Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Handling Critiques

I submitted my story to a few online critique groups in hopes of getting it polished up for submission. I've been a bit paranoid about submitting since I found all these publishing and agent blogs online. But after getting my critiques back, no one could agree, on anything. And it was pretty split down the middle on who liked and didn't like it as a whole. I'm just curious, that if I'm getting such a wide range of comments, could it mean that this story is lost cause? Or do I need to seek out some other readers?

This might be a better question for my readers. Without reading your book I can’t tell you whether or not it’s a lost cause. That’s a tough one. What I can ask you is what do you think? Do you think every single critique you received was right on the mark or are there some that seemed off, like they are from readers who just might not have understood the story?

As for liking or not liking the story, that’s subjective, and very different from finding the story problematic or not problematic. That’s what you should be worried about from a critique, not so much people liking it.

All that being said, it seems like you’re looking for a magic answer, someone to come up with the magic words to “fix” your book. I’m not sure you need help from other readers at this point, I think instead you need to take a look at the book yourself and figure out what you think it needs.



Rachel Rossano said...

I did something similar when I was polishing a short story for submission a few months ago. I had a very similar experience with a particularly rude reader at the bottom of the spectrum.

The conclusions I drew from the experience were that I had to consider where the reader was coming from before I could interpert their comments. I had those who read similar material to what I had written. They loved it. I had commenters who read mostly a different genre. Their comments were not as positive, but also not all negative (a good sign in my opinion). My terrible commenter (she didn't even finish reading the story) made it clear that she was coming at the story from the stand point of a historical-academic background (for a SF romantic short story), wasn't drawn to the story at all, and was only commenting on it for the points she would gain.

All of the comments, except the nasty lady, had value simply by making me look at my words with new eyes. I didn't always agree, but at least I considered. :)

Unknown said...

Agreed Jessica. While Beta Readers and critiques are an important part of the writing process, I believe that comments and suggestions should all be taken with a grain of salt. Meaning, that it's ultimately up to the writer to determine what suggestions are valid, and which aren't.

- Tom M. Wiseman

Unknown said...

I think you need to listen to, or develop?, that voice inside your head that knows when and what feedback is helpful. When other people give me critique I know, almost as soon as they say it, the stuff that is dead on. It's like someone verbalizing an itch my brain had. Having said that, I think you need to be pretty clear what your book is trying to accomplish in the first place. Sometimes people wander around and through their own words and then, when they've finished, they hope someone else is going to hand them a map.

Darrell B. Nelson said...

I critique a lot, and I always tell people that what I write is just my opinion, nothing more.
To get the most out of a critique group look at the spots in the story that are being flagged. If two people have trouble with the same spot, it needs to be rewritten. Not necessarily the way they suggest, but make sure that part is as clear as it can be.
Also remember every reader is different. I had a story where in the first round all three readers hated a spot where I referred to a girl not liking someone in her "intimate space" and they suggested "personal space" so I changed it and sent it through another round of critiques and those 3 readers thought it should be "intimate space".
I've only encountered one nasty commenter, who added comments that were rude to his critique (although oddly his comments on the story were spot on). But the worst critique I ever got was just "loved it" and "liked how you..." That would be great if I was wanting a review, but useless as a critique.
Remember you asked the people to nit pick your work, not be your cheerleaders. If they are any good they will be much pickier than a general reader.

MAGolla said...

I've critiqued and judged RWA contest for 8-9 years and I've found that many times the reason crits are all over the board is because critters tend to only see the top surface of the problem--the funky sentence structure, weak verbs, 2-D characters.

Dig deeper for the problem. It could be the pacing is off, resulting in inane dialogue, or too much narrative, or stopping the pacing by plopping down a chunk of unnecessary narrative.

Or incomplete characterization resulting in behavior/speech not appropriate for that character at that particular time.

Tighten your story until it's squeaky, deleting the 'assumed' language, choose verbs that add to the picture. Read it outloud.

Good luck!

Choose the appropriate words that help the reader understand WHO the character is without being told.

R.S. Bohn said...

I used to write a lot of fanfic, and I had a large fanbase. Having said that, I could get one hundred reviews of something -- short story or novel-length -- and see one hundred different perspectives over quite a range.

What I took from the experience and have since applied to writing original fiction is that A. Not everyone will "get" your story, B. Look for general trends and don't focus on the extremes (the "I hate it" as well as "I love love love it!!!"), and C. If you read a lot, then try to apply that objective criticism you would give another author's novel to your own work. Be as honest as you can with yourself. Honestly admitting where the flaws lie in your work is difficult but worth it.

Unknown said...

This is the reason I don't like to share my query or excerpts on forums because there are so many conflicting opinions.

I have one critique partner. Because I know this person well enough that she will tell me what works and what doesn't. Because of her honesty I have recently realized I had to almost rewrite my current wip.

Also keep in mind that not all your readers will like it. What you need is critique partners who can put personal tastes aside to tell you whether or not it works. If you need people who like it find friends who like that particular genre.

Brian Buckley said...

A good rule of thumb is that if lots of critiquers say the same thing, it's very likely they're right; but if they all say different things, be a little more skeptical. As other commenters have said, you have to use your own judgment about what advice to take and what to ignore.

Another thing to consider is whether your critiquers are giving you feedback from a reader or writer point of view. Reader feedback is stuff like "This part was boring" or "I didn't care about this character." Reader feedback is great because readers are never wrong about their own subjective impressions. On the other hand, writer feedback is stuff like "Show, don't tell" and "You need a better hook." Unless your critique partner is Cormac McCarthy, you should be wary about accepting such advice. Writer feedback is only as good as the writer giving it, and very often it's a case of the blind leading the blind.

Jenny said...

Getting critiques is always difficult, and when people contradict each other, well, it can make you want to pull your hair out and start screaming.

My feeling is the best thing you can do is put the story aside, start working on something else. Put some distance between you and your piece. Then, in a few months, maybe longer, come back to it and read it again. You'll have a much more objective eye at this point and you might find, as you're rereading, that some of the critiques now seem dead on and you'll know which ones are off base.

When you're so immersed in a story, it's too difficult to see it. When you step back, things often clear up. Then, when you're done making that first story perfect, you'll have had enough space from the second story to see that one clearly! :-)

trump said...

Please stop by and read old order Mennonite Jeans post on my blog Amish Stories. Thanks folks. Richard

Stephanie McGee said...

I definitely agree with Jessica saying the inquirer needs to look at the book with the question in mind of what they feel the book needs.

Every read of a manuscript is almost entirely subjective. (Unless they're copy-editing, looking for grammar and spelling errors.) I put a portion of one book on a critique sit in pieces, the first couple of chapters to start, and got reviews saying one thing. Without making changes, I added chapters and suddenly I had people saying that the revisions made the problems they'd had with the piece disappear.

With every critique, we as writers need to let said critiques sit in our heads for a while before we dive into revising the manuscript. The issues that really are issues will present themselves. They'll stick in our heads and we'll notice them as we revise. That's how we can fix what truly might be problematic with the book.

The critiques that are more to with, as Jessica pointed out, readers not understanding the story will fade to the background if you let your gut instinct for storytelling and for this story and these characters to take over and take control of the critiques you receive.

Elizabeth said...

As everyone here is acknowledging, this really is one of the most frustrating aspects of working with a critique group. Feedback is an essential piece of the process, but it's so subjective and hard to know what to do when some people love something and others detest it. My suggestion: first take a break. Depending on the length of the piece, let it sit for a week or a month, then return to it. Read it through carefully and critically. Make notes about anything that doesn't quite sit right with you. Then review the feedback. It could be that one or many people articulated something that makes sense to you on that post-break go-around (while it didn't before). And there may be some people who just don't understand or appreciate your vision, and that also might be easier to discern after some time has passed. One other possibility is that the story has a powerful core nugget that people are attracted to and want more of, in which case you might try rewriting the story with that as the main focus. It might lead you somewhere totally different, but it's worth a shot. Good luck!

Christwriter said...

Personally, I've found that most critiques pinpoint surface issues because they can't see the deeper ones. It's kind of the same attitude that makes an audience highlight one single aspect of a book or movie (i.e. sparkling vampires) that could have worked in a better book. In reality, what's going on is a great many smaller issues (in Twilight's case, whiny self-centered protagonist, obviously abusive boyfriend, horrendous sentence structure and total lack of anything resembling action up till that point) that only hit on the subconscious finally came to a conscious level. In other words, most people don't pick up on the things you actually need to change. They only bring up the straws that break the reader's suspension of disbelief.

What I am still trying to learn how to do is 1. take the face value of a critique and apply it as best I can, because these are usually really valid points and 2. when I don't agree with what the critiquer said, go back through the book up until that point and try to see where the book really broke down.

And yeah, you also have to consider who is doing the critique and what they're like when they're not reading your book. Do they read other books (this is important)? Do they read other books in your genre? And like them? Have they ever had some highly illuminating thing to say about something else they've seen and/or watched? If the answer to all of the above is yes, you might want to listen. Have they written anything that YOU read and liked? Do they write professionally? Or are connected to professional writing in, say, an editorial capacity? You probably need to listen.

Are they an asshole? You probably shouldn't give them your writing in the first place.

ryan field said...

If you want to see subjective, click over to goodreads.com and check out various reviews for published books. Everyone is going to have a different opinion. Frankly, I prefer "a wide range of comments." Nothing hurts a book more than average, similar (meh!) run-of-the-mill comments.

Jessica Schley said...

Often, when I get critiques and let them sit, I have a sense which ones work. You know the story you're burning to tell better than any others do, no matter what their credentials are. When you first get a bunch of comments back, it can feel overwhelming, and you want some algorithm to sort out which ones are "good" and which are "bad."

But as you re-read and really listen to what is said and to your own writing, you'll realize that some comments drop-kick your story further down the road you already intended to have it on, or force you to question something whose answers will provide a lot of useful "meat" to the rest of the story. Those are the ones you want to use.

Amber Skye said...

I think it's the contents of the negative comments more than the quantity (especially considering you DID get positive comments too). I write erotica that can be dark/angsty and that is clearly not for everyone, so I will get comments like, "Why is there so much sex?" or "I don't think people will publish/read something this dark/depressing" I will just ignore that part. It's not out of defiance, per se, it's just that I know that some people DO like that (like myself) and that kind of stuff does get published (because I buy it). And it's really great when you hear stuff like that followed by "BUT I think the writing is really good." or something. Or if not, you can still take their advice in terms of flow or story tension, etc.

Katie said...

One of my writing professors said recently that getting differing opinions in a critique can actually be a good sign: it means that nothing is so blatantly wrong with your work that it's getting down to small, personal stuff. But that doesn't mean it should all be ignored. What I've found is that often in critiques people will point out a problem that I subconsciously knew was there, but hadn't yet identified. Those are the comments that are most helpful. As for people liking or disliking your book, I really don't think that's something you should look for in critiques. It's about how the writing works, not whether it's their cup of tea.

Linda Gray said...

The best critiques come from people you've known and worked with and respect, who will work to give you clear, constructive feedback. When my crit partners and I work on each others' manuscripts, the critiques tend to include two foci: story arc and craft. We don't write the same genres, so like/dislike goes out the window. It's works/doesn't work that the writer needs to hear.

I believe almost all writers can critique at least one level higher than their own writing (it's nearly impossible to see problems in your own work that are almost obvious in someone else's -- we're just too close to our own). So to find great critique partners, find people who write at your level (workshops are great for this), get to know them, and be willing to work as hard for them as they are for you.

With regard to the all-over-the-place critiques that are so common from contests etc., I do wonder if that speaks to a need to develop the writing to its next level, as well as differing attitudes from critiquers. That's been my own experience, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I've been with the same critique group for years, and it's been really helpful to me to get to know these folks and see what sort of comments they tend to give not only on my work but on other people's work. It also helps to see their own writing, to see what level of expertise they're coming from.

Some critiquers hate anything mushy or romantic. Others love that stuff. If my romantic scenes are drawing pans from the romance-haters, fine, but if the romance-lovers hate them too, that's something I need to look at.

Some critiquers will always ask for more description. Some want more external conflict, others want more internal conflict. Some will complain if the pace lags, while others enjoy the "break" of a occasional slow scene. If you know the personal tastes of each of your critiquers, you'll be better able to frame their comments and understand what really needs to be fixed and what just reflects a difference in taste.

Trevor Shane said...

Two points:

1. If a critique confirms something that you suspected yourself, trust it. Trust it implicitly. If someone spotted a weakness that you suspected, then you need to work on that. If a critique comes from left field, think about it but feel free to ignore it. In the end, it's your work and you need to be happy with it.

2. The worst review you can get is "meh". If half of your reviews were bad but even 25% of them were great, that's going to work for you. You're not making a prime time sitcom. You're not trying to please everyone (if you are, you're in trouble... unless you're writing for a prime time sitcom). So, ignore the worst reviews, use the middling reviews to help you fix things and take encouragement from the good reviews.

Laura W. said...

I've had similar experiences, except in college creative writing courses. There was a professor infamous for his harsh and seemingly contrary grading--but basically, if the story was written in his style or about a topic he liked, he loved it. Many people got shot down simply because they weren't writing to suit the prof's personal taste. I never had the misfortune to take a class with him. In the end, judging the value of creative writing is very subjective...

Sophie Playle said...

As someone who has been writing and receiving critiques for years, I understand your predicament.

Lots of good advice in the comments here. I'll add my two cents:

1. Consider who the critique is coming from. What experience have they had that would give their comments weight?

2. Are the critiquers expressing literary advice or just their opinions? Opinions can vary dramatically.

3. Is the advice backed-up with reasoning? For example, 'I don't like your main character' is an opinion which hasn't been backed-up - you can take it or leave it. But 'I don't like your character because they are too passive, hindering the drive of the story' gives you something tangible to think about and work with.

So my advice would be to analyse the comments you've received with these points in mind. If you're still not sure, target some specific people to give you feedback. People who know what they're talking about and can back up their opinions.

Ultimately, though, the decisions are down to you. Go with your (informed) instinct.

jjdebenedictis said...

(Wow, there are some great comments on today's post! Very incisive stuff, everybody.)

You ask for critiques in order to see into your own blindspots. The critiquers are, by definition, trying to find the problems you can't spot because you're too close to your work.

If their comments are all over the map, that means they can't articulate what's not working for them (and that can happen for a variety of reasons.)

If you're not getting usable advice from your critiquers, then I'd recommend grabbing the advice of a professional, i.e. go to the library and get some books on writing craft.

But here's the kicker: get weird, hard books.

To learn new tricks--to see into your own blindspots--you need to stretch your brain. For that, you have to challenge yourself.

I'd recommend "Story" by Robert McKee and "Who Dares Wins" by Bob Mayer.

"Story" is high level and very dense with information (and since it focuses on screenwriting, it forces you to synthesize the information in new ways.) "Who Dares Wins" focuses on a pragmatic, methodical approach to writing unlike anything I've seen in other books on the subject.

They're both worthwhile as a means to stretch yourself beyond your current limits. Good luck with it!

Livia Blackburne said...

This isn't engineering, where either a bridge stands or it doesn't. It's art, and people will have different opinions -- this will be true whether you're a new writer or a nobel prize winner. To understand a critique, you must understand the critiquer as well. Some questions:

1. What genre does she read/write?
2. How good is her own writing?

I recently did a series on beta reading, using some of the principles I follow as an experimental psychologist to try and get better beta feedback. You may find the sections on interpreting feedback and data collection and what I learned to be helpful

Stephsco said...

It helps to know about your critiquers; since it's an online group that's an extra challenge, but knowing their tastes, their own writing style etc is crucial to weeding out which critiques to act upon.

I submitted a flash fiction piece to an in-person group, and there was one common point everyone gave. That was a given. Other comments were varied; having read a piece that was very poorly put together by one of the critiquers, I have to say it colored my acceptance of their pointers. I read them, but some I did not feel were relevant. Others commented on the structure of the story while some focused on the characters only.

I've never done an online critique group, but I'm wondering if maybe further discussion can occur with a few selected people in order to get a more detailed perspective.

Jo Eberhardt said...

There's some great comments here, and I agree with just about everything other people have said. There's just 2 points that I wanted to make that (I think) are slightly different to anything anyone else has said.

1. There is a craft to writing, and there is an art to writing. When you look at the comments you get, I think it's important to realise which is being critiqued. Comments on the craft of writing (word usage, sentence structure, show don't tell, etc) are often more objective and useful. Comments on your art (voice, style, theme, overall "like" or "dislike", etc) are often more subjective and representative of the critiquers personal preferences, otherwise known as If-I-Was-The-Author-I-Would-Have-Done-It-Like-This-Syndrome.

This doesn't mean that you should take all the craft critiques to heart and ignore the art critiques, but it can give you some perspective.

2. It helps to know what each critiqer brings to the table, and what type of comments from them are going to be the most useful. For example, one person in my critique group isn't a big reader in my genre, but she is the editor of an arts magazine. So if she tells me that she doesn't think that part of my plot works (but everyone else thinks it's great), then I let it go. If, on the other hand, she tells me that an entire paragraph is written in passive voice, I immediately look at how I can rewrite it. (And vice versa for people with no grammar skills, but heaps of reading experience.)

K.M. Cruz said...

These are some great comments, and I appreciate all the help. I actually emailed this question a while ago, and I re-read it a few times, thinking: wow, that sounds familiar. I've been writing and critiquing for about four years now. But with my past two stories, I've had a hard time sorting through all the information I get from my critiques. Like my question, basically I tend to get a lot of conflicting information. Which, I believe signifies a problem that people just can seem to put their finger on. Certainly if it is an issue that was bothering me I take it more seriously, and look into what the reader likes to read. But lately I'm very unsure and have taken a bit of a break from my work because I'm unsure what I should be working on.

Anonymous said...

Art is not a democracy.

Critique groups are for people who want lots of feedback, not good feedback. If you want good feedback, don't rely on a handful of semi-strangers who are simply reading your work for 'points' or so someone else will read their work.

Get a group of your own beta readers who know what you're trying to do with your story and whose opinions you can respect.

Susan B James said...

A popular discussion. I take what my critique group says very seriously (especially when at least two of the three zero in on the same point.)
I love it when my friends love what I write. That's very pleasant. But I don't take that as seriously. They are my friends after all and they love me. I've never submitted any work to an online group. Best of luck with the story.

Allison Williams said...

@Richard - I don't think you know you're doing this, and it seems that you mean well and are eager to share your work, but commenting here frequently only to promote your blog is bad Internet manners and may turn people off. It's as if you're at a party, the other guests are talking about the Royal Wedding, and you jump in with, "Hey, my dog did the cutest thing today!"

You may want to consider becoming a participatory voice in discussing the blog content and your reactions and insights, which may then motivate people who enjoy your points of view to click to your other projects, which sound interesting!

B. A. Binns said...

I get the same thing, I just had my work critiqued by my gang of five, and got wildly different coments and issues. I do have two members of the group that I take very seriously, I've seen their critques of my work and others and I know they are not trying to change my voice but acting more like readers and letting me know where something may not be working. I love them for that, it's what I need.

As for the others, it depends on what they say. I do look for common points, places where they have problems. I don't necessarily pay attention to exactly what the problem is, and never to their suggestions for fixing it. But if several of them think a passage is boring or confusing, I know to take another look at that section.

BTW - I've learned that it's not just critique partners. I got the s ame confusing and often contradictory feedback from agents and editors. Ditto for after publication. Reviewers will do the same things, what one jumps on as negative anothe loves, and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

This might seem odd, but I never ask people if they "like it". I simply ask them to make note of any parts that are confusing or boring, by putting the letter C in the margins or the letter B. I also say if they particularly like a segment, to put a checkmark next to it.

Face it, your crit group may not be your intended audience. If you write middle-grade or YA, it may not resonate with your considerably older fellow-writers. And it doesn't have to.

Bear in mind that even if it is good, the jealous types will grit their teeth and insist it is not.

Still, given a large enough sample size, if you can't find at least one person who can say she loves it, the piece may need some work yet.

Kristin Laughtin said...

This is a bit of a tricky one to answer without knowing what the critiques said (and not having read your story), but I'd advise you not to give up hope. Some of the best/most popular/most enduring stories seem to inspire very divided opinions.

What I would recommend doing is looking at all the critiques and trying to find commonalities. Are they all really pointing out different things, or are they maybe touching on a few key things with different suggestions for how to fix them? If they're hitting on the same things over and over again, those areas are problematic and you should consider ways to improve them, whether they be ways suggested or something new. Consider how central to the story the things being critiqued are. Are they surface details, or broader/deeper issues such as overall sentence structure, character motivation, plot development, and so on? If they're just minor, surface things, it's probably a good sign; if the reviewers are nitpicking, it means they can't find anything deeper to critique. (Katie made this same point.)

Best of luck figuring this out!

Anonymous said...

I know my readers very well, so I also know a) the kind of reading they'll do and b) how to interpret their feedback. I think any critique can be helpful but you have to know which to take and the rest to let go. For me, that is a gut-level decision. I'm less interested in whether they liked it and more interested in feedback.

1600 Words A Day said...

I used an online critique site for a while and became extremely frustrated (and discouraged) as a result. I'm debating over whether or not to go back to using it once this draft is completed and I'm totally satisfied that I've caught everything that would bother me.

A lot of the "critters" out there are people without much experience writing novels or short stories and they've recently "discovered" How to Write a Damn Good Novel and Story. It's kind of cute, really, the way they can recite the "rules" of writing and "genre conventions." I think a lot of them think genre conventions are events you attend to meet publishing peeps. (Okay, maybe that was kinda mean.)

I think the only value in online critique groups where you don't know the people is you can get some idea of how the peanut gallery will react to your manuscript, for whatever that's worth. If you know and trust your online critique partners, that's a different story. Some of the people on those sites are great and others just want to feel superior.

The most important thing is to keep writing and developing your own idea of what the story should be. Frustration and comments that undermine your confidence usually aren't helpful in that regard.

Phil Hall said...

All things relating to stories and how they're received are entirely subjective: what I love you may hate; what I hate, you may think profound. Life experiences, attitude, time of day, phase of the moon...all this crazy stuff goes into how I perceive a title and if I like the general "what's going on." Sure, some of the critiquers will have issue with one item, while passing over others--and the reverse is true. And this is all in the core audience (or at least you hope.) In the end, you cannot be all things to everyone.

Kristine said...

I have found that the comments people give me tell me as much about who they are as what my story says!

When I read my critiques, I really try to key in on how I feel when I read each comment. If I don't really have an emotional or intellectual response to it, then I usually ignore it. If I feel something, or if it continues to gnaw at me, then I take another look.