Reflections In Hindsight

Grace in the Rearview Mirror…it's closer than it appears

  • Ephesians 4:29

    Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (NIV)

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Critiques: Friend or Foe?

Posted by Ben Erlichman on December 29, 2011

Writers fear rejection more than anything else (in my opinion). That rejection can come in lots of forms and will likely show up at multiple points in your career as a writer. You can’t avoid it.

Even best-selling authors get bad reviews on their work. Jim Rubart, best-selling author of Rooms, Book of Days, and The Chair, has a total of 305 reviews for Rooms on Amazon.com. Of those reviews, 89 are 1-star ratings (the worst), and 134 are 5-star ratings (the best). I know Jim fairly well (for only seeing him once a year at the annual ACFW Conference) and have had the privilege of listening to him speak at that conference a couple of times about marketing. One of the best things I gleaned from his talks was that it’s better to have people either really love your writing or really hate it because that means you’ve achieved the goal every writer is shooting for: you’ve inspired a strong emotional response in your reader.

Critiques can be helpful tools in getting you to that point, but frankly, they suck sometimes. As writers, we put ourselves out there. We empty our souls onto the page on a regular basis. That’s often a very messy process. Critiques help to clean up that mess so others can read it without cringing at our excessive use of adverbs or other goofs while creating our first draft.

Here’s my typical process for writing as far as critiques are concerned:

1. I do my pre-writing work (includes research, outlining, writing synopses, etc.)

2. I write the book

3. I edit the book at least once on my own (probably no more than twice, though)

4. I send it to someone I trust for a first peer critique

5. I implement the changes I like from the critique

6. I send it out for a second critique (either to the same person or to a different one, or sometimes both)

7. I implement the new changes from the second critiques

8. I write a book proposal and try to sell the thing.

More or less, that’s my plan. I’ve got a novella, Lions and Serpents, that I just got a line-by-line critique back from a good friend of mine. I haven’t looked at it yet, but we discussed it on Facebook chat for a bit and he gave me some overarching thoughts.

In short, he said that a big chunk of the story after a certain point really slowed down and wasn’t as enjoyable to read since not much was happening–the characters were all just plotting how to proceed next instead of just doing it. He also said my characterizations weren’t consistent in the two main characters, Paul and Marty. Also, my minor characters (mostly the evil henchmen) all seemed kind of bland and boring. On top of all of that, he thinks I may have invoked a form of Deus Ex Machina at the end (which I kind of disagree with, but I can see his point).

In other words, it stung to hear some of those things. Most of those things.

But that’s part of the process of making your work stronger, of making it more appealing to your target audience. It certainly is part of making your work more “publishable” through traditional mediums, as professional editors have responsibilities to their respective publishing houses, who need to make money off of your work. Sometimes you just have to do things their way, and a good critique can help you get closer to providing them with something that they not only can use, but also want.

As with all criticism in life, eat the lollipop but not the stick. In other words, apply the constructive criticism that you think will help your piece get better, and ignore the stuff you disagree with. I guarantee that I won’t implement every change my critique partner suggested, but I will use most of it because I trust his judgment and know that he’s trying to help. Ultimately it’s my story and I’ll do what I want to do with it.

Another thing to look out for is negative criticism. If you’re eating an apple and run across a big bruise, you don’t eat the bruised part, right? Eat around it. Get back to the stuff that tastes good and is nourishing you. Same with critiques or reviews: if someone says you’re a horrible writer because your characters are shallow and your plot has no structure so you should probably never write again, what good can you take out of something so negative? Well, ignore the insults and the meanness and get the actual critique content out of there: you need to work on plot structure and character development.

Don’t be afraid of critiques. They’re a good way to put your work out there just a little bit, and hopefully to receive some constructive feedback while you’re at it. Send it to someone you trust to be honest and give you a helpful review of your work. Doing this will help you develop a thick skin for when you finally do get published and someone writes a scathing review of your work that makes you want to crawl into a cave and hide forever. Go ahead, give it a shot.

-Ben

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4 Responses to “Critiques: Friend or Foe?”

  1. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav) said

    Critiques: friend or foe? Yes. ;) Helpful, right? :P (I mean my answer – yours was just what it should be.)

    Steven King’s memoirs as a writer may be a classic case in point. There are aspects of it which (were I a published reviewer – yes, I know, I can always review the book on Amazon.com) I’d like to nuke until they glow and then shoot in the dark. :P And yet there are other aspects which show just how well he knows the art, craft and business of writing – which is extremely so. Even if one does a perfect job in every aspect, it’s going to be read and reviewed by imperfect people and even if it pleased God and all the righteous angels, it’s still not going to please all human beings. Now there’s a perspective that might be helpful to keep in mind. :D

  2. Don Bemis said

    My wife critiques my manuscripts before they go out the door. She’s literate, honest, and willing to play the critic’s role. She has an eagle’s eye for overused words and expressions. It’s galling to hear that one of my great lines is indecipherable or not half as good as I thought it was, but I have to remind myself that if she doesn’t get it, neither will the next reader. I usually act on her comments. A simple change of phrase or a different word often will clean things up.
    My wife is also my greatest supporter.

  3. I cannot function as a writer without at least 3 thorough crit partners. And I want them to be brutal. It used to hurt, but now I say, “Bring it on!”

  4. Good post! And good thoughts.
    It’s so important to get feedback, and often times it’s even more important to get it from the right source. There are so many styles, and so many individual preferences, that one person’s magnum opus is another’s total junk. So, finding the people you’re trying to write to is uber-important.
    Of, course, you must know who you’re writing to, first. And that’s another story!
    Thanks for posting!
    Elizabeth Kaiser

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