach it. Of course it’s not required, but it helps. Did anyone really pay attention to grammar in school?

    Finding a good critique partner who knows when to use a comma is very difficult. Heck, locating a good critique partner isn’t easy. Most of us are multitasking our way through life and squeezing writing into it. Finding the time to be a critique partner is a labor of love.

    As for contests, be prepared. I entered one to support two close friends. One was from the RW group that sponsored it and the other wanted to enter. So I tossed a ms into the fire. LOL One judge loved it and had very little in the way of comments. The other judge hated it, but that judge had the best comments. I went back and took a hard look at one particular scene and decided to rewrite it.

    Don’t ever wear your heart on your sleeve! You don’t have to agree to every suggestion. The object is to make it perfect before it goes to an editor or agent. A crit partner or partners will help reach that goal.

  5. Great post Shara. I agree that you can’t take every criticism to heart and make changes. Look for trends, like everyone commenting on needing a stronger hook, and fix those. I think the best crit partnerships are a balance of strengths and weaknesses. I feel so lucky to have found someone that is a perfect balance to mine.

  6. Another thing I haven’t mentioned–looking for a crit partner with the same or close-to-same output/work ethic as you. Do you all agree?

  7. Shara– My crit partner is an author but has recently slowed down her output. Mostly, she critiques other authors’ writing. I critique hers when she sends.

    When I first started writing, I had two critique partners who put out books at the same rate I did. I can do it either way, but have found I can write better the way I am doing it now.

    So, how do I reward my very loyal Sherry? I bribe her with brunch and Grey Goose Screwdrivers every 2-3 months. LOL

  8. I agree with all of the above. A good crit partner is hard to find and worth the effort if YOU have the time to give THEM back the same attention.

    It is hard work sliding into the skin of another writer’s characters. It takes commitment and willingness to really think about the other story.

    Great blog topic, Shara.


  9. Grey Goose Screwdrivers sound like worthy rewards to me!
    Gem, it is hard work!

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