Monday, March 28, 2011

Column: Critiquing Your Critics by Mandy Houk

I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, but when I decided to actually pursue writing as a career, the first thing I did was join a critique group. The group consisted of six ladies—some poets, some essayists, some fiction writers—ranging in age from 31 (me) to 75. (Before I joined, the youngest was Bonnie, age 62). We met every other week in a local community room and read our pieces out loud while munching cookies and sipping hot tea.

While the ladies were soft-spoken and mild-mannered, they spoke their minds when it came to critiquing. My first night there, I read a poem, thinking I’d receive polite applause, smiles and nods. It took about two minutes for me to read the poem, and fifteen to twenty for the ladies to comment. By the time I’d finished making notes on my page, my poor poem was nearly obscured by all the marks and carets. Nobody apologized for ripping apart my precious darling—every comment was delivered calmly, matter-of-fact. And when I rewrote the poem using their suggestions, it was clear that these ladies knew what they were talking about. I should have known: each of them had been published many times over.

I quickly learned that similar demographics were not essential in a critique group. But I was so fortunate with that first set of partners, I’d had no opportunity (or need) to sort out the potential difficulties.

The second group I joined, after moving several hundred miles away from my preciously picky ladies, was made up of nine fiction writers, male and female, from all over the country. We were brought together through a short story contest we’d all entered, and we set up a yahoo group in order to share submissions and critiques.

The advantage to this group, I thought, was that every member was writing fiction, and a few were interested in writing nonfiction articles. Both lined up with my primary career goals. Another advantage was the diversity of reading habits. One woman read only Christian fiction. One man read everything but Christian fiction. Another woman wrote chick-lit, while still another wrote young adult fantasy stories.

Although it is a good thing to be in a group with diverse backgrounds and goals, it’s important to filter advice with that in mind. My trouble was that I was still new enough to writing that I believed I had to make every change any other writer suggested to me. (It had worked with my picky ladies!)

This turned out to be a serious miscalculation.

First of all, the advice contradicted itself. One woman thought every sentence was beautiful, every word appropriately chosen, every manuscript destined for publication and greatness (I adore her). Another used a color-coded system to insert her remarks—and every page came back looking like it had been caught in an explosion at the Crayola factory.

One woman tended to advise chopping up sentences to make them more readable, while one man wanted long, complex sentences for the sound and the flow (he’s my fellow Faulkner fan).

One man was a big believer in making up your own details and not getting bogged down in the nitty gritty as long as the story “rings true.” One woman was adamant that details be one hundred percent accurate.

As you can see, it was impossible to make every suggested change. I wound up feeling frustrated and confused, which led to literary paralysis: with all my harried attempts at rewriting, I wasn’t doing much writing. (I spent six weeks rewriting a single funeral scene that took up about a page and a half in my manuscript.)

My whole perspective changed one day when the group got “off-topic” and started talking about current popular books. There was one book in particular that I had on my “to read” list, but I’d never picked it up. I wanted to read it because it was literary, and I’d heard it was favored to win the Pulitzer Prize (it did—it’s Gilead by Marilynne Robinson). One of the women in the group wrote passionately of her experience reading the first page: she hated it. She found it murky, hard to follow, and could not understand the critics’ adulation. This contradicted what I had heard from a fellow English teacher friend, so I logged onto Amazon.com and pulled up the first page to see for myself.

I am not exaggerating to say that, by the end of the first paragraph, my mouth hung open and tears had pooled in my eyes. Not because it was sad. It wasn’t. I just found the writing to be that incredibly beautiful. It’s the kind of writing that puts an ache in my chest and makes me think I ought to quit writing.

I immediately started to wonder what I had changed in my own manuscript based on the advice of this critique group member. Let me be clear: I love her writing. I envy her ability to get a laugh out of me with just a few perfectly chosen words, and to bring me to tears in the very next sentence. She has also become one of my dearest friends.

But we view lyrical writing differently, so I need to take that into account when I read her comments on my manuscripts. If her opinion is that a certain passage in my novel is too meandering and wordy, I need to remember that she never enjoys meandering and wordy—but I do. This doesn’t mean that I discard her opinion. I don’t. I look at the passage in question to see if she has a point, and I only make changes if I truly agree.

This experience led me to take a fresh look at each of my critique partners. Do they read what I read? Do they habitually offer praise, and no criticism? Or do they habitually offer criticism, and no praise?

Once I started paying attention to where each critique partner was coming from, their comments were much more useful. I was able to retain my own writing identity and preferences as I considered their advice, and my changes became constructive rather than destructive. And I was able to move forward in my manuscript, rather than continually tearing into bits what I’d written already.

Over time, I’ve learned that each critique partner has a different role in my writing. The one that doesn’t go in for lyrical, for example, is not only the best sounding board when I fear I’m being too sentimental; she’s also the quickest to find my grammatical and punctuation errors. The one that loves everything she reads is a wonderful blessing when I’m feeling like a hack (like the best friend who insists your butt doesn’t look big in your only clean pair of jeans, and you know she’s fibbing but you need to hear it anyway). As for the one that suggests multiple changes no matter what she’s reading (even if it’s a passage I’ve already changed to her specifications)—well, we’ve parted ways, since there was no way to sort out what was constructive and what was just nitpicky.

If you’ve struggled with finding a critique group, or with knowing how to make critique partners’ comments work for you, here are some questions for you to consider:

1.      What does she read?
2.      Can he be honest, whether it’s to criticize or to praise?
3.      Does she accept your criticism on her own work?
4.      Will he accept the fact that you may not necessarily make changes based on his advice?
5.      Can she set aside personal reading preferences, and take your own writing goals into account?
6.      What are his strengths—what comments should you pay particular heed to?

Once you’ve considered all of the above questions, it wouldn’t hurt to review your own critiquing style, using the same parameters. The best way to form a group of great critique partners is to be one yourself.


BIO:

Mandy Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and woefully underpaid home schooling mom. She's sold several nonfiction articles and stories, and placed in a couple of short fiction contests, but she has yet to break into book-length fiction. Her first novel is safely and appropriately in a deep, dark drawer. Her second is in its final rewrite, and will be sent out to agents in 2011. No, really.