Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sure You Know How To Write, But Do You Know How To Read?

If you're a writer and you keep up with this writing thing you're going to run into a problem.

People are going to ask you for your opinion.

I'm not talking about, "Is this ice cream any good?" "Does this cock ring make me look fat?" "Do you think I should put the panda in the blender or roast it like peanuts?"

This is worse.  They're going to ask you to critique their story.  And when that happens, you don't get to just say, "Uh, well, it was... okay?".

Reading to offer a critique is very different from just reading.  You have to pay attention to different things, dig into the nuts and bolts of the story.  And you can't just vomit your thoughts out there to the writer.  

Believe me, that shit flies like a lead balloon.

There are right ways to critique something and wrong ways to critique something.  Not everything works for everybody, but there are some basics that I think a lot of people don't quite get.

Know What You're Looking For
When you're giving somebody feedback you need to look at more than just whether or not you liked it.  You need to think about structure, pacing, characters, plot.  

Is there a lot of exposition?  Is there not enough?  Was it done in such a way that the story ground to a halt?  Were you confused?  Did you not care about the characters or what they were doing?  Could you keep track of everyone?  Did you find them interesting/sympathetic/compelling/hateful/boring/etc?  How did you feel about the setting?  Was it descriptive enough?  Was it too descriptive?  Did it take too long to get going?  Did the story actually start where the story should have started?  How about the ending?  Too abrupt?  Did it take too long?  Was there enough payoff (however you define payoff)?  Did it leave you satisfied?  Did it leave you wanting more?  

These and a thousand other things.  You're not looking at this from an audience's point of view, but a craftsman's.

Know What They're Looking For
Somebody hands you a piece of writing and you do a fifteen page, point by point analysis comparing the piece to Sartre's views on the anguish of man and they come back and say, "Really, I was just wondering if I should have made the blonde a redhead."

Whether it's too little, too much or just not what they're looking for, feedback that doesn't fit what they need probably isn't going to be very useful.  Now, sometimes what they need isn't what they think they need, or, more likely, what they think you can give them and what you can really give them are two wildly different things.  If that's the case, well, give it your best shot.

Either way, ask them what it is they're looking for before you start spewing at the mouth.  It'll at least give you a starting point and it might help them solidify it for themselves.  If you decide to go off-road it helps to know where the road is in the first place.

Hated That Second Chapter?  Then You Better Know Why
Feedback without context is useless.  Saying there's too much exposition and not saying where there's too much exposition doesn't do the writer a whole hell of a lot of good.  If you see a problem try to identify why it's a problem, where it's a problem and what you think might be able to fix it.  Sure, vague things like, "You need to tighten it up," can help, as long as they understand what you mean by "tighten it up."

You Might Want To Take Some Diplomacy Classes
I'm one of the editors for NEEDLE Magazine.  I'm the laziest one, sure, and "edit" is too strong a word.  I get some stuff handed to me by Steve Weddle and a month or two later I go, "Shit, I have to read that!" and then give him a yay or a nay on it.

I have the easy job.  Weddle's gotta go back and tell the people who didn't make the cut that it's not a fit.  Why he doesn't just say, "Blackmoore's being a dick, take it up with him," I have no idea.

So knowing this I try to take pity on the poor man and actually give him something useful to say.  Sometimes.  Other times I can be a little, uh, unkind.  Sorry.

Either way he somehow manages to take my lunatic rantings and condense them into the nicest possible rejections you can get. Because unlike me he's not an asshole and he likes to actually give people something constructive.

Now when I'm not going through Weddle's filter, which sounds a lot ruder than it is, I try to do the same thing.  I have no interest in discouraging any writers.

Okay, most writers.

Anyway, it doesn't do you any good and it doesn't do me any good.  Oddly enough I learn a lot about my own writing by going over other people's writing.  Outside perspective and all that.  

So as a critiquer learn to not be a dick.  Don't make sweeping pronouncements.  Qualify the shit out of everything.  Remember, you've just been entrusted with something that took someone a lot of effort, time and sweat to produce.  They're nervous.  They're probably looking for some validation that they don't entirely suck.  

Don't treat them with kid gloves, after all they're not babies, but being a bully and kicking over sandcastles is for five year-olds, not grown-ups.  So choose your words carefully.

All Of These Things Are Just Data Points
Now, this one's just as much for the writer as it is for the reader.  Your opinions are important or the writer wouldn't have asked for them.  That said, they ain't all that important.

Whether you liked the story, hated it, or were offended by it doesn't matter other than to inform the writer.  What they do with it is their goddamn business.

There's no right or wrong here.  She may have wanted to write a character that doesn't act the way you would like them to.  Maybe the protagonist is supposed to be an asshole.  That ending that made you go, "But, but, I want to know what happens next!" might be exactly what he's hoping for.

Remember Why You're There
It's about the work.  It's about making the writing better.  It's not about proving how you're a better writer, or about how you can find things to criticize, or about how you would write it.  It's about helping them tell their story with their voice.  

Just because it doesn't work for you doesn't mean it doesn't work.

Now I know I'm missing things, and I know that some of what I've said won't work for everybody.  But it's usually worked for me.  

So all that said, how about you?  When you're getting a critique what are you looking for?


Shotgun Honey said...

Wow. I've never seen so many questions in one blog post before.

I've been taking the easy rode on Shotgun Honey and letting Kent and Ron do most of the feedback work, but I have jumped in when I thought they were being overly critical. So far the only person asking for my feedback for writing is a friend. She's very good at letting me know when I'm not giving her enough info, and she also lets me know what she's specifically looking for. Clearly... I have a lot to learn.

Great post, Mr. Blackmoore.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Amen. As editor of Thrilling Detective, I know only too well what you're talking about. It may also be why I'm so gun shy about my own fiction -- years of editing, and belonging to a great writing group, make me all too aware of my own faults (and strengths) as a writer.

But to tell the truth, I've often learned more from critiquing others' work than from others critiquing mine.

The bond between editor and writer is a two-way street; one that requires honesty and openness and trust. A good writer deserves -- and often needs -- a good editor. But even the best editor in the world can't make dog crap smell like roses. And a lousy editor is like inviting someone over to pee in your pool.

Writing PI said...

Good post. Got to read it to write it.

Kieran Shea said...

"Blackmoore is being a dick, take it up with him..."... Vitaminwater douche of my schnoz right there.

Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Stephen. You ask very pertinent questions which are seldom asked in one sitting.

I belong to two critique groups and I consider them essential to becoming a better writer. In fact, IMHO, becoming a better writer should be the only reason anyone joins a critique group. Critiquing for a publication, of course, is a different deal entirely.

I think you can learn just as much about your own writing by critiquing others as you can by being critiqued yourself. You can see mistakes others may make, characters that aren't developed, pacing that feels wrong, and maybe see your own tendencies to make some of these common errors.

The type of critique you can expect depends wholly on the strength of the critiquer. Some people are great at spotting typos, paragraph structure, and grammar mistakes, while others excel at big-picture stuff: story arc, character consistency, narrative style. The groups I'm in contain both these types of people, and what one misses, the other will usually get.