21 Jun

Revision: Understanding critiques

I seem to be thinking a lot about critiques these days, probably because I’m getting critiques from a couple different sources.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of a Critiquers

In critique groups, I find that writers/readers have different styles of critiquing.

Grammar Witches: This person always finds the punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes; I’m grateful for them, because fixing what they notice is easy.

Line Editors: This person rewrites lines by omitting words, moving things around, or just rewriting a sentence here or there. I appreciate the efforts of this person, but I don’t always do what they suggest. I CONSIDER everything they suggest. But I also take into consideration the voice of the piece and sometimes, what the Line Editor has done is put the sentence into their voice, destroying the rhythms of my voice. Sometimes, their suggestion to omit a word is right on. Or, they’ve noticed that I’ve repeated “whirl” ten times in this chapter and they are right that I should drag out a thesaurus. Overall, my attitude towards them is one of caution.

Big Picture Critiquers: The hardest critiquers to find are those who can look at the shape of the overall story and see where there are holes in the story logic, where the pacing is off, where the characters are flat, where dialogue is boring, etc. But, for me, these are the most valued critiquers. This is why I always want my critiquers to read the entire story at one time, even if it’s a rather long novel.

Sometimes, this type critiquer is the quietest in the bunch and you have to listen carefully. For example, once a group went over my WIP with enthusiasm, but as I was leaving, one person said casually as we were walking out the door, “Really, though, I don’t think you’ll get it published until you resolve the parent-child relationship.”

Whoa! That was a great Big Picture Comment, but it was made casually, almost apologetically. Fortunately, I realized the importance of that comment–the most valuable comment of the hour’s critique. So–listen for the small voices.

Under-Confident Critiquer:
This person looks at a published writer and says to themselves, “Oh, gee, I can’t say anything to them because they are published and they know everything.” Sorry, but publication of one book doesn’t mean you write the next one perfectly. Even writers with 100 books out need honest feedback from honest readers. I avoid these critiquers.

How to Respond When the Editor asks for Changes

When you get that editorial revision letter–instead of the phone call you really wanted, be careful. Probably 90% or more of revision letters like this never go anywhere. Why? Because you do exactly what the editor asked for.

In my experience, if you do exactly what the editor asked for, you’ll still get rejected.

Instead, you need to go to the heart of what the editor said and go deeper than the surface of what the editor has suggested. You will do what the editor didn’t know they wanted. For example, in my first picture book, The River Dragon, I had described the dragon’s voice as “the clink of copper coins.” And each time the dragon appeared, we heard him clinking along. The editor suggested a progression of sounds going from copper to silver to gold–with appropriate phrasing, of course.

I tried that and it didn’t work. Instead, I went toward baser metals: voice like the clink of copper coins, voice like the sound of a brass gong, voice ringing like a hammer on an iron anvil. This worked well because each step was a baser metal, a louder voice, and eventually, we wound up with the iron anvil, which harkened back to the main character’s job as a blacksmith.

I could have tried to force it into the more precious metals. The editor didn’t care about that, though. She was pointing out that a progression of sounds for the dragon’s voice had the potential to strengthen the story. I went to the heart of that comment and did a progression, and it pleased her.

That’s a very simple example of going to the heart of an editor’s comments, but it demonstrates how important it is to understand exactly what the editor is concerned about with their comments. Don’t hesitate to call and clarify the issues. If the editor took the time to write that letter, they won’t mind a call.

3 thoughts on “Revision: Understanding critiques

  1. One thing that I find difficult as a beginning book writer is knowing which suggestions/questions to address and which to disregard. I’ve been looking for a resource on revising following critiques, but have come up short.

  2. I really like this suggestion of getting to the heart of what the editor is saying. I’ve just been critiquing a novel for a writer who had had conflicting advice on her opening chapter. One critic said, add more tension by telling us about the death of the son early on. She did that, and a subsequent critic said, you dissipate the tension too soon by including this information and could keep us guessing far longer.

    I read her novel and worked out what the problem really was; her writing style was not inviting the reader to engage with the characters. The two opposing critics had identified this partly – they knew they weren’t as engrossed as they should have been, and so they tried making suggestions to change the content. But they weren’t writers, and they couldn’t see the real problem, which was the style.

  3. Novels are so complex! Often, readers know something is wrong — as you said — but can’t identify what. If you’re able to get to the heart of the matter, then you’re a superb critiquer!

    Darcy

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