The dangers of critiques

Let me start by thanking everyone for their well-wishes and blog ideas last week. Sorry I didn’t get back with a real post but the headache and sinuses laid me low. Since you guys were so great with blog suggestions, I spent a few minutes this morning going over them again and am going to hit on a couple in this post.

As writers, we are going to see our work critiqued, whether we want to or not. Most of the time we don’t want to. Let’s be honest, no one likes hearing that their baby is ugly and that is what we risk when we read a critique. However, before we ever see our work in print, many of us workshop our work in critique groups or we have alpha and beta readers look it over. Then there are the editors. We trust them to tell us what is good about our work and what is bad about it.

But what do we do with that information once we get it?

That is where a number of authors, usually those new to the field, run into trouble. Do they try to incorporate all the changes their critique partners and beta readers suggested? Or do they simply nod, say “thanks” and move on? Or is there something in the middle?

Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. But there are guidelines. There is also the author’s gut, something the author must learn to listen to.

When I first started getting serious about writing as a profession, Sarah offered me a bit of advice when I was lamenting about how I didn’t understand what someone in a critique group had said. It’s been long enough now I don’t remember exactly what the comment was. What I do remember is that what they wanted me to do would result in basically breaking the character. But this person, who had more experience than I did — or so I thought at the time because of the way they conducted themselves in the group — was adamant that I do what they said.

So, after anguishing over it, I talked with Sarah. She was silent for a moment and then she asked if anyone else had voiced the same concerns about my work. No. Then she wanted to know if, after this person voiced their opinion, anyone else chimed in with an agreement. Again, no. That’s when she told me about the Rule of Three. Unless three people tell you basically the same thing, do NOT automatically decide you need to make the suggested changes. After all, people are different. They read differently, have different tastes and, let’s be honest, they can make mistakes.

Then she went on to tell me that even if three people say the same thing, that doesn’t mean you have to instantly make the change.  But it does mean you need to consider what they said, and do so dispassionately.

Here is an example from my current critique group. My critique partner is a very good writer, very serious about her craft and open to critique. She wants to do whatever she can to make her work better. In a recent meeting she talked about how, in another group, someone had suggested she redo her current WIP so that she was alternating POVs of her main characters. Their reason was because they did not feel like they were learning enough about one of the POV characters and felt having scenes from his point of view might help.

Now, we have all read books where there are different POV characters. Some of those books are written in 3rd person omniscient and some 3rd person limited. Others are written in 1st person. So my crit partner knew it could be done but her question was should it?

Our group discussed the options, as well as the pros and cons of doing it.

So here’s the thing, whether my crit partner needed to do as suggested — and, in my opinion and the opinions of the others in our group, she did not — there were issues with doing it. The biggest is, if you switch points of view, you have to be ready to have a distinct “voice” for each POV character. This is especially true if you are writing in 1st person. There are writers out there who can do that without problem. But it is difficult and not something to do if you, the author, don’t have that second voice firmly in your head.

Sure, there are easy ways to cue your reader that you have switched points of view when in first person. You can make sure each chapter or scene change is tagged in such a way that you actually give the POV character’s name. Or you can have another character call the POV character by name in the first paragraph or so and making it clear it is your POV character responding.

In this particular case, however, the author didn’t need to go back and rewrite a good chunk of her book. The one thing we agreed with the person wanting another POV character on was that we wanted more of a feel for the other main character in the book. So we brainstormed ways to do so. The suggestions we came up with meant a little rewriting, but it was more along the line of a sentence here and a paragraph there. Letting us more into the mind of the POV character and her reactions to him, especially at the beginning of the book.

Now, was the original critique wrong?

Not necessarily but it wasn’t necessarily right either. However, what that person did was offer a concern with a solution and not offer any other ways to address the concern. By raising that person’s concern with our group, our critique partner wound up with a discussion of not only some minor weaknesses we saw in her work but also different ways to address them. What solution she finally chooses is up to her, as it should be. She is the one who knows her book the best and who will be able to determine the best way to fix the concerns, if they really need fixing when the entire book is looked at, without breaking the book or the characters.

Here is another point we, as authors, need to keep in mind when we workshop a book in a critique group. More often than not, our critique partners are seeing only a chapter or two at a time and it may be weeks or months or even years before they critique that last chapter. That means critiques tend to be centered only on the chapter or scene they are currently working on in the group, not on the work as a whole. It means details from previous chapters can and will be forgotten. The flow of the book won’t be there. So, when someone says you need to do something that impacts the entire book, you have to ask yourself if they made the comment with the entire book in mind or just the current chapter and maybe the previous one or two in mind.

This is where your writer’s gut has to come into play. If what the critique partner says feels wrong, ask yourself why. If it feels right, examine that as well. Don’t be afraid to ask that person if they had the same concerns about earlier chapters they had seen.

If I have to point out one rule when it comes to critique groups/alpha and beta readers it would be this: do NOT try to make everyone happy. If you try to insert every change that every person suggests, you will probably wind up causing yourself more headaches and problems than you find solutions. This is, to repeat myself, where you fall back on the Rule of Three. If three folks say basically the same thing, consider what they said and why. If not, make a note, think about it but remind yourself that others did not have the same problem or suggestion.

Most of all, learn to trust your writer’s gut — and when to realize you really shouldn’t have had that three-day-old slice of pizza that hadn’t been refrigerated. Now go forth and write and, if you aren’t a writer, read.

Oh, in case you are wondering what to give your favorite authors for Christmas, here’s something every author would appreciate. Write a review for their work on Amazon. It doesn’t have to be long or detailed. Just enough to let folks know you read the book and what you thought about it. The number of reviews a title gets impacts its visibility. It also helps other readers decide if they want to try an author they might not have read before.



        1. My doctor wanted me to get more calcium and suggested soybeans (among other things). My response was “Tofu? I’ll just gnaw on the bones a little more.”

  1. Not enough coffee and may involve “who you ask to critique your book”, but a critique may be “lacking something” if the critiquer doesn’t read/enjoy the type of book you’re writing.

    1. True, but those types of critiquers are also invaluable. Too many who write genre fiction rely upon tropes that readers of the genre know and expect. IE, when they see the trope, they know X is going to happen. It lets a writer become lazy. By having someone who isn’t familiar with the genre and its tropes, you get someone who will give you a critique that includes did you lay out that plot road map so the new reader, someone new to the genre, could read and follow and enjoy the story.

      This has become particularly important since there are relatively few books out there that are single genre books. You see more and more mysteries with romance or paranormal aspects. Science fictions has mystery or romance in it. And so on. But yes, having someone critique your book who isn’t interested or doesn’t like the genre can lead to problems if they aren’t invested in giving you a good critique.

    2. Or sometimes if it turns out they haven’t done as much research as you have. I had a reader who thought a Roman woman of the gentry class would be too sheltered to recognize weapons, which puzzled the hell out of me.

      I realized that among other things, many people don’t know that titles of nobility have military origins. They hadn’t considered that we recognize pistols, billy clubs and bulletproof armor because our policemen use them. If your “policemen” are actually your soldiers, well then … and not to mention the whole “watching other people kill each other for fun and games” thing. And the public executions thing … oh, and the cursus honorum thing.

      Later I finally understood that one reader just believes that the nobility and landed gentry are unusually sheltered in general. Partly because I think he’s applying 21st century American attitudes to the past: think of Kerry’s notion that only poor people join the army, not smart rich kids who could get into “Hahvahd” (I’m not saying the reader shares Kerry’s beliefs).

      I admit that seeing examples of 21st century attitudes being wrongly applied to the past makes me worry about reactions to my characters behaving according to more “Roman” norms: as a rule I don’t think people — including women or children — who watch public executions are going to be traumatized by gruesome deaths. They’ll just think it’s Tuesday 🙂

      So it’s not always enough to find readers in your genre, even taking into account what Amanda said about two genres in one story. Add in historical or “specialized” knowledge and a writer still has to be prepared to take criticism with varying amounts of salt. If nothing else you’ll know that you aren’t necessarily dumbing things down if you spell out something you [wrongly] assumed was common knowledge.

      1. Well, she may not have in-depth knowledge, but there’s no way she couldn’t recognize a sword or spear.

        1. Exactly; I also thought it was reasonable to recognize even common varieties of a given weapon — think basics, like distinguishing a rifle from a pistol. I wasn’t even imagining her employing the level of knowledge a subscriber to Guns & Ammo might have (or I suppose it would be Bows & Arrows for her).

      2. My assumptions are that the wealthy in most ancient cultures are almost certainly the ones with the weapons. The rabble aren’t allowed the means to get unruly.

        It’s still interesting information, though, if someone doesn’t “buy” that a woman of the upper classes would know her weapons. Some readers will be like me and assume (quite possibly wrongly, for all of that) that she does. But it wouldn’t take all that much to *show* that she does, even if it’s off color jokes with her friends about the Centurion’s gladius, or if she’s matronly, about a gift for a nephew.

        1. Okay, so I’m not crazy then? Or at least, not about this. I remember learning about the feudal era in my K-12 years; I truly thought it was a given that everyone knew the nobility are the ones with the weapons.

          I just tweaked the story so that readers know sooner that her deceased father and grandfather had been veterans. So are the uncles who are visiting when the story starts. That way when her home is attacked by foreign soldiers who are wielding more advanced weaponry and clad in medieval-style plate armor (she doesn’t call it that), it’s not so “weird” that she’d conclude they were more advanced than the imperial legion. That ought to do it.

  2. I had an alpha reader ask “So, when are [female lead] and [male supporting character] getting married?” blink, blink. They weren’t/aren’t. That was a hint/signal that I needed to go back and triple check to see if the foreshadowing was correct, or even there, and see if I’d done something that was going to cause major confusion when Cupid finally nailed [female lead] and [other male character].

    This reader had not seen the other books with backstory, unlike my other alpha readers. I made some adjustments to make things clearer, so readers coming into the series “late” wouldn’t get whip-sawed.

  3. On some hand or another, I did get one critique post-publication of Mistress of the Waves, namely I really did not give any insight into the character of anyone other than Amanda Kirasdotr. That was only one critic, but he was right. That was a good observation, which prompted me to do a major rewrite now in progress of The Girl Who Saved the World.

  4. Second the comment on Amazon reviews. They cost a reader nothing but a pittance of time and a scoosh of effort. You do not have to have purchased the book on Amazon for it to count, though they do give extra weight to verified purchases. And verbiage isn’t required. An “I really enjoyed reading this.” counts same as a five page review.
    See, Amazon has these algorithms they apply to all their products. They use them to figure which items to promote and include in those cute “you may want to consider’ e-mails they keep cluttering your inbox with. Rumor has it that for fiction books the magic number is somewhere around 50.
    So, do as Amanda suggests and post a review. It will gladden the hearts of the authors you enjoy and may help keep them in bonbons and Death Wish coffee, items known to inspire the best in contemporary speculative fiction.

  5. When I was a newby, I didn’t even understand half the critiques!

    So, OK, NOW I know that “Needs to be shorter” doesn’t mean shaving off extraneous words, it means removing entire scenes and tightening up the time frame.

    I was horrified by the suggestion that my main character had to die at the end. NOW I know that what the MC most values has to be in jeopardy, and since mine wanted to live forever . . .

    I was boggled by the suggestion that the rescued woman _had_ to be the love interest, and they had to have a passionate farewell kiss in the middle of the final battle. ARG! Said I. This is not a romance! Except if she was why he was willing to die for her world, simply because it was hers, she needed to be personally at risk. But I only allowed a farewell glance, in a brief break in all the shooting and screaming. I have my standards.

    Mind you, I had to simmer and curse under my breath for months before the received wisdom finally sunk in and I had to admit that they were _all_ correct to some degree. It was a valuable learning experience in the use of a professional critique, and is responsible for a large leap in my story crafting skills.

    But I sure didn’t enjoy it at the time.

    1. Sometimes “needs to be shorter” means that it needs to be longer. Or “this should be a novel” might well mean that stuff needs to come out so that it works shorter. All any of it really means is “this is not the right length.” 😉

  6. I think that with critiques, you need to consider the source. If I ship a piece of writing to someone in the military, I am going to weight their opinion on military scenes very highly. (As someone whose father was military, I watched that abomination of Starship Troopers with a sense of “that just wouldn’t work!” Someone actually in the military probably had more of a problem than I did.) If someone is a sports expert, I’ll listen when they point out that I made a bonehead error.

    However, if it’s someone who I know is well-versed in a different genre, and they say that my book is missing something that is specific to that genre, I’m more likely to ignore the advice and just mentally note that it’s different there.

    1. The sad part is, the director of That Movie actually was in the military. Alas, none of his first-hand experience seemed to inform the film.

      1. There were at least two scenes when somebody would have gotten a court-martial. And I watched part of the commentary, and he said he hadn’t read the book because he didn’t want to “pollute his vision.”

        That’s fine. you want a movie that pushes the concept “War makes fascists of us all,” go do that. But don’t slap it across the rough framework of a story that was examining the reasons someone would volunteer to defend their country (and which, IIRC, was written as a polemic against conscripted armies.)

  7. I have personal problems with critiques. No, not that kind. What I mean is:

    1. A tendency to abandon WIP due to a bad critique. Solution: Only give completed drafts to first readers.

    2. Lack of time to read stories in critique groups. For example, Critters. I’ve tried several times, but always get a backlog. Finally gave up.

    One thing I admire about Critters is that it holds public release of the critiques until the critique period is over. In some groups you can get a dominate member, with others unconsciously agreeing with them.

    Something else I’ve encountered is the person who will not like anything you write. Ever. Solution: Ignore them once you figure that out.

  8. I wanted to toss in here the sage advice I received somewhere, to the effect that the reader/critiquer/commenter may indicate there is a problem, but that you as writer have the fun of determining how to fix it. I.e., before you even think about making a change, take a hard look at what they said/indicated, and think about what’s the best way to fix it. They might say something about the climax, but the fix might very well be going back and modifying the foreshadowing, highlighting a reveal, or something else. Anyway — readers’ comments may indicate a problem, but the fix is up to you.

    1. Keep in mind that any change to a work involving creativity (writing, software development, etc.) has a non-trivial chance of breaking something else. And the fact that technology has made changes appear easy has made that problem worse.

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