Dealing with Critiques and Reviews – the 40-20-40 Rule

One of my earliest blog posts was about dealing with critiques and I shared what I called the 30-40-30 rule that I learned from my uncle. Well I just had a short vacation with said uncle and found out I had the percentage wrong! He said it’s 40-20-40! So here’s my old post, revised a tad with that calculation.

As a writer, at some point you will reach the stage where you will need to have others critique your work. There are many reasons to do so that others have covered before, but as a former computer programmer, one way I like to look at it is: you cannot test your own code. You think you’ve written the program to do exactly what you want, you test it and hand it off to the Beta tester. And they find mistakes. The reason is because they didn’t build it and so don’t know your thinking behind it and do what comes natural to them. Consequently, they take paths you never dreamed of and hadn’t tested for. Yikes!

How does this relate to writing? You think you’ve sufficiently explained motives behind character actions, or have shown the emotional reaction sufficiently because YOU know the character so well and know EXACTLY why they’re doing it and fail to see that it didn’t quite come across the way you pictured it. Oops! A good critiquer or beta reader will find these ‘thin spots’ for you.

Okay, so you’re ready to get critiques? Are you sure? I’d like to tout again this great advice from Writer Musings: How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part Three: if you don’t know the heart of your story, you are not ready for feedback. This is so true because you are going to get a wide array of feedback. And by wide array, I mean some folks will hate a particular line and others will like that same one. Soon, you’ll be wanting to pull out your hair. Or, worse, you’ll take every single suggestion as gospel and water down your story, your voice, to such a state that it will be milquetoast.

The problem is, if you’re doing things right, I think, you’ll have some people not like it. Crazy I know. But I think I’m right. Here’s why. If you have a unique voice or your characters’ voices are interesting and unique, that means some people are not going to like it. It’s just not their thang. And that’s okay. Make it bland, though? No one will find it objectionable, but are any of them excited? Probably not.

So what’s a writer to do? I like to invoke my uncle’s 40-20-40 rule. He got this advice when he became dean of a department — 40% of the people are going to like you no matter what, 40% will not like you no matter what, it’s the 20% in the middle you need to worry about. This rule is so handy and applicable that I’ve quoted it many times for different scenarios. It’s why politicians are really in trouble if they drop below 40% in the approval ratings, because they’re losing folks that would normally support them no matter what.

When writing, use this rule, too, during your critique period and also when it’s published. Make sure you show your draft to people outside of your 40%-guaranteed likes (i.e. your family and friends). One excellent place to get a wide sampling and great advice is my favorite critique forum: Critique Circle. It runs by a credit system — the more you crit others, the more credits you earn and so the more you can post for review. The other part I like is that it is broken up by genre and there are only a certain number of slots for each, so you’re guaranteed to get crits, unlike other sites where you join a huge long list and folks have to wade through. The more crits given in a particular genre for that week’s cycle, the more slots available for that genre for the next week. Check it out.

But then be prepared for diverse opinions! It can be very overwhelming and it’s tempting to take every single piece of advice. Make sure you evaluate each one, even if it’s contrary or hard to swallow. They may have an excellent point. Take a few days and let it sink in. If it will make your piece stronger, use it. If it resonates with you as the writer and fits with your vision, use it. But if it doesn’t, don’t. You’ll get ‘critters’ who don’t like your genre, so of course they’re probably not going to like your piece. Evaluate to see if the critter ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say/tell. You’ll soon get the hang of it. I had one critter in the beginning that was telling me to delete things that were what made my character different. She didn’t like the character and so was watering her down to what she liked. I didn’t take her advice because I knew this was how my character thought, and others were liking this exact aspect of her.

So, I’m going to risk that 40% will not like my character and my story and hoping the 20% in the middle do.

EDIT: A sharp commenter noted that this is a breakdown of the Pareto Principle, known as the 80/20 rule. The lesson is the same: concentrate on capturing that elusive 20% in the middle, and the 40 on either end are the ‘trivial 80%’ noted in Pareto’s Principle!

What has been your critique experience? Do you find this rule applicable as well? Do you think the percentage distribution is right? Or do you feel 30-40-30 is more accurate?

Photo by jared

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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?

Revision of Ending Complete, Or, be thankful for pushers

writing
Photo by Rae Grimm (bloodylery)

After much gnashing of teeth and hair pulling and Funyun consumption, I finally strapped myself down in a chair and got some emotions out people. Lord, was that hard.

As I blogged yesterday in Struggling with Revising the End, this was hard for me. I was resistant. It was like someone was trying to force vegetables down my throat.
 
I typed in some changes here and there over the weekend and yesterday moved a whole chunk around, but then I realized what I needed to do. Print the dang thing out. Sometimes I just can’t revise on a computer. So I took the printout to the little sunroom off my library and with paper and pen scribbled away. This accomplished something else: it kept me away from compulsively checking Twitter, etc.
 
Finished and had a long talk with my mom after, who’d read Why I’m Happy My Mom Hates the Ending… and felt reaaaaalllly bad and I told her NO, I want honest feedback. I have to have someone I can trust for that! Anyway, typed in my revisions and with the thankful help of my awesome critique partner Susan at critiquecircle.com I finally got it wrangled into shape. I sent her my new revision and thankfully she said nope, still not there, keep pushing, dig deep. So back I went, etc. until she gave me a big smiley face. Whew! Oh, and I got a “good job babe!!!!!” from my mom (who, thankfully, is a Tough Cookie and not your typical ‘good job, dear’ kind of Mom). Double whew!
 
This back and forth led my critique partner Susan to message me this morning wondering if we’d ever be able to learn to push ourselves, because we’ve both been good at pushing the other. I don’t know the answer, but I honestly hope I’m never at that point. I want to be pushed. I think there’s a danger in not allowing others to push you. What do you think? Do you have a pusher?

Dealing with Critiques – the 30-40-30 Rule

As a writer, at some point you will reach the stage where you will need to have others critique your work. There are many reasons to do so that others have covered before, but as a former computer programmer, one way I like to look at it is: you cannot test your own code. You think you’ve written the program to do exactly what you want, you test it and hand it off to the Beta tester. And they find mistakes. The reason is because they didn’t build it and so don’t know your thinking behind it and do what comes natural to them. Consequently, they take paths you never dreamed of and hadn’t tested for. Yikes!

How does this relate to writing? You think you’ve sufficiently explained motives behind character actions, or have shown the emotional reaction sufficiently because YOU know the character so well and know EXACTLY why they’re doing it and fail to see that it didn’t quite come across the way you pictured it. Oops! A good critiquer or beta reader will find these ‘thin spots’ for you.

Okay, so you’re ready to get critiques? Are you sure? I’d like to tout again this great advice from Writer Musings: How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part Three: if you don’t know the heart of your story, you are not ready for feedback. This is so true because you are going to get a wide array of feedback. And by wide array, I mean some folks will hate a particular line and others will like that same one. Soon, you’ll be wanting to pull out your hair. Or, worse, you’ll take every single suggestion as gospel and water down your story, your voice, to such a state that it will be milquetoast.

The problem is, if you’re doing things right, I think, you’ll have some people not like it. Crazy I know. But I think I’m right. Here’s why. If you have a unique voice or your characters’ voices are interesting and unique, that means some people are not going to like it. It’s just not their thang. And that’s okay. Make it bland, though? No one will find it objectionable, but are any of them excited? Probably not.

So what’s a writer to do? I like to invoke my uncle’s 30-40-30 rule. He got this advice when he became dean of a department — 30% of the people are going to like you no matter what, 30% will not like you no matter what, it’s the 40% in the middle you need to worry about. This rule is so handy and applicable that I’ve quoted it many times for different scenarios. It’s why politicians are really in trouble if they drop below 30% in the approval ratings, because they’re losing folks that would normally support them no matter what.

When writing, use this rule, too, during your critique period and also when it’s published. Make sure you show your draft to people outside of your 30%-guaranteed likes (i.e. your family and friends). One excellent place to get a wide sampling and great advice is my favorite critique forum: Critique Circle. It runs by a credit system — the more you crit others, the more credits you earn and so the more you can post for review. The other part I like is that it is broken up by genre and there are only a certain number of slots for each, so you’re guaranteed to get crits, unlike other sites where you join a huge long list and folks have to wade through. The more crits given in a particular genre for that week’s cycle, the more slots available for that genre for the next week. Check it out.

But then be prepared for diverse opinions! It can be very overwhelming and it’s tempting to take every single piece of advice. Make sure you evaluate each one, even if it’s contrary or hard to swallow. They may have an excellent point. Take a few days and let it sink in. If it will make your piece stronger, use it. If it resonates with you as the writer and fits with your vision, use it. But if it doesn’t, don’t. You’ll get ‘critters’ who don’t like your genre, so of course they’re probably not going to like your piece. Evaluate to see if the critter ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say/tell. You’ll soon get the hang of it. I had one critter in the beginning that was telling me to delete things that were what made my character different. She didn’t like the character and so was watering her down to what she liked. I didn’t take her advice because I knew this was how my character thought, and others were liking this exact aspect of her.

So, I’m going to risk that 30% will not like my character and my story and hoping the 40% in the middle do.

What has been your critique experience? Do you find this rule applicable as well?

Photo by jared

Why I’m Happy My Mom Hates the Ending…

So, my mom is not your typical your-work-is-wonderful-dear kind of reader, which I’m happy about. I made the mistake of having her read a first draft, though, of an earlier work, and boy was that rough. It was good, but rough. Rough in the sense of seeing LOL written in the margins when it’s not supposed to be funny kind of rough. That manuscript is still sitting under the bed. But it means I always know where I stand, which I totally appreciate as not everyone is that honest.

So, with this new novel I waited until I was almost done with my third draft before I let her see it. And then I held my breath. Soon, I started getting text messages and emails keeping me apprised of where she was and how much she was enjoying it, and I’m thinking, is this my mom? Especially because she’s never read a Romance novel.

The positive feedback kept coming. Tuesday, 5:07 p.m.

getting ready to start chapter 18 tonight….and have to tell you that i just ran out and bought some dark chocolate….

(The dark chocolate is something that’s part of the story so it’s not the non sequitur it seems). Yesterday at 6:30 a.m.

hey, got up to chapter 25 last night! almost finished!

Until last night. Then I got bombarded with text messages and emails letting me have it. She’s mad at me, folks!  Here’s just some of what she sent:

Don’t have your correct email here so don’t know if u will get this. Finished the book and feel cheated.

Sent from my iPod

That was the entirety of the email. And then at the tail end of a follow up one, where she discusses what she didn’t like, was this:

i don’t know but but but

And here’s a text message:

what the hell! What about Phineas? What was all that stuff about?

So, I called her on the way into work to get more details, because this is like gold to me. She’s only the second person to read it all the way through in this form. She was so worked up about what I’d done to the poor hero and what I hadn’t covered, that at one point I actually had to say, “Mom, calm down.” She laughed and stated that, yes, her blood pressure was up. She was that incensed.

My ending sucks. I was worried it did and was also worried I’d rushed it, and not delved enough into the HEA moment. The first reader gave me that feedback. And now my mom with this reaction…

So, why am I happy? Well, because she’d had such an animated and emotional reaction to it, even though it was negative. She’s an artist, and she’d always told me growing up that a negative reaction was just as good as a positive one — that at least there was a reaction. In this case, at least she hadn’t shrugged her shoulders and gone, ‘meh.’

To me, it meant that she’d gotten so wrapped up in the characters and the story that she was pissed I didn’t end it in a satisfying way. Yes, it means my ending sucks and I need to rework it. And I will need to revise some earlier chapters. There’s a lot of work still ahead of me. But to my mind, her reaction meant I’d at least done one thing right that I didn’t need to scrap and rework, and that’s the connection she felt to my hero and that I’d pulled her enough into the story world for her to feel this strongly about a poorly executed ending.

At least, that’s my story and my interpretation of this morning’s call and I’m sticking to it. :)

Monday Grab Bag: Critiques, Babbage and Nerds!

Some articles, tweets and sites I ran across this morning that I thought others might be interested in.

Tabitha makes an excellent point on her post today Writer Musings: How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part Three: if you don’t know the heart of your story, you are not ready for feedback.

On the twitterfarm, John Graham-Cumming (@jgrahamc) posted a picture of punch card program written by Charles Babbage for his Analytical Engine. His tweet:  On this stack of punched cards sits a program written by Charles Babbage and never executed. Time to fix that.

To fellow geeks, some UK folks have created a Nerdy Day Trip website. To see the potential, see the sites in England and read the About page. If you just look at the US you will not truly appreciate it. So, my nerdy and geeky US friends, let’s add some cool places!