WARNING: This is a no-edit zone…
I stayed up late last night doing critiques. I thought I’d get three or four done–as always, I have a stack to do. I didn’t. I got one done and a solid start on a second one.
Some would cringe at devoting that much time to a single entry. But writers are a giving lot and helping each other is the norm, so you’ll see no cringing there, though it does make for rough schedules. But it’s worth it, and one of the reasons I love the profession. We train our competition–willingly, and take great joy in doing so. This entry was worth every second of time devoted to it.
You see, storytelling is the sole element that can’t be taught. I’ve said it many times and believe it down to the marrow of my bones. You’ve got it or you don’t. And this entry was written by a wonderful storyteller with a unique voice that captivated. The story was perfect for its targeted genre. The characters were well developed, worthy of their story roles. So with all of this being so right, what was the time-eating challenge?
Mechanics. This terrific story and these terrific characters were mired down in a tomb of mechanical pitfalls. When that happens, it jars the reader the way a jackhammer jars your teeth and blows out your ears. When we read, we do so with that inner ear, and so cadence and rhythm (and pacing) are critically important.
Every year for many years I’ve polled editors at major publishers and asked why they most often rejected manuscripts. And every year for many years, these same things surface. Oh, there are the usual rejections because the proposed project didn’t fit on the publisher’s list, and the similarities between the writing of existing authors on the publishers’ lists with the proposed project, but overwhelmingly, mechanical challenges topped the list.
That’s good news. Mechanics can be taught.
If you’d like to read more on the top mechanical challenges (those that surface again and again on the poll), there’s an article in my website writer’s library (www.vickihinze.com in the A-P Library. Common Mechanical Pitfalls).
The pitfalls aren’t what is on my mind. It’s relaying them, returning pages that contain a multitude of marks and notes. I’ve received critiques like this. Ones where I would swear that no one pen could hold that much ink. I learned early on to develop rhino hide, that comments were not an attack on me but comments crafted to better the work. But all writers haven’t yet learned these things, and when doing a critique, we should keep that in mind.
My philosophy is that if I’m doing a critique, I bear a responsibility to give that author my best. After all, this is the author’s dream, his or her vision, and who better knows how much work and sweat and sacrifice went into creating it? Knowing this, how can one give them less?
But one can be honest without drawing blood. One can offer those comments and suggestions and recommendations without leaving the author feeling body-slammed to the proverbial mat. And the good news is that it isn’t difficult.
Here are a few tips:
1. Always tell the author what s/he is doing right. Knowing what is working is equally important to knowing what isn’t working.
2. Be specific. If you spot a problem, don’t give a general negative statement that the author can’t apply to a specific area of the work. Two reasons: it’s worthless information to the writer, and too often, the writer applies it to all of the work when the intent was to a specific portion. If something is note of a general nature, then be as clear as possible on the challenge.
3. Cite examples from the writer’s work. When you run into a challenge, cite it specifically–and then…
4. Offer a solution. While this isn’t always possible–everyone runs into nebulous “I’m not quite sure what isn’t working, but I feel it. Ask a reader to take a look. Often they pinpoint with amazing accuracy on those subtle things that escape the rest of us”, if the challenge is mechanical, it’s easy to site a specific. So cite the specific and then tell the author, by example, how to fix it. Remember, if they knew this, there might be an occasional slip but the error wouldn’t be repeated throughout the manuscript. Guide. Show the author how to spot the problem and what to do to fix it once they’ve spotted it.
5.It takes extra time, but do tell the author why this is a challenge. For example, a very common mechanical error is action before reaction. The author will put the reaction to something before the action causing it. Take a moment to remind the author that what the reader reads first on the page happens first in the reader’s mind. So if the reaction appears first, it jars the reader out of the story. Why? Because nothing has yet happened to cause that reaction. The reader experiences the effect of something before the cause. And that prohibits him/her from feeling the emotional connection (or impact). Then give the author a tip. In this case, watchwords like as, when, during, until, before, since, after and those like them. When you see one of these words, double check to make sure things appear on the page in the order they happen. This enhances the reading experience and strengthens the work.
6.Remember. We were all once new writers. We were all once inexperienced writers. We have all gotten critiques that were so marked up we would swear no one pen could hold that much ink. It’s how we learn, it’s how we grow. And while we’ll never master the task, we can become better than we were at it. Remember your own reaction, and what would have removed the sting and infused you with the enthusiasm to get busy writing to make your work stronger and better.
Be honest. Give your best. But also acknowledge the writer’s best. We are each capable of producing the best work we’re capable of producing at the time we produce it. Few come out of the writing gate with experienced skills. They are acquired through diligent work and effort on the part of the writer. And by the efforts of those privileged to reach back into their own journey and offer them a hand.
Hold those thoughts in your hand when critiquing. Do your part drawing on experience from the head but never without the heart. The gift you nurture or crush well might be this generation’s Shakespeare.
Hey, he wasn’t born knowing how to write. He had to learn, too…