Critique groups are great. Writing can be lonely and kindred souls reading your work can boost your spirit while building a stronger manuscript. Yet for every writer in a critique group there seems to be a critique horror story. The group leader who dismissively comments he doesn’t “understand” (or even “hates”) your genre. The broad thinker who advises you to rewrite the entire 300 page novel in free verse present tense– and while you’re at it set it in the stone age rather than contemporary. The picky wicky who can’t get past that typo on the 23rd page and the fact that the protagonist has a dachshund rather than a shelter dog (rescue is so much more relevant to today’s kids!)
WHY WHY WHY do they do that? And have you ever been guilty yourself? (I bet you have. I know I’m not always absolutely on the mark in my critiques.) So how can you avoid being the critique partner from hell?
I think most critique problems stem from one simple source.
I call this the NOT IN MY JOB DESCRIPTION or THE ANTI-MICK JAGGER RULE.
You’ve heard his song. You can’t always get what you want…. but if you try sometime you might find… you get what you need.
Critiquers take this refrain as gospel. Writing isn’t for wimps. You’ve got to be tough in a critique. It’s a critquers job to be HONEST and point out the FLAWS of a manuscript, whether the writer agrees or not. Meanwhile the writer has to zip her lip and absorb the criticism. They may not get what they want from your critique but they sure as heck will get what they need!!!
I don’t think it’s a critiquers job to lay bare an author’s bones along with those of the manuscript. Beaming the writer with a dozen well intentioned hardballs won’t necessarily help the writer move forward on his personal creative journey or improve a manuscript.
Excellent critiquers tailor a critique to what a writer WANTS, and in that way they also give some of what they believe a writer NEEDS.
But how do you accomplish this sort of a WANT+NEED critique? What exactly is your critiquer job description?
Good editors know the secret. They ask questions. What do you want me to focus on in my comments? Why did you choose present tense? What is this secondary character trying to achieve in this scene? How do you see this ending tying into the story promise you made in chapter one? This sort of discourse can be tough when the author must remain silent through the critique, but by raising questions and elaborating on them you can open an authors eyes not just to your vision of a story’s problems but to their own solutions and a deeper understanding of how to get there.
Giving a writing what they want is empowering.
Let’s say someone has spent three months on a brand new baby manuscript and she wants general impressions. Don’t hash over language. Don’t grind through logistical details. Do ask what the protagonist wants and what he’s doing in this section of the story to achieve that goal.
Or what about the “ready” to be submitted manuscript that’s been polished for years to a fine sheen. Does it really help anyone to insist that paranormal YA is dead and the whole novel should be recast as a realistic contemporary story?
Stop right there.
If the writer is concerned about tone focus on the sensations and emotion the manuscript generates. Not logic problems in the plot. Not chapter length. Not those annoying to you chapter by chapter changes of point of view.
If the writer is concerned about the title brainstorm on that. And leave it at that. Unless she asks for more.
A good critique is like an excellent gift, just what the recipient always wanted. Don’t give your writer friends the critique equivalent of a waste paper basket made from an elephant’s foot. Unless that’s what they asked for.
Listen to what the author wants. Listen with your ears (how often do we forget to simply ask what a writers goals are with the critique?) And listen with your heart. Writers are supposed to be empathetic. Turn on all your senses 1through 6 and put yourself inside the other author’s skin. Try to give them not just what you think they need. Give them a dose of what they want. The result will be pure harmony.