Monday, June 6, 2011

Why You Don’t Want Me For A Critique Partner

Besides being terribly impatient, I am not a warm and fuzzy person. I’m not a grump, but I don’t require a lot of accolades or affection to complete me. Most of the time, I brush off compliments because I just can’t figure out how to say “thanks” and move on. There's a lull that settles in and my head stirs, then I start thinking. Is this the moment when I’m suppose to say something back like, “I like your hair too?” Wouldn’t that come off as artificial? So, I just mutter a thank you and remind myself to compliment the person as soon as I can. It’s like one of those dating rules where you’re not supposed to call her for a couple days before asking for a date. Mine is for compliments. Get a compliment, wait ten minutes, give a compliment. It’s like a recycling program, right? Saving the planet one compliment at a time.
Being nice and complimentary takes a lot of work and I’m a no nonsense, let’s get down to the meat of things girl. Why waste time with fluff? Let’s just get ’er done? My husband benefits and suffers because of my ways. If he forgets an anniversary, he’s in good company because chances are I’ve forgotten too. Valentine’s Day and flowers? No way. I love flowers, but they belong in the ground and not on my credit card bill.
With writing, and especially in a writing critique group, being upfront and not so fluffy isn’t a good thing. I have found this out many times. There are rules—rules people created long before I started clicking and clacking the keys on my laptop.
First of all, you need to give lots and lots of positive feedback. Writers love to hear how wonderful they are, because they've worked so hard.  So what if the wonderful writer wasn't so wonderful? I have learned that you have to find something. Maybe the writer knows his way around a semi-colon. Tell him. After all, that is important in the grand scheme of things. Semi-colons are important, knowing how to use a semi-colon is important. If you are critiquing through email or online, you must, must, must add in smiley faces or ‘LOL’ so they know you thought it was cute, funny, or whatever. Even if it was only moderately funny, I think the rule says you must LOL them.
There is another rule that says you aren’t supposed to defend your 'script as the critique is happening. You are supposed to just sit and listen and then say stuff at the end. That’s fine, but there is a sort of song and dance that comes with that. Something like, “Thanks for your comments and while I agree that my character’s motivation isn’t clear . . . blah blah blah.” That’s a lot of work for an impatient girl like me, but we must follow the rules.
 What really sucks about this rule is that in the middle of my critiquer trying to placate me, he offers a really great nugget of wisdom. I want to talk about this nugget. I want to hold the nugget and explore its possibilities, but I can’t. Must wait. Then when he’s finished talking about motivation or symbolism or something that means nothing to me, I forget the nugget at the end and simply mutter my thanks.
You may be reading this and thinking how incredibly insensitive I am, which you’re probably right. I don’t mean to be, but writing is a serious gig. If I want to make it, I need to get tough. I can’t get tough listening to a bunch of artificial compliments because the reviewer thinks I’m too sensitive and need love. Thanks, but I want to know what’s wrong with it. Rub my nose in my failures so that I can make it better.
Wow, harsh. Yes. And that’s why you don’t want to be my critique partner. I may forget an LOL or a smiley face from time to time, but I mean well. I will go line by line finding problems. I will spend hours, away from my own writing, doing it and when I’m done, I will tell you what I liked about it. Will your stuff be littered with different colors and scratch marks? Probably. Am I always right? Absolutely not. But I will do everything in my power to make sure that I offer you something. Unless you are golden and then I will just say you kick ass and beg you to read mine and make me kick ass too.
I didn’t start out this way. I didn’t like the marks either. I wanted the LOLs and the smiley faces. I wanted to know that the lamp I described was so real they could almost touch it. But then I realized that the only time I get better is when I fail, when I blow it.
I have a tough critique partner who has made me rewrite whole chapters before. Do I feel defensive in that moment? Yup, but give me ten minutes (magical number) and I will get back to work. The rewrite part is painful. Not because of hurt feelings, I don’t think, but because we need to steer our brains in a different direction. And for a perfectionist person like me, it means I’ll put a lot of pressure on myself to not only get an LOL, but an ROLF, or maybe a OMG.
There is a great poem I found in Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. So if you are one of those sensitive writer folks who get caught up in my critiquing net or anyone else, I want you to remember this poem by Bill Holm.
“August in Waterton”
Above me, wind does its best
 to blow leaves off
the aspen tree a month too soon.
No use wind. All you succeed
in doing is making music, the noise
of failure growing beautiful.

My friends and I at Ready, Aim, Hook Me are getting ready to send out our feedback on the first round of submissions we received. Do you think writers are overly sensitive when it comes to the critique? Or are they hungry for any feedback good, bad, and the super bad? Should we be worried? Watch our backs? LOL (see, how important those three letters are. Have you LOL'd today?)


mooderino said...

I think there are people who think in a similar fashion to you, it's just hard to find them in the deluge of aspiring writers on the web. Ultimately all the encouragement in the world won't make you a better writer the way the blunt truth will. But people are sensitive and at different levels of development both as writers and as human beings. So, yes, sometimes you need to preface comments with 'This is just my opinion,...' but slowly you do find like minded souls who are only interested in improving their work. Hello!

Moody Writing

Mary said...

I agree with you-- the flowery stuff is nice to hear for the ego, but if I am going to become better, I need to know what I am doing wrong, and sometimes what I think is the strongest, isn't. I am sure I would love a CP like you. Tell it to me as it is-- I'm a big girl and can take it!

Lyn Midnight said...

"It’s like a recycling program, right? Saving the planet one compliment at a time." Hah, I snorted at this, and it's a good thing. ;)

Ah, the pitfall of netspeak. See, I have a problem and that is overusing LOL, :P, :D, and all other kinds of cutesy symbols to convey emotion. It might be insecurity. You know, if you are open enough online maybe you aren't lying your ass off like some people do.

The real issue, however, is critiquing people on their blogs/sites who you barely know or like too much to be honest with. I'm not saying that I lie in my comments, not ever, but I do emphasize the good and almost skip the bad. That are as you say the rules of the game. :/

But when in comes to criticism, I like to take it all in, give me your best shot kind of thing, like yourself, because what's the value of sugarcoating? See now it seems I don't follow my rule but it's more about etiquette than anything. I'd actually like a critique partner like that, maybe I'll find them soon. In the meantime, thank you for the brain-food and thanks for posting this lovely poem! I'd forgotten all about it. :)

Anonymous said...

I love to hear the "good job" critiques, but they don't give me anything to work on. However, when you critique you walk a fine line.

If the critique says, "The characters ring true, but the dialogue is stiff," the author has something specific to work on. If the person who gave the critique is willing to workshop with the author on dialogue, even better.

However, "I just don't like this" is pretty useless, and you might as well have said, "Good job!"

Thanks for this post.

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

Great post. Negative comments are just as important as positive ones. We learn best by knowing what works, so we can weed out what doesn't.

Lynnette Labelle said...

It's funny. Even if you warn the writer that you're going to be honest and that might hurt, they can still be surprised at the sting. Sometimes they accept it and move on and other times, they cry, scream, yell, or have a drink. All you can do is be honest because that's what's going to help them in the end. Being someone's cheerleader is only going to get them so far.

Great post!

Lynnette Labelle

Michelle Teacress said...

I like the encouragement just as much as the next guy, but it gets old when I know I need to improve, yet cannot get the feedback to point me in the right direction. Good post. Have a great week.

Anonymous said...

In my writing workshops I sometimes have to guide folks in how to critique. Some enter vicious and want to go at it like tigers - unchained competitive ego, because that is what they have experienced in other workshops. Others are too timid to say what they don't like about another's submission. I say leave the ego at the door on your way in and just be honest.
As far as smileys and other positive feedback...I believe it's as necessary as the negative. Both are equally valid. I encourage complete honesty, coupled with kindness. It's really about where the critiquer is coming from and how mature they are. A good critiquer can deliver the truth without hurting anyone.
And lastly, it's important to remember that ALL opinions are subjective. Even my own.
Good post, Diana.

Faith said...

Oooh, you sound like me. The benefit I have is that I can deliver the negatives to my CPs in person, so that I can shift tone while giving crazy negative "THIS IS CRAP" feedback to make it SOUND nice, like a lovely suggestion. And I much prefer to get negative responses too. I don't do well with compliments, I'm the unsentimental/unromantic one compared to my husband. (Anniversary? What? Umm... should we order pizza?) LOL

Fourth Grade Teacher said...

I'm looking forward to genuine feedback! What drives me nuts about the critiquing part is that there's no option to say "this is why..." in a formal setting. My brother commented on the setting for my book. He correctly pointed out that it could happen anywhere, so why invent a place? But he's my brother, and I got to explain to him that the setting is critical to the next book in the series, which has some crossover characters.

I need to be able to say "you're right" when the person is right, or "this is why" when I disagree...even the occasional "Oh, good lord, what was I thinking there?!" But like you, I can only do this if the feedback is honest.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

This is a tough one and I applaud your no-nonsense approach. I've adjudicated a few competitions and will be doing so at a big Scottish writers' conference in March so I have to think about my approach all the time.

As a writer, I want an honest, if tough, critique of my work - I always strive to be a better writer. As a judge, giving a critique, I try to be honest but temper it a little with something positive - the last thing I want is to trample all over someone's dreams when they may be starting out. It's a difficult balance sometimes!

Jessica A. Briones said...

Great post!
Thanks for your advice, I used Google chrome and it worked, Now I can post comments, what a freak system...

Lynda R Young said...

hehe I can relate to this. I'm the impatient sort too and like to get into the bones of the matter. I appreciate the touch critiques in return because that's what will help me most in the end.

Juliana L. Brandt said...

Honestly, I can't wait to send you guys my WIP because I know the feedback will be of the quality I need to make my writing better and that is my number one priority. My ego can take critisism, my writing can't take sitting around never improving.