June 22, 2011

Critiquing and Descriptivism

This week's Critique Secret (#5) isn't really a secret: critiquing can help you improve your manuscript.  Here's the how:

1. Critiquing takes the stress out of guesswork.  If five people tell me an ending falls flat or a line was confusing, then I know something is wrong.

2. Critiquers see things I can't.  I can set a manuscript aside, but I can't divorce myself from stuff I know.  In a story I once had a character adding tempter to clay.  I knew this mean adding something (in this case, sand) to increase the plasticity of the clay.  Readers all all told me the character had anger management issues.  Oops.

3. A good critiquer will also point out the great stuff: moments that made them laugh, a paragraph that flowed perfectly, the chapter ending that really worked as a cliffhanger.  Sometimes knowing what to keep is just as important as knowing what to toss.

I recently listened to today's The Appendix (a great podcast), where Robison Wells talks about how the advice of his critique group once ruined a book.  He learned a lot about writing, but molding the book to every suggestion turned it to putty.  When I'm using feedback, I try to figure out what's descriptive (describing a problem) or prescriptive (telling me how to fix it).  Examples!

Exhibit A: "The character's motivations confused me.  The point-of-view feels distant, and I'm just not sure what she wants."  This is descriptive, the critiquer relaying things they felt while reading.

Exhibit B: "You should describe the POV character at the top of the page so we know she's a zombie, then tell us she just wants brains so this scene makes sense."  This is prescriptive, with the critiquer telling the author how they would write the story.  It's still valuable -- the author could read between the lines and understand that there are muddled motivations afoot -- but this may or may not be the right way to fix it.

Critiquing can turn the story I'm trying to tell into the best, clearest version of itself.  I usually let comments sit for a week, digesting, before revising.  After the edits, it's always satisfying to lean back and know that the story is better than it was before -- and better than it could have been without another pair of eyes.

No comments:

Post a Comment