If you know me, or have been following me for a while, you might know that my Playground for the Gods series originated as my thesis project. When I presented my proposal, the feedback I got repeatedly was that I was trying to cram too much into the book and it wasn’t going to work. I had instructors tell me that what I proposed would be a tomb, if I ever finished it, which was doubtful, and my advisor said he there wasn’t even a genre for my tale, which combines the technology and space travel of science fiction with the mythology and folklore, and seemingly magical events therein. There were echos of my instructors’ doubts from the members of the cohort I found myself in that semester, some even saying there was no way I could pull it off.
In Playground for the Gods, the palnet of Atlan is destoyed and the Atlan people make pre-historic Earth their new home, posing as gods and goddesses, and using their advanced technology to perform miraculous feats that awe humans. In Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle, the Atlans fight amongst themselves in a struggle to prevent their new home from being destroyed as Atlan was. A strong female protagonist, Inanna, heads up the battle against serpents, dragons, and other forms of mythological creatures, mined from the annals of all parts of the globe, in an effort to save Earth. In this story, readers learn all the background information needed to build a basis for the subsequent texts, and there is enough of it to form a stand alone book. (Book 2: In the Begnning is outlined and partially drafted, and Book 3: Inanna’s Song is outlined and has portions already written, although not pieced together in any organized fashion yet.)
In one of the first classes, we had been cautioned to remember that any criticism of our work was not personal, it was about the work, not about me as a person, but when faced with so many telling me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, what I believed I could do, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, and I was hurt by their doubt. But, once I licked my wounds and dried my tears, and distanced myself from the work, I realized that much of what they had said was true. They were right, at least on some points and the story will be better for it.
My solution was to turn my thesis novel into a science fantasy series, and write the only the first book as my actual thesis project. The size of the first book, The Great Primordial Battle, let me know that this was a smart decision. (My professors and cohorts were correct in that trying to put it all into one book would have created a massive tomb.) The draft should be back from the beta reader today to begin the final revisions, and after hitting a snag that must be worked out before work can proceed on my memoir, I excited to get started in the final stretch with this one. Upon publication, this book will truly be the beginning of a science fantasy series that almost never existed.
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I started Writing to be Read to promote my own writing and to help other authors, through writing reflections and reviews. We’re all in the same situation. Marketing and promotion are a big part of writing these days, and authors are expected to self-promote to some extent, even if they are traditionally published. The way that books are being rated now, in many places, including Amazon, by the reviews they receive. I post partial reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads for this reason, and have even taken the time to post on Smashwords and Barnes and Nobles upon request from the author.
But, what is a reviewer to do when a book she’s reviewing falls short of all expect a film, like my review of Angel Falls Texas on Friday? Every review I publish has an end note at the bottom which reads like this:
“Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.”
I don’t believe in charging for a review because I don’t believe in paying for a review. And I don’t believe in that because I don’t think you can get an honest review when it is paid for. And I do believe a review should be honest. While I amin favor of promoting other authors with my reviews, I don’t believe in hyping up a work when it is not deserved.
Too many authors get their books on the best sellers list simply by having great reviews posted by those who love the author, but don’t honestly reflect the quality of their book. It’s sad but true. (To learn more about what that best seller label really means, check out this article by Brent Underwood.)
As I shared my post for my review of Angel Falls Texas last Friday, I reacted with a sad on each one, because I hated having to publish such a negative review. It’s certainly not going to help the author sell books, which is usually my goal. In this case, to post a review to encourage sales would have made me feel dishonest to my own readers.
I do both solicited and unsolicited reviews. Those that are unsolicited are from books I purchased on my own and I use them as fill in posts when I don’t have any solicited reviews to publish. With reviews that have been solicited by the author or I have requested an ARC from the author, which don’t rate at least three quills, I usually contact the author, tell them my assessment, and offer them the chance to not have the review published. Most authors, like my author friend Chris Tucker, opt to publish the review and take their licks, but there have been a few who have requested that I hold off publication. These authors, hopefully, then go and make revisions to improve their book and then have me give it another chance. I’d rather do that than post a review that may hurt sales.
I try to be fair in my reviews. If a book is one of a genre that is not one of my favorites, I will state that in the review, being upfront about anything that may have influenced the my opinion. But honestly, as authors who are putting their work out there, we all take the chance that someone out there will not like our work, for whatever reason, and will post an unfavorable review. After all, we are only human, and we are never going to please everyone.
As a reviewer, I know I’m not going to love every book that I review. There will be times when my reviews will be less than shining, but I have to be true to myself and to you, my readers, and publish how I honestly feel. All I can do is try and be specific about what I didn’t like in the hope that the author will take it like a critique and find something useful from my feedback to help to improve their writing or the value of the product they put out.
I think the number one thing we, as writers, can do is remember what one of my Creative Writing professors, Russell Davis, said when talking about receiving critiques from our cohorts,
“Remember, it’s not about you. It’s not personal. It’s all about the writing.”
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In last week’s Weekly Writing Memo I discussed my method for giving feedback. This week, Kaye and I are teaming up to discuss what to do with feedback when you’re on the receiving end. We thought it’d be a great idea to do this one together so we could show two opinions for dealing with critiques.
As writers we tend to be very close to our writing and have trouble seeing it objectively; it’s important to get an outsider’s perspective to see how your writing is being read. That being said, hearing criticism of work you’ve put your heart into can be incredibly hard, but there are methods to dealing with it in a useful way.
What is your method for using a critique?
Robin: When I get a critique I basically have a four step process I go through.
- I read it start to finish. No stopping to vent or obsess, no tears, no anger. I just read. It’s important to take all the info in without letting yourself get too emotional about it. If you do get emotional, it’ll be harder to process whether the info is helpful.
- I walk away and let it sit. The initial response to feedback, especially bad feedback, can be overwhelming. Whatever emotions it brought up, I let them out for a bit and then give myself time to let them fade until I feel I can rationally return to the feedback and really look for the truth in it.
- Read it again, item by item, and consider, try, and analyze. Once I’ve cooled my heels some, I return to the notes and reread them, slowly this time going item-by-item. As I look at each comment, I HAVE to consider each item as being true. Then I look at my work and try to prove the feedback right or wrong. If I can’t prove it wrong in at least several ways, then there may be some partial truth, if not complete truth, to the critique. I do this extra for things I think are 100% wrong to make sure that I’m not just too close to the work.
- Use, refuse, revise, and ask questions. Finally, once I’ve considered everything, I go through and revise with what I want to use, and ignore what I’m “refusing”. I also will go back and ask the critic questions on any feedback I need clarity on once I’ve carefully considered it, that way I know what specifically I need to ask.
Kaye: I’m not nearly as methodical as Robin is. But then again, I’m kind of weird about my writing process. For starters, I ask for and await eagerly any feedback I can get. I look at any negative feedback as a window into things that can be improved, and there’s always room for improvement. Always.
So, my process goes more like this – I read through the whole thing, but I pull it up side-by-side with my manuscript, making changes to the original document as I go. If I come to a comment I don’t understand, don’t think I agree with, or I’m not quite sure what to do to fix it, I highlight the comment in the feedback, so I’ll know to go back to it later.
And I do go back to them, once I’ve done all the quick fixes I can. That’s when I take the time to ponder those I don’t understand or disagree with, and decide what I want to do about them. Some I work out clever ways to fix the problem, and some, I may not do anything about.
What do you do if you disagree with the feedback?
Robin: This one can be hard. If the feedback is something I think is completely wrong and I can’t understand it, then I ask questions. The important thing is to ask those questions in the least defensive, and least confrontational way possible. The person did you a favor giving you feedback, so don’t attack, ask for clarity.
For example, I’d ask: “Can you explain more about this specific comment and give me some examples of where you see that?” That way I can maybe get a better idea of what the critic is thinking, and where I need to be looking.
If the feedback is something I think will never be right, and I’m positive that I’ve considered it as many ways I can, then I ignore it. There really isn’t much else you can do. If you disagree, and you can’t see things from their perspective, then ultimately it’s your writing and you get to decide what feedback you use or don’t.
Kaye: I welcome feedback, but that doesn’t mean I agree with every comment I get. As writers, we often become attached to our creations, and sometimes it’s difficult to believe that others find flaw with our masterpieces. I’m no different. I pour my heart and soul into my writing. It’s not easy to separate myself from my work, but I think that’s what we have to do. Always remember that all criticism is about the writing and not the writer. We can’t take it personal, even though it may feel like our creations are a part of ourselves.
What do you use from the feedback?
Robin: I use feedback as a sounding board. I’m not looking for critiques to tell me HOW to fix it, I’m just looking for them to point me at what may or may not be wrong. In general, everyone who reads your work will probably have a different idea of how to fix something anyway, and many of the suggestions won’t be right for YOUR story because they’re suggestion how THEY would fix it. So I focus in on where the critique is pointing, or how they are interpreting things, and then I figure out how I would fix it in my own way.
For example, if someone says “This passage feels slow. I think it’s because this character is boring. I’d cut them.”
I would interpret that advice as meaning “something is wrong with this scene, it feels uninteresting.” Then I’d look at the scene and try to figure out where it goes wrong. Is the character really boring, or just inactive? Is the scene even necessary to the plot, or just filler? I look at the larger idea of the feedback, rather than the specifics. Sometimes I come to the same conclusion as the critique, and sometimes not.
Kaye: I believe there’s a grain of truth to everything. The trick is to pick it out. I always try to find those little granules when I disagree, because I’ve learned that most of the time, it’s there, and if I can find it and make appropriate changes, my story will be better for it. I choose my alpha readers carefully, and I’ve learned that their comments are usually pretty spot on.
Like Robin, I don’t always use their suggested fixes, but their comments let me know where I should be looking for something that’s off and then, I can determine for myself what it is that’s wrong and how I want to fix it. But again, my alpha readers often come up with some really good suggestions, and I use them whenever I can. Seldom do I totally discard a suggestion unless it’s obviously something the reader just doesn’t get. But if my reader isn’t getting it, then that tells me I’m doing something wrong or they would get it. Chances are, if my alpha reader doesn’t get it, my target audience won’t get it either.
What if you don’t know how to fix it?
Robin: A lot of times if someone gives me feedback that I don’t know how to fix, it’s because I don’t know what the real problem is. So, of course, I ask questions until I have a better understanding. Then I try to come up with a few possible solutions.
I will also sometimes talk with the critic about the changes I’m debating to get their perspective on whether it’ll fix things, or I’ll try the fix and then give it to someone else and see if I get the same critique. It’s really just a matter of trial and error if you can’t figure out a specific solution. After that, all you can do is take some time away from it and revise other things and hope when you come back with fresh eyes you’ll figure it out.
Kaye: It’s kind of funny, but I’ve learned a lot about fixing my fiction from my screenwriting classes. One thing I’ve learned is that if you can’t find a way to fix a problem, sometimes you have to look to see a change somewhere else in the writing that will fix the problem scene and make it all work. I guess you have to think outside the box, or beyond the page.
After looking at a problem from every angle, if I still can’t find a way to fix it, then I consult with the reader that pointed out the issue to see if they also have suggestions on how it might be fixed. If that doesn’t work, I can always throw it out to the members of my writers group and we can brainstorm it. Helpful suggestions seldom fail to materialize from these sessions.
Kaye: To me, critiques are a writing tool, enlisting another set of eyes to see what I can’t because I’m too close to the work. When utilizing this tool, I try and take advantage of each and every comment that I can. After all, if I didn’t think they were intelligent and talented, I wouldn’t ask them to be my alpha readers. But the important thing to remember is not to take negative feedback personal, its about the writing, and being open to feedback is what makes your writing better.
Robin: Overall, the important thing for me when looking at critiques is to consider each element carefully and thoroughly. The whole point is to get an outsider’s perspective, so if I don’t consider it seriously, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. If I can fix what they see, I do, and if I can’t or think they’re wrong, I don’t. That being said, if multiple people say the same thing is wrong, then it’s most likely wrong and you need to do something about it, whether you like it or not.
Ultimately, remember the point of a critique is to tell you how your writing is being read, and whether the critic is wrong or right, someone somewhere will probably agree with them. So fix what you can, let go what you can’t, and do your best to be critical of your work no matter how much you love it.
As Kaye mentioned in her blogpost “The 2016 Writing to Be Read,” I am Robin, I’m a writer, and I run the Author the World blog. I will be doing a “Weekly Writing Memo” on Wednesdays each week on Writing to Be Read that will consist of writing tips, tricks, and Q&As. So feel free to post questions in the comment section, tweet me, or e-mail me at: AuthorTheWorld (at) Gmail (dot) Com.
This week’s memo will deal with one of my specialties, critiquing. I spend a lot of time working as either a Beta or Alpha reader for people’s fiction and screenwriting, and honestly if I’m not writing myself it’s my next favorite thing to do.
Over the years between working with other writers and being in workshop settings, I’ve found that many people really struggle with giving critiques. When looking at a manuscript of any kind, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start with feedback, to decide what is and isn’t important, and what is and isn’t helpful. So here is the way I approach feedback that seems to have the most success in helping other writers improve their work.
What Makes a Good Critique?
Before you can write a good critique, you have to know what one is. A good critique usually involves these five things:
- It’s detailed and says more than just “I liked it” or “I didn’t.”
- It’s objective, and minimizes the criticisms based on personal preference. (i.e., “I hate horror, so I don’t like this story.”)
- It doesn’t try to write the story for the author.
- It’s honest, but not mean.
- It’s about the writing, not the writer.
These are my goals I keep in mind when I do a critique. As long as every comment I make about the story connects to all of these things it’s a good note to make. With that in mind, here is how I go about giving a critique from first being asked, to the sending it back to the writer.
Ask What the Writer Expects.
In my experience, every writer has different expectations when they ask for a critique. Some really just want line edits. Others want you to tear their story apart. So the first thing I do whenever I offer to read for someone, is to ask how detailed they want me to be and what they are looking for.
Ask What Stage the Project is in.
I also ask what draft the project is in so I can get a feel for what stage the writing is at. A project in the first few drafts usually doesn’t need line edits yet because a lot will change along the way, so I focus on larger story issues (plot, character, tone, setting, etc). If it’s toward the final stage, then I will do line edits as well as larger issues.
This saves myself the trouble of marking things that may not be in the story later on, but also helps prevent shocking the writer. Early drafts will most likely have a lot of larger notes, as well as line notes if you do both at once, which can dismay a writer and overwhelm them.
Read Like it’s a Whodunit.
When reading for critiquing, you have to read like it’s a puzzle, not like it is entertainment. If you let yourself get sucked into the story, you stop paying attention to the faults. When I was little I used read those 2-minute Mystery books. The key to them is that you have to pay attention to every little detail and not get distracted.
I find that when I approach someone’s writing the same way, it helps me catch the little things—character mannerisms, minor plot details, foreshadowing, etc. Being able to catch these things early, lets me know what to expect in the story to come so I can make notes as to whether the story is meeting the expectations it is setting up or not.
The hardest part of critiquing, in my opinion, is staying in the critical mindset. It’s easy to get sucked into the characters, and the story, and to stop analyzing what is and isn’t working. By approaching the writing with the mindset that there is a puzzle to solve within it, it helps me keep analyzing it. At worst, if you feel yourself reading a lot and not analyzing, take a short break.
What to Mark?
The goal of an Alpha or Beta reader is to help the author see how an audience is reading the story, and to find issues the writer might be blind to. But how do you show this in comments? If you’re commenting on the line level, then of course you’re pointing out typos, grammar issues, and the like. If you’re commenting on content, then you have to put more thought into it.
Generally, I leave a comment when:
- I am confused by something in the text.
I write HOW I’m confused. Is it because the character said one thing but did another? Is it because there was no foreshadowing? Is it because the language is confusing? Etc. The key is to EXPLAIN what it is that leads to the confusion and not to simply write that you’re confused.
- I don’t believe something in the text.
I will write it’s unbelievable, but I will also write a line or two about WHY I don’t feel it is believable. Then I go an extra step and I tell the author HOW I think they could make me believe it. That way, if they want to stick with the idea, they know what it would take for me as a reader to believe. If I just think it isn’t ever believable, then I will offer 1 or 2 suggestions of similar things that I think would be believable not for the author to necessarily use, but to point them in the right direction.
- I have a question.
Whenever a question pops into my head, I will usually make a comment to let the author know that, as a reader, this is what I’m wondering at this moment. That way if the text is leading me in a direction the author may not want, they are aware of it. For example, if the text mentions a brother and builds up suspense around him, I may mention this, that way if the brother is not a character that comes back the author can minimize the attention on him so I, as a reader, don’t have that question pop up.
- I pause or feel bored.
Whenever you feel like stopping reading, ask yourself WHY. Are you bored? Is the passage slow? Is the character uninteresting? Has the plot not started? Etc. Then put a comment marking the passage and explaining WHY you are feeling that way. I also usually try to go back and pinpoint the moment the story stopped being interesting so I can mark it as well, and then I try to figure out which thread line (character, plot, setting, etc) it is that dropped out of the text so the writer knows what it is specifically that is missing. At the very least, though, always mark WHERE you feel bored and try to explain WHY.
- Something is missing.
A character is forgotten, a plotline is not finished, a setting is not described, etc. Whenever I feel like something is missing, I explain WHAT, I explain WHY it matters, and I pinpoint WHERE it first begins to be missing.
The other big thing to consider when commenting is how you are interpreting things vs. how the writer intended them. Whenever I think something I am commenting on could be something that is not what the writer intended, I make a note about that says something along the lines of:
“I’m interpreting this part this way, but I think you mean it this way. Here’s why I interpreted it the way I did and here’s what you should change if you mean it the other way.”
That way the author can see what and where there is a mix up.
The key to all of the above is basically SPECIFICITY. Feedback is only helpful if you can be specific about what it is that you think is wrong. Ask yourself WHY do I feel this is wrong, HOW it is wrong, and WHERE it is wrong. Now sometimes you don’t know what is wrong or just can’t figure it out, but you do know something is wrong.
It’s perfectly valid to just leave that as a comment, but still try to give some specifics about what FEELS wrong. Tell them it feels slow, or boring (in kinder words if possible), but describe something so the author has an idea of where to look for the problem. At the very least, it’ll give them a specific passage to get a second opinion on.
The important thing to remember is that all feedback is opinion. Everyone can read the same story and come up with a different idea of what is wrong and how to fix it. So when you’re giving notes, try to keep things as objective as you can. If you know something you’re commenting on is just your preference, I always explicitly say that in the feedback and then explain WHY I prefer it that way. Then the author can decide if your preference is one they want to use or not.
Lastly, when you give feedback always expect that the writer may not use any of it. It seems like a defeatist thing to say, but writers (myself included) have their own idea of what works and what doesn’t and what they want in their story. Just know that in going through the process of analyzing the work and forcing yourself to think critically to explain how you feel about it, you are helping your own writing. Every time I give feedback, I feel like I can approach my own work more analytically, and like I am more prone to finding my own errors.
You won’t catch everything, no one can, but be honest, be specific, and remember it’s not about the writer it’s about the writing. Everything you comment should be about making the story better and helping the writer tell the story THEY want to tell, not what YOU think the story should be about. If you can keep that in mind your feedback will be helpful, it’s just up to the writer on whether they want to use it or not.