QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

To Critique or not to Critique

I wrote my first my first book in 2012 in a complete vacuum. I had no critique partners, no real beta readers (unless you count my sister) and no idea how to critique my own work. Since then, I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to obtain more feedback during the writing stage. Many writers swear by their weekly or monthly critique groups. Others have tried and true critique partners. Others prefer to fly solo until it's time for a beta reader.  I have yet to find the exact sweet spot, but I have come up with some thoughts on how to decide what works and what doesn't.

A critique group has the upside of making you write something, anything. The crappy first draft won't write itself, after all. If you're a procrastinator or find time management  a challenge, that regular meeting where you're supposed to show up with something can be excellent motivation. But I'm glad I didn't have a roundtable to chime in on each chapter on my first book as it was being written for this reason: It may have been too discouraging and I may have given up.  After a few years in the query trenches, a few projects later, and after over a year on submission, I'm less likely to take a negative critique as a reason to quit.

Finding the right group presents a few issues. First, geography and time are critical. Retired folks who meet at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays won't work for someone with a full time job. Commuting across down during rush hour? Maybe not. And then there are the groups that have some version of the "know it all" who relentlessly assails passive voice and third person omniscient point of view because... well, because they heard it somewhere so it must be true. And frankly, sometimes a group member's writing  is riddled with tropes or purple prose or stereotypes that it make it hard to take her critiques seriously. Having the self reflection to recognize our own weaknesses is hard enough but telling someone else their hard work is only mediocre is not a fun way to spend your spare time.

I was recently invited to join a critique group (geography and time worked, fortunately) and am cautiously optimistic that it won't kill my spirit or cause me to spin my wheels in endless re-writes that address every single comment. It has been eye opening to see how others view my characters (not likable? How dare you, sir!) and even more eye opening to read in other genres. And the camaraderie among writers makes me come away from each meeting feeling more determined to get through the next chapter and figure out that plot bunny. But at the end of the day, you have to analyze the input, make the changes that will improve your story, and learn to weed the rest out. You can't please everyone, and if there were ever a better example of the subjectivity of publishing, it will be the diametrically opposed viewpoints you sometimes hear from the group.  But if your regular meeting leaves you feeling depressed, anxious, or talentless, then move on.

If the group meeting dynamic just isn't for you (writers are often introverts, right?) you may have better luck with a critique partner. Finding the right CP is like sighting a unicorn. But the nice thing is that your CP and you are tailor made because you choose each other based on what you write and what you are willing to critique. You set your own parameters about the kind of input you want: plot, consistency, voice, general impressions or a line by line commentary. You set the swap schedule and you're certain to be interested in their genre. QueryTracker and Twitter are only two of many web sites where CP marriages are made. I've had limited success finding a long term CP, but many people forge years-long and multi book CP relationships. It's more personal, and more flexible than a group.

Even if you're a die-hard loner, do consider beta readers, who will read your completed and hopefully edited book and give you feedback. Pick someone who will be honest with you and who reads in the genre you've written.

And whatever method you choose for getting feedback, don't ever let any one person's opinion deter you from continuing to write.

Kim English - is the author of the Coriander Jones series and the award winning picture book 'A Home for Kayla.' Her latest picture book, 'Rolly and Mac' will be released in 2017. Her website is Kim-English.com. She is represented by Gina Panettieri.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Take Your Worst Thing and Make it Your Best. Repeat.

I take an adult gymnastics class on Wednesdays (no really, I do), and as I went to get water one week I passed a group of girls working out on beam. Their coach was frustrated with one of the girls, who was complaining that beam was her worst event, and what the coach said stuck with me. "Take your worst event and make it your best. Then repeat."

She wanted her student to work at beam the hardest, with more determination than she worked at bars, vault, and floor, until it was her best, most consistent event. Then her originally third-best event would be her worst, and she should work at that event the hardest until it was her best, most consistent event, and so on, ad nauseum.

Though my days of competing gymnastics are long over, the coach's advice has stuck with me. "Take your worst thing and make it your best. Then repeat." Several times this week, I've mentioned to my CPs or other writing friends that I can write sentences better than I can plot, and that I focused so hard on a passable plot I forgot to write a well-rounded main character. I gave her a desire and a flaw, but not much to like about her.

It's easy for me to tell myself that writing excellent sentences and a decent plot should be good enough, that I'm just not good at characterization the same way the girl at gymnastics isn't good on beam. But I can hear the coach in my head now: take what you're worst at and make it your best. Subconsciously, though, this is what I've been doing since I started taking writing seriously five years ago. In 2012, I was worst at writing believable characters. So I practiced, short story after short story, until I was better at writing believable characters than I was at writing dialogue, or plot, and so on and so on.

Now, five years down the road, I think I've cycled through my list: I'm back to having characterization as the weakest point in my writing set. This time around, to use another gymnastics analogy, my start value is higher. I'm working from a better base. And when I make it through the list again in another five or however many years, I hope to have improved even more.

What is your "worst event" when it comes to writing right now? There's the elements of a novel: pacing, description, dialogue, characterization, theme, etc., but there's also the meta-skills of query writing, marketing, building a readership. Figure it out. But instead of accepting it as a weak point in your resume, a place where your score will always be lower, work at it with a vengeance, until it is your best. Then find your next weakest point and do it again.

Rochelle Deans is an editor and author who prefers perfecting words to writing them. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two young children. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.