Wednesday, June 22, 2016

To Critique or Not to Critique

By: Jason P. Henry

It is a wonderful thing to write a novel. That moment you type the last sentence is an incredible, exhilarating feeling. You should be proud. Many want to write a book, but not all follow through. Far fewer see that dream to completion. If you have started a novel, I applaud you. If you have finished, give yourself a hand.

So what next?

Have you ever seen a diamond in the rough? It’s not an overly attractive thing, to be honest. It doesn’t stand out from many other varieties of crystals. To see a diamond uncut, it would take a lot to convince you to shell out the thousands of dollars you pay for a finished gem. It takes a lot of skill to get a rough specimen into the highly valued items you see in jewelry stores. Hours of cutting and polishing go into the process.

Consider your first, or rough draft just that, an unfinished diamond. It may be OK now, but the time you spend cutting and polishing is what really makes it shine. That is what makes it marketable and something readers want to buy. If somebody purchases a book, only to find it filled with misspelled words, plot holes, poor sentence structure, and other problems, they likely won’t purchase something with your name on it again. A nail in the coffin for potentially the best authors.

There are steps you can take to avoid this pitfall. Use spell check, read your work out loud and hear how it sounds. More importantly, let others have a look.
         
Let’s go back to the cave where we found that diamond. The person who discovered the rough-looking specimen is not likely to be the one who will polish or cut it. That person loves the adventure, the thrill of discovery. Much like an author enjoys writing a great story. The miner who finds the diamond extracts it, then sends it off to another who will cut and polish the gem to give it more shine. As a writer, you do the same with your novel or story. In fact, it’s essential.

Your first step in that process should be a critique partner and/or a group. When your first draft is complete, and you have used my advice listed above, find someone else to give it a read. You’ll be amazed at what he or she finds. You have looked at your story for hours upon hours. You know it inside out. But your brain sees what is supposed to be there instead of what actually is. A critique partner looks at things with a fresh set of eyes. He catches things that you have likely missed multiple times already. After you make the suggested corrections, you’ll be amazed at how much more your diamond shines.
         
So what makes a good critique partner?

A critique partner is not the person who tells you what a great writer you are and that your story is the next New York Times bestseller. If that is the type of feedback you want, give it to your mom and put on it on your refrigerator when she’s done. Yes, compliments are great, but too many unaccompanied by constructive feedback are counterproductive. So, before giving your work to someone for critique, have a conversation with potential candidates. It is OK if they are people you know. You still want to make sure they are right for you.

First, make sure they appreciate and understand the genre you’re writing. You would not critique a romance novel the way you would a horror novel.

Secondly, I recommend you choose a partner who is a writer. (Every relationship is about balance. Trade manuscripts and help each other out by swapping critiques.) A critique partner is not the same as a beta reader or paying an editor—that comes later.

Next, make sure your potential critique partner is someone you can work with, someone with whom you share a mutual respect. If you can’t accept criticism from him or her without getting upset, or vice versa, move on. (But consider this: If you can’t take constructive criticism, you might not be ready for a critique group.)

During critique you may find your critique partner makes a suggestion you disagree with. Remember, it is your story and it should never become anything else. You are free to ignore.

Setting Guidelines for Critique

After you’ve chosen your critique partner(s) you and your partner should set guidelines. Among these are location, frequency, time and the day of the week. These probably sound basic, but don’t underestimate the complications that can arise. You and your partners ideally have lives outside of writing.

Determine the times that are mutually available for all of you. My partner and I attempt to meet weekly. It works at the rate both of us write and can finish a critique. We also understand that there are weeks we have to skip. You and your partners will eventually settle into a rhythm and understanding. This comes with time, so be patient.

I consider location to be one of the most important aspects of a critique group. I prefer a neutral environment. Perhaps one member wants to meet at her house. Maybe she has kids, or maybe she simply loves to play hostess.

Personally, I don’t like putting that constant strain on one member. Always feeling the need every week, to clean, prepare snacks, drinks, etc. I find it distracts from the whole purpose of the group. Remember, this is your dream, and it is not an easy one to pursue. It deserves proper, dedicated attention. This is where a neutral venue comes in handy, or at least a constant rotation of private homes if that becomes necessary.

Wherever you decide to meet, the environment should be conducive to productivity. It should be quiet and comfortable enough to focus. It should have amenities, e.g. restrooms, beverages and food. It should have favorable hours of operation. Your group may move a few times before finding a venue that works. That is OK because atmosphere is essential to progress.

Now the tough advice—What if the relationship isn’t working?

Even after all the above has been addressed, and you have spent time with a group, you may find it doesn’t work for you. Know that it is OK to step away. These folks may be your friends, family or coworkers, but your goal is to improve your writing. If that is not happening, you’re in the wrong place.

Likewise, if, a member isn’t carrying his weight, it may be necessary to ask him to leave. A critique is about progress. Yes, there may be hurt feelings, but you have to move beyond that. This is your career, not a social club, although that can be a side benefit.

Once you are with the right group, you will be amazed at how much your writing improves. More importantly, how much you grow as a person. Critique boosts your confidence level because you’ve allowed others to see your work. You now have momentum and may be less hesitant to submit to contests, agents, editors, and/or publishers. Your skin also thickens as your learn how to take criticism.

To critique or not to critique should not be a question. The answer is absolutely. Writing can be a lonely venture. But even many of the best writers don’t go it alone. Get started, collaborate with others. Share your journey, and grow as an author. Watch that rough-looking specimen become a diamond.

About the Author: When he's not working with the dedicated and passionate people of Pikes Peak Writers, Jason P. Henry is lost in a world of serial killers, psychopaths, and other unsavory folks. Ask him what he is thinking, but only at your own risk. More often than not he is plotting a murder, considering the next victim, or twisting seemingly innocent things into dark and demented ideas. A Suspense, Thriller and Horror writer with a dark, twisted sense of humor, Jason strives to make people squirm, cringe, and laugh. He loves to offer a smile, but is quick to leave you wondering what lies behind it. Jason P. Henry is best summed up by the great philosopher Eminem “I'm friends with the monsters beside of my bed, get along with the voices inside of my head.” Learn more about Jason at www.jasonphenry.com