Posts Tagged criticism
I recently had an email from a friend who has a literature PhD. He had read My Memories of a Future Life and wrote me a long, detailed response. Eleven pages, actually, which was quite daunting to open. Somewhat nervously, I read it. I needn’t have worried. It was kind and appreciative.
Indeed, it seemed to give me credit for a number of clever effects that were mainly accidental, not deliberate as he seems to have imagined.
For instance, my decision to give Gene Winter a leather bomber jacket. My faithful chronicler unpicked this as ‘bombing, linked to war – a sign that he will be destructive character’.
My actual reasons for Gene’s outfit were far more practical. I needed him to appear hunched, as if he was keeping the world out. A bomber jacket gives that postural shape in the reader’s mind. I could have left the kind of leather jacket vague, but then it might have suggested a scruffy biker. A different kind of bearing. So Gene wore a bomber jacket.
My friend also observed that Andreq, Carol’s incarnation in the future, is like a geisha. Once he’d drawn that parallel, he found more layers, exploring how geisha inhabit a separate reality, as Andreq does, and Carol has a different reality when she performs, and ‘recreates the spiritual environment that a piece of music represents, just as would a geisha with her client’.
Again, this seemed to give me credit for a lot more calculation than I actually did. When I wrote, I had much simpler aims. I was thinking only of the resonances between my two characters, Carol and Andreq. Though I’m very relieved that this aspect of the book made wider cultural sense.
Reading this essay, I was seeing the book in a new register. There are writers’ reasons and then there are the reasons readers find. Are they necessarily in tune?
I posted about this on Facebook and a merry discussion ensued. Some were reminded of school essays where they’d had to dissect texts for hidden meanings, which they were sure the author hadn’t consciously planted. This is just a fireplace. Anything else you can see is your own problem.
Of course, this is not to say we don’t take care when we write. Every word, image and phrase in My Memories of a Future Life was deliberately placed – but for reasons that were more to do with plausibility and nuance. My priority was controlling the reader’s emotional experience. With Gene’s jacket I was trying not to give a wrong impression, but in my friend’s essay it became a standout signal of its own.
That doesn’t mean I dismiss my friend’s analysis – not in the slightest. His version of the book is just as valid as mine. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know how those creative decisions were made – that some of the effects he appreciated seem to me to be lucky accidents.
Fundamentally, I think this is a difference between writers and certain kinds of reader. I’m sure many writers are working more on gut than on grey cells.
This recent post at the Literary Hub rounded up a clutch of authors who didn’t have a formal writing education. They learned principally from reading and from life. It wasn’t study; it was an emotional process, a state of eternal noticing, a response as natural as breathing.
One of those writers, Ray Bradbury, I featured in my Guardian masterclass on self-editing. I took the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and used my beat sheet method to study its structure. I found contrasts and balances that I hadn’t been aware of, subtle ways in which Bradbury plays with our expectations that add to the book’s enthralling effect. The book is itself a masterclass in pacing, balance and contrast (I’ve talked about that here) . In reality, I suspect Bradbury did most of it by instinct rather than by conscious design, but if you put the book through that process, it’s there.
I’ve written before about what creative writing teachers teach. Mostly we direct a sensitivity that is already innate, and awaken the blind areas. The other side of the coin – the learning – is about building habits: first consciously, then so that they become second nature (I’ve written about that here – the three ages of becoming a writer). An example: at first you might have to be told to prefigure a major reversal; after a while, it’s something you knit into the story by gut feeling.
Earlier in this post I talked about ‘controlling the reader’s experience’. You might have laughed in a hollow way because I seem to be proving precisely the opposite. We hope we’re directing the reader to notice the things we want, but actually they scoot off into the text like gerbils and chew random things.
In the end, readers bring themselves to a book. One friend drew a parallel with his work in IT – he said you never knew how a piece of software would work until the users told you. I suppose that’s what we’re doing. Our ‘product’ isn’t even a tangible thing like a theatre production or a picture or a sofa. It’s squiggles on a page or a screen that perform a transforming effect on the reader’s mind and emotions. A novel is code, and we can’t even definitively tell you how we assemble it or how it works.
So I guess that makes it magic too. Do give me your thoughts.
More about the beat sheet? You can find it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Thanks for the chicken pic Christian Bortes on Flickr and thanks Cat Muir for the dancing fireplace.
Oh and this little thing is less than a month to lift-off. Rather excited. Here’s my latest newsletter if you want to catch up, including a free preview.
I thoroughly enjoy the final stages of writing a critique for an author client. I’ve digested their novel, I know what’s ticking nicely and what isn’t. It’s even more exciting when I know they have the skill, the insight, the ear for language and the sensitivity for story and character. That if they solve the remaining problems, their novel will really set sail.
But often I know I’m going to get an email telling me, probably at great length, that I’m wrong. That the novel doesn’t need any more work. Even, wanting me to change my mind and agree with them.
I’m not talking about changes to make a work more commercial. I don’t tend to suggest those anyway; they are usually as much about fashion as craft. A novel takes so long to get right that by the time you submit it, boy wizards, time travel, vampires and vector botany will all be gone to the pulping machine in the sky. Yes, even vector botany, which as far as I know hasn’t happened yet.
And I’m not talking about perfectly understandable disappointment or sensitivity. While I’m always honest, I’m never brutal. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have heartfelt stories raked over. I get notes from agents and editors too.
And of course I check before I accept a client that I understand their aims as a writer, so I don’t give advice that’s way off kilter.
What I am talking about is a vibe from the client that makes me certain that when they open my report they’re going to shoot the messenger – with both barrels.
Now, though, I’ve learned to spot them, so I test them with the following questions.
1 – Have you allowed time for rewrites?
Often the writer is angry with me because they thought the book was fit to submit, give or take a few light edits. Or that they could hit self-publish.
The second question is more complex.
2 – Is your book based on traumatic events that happened to you?
Some people start writing a novel as therapy. That can be a recipe for a self-indulgent, unreadable book. But many writers produce works of astounding power from their own traumas.
If they have unresolved issues with some of the subject matter, or the rotters they are writing about, it often comes across as flaws in the book. I quite often find passages where the writer still needs to unravel more, to step back and examine. There are places that are stridently defensive, or characters who are treated with jarring harshness, whereas elsewhere the reader is allowed to make up their mind whether they like someone or approve of their behaviour. (I’m not saying this never works, indeed such blindness and fury can be heartbreaking. And if it is, I leave well alone…)
If a client is writing about personal traumas, I warn them that, in acting as the book’s advocate, I may make some criticisms that could touch a nerve. But I’m doing what they asked for, to help them make the book as good as it deserves to be.
Before you give a manuscript to a professional editor, obviously try to finish it and polish. But – here’s the conundrum – expect it probably isn’t finished at all. In particular, don’t make a deadline for sending it out afterwards. Expect that you might need to take a good few months to tweak, re-evaluate and rewrite.
When you ask for an editor’s help, they want you to write the best book you can. Allow the space and time to do that, mentally, temporally, physically and emotionally.
(Thank you, Bedford Street, for the picture)
Have you used editors? Do you offer this service yourself? Share your experiences in the comments!
Is your new year resolution to write your novel? Perhaps you’ve vowed to dust off your NaNoWriMo experiment and finish it properly, or to do justice to the idea you started a while ago and had to put aside. If so, I have something for you! Roxanne McHenry of Unruly Guides to epublishing invited me on their podcast show recently, and asked me for my advice on drafting, revising and seeking feedback.
In this podcast you can get advice on:
- planning your novel and filling in the plot holes
- revising your manuscript effectively and thoroughly
- keeping your motivation
- solving problems in your story
- finding a critique group that’s right for you
- when – and whether to hire a profesional editor – and how to find one who is a good fit for you.
Here’s a sample of our discussion: ‘If you’re going to go along to a critique group, take along a short story, where you don’t mind what they say, and just see how they deal with your writing before you unleash the novel that really matters.’
You can listen to or download the whole podcast here – hope to see you there!
It’s time to call the novel doctor. But how do you know which one
to choose? In case you don’t know,
I’m rather experienced at this,
so here’s the inside track
The novel is finished, or at least as far as you can tell. It’s time for critiques. Your beta readers may be enough; if they have sound critical sense and the ability to tell you about your blind spots. But if you think you need more help, you might want to use a critique service or novel doctor.
There are hundreds out there, both individuals and large consultancies. How do you choose a good one?
Look at publishing credentials Go for someone who is a published writer, or an experienced fiction editor or a literary agent. Not only have they earned their spurs in the market, they understand writing from the inside, and how to guide you from raw idea to a presentable manuscript.
When you contact them, notice what questions they ask you A good writing critique service will ask you a lot of questions before they agree to take on your novel. The most important are style and genre. If you’re writing a metafictional experiment with a literary form, this needs totally different critical sensibilities from a rip-roaring thriller. Kids’ and YA novels require their own experienced editors.
No consultant will be able to handle every single genre. Reputable independent consultants may turn away half the clients who approach them because they do not feel they can do justice to all the novels they are offered. Bigger consultancies will probably have a variety of readers and should be able to match you with a reader who is suitable for your genre.
From this another thing should be clear. Make sure you can talk about your novel’s style and subject – which you may never have had to do before.
They may ask to see a synopsis. Don’t panic – this doesn’t have to be the polished one-page you’ll send to an agent. Just send a summary of the story, condensed as much as you can. We consultants know how hard it is for you to give an accurate flavour of your novel’s direction and style, so looking at a synopsis will help us see what’s important to you about the novel’s events.
Even if a synopsis isn’t asked for at this stage, do write one as your consultant will need it. Don’t worry about a character list or location maps – the synopsis is usually enough.
The consultant may make some preliminary suggestions I might say to a client, ‘if I were critiquing this I’d suggest you make the MC less passive’ or suchlike – to make sure the client is happy with the kind of feedback I would give. But as far as I’m concerned, nothing is outright wrong until I’ve seen how it works in the text. If you have deliberately made the MC passive, we can discuss your aims at this stage, to make sure I understand what you’re aiming for. Or you may decide I’m not the critic for you and wave bye-bye.
You might want to ask to see a sample report This will give you an idea of the kinds of comments you might get and whether you will relate to the way the critic phrases their explanations. If I supply these, I send just an excerpt, with the specifics anonymised. Good consultants should respect the confidentiality of their clients.
So that’s how to make up your mind about whether the consultant is right for you. Next, there are some nuts and bolts to establish.
Timescale We know you’re gnawing your nails, but don’t expect you’ll get it back the following week! The consultant needs to read your novel, give its strengths and weaknesses proper consideration – which takes time. Most services quote about six weeks, because a reader is rarely available immediately and has to finish other projects etc.
Expect it is not going to be cheap. A critique of a 100,000-word novel might easily cost you £800 (GBP) or more than US$1000. To read a novel and give a thorough, considered critique can easily take two weeks’ solid work.
However, many consultants will critique a portion of the novel on a pro rata basis, or a submission package (letter, synopsis and first 50 pages). These offer good value as the consultant can often identify your work’s major strengths and weaknesses and you can then use this to guide your revisions of the whole manuscript.
What a critique service can and can’t do
The second part of finding a satisfactory critique is in making sure you know what a consultant can and can’t do for you.
They should give you a detailed report, highlighting your novel’s weaknesses and strengths, with plenty of examples that explain how to make the best novel you can out of your material. Where you need to understand certain techniques, such as show not tell, they should provide you with clear illustrations. They might recommend other websites or books.
They don’t usually solve plot problems, do actual rewrites, or correct your spelling, missed apostrophes and grammar mistakes – although they might as an enhanced package.
Some critique services have links with agents and if your novel is good enough, they will give you a fast-track introduction. They often take a small percentage for this.
Find out what aftercare your package includes.
Of course, when your report arrives you’re bound to have questions. And although we try to sound as encouraging as possible, you’re bound to focus just on the criticisms and the recommendations to change and rewrite. Before you fire off a horrified email and tell us we’ve totally misunderstood you, let the comments settle. After a few days you’ll be able to see the good points that are highlighted as well as the bad, and then you’ll be able to formulate the questions you really need answering.
Bear in mind that when your novel is no longer so fresh in our minds it’s easier for us to answer a long email with lots of questions, than dribs and drabs every few days.
Assessing rewrites isn’t usually part of the package. Some consultants will offer this, or offer an email mentoring service where you can submit multiple rewrites and ask as many questions as you want for a set time period, for instance, a month. Usually, though, this is more expensive than a straightforward critique. And it’s debatable whether such a service is necessary. We can hold your hand for some of the process, but ultimately the person who will make your novel work is you. A good critique will give you the tools to do that and to improve the ones you write afterwards.
But most essential, no matter how much time has passed, when you get good news about your novel, don’t forget we’d love to know.
Have you any tips to pass on about choosing or using critique services? Have you had good or bad experiences, and what was good or bad about them? Share in the comments!