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Sep
29
2015

How to Use a Critique -- by Donna B. Comeaux

I'm in a vicious cycle.

I received several critiques the other day on my new novel, Red Satin Ribbons. One person stated that the chapter had too much backstory. Another one stated that I needed to put more people in the scene. Someone suggested I had overused the pronoun "he." A group videoed their critique of my story a week ago and cautioned me to slow the scene down—treat it as if it were a scene in a play and make sure events were in sequential order.  Whew!

I didn't spend time being angry at any of them. They were all correct. Now, I was faced with what I wanted to change vs. what I needed to change.

I worked feverishly to correct the problems, making a list of the errors so I wouldn't forget to correct them. After spending a great deal of time reading and re-reading what I had written, I sent the chapter out for another critique.

Though there were slight improvements, the feedback was basically the same: too much backstory, too many pronouns; but now that I had slowed the scene down, they questioned whether the people that I added were locals or tourists. Good question, but how would I go about making their status clear in the novel without adding tons of narrative to the scene?

I take critiques seriously. Writers spend valuable time on my story. The least I can do is listen to what they have to say. So, after reading the critiques two or three times, I folded my arms and asked myself, "Will I ever finish this? Will I ever get this story right?"

At the end of the day, you're left feeling as if you'll never get off this merry-go-round.

What is a writer to do?

During my frenetic efforts to make corrections to my story, I discovered that I really don't know how to use critiques. I got so caught up in pleasing my critiquers that I lost my way. To my amazement, I had unconsciously assumed that a handful of critiquers represented the world's viewpoint.

Ever feel that way?

I wouldn't dare write a story and not solicit a critique. For me, that would be catastrophic. Assuredly, I'd miss something. I need all the help I can get to ensure I publish polished works of art.

So, how do I use a critique?

Learn to listen.

After a critique, spend a day or two throwing a tantrum and spitting venom. But in the end, learn to listen.

Since I've had numerous feedback warning me that I have too much backstory, I was forced to address this issue. Many have said that the story should begin the moment the action unfolds. Here is the ironic thing about that opinion—when I first wrote the story, that's exactly where I began—with riveting action.

So, why did I change my story?

Know your story.

In late March, while working on my second draft, I sat down with this overwhelming feeling that something wasn't right. It finally hit me. Though the story was action-packed, it was flat . . . the main character one-dimensional. The reader didn't know anything about him—where he was from, a hint about what was driving him to do what he did, why he cared so much, why was he even in the canyon in the first place. In order for my reader to care about the main character, I had to get to know him. To do that, I had to get inside his head. Then I needed to write what was going on inside his head without overusing the pronoun "he," and without my writing sounding like a grocery list.

After additional critiques, I quickly realized that the heart of the matter was how much backstory to put in the opening chapter.

How much backstory does a reader need?

Is the backstory for me? Or is the backstory for the reader? How much backstory does the reader need? Professional editors can give you an opinion, critiquers can offer suggestions, but only you have the power to make that crucial decision.

In order to know how much backstory you should or shouldn't have, you must know your story well. More importantly, ask yourself if you can reserve most of the backstory for later, sprinkling it in here and there so that your writing doesn't become dull and boring to your readers. Remember this: if you have backstory without dialogue and riveting action, it is sure to put your reader to sleep. If your reader nods off, you've lost them—maybe forever.

For me, I had to decide whether my backstory was too much. I looked at my computer page and literally tried to visualize what the backstory would look like in a printed book. Would my three and a half computer pages be three and a half pages in a pocket book or would it end up being a page and three-quarters? Would that much backstory test my readers' patience? Do they need to know all this information now or is it an information dump?

When I thought about it this way, I concluded my backstory for this particular book wasn't at all too much.

Keep an open mind. Be flexible.

I still solicit critiques for my story. However, all comments concerning the backstory fall on deaf ears—for now. Am I being hardheaded? Absolutely not. I have become comfortable with the amount of backstory that I've inserted. However, I remain open. In the back of my mind, I'm telling myself that during rewrites, if there comes a place within the story where portions of the backstory are better suited for the middle of the story, I will reposition it.

Value critiques; Respect Critiquers.

Critiques are valuable. For example, the critiquer who said that I needed to put more people in the scene offered me a great suggestion. After I placed two young men in the scene, another critiquer questioned if they were locals or not. I thought to myself, "Good question. Hadn't thought about that." I revised the scene and exchanged the two young men for an older couple—the man with binoculars around his neck; his companion, a female with a fanny pack too tight around her bulging waist. Now, who wouldn't think of these two as tourists? Aaah, problem solved.

Even more valuable are the critiquers who spend precious time reading and critiquing your manuscript, for free. They do it because they want to be of service to you. If someone doesn't get what you're trying to convey, it's okay to ignore parts of the critique. But if you've received several warnings from different people about a particular problem with your writing, pause and give serious consideration to the warning.

Critiques aren't personal attacks. Our main focus is to call attention to elements of your writing that won't work in the public sector and to save you from embarrassment.

No one can tell you which critiques are valuable to your story. Only you can make that decision. Because you don't follow a particular suggestion, doesn't mean you're being bullheaded either. It might simply mean that you've come to a place when a decision had to be made, and you made it. Being flexible, however, gives you the option to change your mind.

 

Donna B. Comeaux published her first novel, Selfish Ambition, in January 2015. You can find her book on Smashwords.com, Barnes & Noble (bn.com), and Amazon.com. She writes for Ruby for Women, an online Christian magazine, and has written for Hope-full Living and Believers Life. Devotionals, writing tips, and political opinions are on her blog and can also be found at www.ezinearticles.com.

http://www.awriterfirst.wordpress.com

http://www.rubyforwomen.com

http://ezinearticles.com/?expert=Donna_B._Comeaux

Posted by Donna B. Comeaux 29 Sep 2015 at 01:55
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Responses to this blog

Ariadne 29 Sep 2015 at 22:24  
Amazing post! I felt hurt and disappointed when my first draft met some serious allegations such as too much backstory or unlikeable protagonist. But then I took some time off and returned a few weeks later with a fresh mind. And know what happened? I realized how correct they were. From then on I always listen to my critiques and if their suggestions are good, I take them. The harsher yet honest the critique is, the better. Anyway, very good post, Donna!
Chaine 30 Sep 2015 at 13:13  
I agree this is a very good and much needed post. Critique Circles new writer are usually treated with kind patience and understanding. Almost everyone understands that we all have to learn the writer?s craft. When a new member submits first critiques the bonhomie often seems to disappear and is replaced with criticism. New writers are the same people who struggle to write their first critiques but the treatment they receive as ?critters? does seem to be very different to that of new writers.

How can the author respond to a below standard critique? A thank you note can be sent without comment and the inference is that the critique is not appreciated. If the author entered into a critique of the critique this could open a can of worms.

We could all do better when we give critiques but the help and support for this aspect of Critique Circle seems to be wanting. I can see a problem here but I have to admit I don?t have a solution.

Kelly2337 30 Sep 2015 at 13:38  
Thank you for the post. It feels good to know I am not alone when it comes to writing, especially as a new writer. After my first time posting a chapter on here, and having it critiqued, I crawled away from the keyboard whimpering and licking my wounds. I had worked long and hard on that chapter and felt like I had it ripped from my proverbial hands and stomped on. I took a short break of a couple of weeks and then picked my work back up and re-examined the critiques. All of a sudden the lamenting anguish and gnashing of teeth were gone and I saw real people trying to help me. I did some revising and things are looking much better. Also reading books on how to improve on my weak areas as a writer is helping too. Thanks again.
Erinlynne 3 Oct 2015 at 13:58  
Great post, great comments, but I do have a question: How do you help people give good critique, or should bad critique just be ignored?
It's unfortunate since most of us will only get an average of three to five critiques per story, to have several of these critiques contain rude/mean comments. The "you might as well trash this" kind of comment which isn't constructive criticism, but instead simply stating that the hours of work you put in amount to nothing but garbage. Lovely. I'm stubborn and will not be trashing it anytime soon. Even if I have to put a story aside for a few weeks to regroup.
I've started a writing circle in my district and we'll soon be holding writing jams for critique, so your imput would be useful.
Thanks.
Botanist 3 Oct 2015 at 19:46  
So much of this post resonates for me, and it contains lessons I learned the hard way over the years. I gave a talk on this subject at my local library last year. How to handle critiques (of all sorts) is like walking a minefield - a delicate balancing act at the best of times. Trouble is, people start out trying to navigate it blind. That never ends well
Margotg 4 Oct 2015 at 09:17  
This is an interesting post. First and foremost, critiques should be constructive. Saying, 'This is trash', without pointing out area's needing improvement and suggesting possible solutions are useless. But I also think this is a forum for honesty. Isn't that why we are all here? I can always count on positive comments from my mom and BFF's. This is the place to test material with outside readers. Always, though, couched in kind language.

We also must understand that reader's tastes greatly differ. While some want a slow start with lot's of detail, others want to jump right into the action with bullets flying and bodies dropping. Setting critiques aside after the initial reading is an excellent idea. With a cooler head it's easier to glean genuine helpful hints from them. Especially pay attention to of a similar nature from multiple readers. Too much backstory for example. Maybe it just needs to be split up a bit or moved down the page. Still in the opening, but not in the first 250 words for instance.

Thank you for a thoughtful post.


Giglio 5 Oct 2015 at 10:57  
Great post.

I like Margotg's comment about reader's tastes differing. To me, that is key.

I find many critters who say this in a variety of ways and finding the critter who someday may be your reader is hit and miss. Some critters are storytellers and others focus on the language—the literary bent. Most, I find are the technical editors who go micro on you when all you want is an overall impression with a few directional arrows.

The storytellers don't get the benefit because the critter sees only a slice. The language writers can be rewarded if the urge to fix syntax is overcome by the critter. As for the "comma missing" critters, I have an editor.

Finding the fit is everything.

I'll continue to submit stories and also derive benefit from reading other author's work. That is invaluable and I have picked up tips and ideas from even the rough writers.

Stay with CC and you will find fruit.
Puddinmush 8 Oct 2015 at 05:53  
The very best thing I ever did for my writing was to have my first novel beta-read. And let me tell you, the comments were heartbreaking, mostly because they were the truth. But after I wallowed in self-pity for a few days, I was able to examine the comments with hope, instead of despair. Instead of thinking, "I'm the worst writer in the world and I'll never be published!" I thought, "Ok, how can I address this issue?" I worked and worked and worked and it has payed off. Where before I felt a little uncertain, I now feel confident and proud of my writing. I have even found my voice—whereas before it sort of felt like I was narrating a movie (which shows that I had a massive "telling" problem). Of course, there is always room for improvement and I am certainly not naive to this fact, but getting my work critiqued excites me. I appreciate feedback so much. I especially appreciate honesty. Am I going to make every single change everyone suggests? No. But their comments help me refocus and examine my writing on a very technical level. So now, if I choose to change something, I know in my gut that it's the right thing to do. If after careful consideration I decide not to change, I feel more confident in my decision having had examined it closely.
Comeaux 9 Oct 2015 at 11:44  
Erinlynne, BAD CRITIQUES should be ignored. Why? Because all you'll do is create a need for a response that will turn out to be a debate. As a writer, you do not have the time or the energy to be sucked into a debate about someone's bad critique. Let me caution you. Even bad critiques have a thing or two contained within them that will help you. You might have to dig to find it, though. But for the most part, ignore them. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER is this: Do your best to submit or resubmit polished work. Polished and well-proofed submissions that open with an action scene is what draws more critiques of your work. If you get more than three or four people to critique your story, you are bound to get better feedback. Keep in mind that not everyone knows how to critique. So, put more concentration into polishing your work. You might also think about going to CC's member list and solicit very "active" members to look at your story. Coax them by asking them to at least read the first four paragraphs. If you can get them to do this, their input will be very valuable to you, because whatever they find in the first four paragraphs is usually errors that are found throughout the book. The first drafts of a manuscript usually repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Puddinmush 12 Oct 2015 at 07:43  
I echo what Comeaux says. I once received feedback with some hurtful phrasing and I was immediately offended. And I won't lie, most of it was off-putting and unhelpful, but there was one thing that this individual pointed out that was true. Yes, this individual worded things rudely, but because of them, I learned what an info-dump was and that I was overusing them. So I ignored what wasn't helpful and focused on what was.

This is just my opinion, but I think we should grit our teeth and ask ourselves, "Is this true?" first. If the answer is "no", then I say forget about it and move on.

I think it's also import to note that super positive critiques can also be unhelpful. I used to give these sorts of critiques—too worried about hurting someone's feelings and discouraging them that I wasn't honest and clear. At the beginning of my writing journey, I received a great deal of encouragement and positive feedback that sort of fooled me into thinking that I was ready to be published. I still get that. So when I received honest constructive feedback, I didn't know how to take it. In fact, it was quite the blow to my ego. But eventually, I learned how to take feedback and use it to my advantage.
Kathyklb 18 Oct 2015 at 00:12  
Hearing that my story is losing the readers interest at a certain point is a shocker, hearing that I needed more dialogue or to put things in a more logical order also didn't feel too good. The result however is a transformation that I am very proud of. I listen and take note of all comments but like you I also listen to myself. My tip is to also check out the profiles of your critics and to take a look at their work. Then use your own judgement.
Comeaux 19 Oct 2015 at 14:17  
Kathyklb, I caution against looking at the profiles of critiquers in an effort to validate their critique of your work. Their credentials, or the lack thereof, can act as a prop to validate your reasoning for listening to their advice or not. Remember, not everyone who critiques well, writes well. Not everyone who writes well, critiques well. To rely on their bios or their writings, might set writers up for possible failure. Consider someone who writes horror stories taking a leap of faith and critiquing a romance. If you look at that possibility on the surface, that might be a disastrous combination—a horror writer critiquing a romance. On the other hand, the horror storyteller might be able to look at your romance novel with fresh eyes and offer you insight that others may not have considered. If you were to look at his background because you didn't like what he had to say, you could be cheating yourself and possibly thwarting an opportunity to be pushed to be a better writer. I know "nothing" about fantasy novels, but I've critiqued several. I skipped what I didn't understand, but offered suggestions on what I did understand. Profiles aren't a tell-tale sign of expertise. The experts are not on this sight. They're publishing and don't know we exist. It all comes down to you knowing your story well, and learning how to use each and every critique individually, irregardless to someone's profile or background. In other words, we all have something to offer, no matter how large or how small. Sometimes you have to dig through all the fluff to find something useful. That's all part of the process. Profiles will cause you to form an opinion of the critiquer instead of focusing on the critique. Focusing on the critiquer can also intimidate you or make you mad. You see, in the end, it will become personal. No doubt about it. That's the very thing you want to avoid. Critiques aren't "personal attacks." When you focus on what the critique has to offer, who cares about the name or profile behind it. A more important question: Did this critique help or make a mess of my manuscript? If it's a mess, move on. If it helps . . . WOO! HOO! You're always the winner if you focus on the critique. Not the critiquer. Your aim is to become the best you can be. A soldier can't become the best soldier if he's spending time researching his loud-mouth drill sergeant. A good soldier focuses on holding his breath a lot longer under water, toting that line, carrying his weight, shooting his target, watching out for his fellow soldiers.

My point here is this: Don't spend too much time, if any, on the critiquer. Spend more time deciding what you can use v. what you can't use from the critique.
Auraxx 19 Feb 2016 at 07:47  
Great post.

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