Critiques – Are they worth it?

I love critiquesWhen I first submitted a story for online critiques, I had been part of a local critique group for about six months. Our local group, the Scrawling Narwhals, tends to operate as a roundtable. We take turns providing verbal feedback, and then hand the author our written critique, or what I call supporting materials for the verbal onslaught of comments, suggestions and ideas.

In person, I get the chance to process the feedback as it is told, get some explanation for it, and even discuss and brainstorm as a group about some of the ideas that come up. The discussions aren’t necessarily orderly, but it makes it all easier to process all the feedback received, to absorb and digest it all, if you will. It’s also great to be able to have other people’s immediate feedback on ideas stemming from their commentary, basically helping troubleshoot the kinks and rework the story before even leaving the meeting.

Over time, we’ve gotten to know each other’s strengths, and can even predict some of the comments, allowing me to address some of the issues before the story even goes out to them. In an ideal world, a story would be perfect before being read by anyone else. There would be no feedback, other than for kudos and slaps on the back for writing a perfect story. As this will never happen, the plan is to get a story as close to perfect as you can make it before sharing it for critique. The critiques exist to tell you what you missed so issues can be addressed before they are submitted to someone who will not give you a second read: an editor or publisher.

Online, you put up a story and get emails back in exchange. Myself, I send a “thank you” email back, and that’s usually the end of it. Though it does happen on occasion, follow-up exchanges rarely take place. I am left with a stack of comments from strangers, members of an online critiquing group, who could be anyone from an award-winning author, to a beginner who has yet to finish a story. Or they could not even be writers, just reviewers who enjoy reading stories and providing feedback. (It should be noted that good writers don’t necessarily make good critiquers. Critiquing is a skill that needs to be developed.)

Online critiques also provide the opportunity to get feedback from total strangers, objective beta readers who know nothing about you, and owe you nothing but their honest opinion.

A reviewer could happen to be a spelunker, who has chosen to comment on my spelunking story, and have the knowledge and experience to back up their feedback on technical aspects. The point is, I just don’t know unless they tell me their special expertise. If someone tells me I’ve got my facts wrong about something, I can’t just take their word for it. Online critiques allow my story to reach reviewers with a broad diversity in backgrounds, age, and nationality, and specific knowledge that I would never get from a local group.

Case in point: One reviewer, who sent me feedback on a story set in Japan after the Second World War, had a degree in Japanese culture, and lived in Japan for ten years. His email had been very critical of one of the elements in my story (the delivery of his feedback verged on a rant), and the overall tone of his comments had been especially brutal. I licked my wounds and replied to thank him for his feedback, admitted I had never been to Japan, and sent him the link to my source material for the specific reference that had got him so riled up. I hit sent and tried to forget about it, expecting my email would be automatically deleted.

To my great surprise, he replied a few days later, saying he had done some further research on the issue. He admitted he was wrong (!), and that my own source was right. He then proceeded to send me several emails over the following weeks, containing links and various source material, and details like the types of flowers blooming at that time of the year, to infuse the story with very Japanese details that had never even crossed my mind. Pretty insightful and useful feedback, wouldn’t you say?

Because of that, I value both in-person and online critiques because they bring complementary types of feedback that all help make my stories better than they would be without their input.

That’s why I take advantage of both opportunities. When deadlines allow, I try to run the same story through both groups. That way, I can make the manuscripts as good as they can be, before sending them out to an editor, ensuring problems that escaped my vigilance are corrected before going out.

Doing so lengthens the period of time it takes to get a story completed, but since I only get one shot to impress a specific editor with a story, I figure I might as well give them the best version of it that it can be.

That way, I’ve done as much as I can do. After that, it’s out of my hands.


Next week: Critiques – Making sense of all the feedback


Writing Week in Review (#1424)

June 13, 2014

-As per my post yesterday, All of a Heap will appear in Plague: Aftermath in September. The contract is signed and delivered, now I get to work on my author bio to accompany the story;

-Received a critique on Still Daughter from the Narwhals – it was generally received as an interesting concept, a different take on zombies even if that thought never crossed my mind until someone suggested it. This is a story I started two years ago but one that’s been quite a challenge to pull together as I can’t use the daughter/zombie as the viewpoint character. We had a good group discussion on possibilities and, as I don’t yet have a clear idea on how to thread it all together, I’m letting the idea seeds planted germinate for a bit to see which ones come out of the ground;

Fossil Lake is online for critique and I am sifting through the feedback that will continue to trickle in over the next week. I plan to quickly rework the story based on feedback from this new group to submit it to my regular online group for more substantial and specific feedback. Reviews from fresh readers can help pinpoint any final hiccup before final polishing and submission. I’m aiming high with this one and want to get it just right;

-As I enjoyed the first two chapters of a novel up for critique online, I took on reviewing the entire manuscript. It’s about 100 pages and classified as horror. I ended up spending most of my free time over the past week to draft the critique and have over 200 comments and notes, mainly about characterization and lack of tension. I’ve never taken on critiquing such a long manuscript before (never more than 10k) but I found the critiquing experience very similar to short stories, except of course for the length and that the same issues appeared over 100 pages instead of 10. It was an interesting experience and I learned more about writing in the process. I’m eager to shift my focus back to my own projects and hopefully be able to look at them in a more objective light to address any similar issues in my own work before I submit the stories elsewhere.

Writing Week in Review (#1423)

June 6, 2014

The news of the week: one of my stories has been accepted for an anthology! More details as soon as I can share.

The week began with a write-in session I hosted at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library, the final session in a public series. Attendance grew over the six-month period and I think it was effective in getting new writers started on their projects, or at the very least get them to sit down in front of a blank page to try. It’s always interesting to see how varied the write-in newbies’ reactions are, from the frustration of those giving up after twenty minutes and walking out, to those so focused they’re oblivious to the lights off being turned off at closing time. Those are the writers I want to work next to.

Weekly Tally:

-Finished a full rewrite of Fossil Lake (now 8,500 words) and shared it for online critique;

-Expanded Still Daughter, doubling the word count to 2,000 and shared it with the local Narwhal critique group;

-Critiqued three short stories.