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Monday, December 2, 2013

Feeding And Feedback

"I wanted you to like me, and I thought the best way to do that was with brilliant and insightful critique."  This is how I introduced myself during the first session at a local critique group. "But in order to do that, I'd have to be brilliant. So instead I made cookies."
Not my original idea, to be fair. I ganked that quote from my English 201 TA, who baked for the few students who attended on the day before Thanksgiving too many years ago to count. I recommend his strategy because it works.
For the second month I attended my critique group, I thought about bringing cookies again. I like baking for other people. I also like eating the things I bake, making it a win-win. But the second month, my Patient Husband said, "If you bake for them this month, they'll expect it every month."
I repeated that on Twitter, and someone replied, "Newsflash: they already expect you to do it every month."
The day before the writing group, I did bake some awesome oatmeal-cinnamon chip cookies, but my youngest child stood on a chair to watch and managed to break the sugar bowl on the stove-top. I threw away two dozen unbaked cookies on the grounds that no one would like Glass-Shard Chip Cookies. After that, I wouldn't have had enough, so I didn't bring any.
For the third session, I considered brownies.
Then I realized, I'm getting critiqued. Does that change things?
I liked (and still like) this group a lot. There's insightful critique; it's well-organized and everyone has an equal chance to participate. The group leader runs a tight-but-not-strangulation-tight ship. What worried me was that showing up with cookies (or brownies or pumpkin muffins) might undercut the other members' negative comments about my manuscript because they might not want to hurt the feelings of the baker. 
Above all, I didn't want them to hold back. In my opinion, hitting a manuscript with honest punches only makes it stronger.
It's overthinking, sure, but is it justified? Critique is useless when it's only positive. Saying that a piece's dialogue works well but omitting that the main character is loathsome (for example) doesn't help the writer, who needs to know those things in order to improve.
A friend of mine tweeted a great idea:
But somehow...oh, I don't know.
Over the years, I've found that the best way to induce insightful critique is more of a pre-emptive strategy than a reactive one. That is to say, I look for writers whose opinions I value and whose work I like, and I try to cultivate a critique-for-critique relationship. I'm no longer the jerk who sends a five-page unsolicited letter critiquing/praising/dissecting a 10-page fanfic (although I made one of my best friends that way) but I've found that when you ask someone to swap critiques, and then you spend about twenty minutes per page critiquing their work and compiling a significant edit letter, you get back about what you've given. (Not always, but if you're selective, it pays off often enough to make it worthwhile.)
Cookies are good, in other words, but most writers want something better to feed on. They want your honesty.
Not all writers -- and you do have to be careful. I also earned one lifelong enemy by saying "I find your tone to be uneven" (and immediately heard back that she'd expected such narrow-minded and judgmental responses from the unenlightened who were too stupid to understand her work. I apologized for being dim and never touched her work again, but she still hated me ten years later.) Sometimes a writer says "honest feedback" but means "unrestrained praise," and it's difficult to tell at first who those writers are. 
It's very important to give feedback at the level the writer needs -- and a writer needs first and foremost to be able to hear what you're saying. Sometimes that means not saying "Your main character is loathsome" but rather "I really like the dialogue, but sometimes I couldn't get as close as I wanted to your main character." Sometimes it means just focusing on the things that work until the writer is ready to hear more. 
Is that dishonest? Or is that like my son's karate instructor, a fifth-degree black belt, not punching my child into the back wall of the dojo just because he could?
That's not what I wanted, though. I wanted it brutal and honest. If the manuscript had to bleed, let it bleed cleanly. If my main character was loathsome, I wanted to hear "Your main character is loathsome no matter how snappy her dialogue."
So I stood at my oven, questioning: would sweet snacks and their empty calories lead to sweet commentary with equally empty suggestions? 
The urge to write versus the urge to bake. Who would win? And in the end, I didn't bring anything to that session either. 

PS: Nowadays, now that I can trust them to tell me where I'm failing, and now that they trust me not to go weep in the corner, I don't hesitate to bring any snacks I want. Because I enjoy both the feeding and the feedback.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or baking pumpkin muffins. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.


Melodie Wright said...

My opinion is that anything less than honesty on a crit is a waste of time, both for me and the writer. However, I've had a very hard time finding crit partners who believe this as well. The ones I've found tend to be seasoned...and already have good crit partners...so perhaps my problem is I'm not selective enough with my honesty. When someone tells me they have a thick skin and want criticism, I take them at their word (and they usually end up never speaking to me again). *sigh* If you ever figure out the perfect critter combination - or know how to spot those tender egos via email exchange alone, please let me know!

Rosie said...

You had me at cookies.

Jane Lebak said...

Melodie, I tend to spot the egos over email in the way the person asks questions. I usually ask them what kind of things they want me to focus on, and the people who think their writing is some kind of sacred text have a different kind of answer than the people who are really ready to hear the difficult stuff. "I'd LOVE your feedback! Anything is great!" is in a different category than "I'm concerned that my main character's motivation isn't strong enough."