My writer friends, beware of asking that question regarding your work. Or more precisely, to whom you ask the question. Because not all critiques are alike. Or even useful.
I have a friend who was on a deadline for submitting a manuscript. She had asked a (fairly new to her) critique group for feedback. Everyone wrote in the same genre, so she felt like the feedback would be helpful. What she was hoping for were plot problems, characters with the wrong name, bursts of unattributed dialogue, scenes that were in the wrong place or unclear. What she got was punctuation notes (some helpful, others contradicting the style guide of the publisher), suggestions to rewrite entire subplots, and one person questioning the premise of the book.
My friend freaked out. I finally wrote an all caps email telling her to IGNORE EVERYTHING. Because it was just too late (deadline) to make substantive changes to the plot. And her premise had gotten her a book contract, so somebody liked it.
It made me think about critique groups and critique partners. We’ve talked about critiques, critiquing, feedback and editing on the blog several times. I thought I’d weigh in with my opinion on who you should ask to read your book when, and what a good critique partner does and doesn’t do.
My process is two write a lousy first draft, and then add research and shape it into second draft. I also try to give each draft time to sit, though deadlines sometimes get in the way. This is when the first critique comes in–usually my friend Jason. At this point I need someone to look at the big picture, the frame of the story. Does it hold together? How is the pacing? Was he surprised?
I then take his comments, and incorporate them into the manuscript. If they make sense, and work for the story. He may not love that the farmer’s son was guilty of the crime. But was he upset because the rest of the story didn’t support that (bad), or because he really liked the farmer’s son and was sad that he was guilty (good)? This critique partner needs to be a trusted reader who understands how delicate a book (and writer’s ego) is at this stage. Honesty and suggestions.
I then do another pass on the manuscript, looking for action, sensory moments, pacing, and every other editing technique I have learned after years of classes and workshops. When I am “done” I give it to the next level of readers. This round reacts to story (and usually Jason is a reader here too), but also looks at structure, grammar, punctuation, and overall clarity.
At this stage, I am easily confused. I have been working on the manuscript for too long, and have lost all objectivity. So I need to find people I trust. People who offer their ideas, but couch their ideas in support of my work, not a desire to write my story themselves. And I need to muster the strength to say “no” to some suggestions.
Any my final critique partner? Me. A couple of days in the drawer, and a read through of the entire manuscript. Straight through. And then I ask myself “what do you think?” and hope the answer is in the affirmative. And if not, I fix it.
How about you? Do you have readers or critique partners you trust? Or are you your only reader?
J.A. Hennrikus is a mystery writer. She is the President of Sisters in Crime New England, on the national board of Sisters in Crime, and a member of Mystery Writers of America. She also blogs with Wicked Cozy Authors.