The Dangers of Critiques: A Blast from the Past
(I am hip deep in edits and my brain isn’t focusing on anything but those. So here’s a post from December 2016 about critiques. I’ll add a few additional comments at the end.– ASG)
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.
Most writers are insecure when it comes to their writing. That is one reason we look for critique groups or have more than a handful of beta readers–or both. We want and need the validation that we aren’t putting out a fish instead of a book folks want to read. The danger in this goes beyond what I mentioned in the original post. In fact, there are several dangers we need to be aware of.
First, you risk over-editing the piece to such a point there is no life left in it. Sarah used to kick me–and beat me about the head and shoulders–for doing this. It is part of the trying to satisfy everyone syndrome I mentioned earlier. It is also in great part an indication that you aren’t trusting your own instincts.
Second, most critique groups critique only a part of a novel at a time. I’ve been in groups where a novel might be workshopped over the course of a year. that leads to a myriad of issues, not the least of which is that those critiquing the piece don’t get the flow of it. Then there’s the fact that memory is a tricky thing and the critique partners won’t remember everything that happened in chapter one a year later. At some point, you need to thank the group and ask if they would consider critiquing the entire book at one time after you finish it. That is the only way to insure you get a solid critique of the book, its flow, character development, any plot inconsistencies, etc.
Third, you can belong to too many critique groups or have too many alpha and beta readers. There comes a point when you get critique overload, especially if you have folks giving your critiques who don’t know your genre. Yes, it is good to have at least one non-genre specific reader among the number. But if you are trying to keep everyone, including that person happy, you are going to wind up with a mess.
Critiques are good, essential at times. But there can be too much of a good thing.
So use some common sense, trust your gut and remember critiques are only one part of the process. Most of all, remember Sarah’s Rule of Three. Unless you have three or more people telling you basically the same thing, consider long and hard if the critique is something you need to worry about. Even if you have three people telling you something, you still have the final choice of following their suggestion or not. Be open to criticism but don’t think you have to always do as someone says.
Now go write. I’m off to find more coffee and then it’s back to the edits for me.