Using critiques to improve your writing

Using critiques to improve your writingI’ve probably mentioned I’m participating in a novel critique group this year.

Every month someone in the group puts their novel up for critique, and the rest of us pull it apart with a view to improvement.

It’s all about critical analysis, but its the passion you need to look for – what people love or… really don’t love.

Unfortunately, every comment that’s not adoration stings a little.

In fact, the more effort someone’s put into a book, the bigger the sting they’ll feel.

Still, feedback’s just feedback – impressions based on what other people would do if it were theirs, and that’s the attitude you need to take into it.

The problem is, it’s easy to get lost in the detail or take things personally. It is your baby, after all.

Once you get over the initial disbelief that everyone else doesn’t love it as much as you do (believe it or not that happens occasionally), you’ll begin to discover some value in what’s said.

Hopefully you’ll see lots of value.

Even so, all of it will all be given with bias due to personal tastes and perspectives, so take a step back and ask yourself a few questions about where you want to take your story and what you want to achieve with it.

If you can do that, you’ll be in a better position to assess the responses.

There are a lot of specific questions you could ask yourself, but only one that’s important at this stage:

“What impression did my story make?”

Seriously. Everything hinges off that question. Specifics can wait.

How people react after reading your novel is the truest test of its worth.

If your critiquers didn’t like it, consider that a reasonable parallel with your intended readers. Translation: poor sales.

You’ll need to weigh their reactions against what you know about the individual critiquers of course, particularly if they’re not in your target audience.

For example, romance writers may not appreciate your military SF novel,  but they may know more about developing characters that readers will care about than you do.

In that regard, the greatest thing you can do (from a commercial perspective) is impress readers from other genres.

Everyone’s perspective is valuable, particularly if you concentrate on emotional responses instead of critical analysis.

If you give your novel to ten people and none of them love your story, then it’s probably not working  as well as you need it to.

On the flip side, if they’re emailing you for weeks and months afterward with ideas or are demanding to read the sequel, then you know something’s resonated with them.

That’s the magic you’re looking for!

That’s what sells books, and that’s what you need.

Whatever else you do, keep the things that people love and try to figure out why those things resonated with them (if it’s not obvious).

Conversely, consider ways of improving everything they didn’t like – their critical responses will help with this.

You may even come to the conclusion that some of the things you love have to go or be completely reworked.

A good knowledge of story structure and getting readers to care about what happens to your characters helps here.

How you use the knowledge is the hard part, but it can only come after you assess their reactions.

Write another novel if you need more time to gain perspective. It can only help.

Leife Shallcross – On Getting and Giving Good Crit

Q. What was the most & least valuable pieces of advice you took away from your critique?

Leife Shallcross at the beach
Leife Shallcross

One of the most useful things from the crit session was the feedback that reflected my own doubts about where the weaknesses in the story lay.This was (extremely usefully) coupled with some great suggestions about where I could take it to address some of these weaknesses.I especially valued the comments that picked up on things about my characters that I could extend and use to make the story more compelling.

It’s given me a much needed dose of motivation to work through those things and some really useful direction about how I might go about that.

As my story is essentially a novel-length rendition of a well-known fairy tale, some of the feedback I received was that I need to make the very well-trodden path of its plot take a few more interesting and surprising twists and turns to keep it fresh.

However, some of the (er, more light-hearted!) suggestions were for fairly major deviations that wouldn’t really sit well with where I wanted to take the tale. They gave me laugh though!

One thing I did find interesting (and I’m not really sure if it’s actually a problem) is that while I envision my main readership for this type of story would be female, the crit group that month was all male (except me!).

So if there’s any girlies out there who feel like reading a 107K version of Beauty and the Beast…

Q. You’re on the tail end of this year’s crit group. What have you learned from giving critiques that has helped you on the receiving end?

Hmm… It was good knowing what sorts of things the others picked up on. That gave me a bit of a sense of what I could expect.

I’ve usually given a couple of pages of notes, then sent back an electronic copy of the manuscript with more detailed comments throughout.

A couple of people have done this for me, too, and it been very valuable. But now I still have to wade through it all!

The pages of notes have been great, though. They have given me a real sense of what direction to take for giving it the next coat of polish.

Q. What changes, if any, do you plan to make to your novel following the feedback you received?

That’s a really interesting question. I’ve been thinking a lot about that.

It’s all about the characters, really.

There were a couple of points on which the feedback was fairly consistent, and those points were probably the things I’d earmarked as potentially needing work.

Then there were some really interesting comments that really struck a chord for me – you know, that moment, when you think ‘Oh, yes!’.

Those were about increasing the role one of the characters plays, and about roughening up a couple of the other characters.

My protagonist, especially, is going to get a bit darker, I think.

It’s the changes that I will make coming out of those suggestions that I think will carry the other stuff with it, the ho hum sort of stuff I knew needed to tweak, but didn’t know how.

Q. Having both given and received novel critiques, what do you wish you’d known when the group started compared with what you know now?

Ha. That’s easy. Don’t drink your glass of red wine too quickly when it’s your turn. It makes it harder to focus!

Seriously, I think the main thing is – this being the first time I’ve participated in a novel crit group – that I feel much more confident in my ability to critically assess a story (including my own).

So, it’s not so much a wish I’d known, more like a ah, I’m glad I know that now.

Q. What advice would you give to anyone considering joining a similar group?

Do it. It’s an invaluable experience.

Why? Because:

  1. (obviously) You get to road test your novel & find out where it needs more work. You get to find out where the plot holes are, which characters were unconvincing, which characters rocked, where you’ve clunked the info dump, where your masterful description swept your readers away and where your amateurish use of parentheses ejected them firmly from the flow of the story. Basically, why fork out for a manuscript appraisal when you can get this kind of in-depth critiquing for the very reasonable price of a return crit?
  2. You get to find out where you are as a writer. What your strengths & weaknesses are, what stuff you need to work on, what your comfort zones are and where you need to challenge yourself to step out of them.
  3. As per my answer to Q 4, you also get to hone your story critiquing skills, which you can then apply to your own work.
  4. This last one is maybe not something people think about when considering joining a critiquing circle, but involvement in a community of writers is a big part of what makes this an invaluable experience. The guys in our crit group know stuff about stuff I’ve never even thought about. And it’s difficult to describe the great feeling you get when you finish a truly awesome manuscript and you imagine being able to see it in a bookshop somewhere and think ‘I knew that when it was just and RTF doc. I helped that get there.’ *Goosebumps*.

Regarding points 3 & 4 above – as you can see, you don’t even have to have a manuscript for others to critique to benefit from joining a crit circle. We’ve got a couple of members who are there just to give us ‘bonus crits’, presumably for similar reasons.

Q: What are your future plans both for the novel you submitted and other novels ‘in the works’?

Publication followed by the accumulation of enormous wealth, obviously.

Seriously, publication is absolutely the goal. Or, more accurately, having a manuscript that is so good that someone wants to publish it.

The idea of creating a story that someone else can lose themselves in makes me feel euphoric.

On the other hand, I’m fairly risk averse, and the idea of having something out there with my name on it that is substandard makes me want to crawl under the bedclothes and hide.

As I said, I’ve had some great feedback on the story I submitted to the group that is generating some good ideas (I can tell because they feel right), so my first goal is to work all that into a second draft.

I’ve got a couple of other novels (um, four) on the go in various stages of completion, so my second goal is to finish the first draft of the next one and submit that to next year’s crit group!

I have vague fantasies about trying to complete a new first draft each year, but that might require giving up work and renouncing my family, so maybe not. Maybe every two years.

Winds of Change Cover Image.
Winds of Change Cover Image.

Leife lives in Canberra with her husband and two children. She fits in her writing around looking after the kids, and almost full-time job in the public service, baking yummy treats and playing the fiddle (badly). She’s also struggling against a recent addiction to Pintrest. She’s been making up stories ever since she can remember. She is fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and frequently steals weaves elements of these into her writing. Her first published story, ‘The tether of time’, appeared in Winds of Change in 2011. She has painted her house turquoise.

Follow Leife on Twiter @leioss or Follow Me on Pinterest

Read more interviews.

Alexa Shaw – On Getting and Giving Good Crit

Photo of Alexa ShawQ. What did you hope to get out of your critique session?

As this is my first novel, I guess my initial reaction is to be reaffirmed in my own belief that I can write a half decent story.

Once that bit of self aggrandizement was past, what I wanted most was for people to be honest about how my story made them feel, where it should have made them feel, and where it could be improved.

Suggestions on how to improve it were also warmly welcomed.

Q: What were your plans prior to the critique – jump straight into the editing, or write something new and come back to the first book when you’ve allowed the feedback to distill?

I guess like all other aspiring professional writers I’d like my first novel to be picked up by a publisher or agent.

However, I’ve started an urban fantasy and want to keep running with that until I finish the first draft.

I guess that means I’ll let the feedback percolate a bit before jumping back into the tween novel.

Q. Asking for criticism can be tough, inspiring, soul-crushing and insightful, all at the same time. What did you take away from this experience that will be the most valuable to your novel?

Receiving the comments from the group really emphasised to me that the reading experience is a personal journey that is different for everyone – as evidenced by the wide range of, often opposing, comments.

But perhaps the most important insight I received from the experience was that characters are everything.

This is something I was already aware that I needed to work on, but its importance was made more evident by the feedback.

Q. When you begin working on the story again, how do you plan to tackle it and what changes would you make, if any?

While I was writing the story, I was aware, but not willing to acknowledge I guess, that the character I’d set up as the protagonist was somewhat  lacking. And that a secondary character was doing the doing of things. This was confirmed by the feedback.

The major change I will make will be to bring the secondary character in a lot earlier into the story and build her relationship with the current protagonist, then rearrange/rewrite the plot points to fit the new dynamics. (I also liked the ‘magic scabbard’ idea.)

Q. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who was thinking of putting their own novel through a critique group?

Writing is an intensely personal activity.

Everything that ends up on the page (focussing on speculative fiction here) is a distillation of the ID of the writer – which in itself is a scary thing to contemplate.

It can be tough when people don’t automatically love what you write.

However, don’t take it personally. If the person or group critiquing your work is even semi-professional, any comments will be made with a view to helping the writer, not attacking them.

Growing up, Alexa Shaw cut her speculative fiction teeth on the likes of Asimov, Simak and Niven. She then discovered David Eddings and a new love affair was in the making – fantasy stories. More recent influences on her writing include fabulous authors such as Sherri Tepper, CJ Cherryh and Marion Zimmer Bradley, to name a few. An abiding love of science led her to undertake a PhD in that field, and she looks forwards to continuing to blend science and fantasy in her writing. Alexa lives with her family in Canberra, ACT.

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