February 26, 2014

Writing Club Wednesday: Critique - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly


It's been over a year since I've had a new manuscript with a complete first draft. I'd forgotten how messy the process is - and how important good critique is.

At the very beginning of my writing journey, I was very fortunate to find good critique partners, like-minded writers who would pick apart my manuscripts sentence by sentence and then put them back together to make something beautiful. But I've also been on the receiving end of bad critique, the kind that broke my spirit and ravished my creativity. The kind that made me give up entirely on projects.

In the years since I took my writing public, here's what I've learned about critique: the good, the bad and the ugly.



Good Critique...

...is an absolute necessity

No matter how good you are at writing, it is impossible to be totally subjective about your own work. Impossible. That sentence that makes perfect sense to you? It means something else to a reader and good critique will point it out. You know all your back stories and motivations in a way your readers will not. You need someone outside of your head to ensure your story makes sense, your characters are coming through like you intend and your writing is clear. 

...motivates change

The purpose of critique is to make your manuscript better. You need more than a pat on the back. Good critique will point out the flaws in your manuscript, but in a way that energizes. It will point out things you don't want to see, but it will also spark new ideas and new ways to tell your story. Some will work, some won't but you'll see things you wouldn't think of on your own. And you'll be excited to dive back in to make them work.

...encourages

At the end of a good critique, you should feel like a book is possible. You should feel like you've written something of value, something that has touched your critique partner in some way. Your manuscript becomes real when someone reads it and internalizes it and takes the words you wrote into their mind to make them live. Someone else now inhabits the world you created - and that is the point of writing for an audience. Let that feeling propel you forward.



Bad critique...

...hurts
The process of baring your writerly soul is never easy, but when you genuinely feel wounded or attacked by a critique, it's toxic and you need to run. If the critique becomes personal instead of focusing on your writing, run. There's a big difference between the devestating recognition that your beloved baby manuscript is flawed and feeling like you as a writer are worthless. If it's hurtful, it won't be constructive and isn't worth pursuing. 

...is shallow

Sometimes all you need is a quick read through to make sure a plot makes sense or you're near the end and just want to be sure things are polished. Not every critique needs to be deep, in line edits. But if a critique doesn't tell you anything useful, it's not worth anyone's time. If a critique partner isn't invested in you as a writer, they won't be invested in your story either and their comments will be empty, be it praise or be it criticism. 

...demoralizes

At it's worst, bad critique will make you want to give up. It will get into your head and tell you all kinds of lies about your worth as a writer. Don't listen. Not every manuscript will become a book. I have several that will never see the light of day. Not every writer will become J.K. Rowling or Amanda Hocking. But the only way to get to those places, to see your ideas bound and on shelves or popping up on eReaders worldwide, is to keep writing. Keep trying. Keep polishing and perfecting your craft.



The Ugly...

How to find critique partners?

Be involved in the writing community. Connect on twitter through hashtags for your catagory (#MGlitchat, #YAlitchat, #NAlitchat). Stalk pitch contests for manuscripts that interest you - and ask to critique them. Read blogs. There are several CP matchmaking event and blogs around, including the #CPmatch hashtag on twitter, hosted by the lovely @MeganGrimit, and CP Seek. Build real, long term, reciprocal relationships.

What's next?

Talk about your goals, the kind of critique you need, time frames, etc. Make sure you have the same expectations. Then exchange a single chapter. Even if you're on the same metaphorical and literal page, you may not mesh in other ways. Take it for a test run before committing. Nothing is as good for your writing as a good critique partner and nothing is as bad as a toxic one. 

And if it goes bad?

Be honest. Like any break up, it can be very hard to end a critique partnership that isn't healthy. But the longer you let things fester, the worse it gets - for everyone. If you can, I think it's okay to point out the things that don't work IF you can do so in a constructive way. Do not attack, even if you feel attacked. Even a break up critique should be constructive.



And at the end?

When your idea moves from your head to a first draft, to a polish manuscript, to an actual book that strangers can read, your critique partners will be there to celebrate and cheer you on in ways no one else can. Your book baby will be, many ways, their book baby too. That sense of community will buoy you through pre release angst and bad reviews and tackling your next book. These are your nearest and dearest in your writing career. Keep them close!

Anything I missed? Any tips for finding critique partners, processing critique or dealing with bad partnerships? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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