Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Critiquing For Someone Else Will Make Your Book Better

I've been doing a lot of critiquing this year. If you've never critiqued for another writer, give some serious consideration to doing so. Your writing will love you for it.

I started critiquing as part of a writer's group which included published and represented writers two years ago. I think I've learned more from reading their stuff (and offering feedback) than I have through my own writing. Why? Because I see my own writing flaws from the other side of the fence.

Here's the thing: When I write I see the world in full-color. My characters are rich, deep, fiercely motivated and entertaingly flawed.

But my writing doesn't always communicate what's in my head.

When reading someone else's writing, I see what they've told me - not what they've got in their head. By reading other people's writing a lot I started being able pick out what writers were intending as opposed to what they were actually communicating.

And it showed me how I do the same thing.

Example #1: Crime Writer has a character with a lot of wit and charm. Crime Writer's protagonist has a habit of cracking jokes constantly. And the thing is, they're funny. But sometimes when the protagonist is staring down the barrel of a menacing gun, or in the boudoir with a scintillating woman, yuk-yuk and har-har just don't cut the mustard.

I know Crime Writer intends to let the reader enjoy humor even in the midst of fear. But what Crime Writer is actually doing is diluting tension and creating a sense that the story isn't very real.

How It Related To My Writing: About a year into revising my first manuscript featuring a sarcastic-and-sometimes-witty protagonist, I recieved the following feedback:

"One-liners are good sprinkled through your prose. But when every other paragraph has a punchline, it starts to get into a rythym that isn't funny, it's just irritating. You're breaking up your own flow."

At the time I was horrified (not to mention, a little miffed).  Now I know exactly what the writer meant.

Example #2: Historical Writer wove a very complicated story via multiple points-of-view. With an eye on wordcount and a desire to appeal to the 'younger audience', much of the character building was related via telling the reader what the character felt in narrative.

The story was chock-ful of "Despite the obvious [plotline / dialogue / established backstory], I felt [unlikely emotion] because of [unlikely motivation which requires explanation]. Whatever was I going to do?!"

How It Related To My Writing: My first book was a fairly epic urban fantasy. Sometimes it felt like the sheer number of motivations and deep-seated emotions every character needed established would require a tome of 200,000 words or more. So I took short cuts by simply telling the reader what the character thought or felt and why. (i.e. "Charactername is gorgeous. He makes me go all gooey. Hubba Hubba Hubba..."** instead of describing the attributes of Charactername that make him attractive and letting those elements seep into his actions / reactions).

But when I saw it at play in someone else's writing, it made me understand why critiquers were telling me they were struggling to care about my characters: If I read a story and can't 'gather' the same impression from events that the main characters do (without having it explained to me), it feels like I'm being told what to think. That makes me suspicious that the story is implausible or shallow and I quickly lose interest.

That narrator's musings and reactions should be either primarily a tickbox (i.e. they let me gauge whether my impressions and conclusions are correct), or else they should be enlightening (i.e the character demonstrates an expertise I don't have and can show me the logical extrapolation on what we're learning).

Under no circumstances should it be C) I couldn't understand this without the POV character explaining it to me.***

When a character responds or reacts to what's going on in the story, it should be the way I double-check my own responses / reactions to it. Does that make sense?

So... back to my original point:

1. Critique for other writers. It will help you write better. (Please note: critiquing means analyzing plot, characters, setting, effectiveness of prose, plausibility, etc. It's much more detailed than 'beta reading' which is primarily reading in bulk and responding to what worked and what didn't).

2. Let other people read your writing so you can find out where the picture in your head and the picture on the page don't match. See above for another helpful step in this direction.

**Not an actual excerpt - technique is exaggerated to make a point.

***No, I'm not talking about world-building stuff, of course those kinds of things have to be explained. I'm talking about character motivations, reactions, reasonings, logic, etc.

Your Turn: Have you ever critiqued for another writer? What did you learn from the experience?


  1. Getting to the point where I am routinely critiquing other people's work has been great for my craft and truly understanding how stories work. But the quality of the work you critique is important. You want someone at your level, maybe with different strengths than yourself. Genre is less important, imo.

  2. I agree, problem is now I'm having a hard time finding someone who see what I see in their work in mine. Ummm.

  3. I also think that critiquing is good. I know that I can't do the grammer part very well because, I'm not good at grammer. But I'm good at following the story and asking questions.

  4. I absolutely agree. I've been active in several writing groups over the last couple of years and have seen my writing improve as a result. Often the critiques spark discussion and offer an opportunity to revisit technique, everything from passive voice to show vs. tell. Sometimes lessons are hard to learn when you are editing your own writing, but become crystal clear when reading someone else's work.

    Plus, the opportunity to engage with other writers who are deep in the creative process always inspires me. Creative energy is contagious!

    Will be sharing this with my writing groups...thanks for posting!

  5. Bluestocking - Good point. I'm the only contemporary YA writer in both the writer's groups I belong to and my writing is definitely improved by hearing input from writers of other genres.

    Cynthia - Yes, that is a problem. I'm really lucky to be part of groups that include incredibly talented editorial eyes. Keep hunting - they are out there!

    Mel - Do you belong to any groups? Lots of people could use those kinds of input.

    Veronica - I totally agree. Thanks for stopping by! :)

  6. Awesome post (as always), Aimee. I have critiqued a few manuscripts and I believe each time I do it, I learn more about my own writing. Once I finally finish editing The Big Smoke, I plan to do more critiquing.

  7. I recently critiqued someone's first chapter and my immediate thought was, "Get to the point." And then after I thought, "Is this enough of a book? It could be a short story."

    That immediately left me with that idea that if you are creating a short story or novel, let the reader know the conflict first. Even if it won't be the huge, BIG conflict. Introduce a part of it, a little bit. The next impression - the little conflict in the beginning - can't be it. And it won't be enough. Build on it.

    And you are so right, critiquing is really important for yourself, and to learn from others!