Nancy: The Twice Blest Nature of Critique

The cover of one of the first stories I critiqued, because I still love the story (and its beautiful cover).

The cover of one of the first stories I critiqued, because I still love the story (and its beautiful cover).

I’ve had multiple critique partners and have read lots of other writers’ manuscripts over the years. As several of the Ladies converge on NYC, I’ve been thinking about what a great opportunities our McDaniel program has afforded us, not only the craft lessons we learned and the friendships we forged, but in the critique group we’ve now assembled. We speak the same story language. Drop the words ‘missing conflict lock’ into a manuscript critique and boom! – the Lady receiving critique will immediately know the problem with her manuscript. Finding the solution…well, that’s another story, but here at 8LW we’re always happy to brainstorm and help each other find our way out of the corners into which we’ve painted ourselves.

It’s to see what a person receiving a critique gets from the process. But paraphrasing Shakespeare (and who doesn’t love a good Shakespeare paraphrase to start off the week right!): “The quality of critiquing is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

In my experience, critiquing comes more easily when I’m critiquing something in the genre(s) I read frequently and even more easily when it’s in a genre I write. But critiquing outside our safe spaces can provide the kind of mind expansion and inspiration that helps us take our own stories to new and exciting heights. By seeing story from somewhere other than the ruts of the well-worn story paths we each tend to walk, we gain new perspective and maybe even see a few genre conventions we can apply to our own work that turn it on its head – not a bad thing to do to fiction. It’s like your exercise routine. Sure, you can do the same thing everyday – run on the same treadmill, do the same yoga routine, life the same weights in the same sequence. It will help you stay healthy, retain muscle mass, and burn off some of the gummy bears you’ve eaten from the 2-lb bag your husband brought home from the warehouse store (ahem!). But if you want to see real growth and change, you’re going to need to mix it up. Try new things. Keep your muscles guessing.

If you want your writing muscles to grow, it will take the same dedication to trying new techniques and learning new things. And while reading outside your genre of choice is a good start, there’s nothing like deconstructing a story to see what makes it tick (or not) to wrap your brain around the ways different genres approach the same problems all writers face (like the dreaded missing conflict lock or character arc). For example, I’ve always had a problem with pacing in my stories. I tend to take slow boats to China with stops in lots and lots of extraneous ports before I arrive at the destination of my plot. But over the years, I’ve had a chance to critique thrillers and suspense stories and little by little I’ve learned a thing or two about pacing from genres that have mastered it. I’ve improved to the point of getting an honorable mention in rejection letters from agents, which have consistently said two things about My Girls: great writing and good pacing. No contract yet, but hey, progress!

Other great gifts I’ve received from critiquing outside my safe zone include meeting characters I’ve loved, finding out maybe I do love a different genre after all, and watching good writers (and good friends) become great ones. So next time someone asks you to provide a critique outside your own genre, don’t cringe or qualify it or worry that you can’t comment on genre conventions. Likely your fellow writer has someone else to do that for you and has come to you in spite of, or even because of your lack of genre-specific knowledge. Critique what you know – structure, plot points, character development. And don’t be surprised if, by the end of the critique, you know a little more.

To friends of the blog who will be at RWA Nationals this week, look for us! We’d love to meet you in person. For those of you not joining us in the city that never sleeps, look for some reports live (or slightly delayed) from the trenches. And get some sleep for us while you’re at it.

8 thoughts on “Nancy: The Twice Blest Nature of Critique

  1. I’ve really only read/critiqued in the romance genre after learning so much about craft. I was in a critique group a number of years ago and we all wrote in different genres. I can’t say I learned much from them because none of us were all that good at the writing craft at that point. I do read outside the romance genre and tend to read most everything like a writer these days.

  2. When I was in a critique group, there were several more seasoned writers than I, which was invaluable. I read lots of genres there that I don’t read normally, like children’s, YA, and horror. And I definitely read everything with my writer brain turned on – I haven’t yet found a way to turn it off for pure reading pleasure.

  3. I recently critiqued a number of paranormal stories, a category I neither write nor typically read. It was an interesting experience and it made some of the craft elements that we’ve studied much clearer. For me, at least, when I critique my favorite genres, it is much easier to get wrapped up in the story and lose site of the mechanics, than when I read outside my zone. A good thing from a reader perspective, but not so helpful when doing a critique.

    • I’ve had the same experience of being able to see the craft elements more clearly in genres I don’t typically read. And that makes me think about different ways to apply those elements to my own writing.

      Were you judging or just providing feedback? I find the scoring element of judging too stressful. I just want everyone to get a gold star for doing their best and some feedback on how to improve their stories :-).

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  4. I just recently critiqued a gay vampire romance, and I was surprised at how similar it was to my own contemporaries. Outside of the characters not going out in the daytime and being gay, it was practically spot on!

    • People are people…except when they’re vampires. But still – love is love :-). I just read the free novella and first novel in a series of gay romances set in a soccer club in Scotland! Which is very specific, but also very cool. The author is Avery Cockburn if you want to check it out. (A word of warning – there is explicit sex, which is obviously not for everyone.)

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  5. LOL, I would love to get a chance to read a gay vampire romance . . . if it wasn’t too vampire-y.

    You know, I don’t really identify by genre, but by story. I love a good story, be it mystery, space opera, romance or 19th century literature. I just usually get the little quirks I love best in space opera or sometimes fantasy.

    But like Elizabeth, some part of my brain turns off when the story is hitting all my pleasure buttons.

    I do get a lot out of critiquing early drafts. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, and when I see a problem in a manuscript, I often think I have the same one (or several) in my own WIP. LOL, but is it being a hypochondriac if you really do have a problem? (or several?)

    • That’s like the question ‘are you actually paranoid if they really are out to get you’. Like you, I love to read across a lot of genres and more tied to story than to category. That being said, I’ve probably picked way too many lanes in which to write, and that will probably make it difficult to market all my stuff under one name.

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