Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Let's Talk Critique Pt 2

Welcome to part two of Let’s Talk Critique. This is where we’ll talk about “how” good crit partners do what they do. If you missed the “what,” check it out here.

There’s a lot of common wisdom out there about how a crit partner (cp) can go about critiquing without being a giant douchecanoe. This is good because there’s no certification process for learning how to crit. I'm certain my critique style is heavily influenced by having done an undergraduate degree in English Lit in which I was frequently asked to analyze capital-‘L’-Literature from a variety of perspectives (oh, Po-Mo, how I heart you). But I don't consider that adequate preparation for the work of thinking critically about something that's still in progress. It was just a starting point.

Most of the posts I’ve seen on the subject of crit revolve around the behavior of a good/bad cp, which easily accounts for half of what it takes to be a good cp. That’s the “partner” part of “critique partner,” and since that ground has been well and truly covered elsewhere, I’m going to continue the conversation by focusing on the “critique” part of “critique partner.”

As I work with my super stellar cps primarily via email, I'm focusing on crit-in-letter form. I can't really speak to the in-person dynamic of crit, but I imagine these still apply.

So! Here are Natalie's top 4 truths of making really good crit with action items and more Firefly gifs:

1. Be the best bad guy you can be.
We all know the sandwich method of critique: this is the good-crit-good school of critique. I think it bears repeating because pointing out the good can be challenging when you’re reading with a critical eye. But it IS important. Not because you need to make the author feel good (though, that’s part of it), but because this is frequently the hard part of a good critique.

It’s easy to look at a piece and find ways in which it could be better; it’s not always so easy to find its strengths especially in drafting stages. But finding the love is where you lay the groundwork of a good critique. If I’m going to tell you that your main character’s emotional arc is missing key beats and is therefore unrealized in the end, then I’d better also be able to tell you that the arc you’re striving for is visible precisely because you’ve established the starting point so well. It's easy to be a bad guy. It's tough to be a good bad guy.

Action item: Make your compliments/encouragements as insightful as your critiques.

2. Navigate the ‘I’.
This is a tough one because most of us come to writing as readers, and as readers we're encouraged to identify with characters - or, at least, that's what we learn in school. But! In the case of crit, you're not a reader, you're a critiquer, and what you would do is therefor irrelevant. 

Okay. Maybe not totally irrelevant, but it should probably take a backseat to your analysis of the work. If your gut reaction to something in the text is to argue that it's not believable because you wouldn't behave as the main character did, there's probably a reason, but it doesn't have anything to do with you.

For example. Let's say you were critiquing for me and I gave you a piece about a vampire slaying space cowboy with the ability to download personalities like software and maintain quippy dialogue throughout. And let's say there was a scene in which said vampire slaying space cowboy hides under her bed to escape an invasion of zombies.

Instead of saying, "if I were a vampire slaying space cowboy with the ability to download whatever personality I wanted, I wouldn't hide beneath my bed from something as mundane as zombies," you might practice removing yourself from the equation and consider why that's your reaction. In this case, it might be because I hadn't properly illuminated the fact that this vampire slaying space cowboy had a horrific experience with zombies in her childhood and lacks the confidence needed to meet them face on.

Action item: Read your crit letter for 'I' statements and consider how to restate them in a way that removes you from the picture. Be creative!

3. Aim before you fire. 
Once the critical glasses are on, it can be difficult to moderate them. But! Too much of a good thing is like the 4th Indiana Jones movie - people only really remember the first three with fondness.

It's easy to get swept up in the excitement of a good crit. You can see all the things! You can be useful! And brilliant! And point out the universe of problems!

Well. Don't.

This is where it's helpful to know your terrain and pick your battles wisely. This is also a part of critique that is hugely flexible and will shift depending on your relationship with the writer. 

Speaking in general terms, a well-aimed crit is worth more than an exhaustive one. If you see a wealth of trouble in a manuscript, it may be best to address only the most salient issues - for example, you might prioritize the character arc over addressing voice, or major plot issues over problems with smaller scenes. In these cases, the bone saw is more useful than the scalpel. Remember: the elements of storytelling are connected and addressing one is, in some ways, addressing all.

Action item: Practice condensing critique notes or demonstrating relationships between them.

4. Be clear. Be concise. Be nice.
Revise your crit letters. Especially in the early stages of working with a new partner, precision is kindness. Take the time to organize your thoughts and make them incisive without abandoning niceties - it's possible to say hard things without being mean, but it definitely takes practice.

Similarly, crit letters aren't soapboxes; there's no need to write a treatise on the inherent fault of zombie/vampire/werewolf mythologies (see aforementioned comment about behaving like a douchecanoe). I promise you this is a surefire way to lose the goodwill of your critique-ee.

Trust that the author knows that zombies/vampires/werewolves can't exist (well....except for zombies), and focus instead on why in the context of their manuscript, the mythology is weak. Which is to say, anyone can tell me my zombies are improbable, but a good cp will tell me why my zombies are unbelievable. A great cp will do that with a single statement and a smile.

Action item: Revise, revise, revise your crit letters just as you did the manuscript. 

The thing these all have in common is creativity. We don't usually think about crit as being creative. Critique is the necessarily academic component of writing a novel. It's strict, the disciplinarian of daydreams. It reigns us in and cools us down and counters impossible yes's with irritatingly realistic no's. But. (You knew there was a but.) BUT. (But did you know there were two?) A really good critique does all of that in a way that leaves you burning to try again - to be better than you were last time. A really good critique isn't a monster waiting to swallow your bones, it's the whetting stone there to sharpen your sword.

So, there you have it. How Natalie approaches crit. Again, this has little to do with behaving like a good cp. Behavior is another boat. Or another post if you're interested.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Let's Talk Critique Pt 1

In the past 6 months, I've had the opportunity to critique manuscripts for three people I've never worked with before. I always warn people that my critiques can be rough if you're not very familiar with critique, and these were no exception. To illustrate, each of these crit letters was 2k and over.

The interesting thing about these, and the reason I'm posting about it, is that they were for writers at very different stages of the process. One was just starting out, one a seasoned writer making strides toward publication, and one a debut author. In each of these cases, comments were made about my critique style and how I learned it. Which got me thinking that this might be a topic more people are interested in.

Fast forward to this week, when Maggie Stiefvater posted her CP Love Connection and it seems perfectly timely. As an aside, I highly recommend you start there if you're looking for a creative hook up. And remember to check the postings on her mirrored blogs.

So, let's talk about critique and what it means to be a partner. This will be a post in two parts. Part one (that's this part) on the "what" of crit; part two on the "how." (Part three if I think of something else). 

I know that there are people who have elaborate hierarchies of the various sets and subsets of critique partners. People talk about Alpha readers and Beta readers and for all I know they have Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta readers, too. But I'm going to break things down into the three levels reflected most precisely in the publishing process: Editor, Line Editor, Copy Editor. They will all serve you well, but in very different ways. And please know that though I'm speaking in very general terms, I'm talking about my own experience in the wild and sundry world of critique.

What does an editor do?
I'm feeling bullet-y today. Let's use those.
  • Read for over-arching consistency and integrity in the story. This is the big picture, so big, you're in space looking down at the earth, discovering how the continent you want to build will fit in the vast scheme of things. In other words, plot and character arcs - do they work? Are they realized?
  • Give attention to the movements within a story and transitions between them. This is probably the medium-sized picture, from the earth's atmosphere on a clear day where you can see the topography of this new continent. In other words, subplots, setting, and tone - are they adding to the story?
  • Be aware of the momentum of the story. This is the most focused view; you're on the ground navigating the path you charted from atmo. In other words, pacing, pacing, pacing - which scenes drag at the story? What quiet moments are missing?
Editing comes first. An Editor reads for each of these levels of storytelling and can communicate with you about them. An editor is the person who gets what you're trying to do and is invested in helping you achieve that goal as precisely as possible. This is where critique partners are most helpful because they act as your editor before you have an editor.  

What does a line editor do?
  • Voice and point of view. Are they consistent throughout?
  • Word choice and sentence structure. Do the word choices and sentences relate to specific character arcs? Is pacing consistent with sentence structure?
  • Pacing and rhythm within the text. Should you consider condensing a paragraph into one or two lines? Do you over-use pronouns or specific sentence type?
To be clear, of course CPs can do this for you. I've done it, but this very different work from actual critique. Line editing will to very little to help a writer address overarching problems in the narrative, so doing too much of this before a critique can be a waste of your time. 

What does a copy editor do?
  • Read for consistency in descriptions. Do your characters have the same hair color throughout? Did you spell the name of the town consistently? Did your protagonists mother drive a Prius at the beginning and an SUV at the end?
  • Find problems with internal logic. Can your character actually cross a certain distance in the time they say they can?
  • Words, words, words. Grammar and style (both the author's and the publisher's). Do you love the Oxford comma? Always spell gray with an 'e'? 
A copy editor focuses on grammar and sense. This is the nitty gritty. Their job is to make sure each sentence functions as intended and makes sense unto itself, and to make sure the reality in your head isn't wildly off base. This is the very final stage of the editing process and has very, very little to do with critique. 

To be clear, I think a CP can do all of these levels of editing, but it's the first level that is the most crucial. You wrote a book, which makes you brilliant, but a CP who can point to the major plot hole in your work is just as brilliant. A CP who can point to the plot hole and also how the fix for that hole already established in the manuscript well, they're the best in the 'verse. If your CP only gives you line notes and copy edits, you don't actually have a CP. 

So now that I know what I'm looking for, how do I find a good critique partner?

Finding a good CP can be tough. Having swapped manuscripts with dozens of people, I know that being in the trenches can be so frustrating you begin to question the worth of the quest. But don't give up! There's no training for this job. As with writing, many of us learn by doing, and that means that every time you swap a manuscript, you are both learning and teaching someone how to give critique. 

My best advice is to keep swapping - establishing rules such as those in Maggie's post before you trade - with an eye for those who can critique on the editor level. 

There are several resources online that will help you connect with similarly situated writers. I'll list more below, but if you know of others, please drop them in the comments. You can also reach out to local chapters of SCBWI or your library to see what crit groups are active in your area, but I've had the best success online. 

In addition to Maggie's connection, the following are great places to cruise for creatives:
Stay tuned for Part 2! HOW to give good crit. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hello! My Name is Natalie.

It's been so long, I'm afraid you've forgotten my face. Allow me to re-introduce myself. My name is Natalie and we've met, but it was last year and my hair was probably a different color....

I haven't been posting. There are reasons - 2012 went out with an apocalyptic bang and 2013 entered similarly - but I've not forgotten my dear blog. Consider this my reentry to the blogosphere.

Here's is the quick update of what I've been up to:
  1. I've teamed up with a diverse group of debuting YA authors and we've just launched our blog. We are The Fourteenery - 14 YA Authors Debuting in 2014. (Obligatory prize post here). This is a group of women I've been working with for several months and I'm excited and delighted to be engaged in this collaborative venture.
  2. Tumblr! I love it. And I'm Obviously Parker (obviously).
  3. The Official 2014 Debut Young Adult and Middle Grade author group has launched! If you'd like the bird's eye view of what's coming down those roads, check out the OneFour KidLit blog and/or Twitter feed.
  4. Texas! For the first time in my life, I visited the great state of Texas for a writing retreat. 21 writers, 5 days, 2 houses, 1 river. As you can imagine, it was as exhausting as it was recharging.
In lieu of anything more, I'll leave you with this picture of the world's largest pecan. Which I found in Texas. And touched.
More soon. Ciao for now.