On writing: Is my zipper down or do you just not like my pants?

We’ve all gotten those critiques or reviews of our work where the reader has a lot of things to say of the not-good variety. As writers, we have to learn to grow a thick skin. At least, that’s what they always say. But I think that analogy is a little off as it implies being impervious, which is not exactly what we want to be. Yes, we need to learn to be tough and withstand criticism, but we also need to be able to absorb and learn from others.

During the critique and beta phases of our WIPs, we have to learn to tell the difference between helpful advice and just plain bad advice. This isn’t always easy. I touched upon a way to look at critiques in the fall, but being a new writer I’m still learning and have come upon a new fear. (Yippee! Not.) And that is…

Is my zipper down or do you just not like my pants?

I’ve been getting extremely helpful critiques from critters at critiquecircle.com as well as by fellow writers I know or have met online (Yay Twitter!) and I’ve learned a lot in the process. My writing is stronger because of it. I still have metric tons more to learn. Sometimes I’ve received critiques I haven’t agreed with, or they were trying to stamp out my voice and insert theirs, or I could just tell they didn’t like romances. These were easy to see. I’ve also had helpful feedback where mistakes and lapses were pinpointed, weak spots highlighted, or being told outright that a scene wasn’t working and why. This was gold to me. I would rather hear this kind of stuff and grow as a writer, than be patted on the head with a “that’s nice, dear” and live in blissful ignorance that my writing sucks.

Recently, however, I’ve been the recipient of a new kind of feedback (which I’m sure you veterans are familiar with) which has made the evaluation process tougher. This critiquer pretty much had something snarky to say about each scene, belittling plot choices I’d made, etc. You might say that I should dismiss this person as they obviously don’t know how to give constructive feedback. But what if he/she’s right, or that hidden amongst it are good gems I just can’t see past the snark factor?

Could it be my zipper’s been down this whole time and everyone else has been too polite to tell me?

The problem with the delivery of this person’s feedback is that it makes it very hard to look beyond it and see if any of it is valid. Or to understand that they just don’t like my voice and genre (which I’m fine with).

I love critiquecircle.com, but one of its drawbacks is that it’s mainly done chapter by chapter with inline comments. To continue with my metaphor, everyone’s helped me make sure the stitching is straight, my pockets look good, cuffs are the right length, etc. (Thank you guys!!!) It’s not ideal, though, for stepping back and evaluating the whole and noticing that my goddamn zipper’s been catching air this whole time. The whole forest for the trees thing… I think that’s why the recent critter worries me, because she might be seeing things everyone’s missed. The other problem is that I’m a new writer and haven’t yet learned how to evaluate this.

It could be a confidence thing. Heck, I’m sure it is. But I think it’s also because I ache to improve my writing and I really, really don’t want to be missing an opportunity to learn. But I haven’t developed the skill yet to tell if this person just doesn’t like my genre and style. Since I don’t know this critter, which would help in the evaluation department, I’ve reached out to a writer I trust to read my fourth draft (which I hope to have soon) and let me know if my zipper is down.

How about you? Have you had a rough/snarky critique that ran in complete contrast to all other critiques? Did you also have a hard time putting that one critique in perspective?

EDIT: Coincidence time! Just saw from another blogger I follow that the first Wednesday of every month is Insecure Writer’s Support Group Day blog hop. So, I just entered my name into the ranks and making this my first post. Visit some others today and help boost morale.

Smash That Mirror! Why Self-Referencing Critiquers Could Be Dangerous

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I’ve had a blog post in mind for a while on the dangers of critiquers that self-reference motivations for your characters and a post I saw yesterday helped sharpen my thoughts. So, today I want to explore why some critiques we receive might not be the best advice and could actually turn your unique voice into a pile of pablum. Yum. Yeah, not so much.

The kernel of my epiphany started when I read Amanda Quick’s Scandal a month or so ago and I had a reaction to the heroine along the lines of “Man, I would NEVER do that…” and at first thought her actions weren’t realistic because it was so different from what I would do. Then I stopped myself and realized that it was TOTALLY what the heroine would do and it made it more interesting to see how her decisions and outlook would work for her.

It got me thinking, since I was also receiving inline critiques at the time, about some of the feedback we receive when we submit our work. It also made me better understand articles I’ve read that said that readers are harder on heroines in Romances than on the hero, precisely because they insert themselves into the heroine’s shoes and so resent it when she behaves in a way they don’t like.

I feel like I’m rambling, so here’s my point: when we receive critiques, are we sure the critiquer has the character and story arc in mind, or are they basing the character on themselves?

I’ve received critiques myself that have made me wonder. They usually are along these lines: “If this were me, I’d tell that guy…” or “I would never react that way, this doesn’t sound believable.” These I used to heed blindly and is one reason I worry that my first chapter has been over-critiqued and become a Frankenstein mash-up of every critiquers’ POV. Earlier this past summer when I started getting inline critiques on critiquecircle.com, I was so new at this, I didn’t know how to evaluate comments. I hadn’t learned to match it against what I knew about the character. I remember one critiquer rewrote almost every sentence in my first chapter, stripping it of its rhythm and of the POV characters’ voice. One particular line I remember her saying, “get rid of this,” and yet it was something that was so how Isabelle thinks. All the other critiquers commented on that very line about how they loved it. Luckily, I did pay attention to my gut and the majority on that one, but I did rewrite a lot of sentences per that critiquer’s feedback. Sigh.

Sometimes, the feedback we receive from these types of critiquers might still be important, but am wondering if comments starting with “I would/would not” could be a useful indicator to take the comment with a spoonful of salt and really be extra vigilant about comparing it to the character’s motivations and outlook. I fear I also might have been one of these types of critiquers when I first started, yikes!

Why might heeding these types of critiques be dangerous? Everyone’s different (thank God!) and so if we end up conforming our character to each critiquer, we’ll end up with a non-character – all the things that made that character unique are gone. I touched a bit on this last month in a blog post on daring to defy 30% of the population.

But, if the critiquer writes, “This doesn’t sound like her. Up until now, she’s been feisty…” or some variation that shows that the critiquer is basing it on the past actions of the character and not on how they themselves would react, it’s more like gold. Especially if they have thought of the character in a nuanced way that you didn’t want. Their feedback might not be right for your character, but at least you know the critiquer is referencing it against the character and not self-referencing.

Yesterday’s post that shed an extra dimension to this realization was Lauren Harris’ The Four Temperaments (for You and Your Characters) – Part I. I almost skipped it because I’ve seen and read before about using the Myers-Briggs types to help with character development. But she did more of a big picture take on it (Sensing types vs. Intuitives) and with examples (love examples as they help my poor brain get it better) that showed how these two types would convey description and exposition.

Well, it made me wonder if this could be a way to look at critiquers as well. Wouldn’t one type be more apt to find the actions of the other type less believable? A sensing critiquer would be frustrated at the intuitive character for not taking note of certain things right off the bat, for instance. My heroine, Isabelle, is definitely an intuitive, and now I remember that I got some critiques where the critiquer said something along the lines of, “How could she make that hunch? Have her make note of certain things in the environment to justify this conclusion.” My thought when I read it, was, well, because she can. Doesn’t everybody? (Obviously, I’m an intuitive). Does this mean the critiquer was a sensing type and had a hard time getting that intuitives can come to conclusions in a different way than them?

Which brings up an interesting question. When I posted my comment on Harris’ blog, she said:

I hadn’t thought of turning the idea around and applying it to readers and critiquers, but that’s a very interesting point! I suppose it works if you know your critique partner quite well, or well enough to know their personality type. ;) It could also help in figuring out how NOT to alienate readers who are a different temperament from the character (or you), in figuring out what kinds of details matter to a wider scope. (bolded by me)

How far should one go in calming the anxieties of the readers’ of the other type?

Anyway, this all goes back to the caution you hear in many places about critiques: know your story and your characters WELL before you start this stage in your novel process.

I know for veteran writers, this is no new revelation, and you’ve probably already stopped reading this post. But for a new writer, this is a huge realization to come to, and I know there are other writers at the same stage as myself, so I thought I’d share. If any veterans have stuck it out with me (bless you!), I’d love to hear what your thoughts are.

New writers, have you received critiques that were waaay off base for your character? Were you able to recognize it as such? Veterans, do you have any other advice for us new novelists on receiving critiques?

Do you know if your heroine is sensing or intuitive? What are you?