“The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material.”
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The quote above was not received in a critique group, but from an editor, and Ursula LeGuin generously shares this scathing evaluation of her amazing novel “The Left Hand of Darkness” to make a very important point about criticism: it’s subjective in the extreme.
So how do you find the “right” people to criticize your writing?
Should you develop a face-to-face critique group of local authors? Should you go online with (eek) strangers? Should you seek a single “wise” reader? Should you hide your work from all eyes until you think it’s ready for submission?
Yes, yes, yes, no.
If the first pair of eyes to read your story are those of an editor or agent, chances are those will be the last ones as well. It doesn’t exactly take a village to raise a book--that’s your job as an author--but aunties and uncles to your story come in very handy.
I haven’t managed to pull together a local face-to-face group for critique, although I have local writing friends to share coffee, lunch, or work sessions with. Formal local groups need to be highly structured to be effective, with regular meeting times, regular sharing schedules, and rules and norms for giving and receiving feedback. From what I’ve observed, the more successful and busy the members get, the harder it can be to sustain the momentum.
Almost all of my critique activity takes place thanks to the internet. I find it useful to go through different rounds of criticism, depending on my goals for the revision.
For the first round, when the manuscript is hot off the fingers, I turn to my wise reader, my sister Rachel, to give me a big picture read. How are the characterizations? Have I been inconsistent or confusing? How’s the pace and drama? How’s the payoff at the end? You and your wise reader must have a contract of trust, respect, and honesty. The wise reader can be just that--a reader and not a fellow writer. In fact, in some ways that’s probably better, as you won’t get a rewritten manuscript back. This is a person who wants to help you tell your story, not theirs. The most important thing is that this is someone whose judgment is reliable, whose comments make you look hard in the mirror. The wise reader, while generally someone close to you, has to maintain enough objectivity to avoid falling under your spell as a fan. They have to see the big picture problems clearly. I hesitate to tell you how many times Rachel has (correctly, I may add) pointed out that I have completely botched the ending of my story and sent me back to work.
For the second, more detailed round of critique, I belong to an online critique site (sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com $49/yr) where my work is posted chapter by chapter and exposed to a vast number of strangers. Some are brilliant writers, some merest beginners. There’s an expectation of payback, or crit4crit. So I prepare to invest a lot of time repaying reviews, reading others’ work, which is helpful to improving my own craft on another level. People pop in and out for chapters. A few may follow the entire work over the course of months of posting. Some criticisms resonate; some rankle. Some people become co-opted into fandom, where anything you write is golden. Others love to pick your prose apart word by word, changing shined to shone. “Well, who are you to tell me that?” you might snipe at the screen. “You don’t even know how to use commas properly!” But, deep breath, come back to the criticism you disagree with and look for the kernel of truth in there. Something bothered this reader, and while you can’t please everyone, all readers are potential consumers of your work. Your heart will tell you whether the feedback is apt--if it is something you want to consider in your rewrite. If three people tell you something is a problem--guess what--it’s a problem.
There are also geographically dispersed crit groups who use Yahoo or Google groups and a more casual approach to run things by each other on an as needed basis. I belong to one of those as well, formed by participants at a SCBWI conference.
After any big rewrite and polishing, I have a group of writing friends, none of whom are local, with whom I can do full manuscript exchanges. We are all close to the same point in our careers, all writing very seriously, some agented, some self-published, some published, some on the cusp. It’s wonderful to have people willing to read your entire draft, to get the story arc and flow. However, you have to be patient. They can’t just drop everything and read it tonight. This is especially true when you ask a teenager to read your manuscript. I still haven’t figured out the best way to elicit feedback from teenagers beyond, “I couldn’t get into it,” or “I stayed up all night.” So, my second trusted reader is my teenaged daughter who pulls no punches about telling me when I have been extremely dorky.
The final critique you'll receive will be from your editor, when you have that long awaited sale and contract. Any advice from your editor is offered with the intention of making your book as successful as possible. Take a deep breath and accept it in the spirit in which it is offered, but remember that ultimately this is your story to tell the way nobody else can.
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Liz Coley writes young adult novels and science fiction/fantasy short stories for anthologies and magazines.
Her novel Pretty Girl-13 from HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books will be debuting in 2013. There are secrets you can't even tell yourself.