Nancy: The Fine Art of Receiving a Critique

Last week, Jeanne discussed critiquing manuscripts for newbie writers, and yesterday Justine talked about revising (and revising, and revising!) the opening chapters of the first book in her historical romance series. With both of these posts on my mind and no less than three (three!) revisions of my own to complete, from minor tweaks in one story to major revisions in another to something in between on the third, today I’m thinking about the best way to bridge the gap between getting back comments from a trusted critiquer and putting a revision plan into action.

We’ve discussed a lot of the steps I’m going to suggest here at 8LW in the past, and much of the way the Ladies approach critique work is based on the guidance Jenny Crusie* gave us while we studied with her in our McDaniel writing program. But with so many of us knee deep (or eyeballs deep) in the critique and revision process, let’s revisit some of the basics, ICYMI (or ICYNAR – in case you need a refresher).

Assume the Best. You’re good people. You mean well. Odds are, you’ve picked critique partners who are also good people and who mean well. In the words of Paul McCartney (because when isn’t it appropriate to quote Sir Paul?) in his song Little Willow, “No one’s out to break your heart, it only seems that way.” Planting this thought firmly in your mind and returning to it often will help you receive the words of your critique partner in the way they were no doubt given: as a gift to help you make your book the best it can be. 

Take a Deep Breath and Step Away from the Computer. As you read through your critique comments, keep an open mind and let the suggestions and impressions permeate your brain space. Then close the computer or turn over the red-lined pages and walk away. Run away if you must. Pet a cat, shout at random passers-by, scream unto the heavens if you must. And then, this time following the advice of an overplayed Disney song, let it go. Jenny Crusie recommends at least a 24-hour timeout. I recommend longer (often days, but my mind likes to percolate slowly, like an old-timey coffee pot). Come back to the comments and start plotting your revenge, er, your revision, only after you’ve moved past any intense emotions the critique inspired and are able to look at it from a calm, collected, and logical persepctive.

Pay Attention to the What, Ignore the How. Experienced critiquers know it’s our job to point out there’s a problem in the story/scene/page, not to prescribe or even suggest how to fix it. But we can all get carried away sometimes, and the urge to revise the work of others can become too great. If your critique partner has done that, bless her heart (and not in the southern way that’s really a curse), and then disregard her suggestion. Recognize, or at least entertain the possibility, that there is a problem in the area she’s highlighted. If, after careful contemplation, you agree there’s a problem, come up with your own solution.

This is not to be confused with brainstorming, in which-especially during the first draft, but sometimes also in revision-you reach out to someone to help you troubleshoot an issue. And if you agree there’s a problem and cannot come up with a viable solution on your own, consider setting up a brainstorming session. But come prepared to do the hard work, to shoot holes in others’ suggestions, and to have them shoot holes in your ideas. And then, when the session is over, you still have to make the final decision. It’s your world. You created it. You broke it. You fix it.

Interpret Ambiguities. As we’ve already discussed, your critique partner is probably a good person. She might even be a nice person. When she has to say something tough or that she knows you won’t want to hear, she might couch it in fuzzy, ambiguous terms. Or she might know there’s a problem, but be unable to identify exactly what it is. This could lead to a comment that baffles you. You should always be able to ask clarifying questions of your critique partner, but prepared for her inability to better articulate it. At those times, you’ll have to dig deeper to figure out whether your own gut is telling you the same thing hers told her-Houston, we have a problem. A vague, hard-to-define problem.

There are some phrases in particular that, whether they come from a critique partner or an editor or agent who reads your work, should be an immediate red flag**. These include: I just couldn’t connect to the story/character; I didn’t care about what happened; the story didn’t draw me in; it’s just not strong enough for me to buy/represent. These are especially telling if they are given in the absence of more concrete suggestions, or are accompanied by compliments on the premise or the writing itself. And it probably means you’ve missed opportunities to make the reader connect from the very first page. What to do with such nondescript critiques of your work? Well…

When All Else Fails, Ask Why. No, I’m not suggesting you ask yourself why you chose this fresh hell of writing, or why you dared show your work to another human being who would only bring you down. Instead, when your critique partner’s/editor’s/agent’s comments inspire more questions than answers, or you’re trying to take your writing up a notch, or you want to make sure your pivotal scenes (opening, turning points, climax) are packing the punch they need, ask why of your characters.

Why does this thought/memory occur to her now? Make sure it connects to the NOW, and make sure that connection is on the page.

Why does he notice this color, scent, or sound in the moment? Make sure it’s on the page.

Why does something cause emotional pain, laughter, crying, fear? Make sure it’s on the page.

Why is the character lying, obfuscating, hiding something? You know what to do. In this age of close POV (first and close third being the POV in the majority of books published these days), even when you’re trying to hold back information to create an air of mystery or future discovery, you have to give the reader enough information to let her know there is a why behind the behavior.

As experienced writers know far too well, there are a lot more steps in the revision process then I have the time or space to list here. These are just some rules of the road to get you started. Some general principles to keep you from tearing out your or your critique partner’s hair. And, I hope, some words of wisdom to help you weather, appreciate, and even, dare I say it, anticipate your next critique.

What other rules or guidelines do you have for critique partners or yourself when embarking on this harrowing journey?


*If you want a master class in receiving critiques, you might want to pop by Jenny’s blog and read several of her posts of the past few months as she’s worked on her upcoming novel. This post about decoding critiques is a good place to start.

**This is according to Jennie Nash, who is a book doctor/book coach extraordinaire, is a published author herself, and has worked in the publishing business for 25+ years. I tell you this to reiterate the point: these words are red flags. Ignore them at your own peril.

6 thoughts on “Nancy: The Fine Art of Receiving a Critique

  1. I love it when critique partners find things to object to. If someone has agreed to critique and then they don’t see anything, that’s not really helpful. I know the book can’t be perfect, so where are the problems? If a reader doesn’t have any issues, I need a new reader.

    For the three Phoebe novels that I just finished, I hired a development editor to take a pass on them. She had six pages of comments on each book, which I still have to address. However, what was interesting was that some comments I thought she was dead right about, but some I thought she missed the mark. But she has a lot of experience and what I take from her remarks about the things I disagree with is that something is wrong and I have to fix it, even if I disagree that the problem she’s described is the problem that I have.

    I am still amused at my reaction to one of her comments: she told me that in book one, the first three chapters go on too long and they should be condensed into two or even possibly one chapter. And I’d been so proud of myself because in my initial revisions I had already cut 5000 words from those three chapters. Now I have to find a way to improve what I thought was already my best shot at it. i’m onto the next book now, letting Phoebe rest for a bit. So when I return to it, I hope I’ll be able to see the wordiness she saw and do something about it.

    • Good luck with your revisions! I have no doubt you’ll figure out which words should go and which should stay, since you trust your editors experience.

      I also have an amazing editor whose advice I consider very carefully. The one thing I could change in One Kiss from Ruin, though, is that it’s a reunion story. She hates reunited lovers stories, and reminded me (very kindly) during every exchange. I think in her heart of hearts she was hoping I’d rewrite it without that story line so she could like it better :-).

      • I think that’s so important as a critique! When you realize that something (or some aspect) isn’t your cup of tea, you need to make it clear when you make a criticism about things. For example, the whining orphan who has been put down by everyone and is now sitting in the mud as a nobleman rides off (first chapter) is something I am allergic to. I OD’d on it in the 90s. I needed it at one point, processed it, and now I am just very sensitive to the whole thing.

        So, if someone were to throw a morose orphan protagonist at me, I would be hypercritical — but I’d also let my writer know that I have that allergy. That way, they can triangulate against the data of other beta readers and critiquers.

        That’s another thing: have more than one beta reader if you possibly can. X will say one thing, and if Y has problems (even different problems) in the exact same section, you’ll know something is wrong with that scene. OTOH, if X loves Sam Stuck-in-the-Snow, while Y thinks Sam Stuck-in-the-Snow is a total waste of oxygen, you’ll know that you need to consider the scene, but not necessarily change it. You’ve always got the deciding vote.

        (And look how many people passed on Harry Potter before it got published. Sometimes, it’s OK to buck everyone’s opinions. Sometimes.)

  2. When I’m asking for a beta read (typically of short stories for contest), I call out what stage of the writing I’m in, and what feedback I want most. New York City Midnight Short Story Challenge is days away, and in round 1, we’ll have 8 days to write. So, when I come up with my premise, I toss it to my online community and ask them if they’d want to read more. We’re an honest group, so if I get a bunch of “meh” answers, I know I’ve missed the mark. When one suggests a tweak, I think it’s great, and then the rest on the thread chime in positive, I know we’ve hit potential gold. Conversely, the time everyone loved it, I gave a “Squee” and got busy.

    Likewise, when I hit the first draft, I’ll say I don’t need line edits, it’s way too early. For my Sci-Fi, I asked what they thought of the world-building, the characters. Sci-fi readers in our group loved the world building. Non-sci-fiers were confused. No one felt the characters packed a punch. I knew I had to go back to the drawing board and figure out WHY my characters did what they did. I didn’t like hearing it, and with 3 days to write, you don’t get the distance you need. I didn’t move on, but I DO love that story, so I’ll play again and send it to betas again.

    Likewise, I remind myself a writer gave me their time. It’s not their job to make me happy. It’s their choice to try to make me better. That said, I’m still allowed to scream (but not when the cats are in the room) or get mopey; it’s wise to go for a run if the contest has the time to allow it; and it’s critical I get over myself.

    I’m still trying to get my novel ready for the beta stage. It’s gonna be a whole new level of “get a grip, girl, you want the novel to sing, so LISTEN to your critique partners.”

    • It sounds like you have found an amazing community of writers! I find fellow authors to be incredibly generous with their time and brainpower when I reach out for help. Getting to know so many wonderful people been one of the true joys of choosing this creative path.

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