Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Question: Critiquing What You Hate

Tonight we'll pull a question from the mailbag. One of our readers asks,

What do you do when you critique a story, and you hate it? The writing is good, not great, but good, but you just can't get past the first chapter?

I'm going to assume we're talking about writers (rather than acquisitions editors) offering comments on the work of other writers. There are a lot of "almost there" writers, those who have a grasp of most of the basics but haven't quite reached publishable levels. There are several common reasons those "almost, but not quite" pieces tend to fail. Just off the top of my head, I would list those reasons as ~~

~~ POV is too objective/protagonist is too remote
~~ lack of tension and drama/nothing is at stake
~~ characters are bland/motivations are unclear
~~ protagonist is unlikeable/nobody to cheer for
~~ writing style is too academic
~~ writing style is underdeveloped or flabby

If you are critiquing a work that is not hideous but leaves you with a blah feeling, check if one of these things might be the problem. I tend to think of these stories as "workmanlike." That is, they plod on and avoid most of the glaring technical errors common to new writers, but they don't quite rise to the level of entertainment. If you can link the story's missing elements to one of the common problems on the list, you will be doing a service to the other writer to help them understand why you're not connecting with their characters or plots.

It will help you in your own writing if you take the time to analyze why this other piece failed. If you can learn to see pov gaps or dull exposition or clunky phrases in another's work, it will make you more sensitive to it in your own. So, even if you hate something, try to step back from the emotional reaction to it and analyze it as an intellectual exercise. It will make you a better writer in the end.

And then you have to talk to the other writer about it. It's tempting to treat this as an issue of manners, but rather than getting into all that, let's just assume that you will keep focused on the pages. Pick a couple, maybe three, technique messages to present, because any more than that might be overwhelming. Pick the ones you expect will have the biggest impact on the prose when corrected.

It's probably fair to tell another writer, "This is not to my tastes."
It's probably not fair to say, "This sucks."

The first admits a subjective response, while the second is a categorical insult. Try to avoid making broad judgment statements and focus instead on concrete ways to improve the writing.

Fair: "Try raising the stakes."
Unfair: "It's boring."

Fair: "You might want to brush up on punctuation rules."
Unfair: "Is your comma key broken?"

Of course, all of this assumes that the person receiving your commentary is of average sensitivity and doesn't need to get beat over the head with a grammar primer in order to understand basic points. Make sure there aren't any interpersonal issues feeding into your emotional reaction -- that's for your peace of mind rather than for the benefit of the other writer.

Good luck! I hope that helps. This can be a knotty problem to solve.



Ian said...

I actually really like critiquing, because I find it helps me to discover flaws in my own work that I can't see normally because I'm too close to it. I'm reading through a chicklit piece now that I would *never* have picked up on my own, and am finding that I'm enjoying the interaction between the characters and am getting into the plot as well. I also find that I'm critical of the same problems I have in my work, and that's making me more aware of it when I set finger to keyboard in the eternal, elusive pursuit of the Bestseller.

PS: Speaking of bestsellers, Deep Six made it into the Top 100 in the ABNA contest. Wish me luck!

Anonymous said...

oh Ian! Congratulations!!! How did you find out? I thought they weren't announcing until March. Did I miss something?

Well done!!


Kelly McCrady said...

I haven't laughed that hard in a while. "Is your comma key broken?"

I edit for an e-pub that requires personal rejection letters--no form letters to hide behind. I make sure to double check all my comments on manuscripts to excise any that could be misinterpreted as unkind. So far so good...but there are times when ya just want to leave such a note. "Stop using 'was.' Just a thought."

Edittorrent said...

I've noticed a new trend-- submitters responding to a personalized rejection with an email (of course, it's easy in email) asking why. Or "So the only reason you rejected me is because my heroine seems too passive?"

(No, but that was the one aspect I thought maybe you could work on....)

To my thinking, this is the appropriate response to a personalized rejection: "Thank you for taking the time to review my submission."

That's a good reason not to send a personalized rejection... it invites argument. :)