Critique Me Kindly
by Dave King
You've finally finished the novel. To you it reads like the finest piece of literature ever penned by human hand, but you may be biased. Your friends and family all tell you they've never read anything like it, but that seems a little ambiguous. You need objective readers to critique your work (critters, for short). So you join a writer's group where members criticize one another's manuscripts.
And suddenly you've got feedback. The Hemingway wannabe thinks it's too wordy. The Proust fan finds it too spare. The MFA grad complains that it isn't fraught enough, but the teen with the pierced tongue says it's too tame. The retired CPA thinks it's too bloody, even though the screenwriter's sure you need an action scene every seventeen pages. The high school English teacher merely suggests that your thug say, "Whom the hell do you think you are?" What do you do now?
Finding a Critter For You
Ideally, the purpose of a critique is to help you write the story you want to write. In practice, many critters are more interested in helping you write the story they want to write. They'll tell you how your light, romantic farce would work better as a murder mystery. ("Just kill off a character and go from there.") Or they want your buddy comedy to turn into a thriller. They'll suggest you switch from first person to third, or change your main character's gender, or restructure your story around what is now a subplot. Essentially, they want to reduce your story to rubble and build a new one from the remains.
You're most likely to receive a take-no-prisoners critique when your critter is a fellow writer. Professional editors deal with a wide range of genres and styles, but many writers tend to write the kinds of book they like to read and only read the kinds of book they're trying to write. They know the techniques they use themselves and don't pay much attention to the rest. A critter who reads only fast-paced thrillers will be annoyed with the wealth of background detail you've built into your fantasy novel. In short, the Stephen King fan may critique you for not being Stephen King.
A few tricks will help you avoid this trap. If you're in a group where you trade critiques with other authors, pay attention to the manuscripts your critters are trying to write — in case the critter who thinks your historical novel needs a love interest is a romance writer, for instance. If your group shares critiques publicly, note the problems your critters find with the other manuscripts they've worked on — they may think everybody should write a buddy comedy. Chat with your critters and find out what kinds of books they like to read. If you don't have any favorite authors in common, then be a little leery of what they have to say. If you have a choice about who critiques your story, choose someone who is widely read in your own genre, so they're familiar with the techniques you use.
The most serious problem with heavy-handed critters, though, is that they're sometimes right. Sometimes your buddy comedy would work better as a thriller. Sometimes your historical novel does need a love interest. How do you tell?
Always ask for reasons for the changes they suggest — something more than "this just doesn't work for me." When they suggest a fundamental change, it should be to bring out something even more important to your story. Perhaps by adding a romantic interest to your historical novel, you can bring out a softer, humanizing side of an off-putting main character. By turning your romantic farce into a buddy comedy, you might jettison a forced and implausible love interest that interferes with an otherwise delightful character interaction.
One client of mine was trying to write a novel with a complex series of interlocking stories. Many of the stories had a lot of natural drama and held hints of intriguing characters. But because there were so many of them, she never managed to develop any of the characters in depth. I suggested that she cut some of the stories and combine some characters in order to create the room to bring the smaller cast fully to life. The result was a tight and engaging novel that's definitely worthy of publication.
If your critters can't produce reasons for a suggestion, then give it this test: does it inspire you? If you have to strain to understand what your critter is talking about, then the suggestion probably isn't for you. The good ones hit like revelation, leaving you itching to start your rewrites. In fact, it's not a bad rule of thumb to ignore all suggestions that don't inspire you. Everyone writes at their best when they write from someplace deep inside of them, the place where inspiration lives. If you try to make changes mechanically, they will almost certainly be less than your best and may well be disastrous. I've occasionally had clients who revise their manuscripts as if they were trying to get a term paper past a particularly picky professor. The result is usually only the need for more editing. Genuine improvements come from the heart.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
Critters often go to the opposite extreme from reducing your story to rubble: picking on the sorts of details that should only be corrected in the final polish, if at all. They may questions your verisimilitude — "Have you ever actually ridden a horse/climbed a mountain/fired a machine gun? It doesn't feel like that." Or pound you on details of word choice — "You use some form of 'to be' eighteen times on this page." Someone is always happy to shred your grammar. It's absolutely true that problems such as run-on sentences or inadvertent alliteration (like the five p's at the end of the previous paragraph — did you notice?) can detract from your writing. Yet paying attention to these kinds of mechanical details too early in the process can interfere with your creativity.
The language you choose should flow from your characters and fit their histories and personalities. A studied attention to word choice and sentence structure can interfere with the development of your character voice. One of my favorite examples of voice came from real life, when I was discussing marriage with an acquaintance here in Ashfield. He said, "Yeah, I was married to one for ten years then was with another one for six years and been with the one I'm with now for eight years and that's half my life chewed up." Someone concerned about run-on sentences could never write a line like that.
As to verisimilitude, well, it's not always vital. Of course, if your plot hangs on the details — if the location of the safety catch on a 30.06 rifle is the key clue to your mystery — then you'd better get the nitty-gritty right. But if the details are simply there for background or to create an atmosphere, then they're just bafflegab, a science fiction technique. Essentially, writing bafflegab means making up stuff just plausible enough to encourage your readers to suspend disbelief. For some background details, that's all you really need.
Finally, there's a caveat I include on all the editing I do: your mileage may vary. Editorial suggestions, even from a professional, should be treated as no more than suggestions, to be taken or ignored at your discretion. I've found that my most effective relationships are with clients who take about 70% of what I recommend. No one does everything, and I wouldn't want them to.
So listen to your critters. Pay attention to who they are before weighing what they say. Then follow your heart.