Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Translating critique-speak

I went to a writers' retreat earlier this year, hoping for the Answer. I knew that my stories didn't sound like real books, that there was something just a little off despite all those shiny commas, but I couldn't figure out what I was missing. Polishing advice wasn't going to get me there: I didn't need to fix a bunch of passive verbs or incorrect semicolons. I needed...what?

At the retreat -- and after probably too many adult beverages -- I whined that critique partners typically handle me too gently. That I'm ready for the hard punches and I wish they'd just tell me, ferharrumphsakes.

Well, the fact is that they were telling me what I need to hear, and I wasn't even listening. Maybe because they were just being too careful not to offend a noob and stunt my development or something. So here's a list, mostly for me, so I can translate crit-speak:

What they say
What they could say
(and it would be all right)
Maybe you could deepen the POV.
This character is behaving like a cardboard cutout: no emotion, no goals, no inner conflict. Give her more to handle.
That's fascinating world-building.
You've infodumped for three pages. When do you plan to start the actual story?
Voice is a little uneven.
Did you even read the thing end-to-end? Are you sure this is the same POV character?
Pacing was a little slow.
What was the point of that scene? Or that paragraph? How much could you yank entirely without affecting the story? Do that.
You're asking the reader to do a lot, linguistically.
Quit trying to wow me with your vocabulary and use of metaphor. It's pretentious.
This is, er, nicely written. Good verbs!
Well, you hit the technical marks, but I have no idea why I should care about this story or this character.

Folks, I know what when offering critique, you're trying to be nice, and so you softball a lot of things. But when somebody asks for it directly, it's okay to be no-frills honest. Promise I won't call it brutal. 

Viv is still learning how to be a real writer. You can follow her adventures to that end at her web site


Savanna Kougar said...

Hi Viv, I'm doing a bit of soul searching as well. More in the area of what is sellable and what is too far outside of the box.

Sometimes, I speak only for me here, it's tough to give the right kind of criticism. Some is a given. However, there is that line between an honest critique and being way too harsh for no reason other than to beat on someone.

I like specifics. For example if your character is too cardboard, I would point out where they could show more of their character -- who they are, and what they want.

But then, I'm not in the mainstream way of doing things... so disregard my comments, if you like.

Vivien Jackson said...

Totally not about to disregard your comments! You have a lot of wisdom. I know that folks worry about hurting an aspiring author's trajectory or confidence, but it's hard sometimes for me to get beyond the kindness and discern the nugget of constructive criticism there. I probably wouldn't react well if *everything* critquers said was negative, but it's been hard for me to grow as a writer when I knew something was wrong but couldn't figure out *what*. Am getting there, slowly. :)

Savanna Kougar said...

Viv, the important thing is that you want to grow. And, yes, sometimes the criticism is so general who knows what it really means. I like straight talk, but not the hammer-over-the-head approach. As a friend of mine once said, why use a jackhammer if a tack hammer will do?

It never bothers me if someone shoots straight about what they don't like. Or, if you just don't like my book. However, I don't see any point in all the cruel clever snark stuff.

And, here's a problem I've run into. If someone doesn't get your book, or doesn't/can't understand it... well, then it has to be trash and trashed to bring you 'down' to their level. Like a first grader attacking a senior in high school because they don't understand educational subjects at that level.

Okay, I've also read about a gang of authors attacking anyone who does give a bad review of their book, ruining them by suing them. On the other hand, there are some who are so un-evolved they will attack any author who has a bestselling book by purposefully giving bad reviews.

It's tough out there on many levels. Also, it's wide open as far as content and genre, and what grade level to write for. It used to be a sixth grade level, then fifth grade level... the last I heard it was third grade level.

That's why I basically write for myself and do the best I can to also write for the readers' enjoyment. And, I will certainly NOT write for a third grade level.

Probably not helpful, and not exactly what you were addressing... but food for future thought.

All goodness coming your way...