Critique Peeves (#1 in what will hopefully develop into a series)

I follow a writer and writing mentor on Twitter, K. M. Weiland (who is a lovely person and you should follow her, too). Every day, she posts a “writer’s question of the day.”  They can be anything from “What is the color of your antagonist’s hair?” to “What is the twist in your plot?” And unlike many writing exercises, I find them quite entertaining and helpful.

Today’s question was, “What do you find hardest when other writers critique your work?” I didn’t even have to think about it. The single hardest thing for me when other writers–or reviewers, or anyone, for that matter–critiques my work is getting a long-winded critique of the work that person thinks I should have written instead of the one I did, in fact, write. Now, you’d think it would be a non-issue. You read a book and remark on what’s there, right? Unfortunately for many people, in my experience, this is less obvious than it would seem.

It first happened to me about fifteen years ago. I sent a friend whom I trusted to be intelligent, with whom I had gone to school, the first five or six chapters of a fantasy novel I was working on at the time. My intent for the book was to explore how a certain noble family I had created for my world came to be wiped out, how their sole heir was raised in hiding and in ignorance of who she was, and how the discovery of her connection to her family’s doom led her to abandon the life she’d always known and become that world’s equivalent of a heroin addict. (It was called A Talent for Fire, and I never did finish it. I just didn’t have the skills at the time and then my interests led elsewhere.)

This was in the days before email was much of a thing (so it might have been more than fifteen years ago, okay). I sent her my pages and a couple weeks later got back a ten-page screed enumerating all the reasons why my entire premise was flawed, starting with, “the heir to such a prominent and powerful family could never have been raised in obscurity because political facti0ns would be struggling for control of the estates, blah, blah, blah, The Medicis.”

Excuse me? The heir to a powerful family could never have been raised in obscurity? Since when??? How many times in myth and folklore has this been just the case? King Arthur, anybody? And what the fuck did The Medicis have to do with my world, which I had created, where I made the rules?

I might point out that my friend had a fondness for long-winded novels full of Machiavellian political intrigue. She did not find this in my pages, so she proceeded to tell me how she would have written a novel. I wrote back and told her this, and furthermore reminded her that my book did not take place in this world, The Medicis did not appear anywhere in the world I had created, and I got to say what could happen and what couldn’t. Furthermore, she hadn’t actually addressed anything that did appear in the pages I had sent her.

Well, she was much chastened. Unfortunately, this was not the only time I have gone through the frustration of someone not truly considering the words I had put on the page, and not trusting me to know what story I was trying to tell. When The Unquiet Grave was in its early stages, I tried belonging to a critique group. Now, the central premise of The Unquiet Grave is the main character, a witch who has renounced using her powers, having to choose between taking them back to save her community–which would be harmful to her, personally–or remaining Mundane and saving herself. One of the people in the group gave me this feedback after chapter three: “We know she’s going to take her powers back, so why don’t you just make her have powers up front so we can move along.”

Because that’s the book, you moron!

I’ve gotten similar, um, mistaken suggestions in query workshops. People have asked my where the Dark Lord is, because all fantasy in all sub-genres OBVIOUSLY has to have a Dark Lord. “Shouldn’t leave that out of the query!” I’ve been told. I’ve heard that Caitlin Ross is a weak character because she is reluctant to make a decision that’s going eventually to destroy her and tries not to commit to it until the last minute. Personally, I call that a character arc, but whatever. I’ve been told I’m handling a certain demon wrong because “demons are evil.” Never mind that I’m operating in a system I created, which is not Judeo-Christian Standard. These negative experiences with people whom I’d think would know better has turned me into a virtual hermit, mistrustful of anyone I have not vetted through a series of rigorous aptitude tests (including a literary obstacle course). It makes me wonder about professional editors who are, I believe, swayed as much by current fashions in genre fiction as they are by the quality of any given work. (My friend, Stef, tells me I have “an adversarial attitude” toward the editing process but “that’s maybe not a surprise in a person with serious trust issues.”)

But people. Please. It’s NOT that hard. All you have to do is say what you see, rather than comment on what you feel is lacking. (Unless, you know, what you feel is lacking is a comprehensible plot.) What do you notice about the work? Come on, you have to notice something. Otherwise, you have no basis at all for saying, “This rocks” or “This sucks.”

Be as specific as possible. It’s okay to keep it simple; you’re giving useful feedback, not composing literary criticism. To a working writer, “I couldn’t tell your characters apart” is a lot more helpful than “the symbolic interactions of the window curtains and the night air had a deep meaning.” Also, keep it personal. We’re talking about what strikes you, not what some hypothetical future reader might think. Use your I-statements. Some examples: “I could really hear the dialog.” “I couldn’t visualize the setting.” “You use a lot of big words.” “You spend a lot of time talking about clothes.” “You described a character in depth and then he disappeared.” “I didn’t understand what was supposed to be happening here.” Now, use that as a starting point for your feedback. If you couldn’t tell the characters apart, you might say, “I’d like to see more individual physical habits” or “Does everyone have to be beautiful?” If the dialog didn’t work for you, you might say, “I don’t think people of that age talk like that.” If the action seems slow, try suggesting that the writer pick up the pace by adding more movement and gesture, or you might say “I think scene one should come after scene five.” Just address the work you’ve supposedly read, not some other thing that exists only in your mind.

Above all, remember you don’t own this. If you’re giving critique, especially to a work in progress, it’s not your business to force the book into the shape you wish it had. I always preface every critique with a disclaimer: “As always, this is your work and you are free to take or leave any of these suggestions. But this is what I see.” because, you know, we writers are an insecure lot and we’re almost always ready to fall all over the place trying to please everyone and get validation.

Okay. That’s my vent. As you were.

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