6.13.2006

Thoughts on Critiques, Part I

“A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.” ~ Kenneth Tynan


I like to critique. It's a passion, a mission, a driving need to tell others what the hell is wrong with them. Some might say I have a real gift for it.

And it's not easy to write a good critique.

You have to provide feedback on both technical and craft flaws, nurture (as opposed to smother, inflate, coddle, or pander to) the writer's ego, and give an honest opinion as to what your reader's intuition says "works" while keeping your own biases in mind (and admitting to them as necessary).

And, quite frequently, you get blasted by the author for a multitude of reasons ranging from "You're jealous!" to "You're an asshole!" to "What do you know?".

I know I just offered you the opinion you asked for; you didn't specify "only flattering opinions, lol" in your critique request, did you? (If you did, I am deeply, deeply sorry. I mean it -- I'm sorry I even bothered.)

So if you find yourself tempted to use any of the following, please don't. You'll only insure that nobody of any skill at that venue will want to critique for you in the future.

1. "Yeah? Well, what have YOU written? Don't criticize unless you've written a novel too."

So what you're saying is that you've written a book that can only be appreciated by fellow authors? Great for you! Because fellow authors tend to be poor, frugal, and highly critical. Exactly what I want in an audience too.

You don't have to direct a movie to know if it's any good as you walk out of the theater; you don't have to write a book to spot flaws in one. It's called "discrimination" and it's a faculty everyone should possess. I am a discriminating reader who likes and reads in most genres; I am your worst nightma- er, your target audience.

2. "You're missing the point. What I MEANT is..."

This is actually a good thing. See, you can just explain to each of your fans individually, in person, what you really meant (since you can't seem to via text, that is). This may be a bit time-consuming, but, hey, it's great marketing!

I am literate, intelligent (such modesty!), and reasonably conversant with the conventions of the genres I critique in. If you have to explain it to me, your writing has failed. The purpose of writing is to communicate, and if your audience isn't getting it, you need to take a long, hard look at what's on the paper.

I knew a guy who actually tried this argument on me in Real Life when I commented that I dislike an author he loved.

"But if you'd just met him at the convention like I did, you'd really *get* his books," he told me, as if speaking with the author is a perfectly reasonable requirement for judging the author's work.

And as if, having spoken with the author, I'd suddenly understand why his characters were about as engaging as plain brussel sprouts (on second thought, this might have become apparent if the author was a real attaccabottoni -- but not a good thing regardless).

I'll say it again; the purpose of writing is to communicate. If your reader is in your target audience, you shouldn't have to explain your writing to him.

4. "I'm different; I don't follow the norms for the genre."

It might have romance in it but it isn't a 'Romance" (capital "R") if there's no Happily Ever After (or at least the promise of one after the sequel). Genre fans like to be surprised, but nobody likes broken promises. And by packaging your work as a specific genre, you're making promises about it, even if they're only marginal.

Why aren't you following "the norms"? Are you better than that? Are the norms, appreciated by most if not all of the readers of that genre, beneath you?

Maybe you're writing in the wrong genre.

5. "Plot's not important to me. The characters are what matters."

This is usually said in a very smug, very patronizing way that implies that the reader is a philistine, an action-adventure lover with more testosterone than brains, a vapid sheeple who can't possible be expected to understand character-driven literature.

Hehehehehehehe. Hee. Hee.

Now that that's out of the way... this is patently stupid. Character and plot are both required for a story to work effectively. Your characters' actions drive the plot, while the plot drives the characters' reactions.

Some works are definitely more to one side or the other, but dismissing either aspect as less important or of no importance at all is a very big mistake.

If nothing happens (see "plot"), nobody will keep reading past the first few pages, no matter how witty your characters' dialogue, anguished their emotions, or tragic their histories. If your characters have no character (see "motivation"), the reader will not be engaged by your characters and will not care about them enough to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Either way, you lose. A reader's time is valuable; it's what, along with the cover price, he brings to the table. And if you waste that reader's time, you lose him as a reader.

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When you ask for a critique, and you get one, do NOT rush off like a fool to defend your baby. Take a deep breath. One critique, by itself, means nothing unless it resonates with you or you respect and trust the reviewer.

If you think the person providing the critique is full of shit, thank them for their time (always assume they wrote it with good intentions; anybody writing substantial critiques with bad intentions is obviously crazy and has shown they have the time to stalk you if you piss them off) and move on.

If you find that all of your critics are full of shit, especially if they all seem to agree, you're either using the wrong venue to get feedback (lol! I lurv'd it!) or your critics aren't the ones who are wrong.

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