Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Critiquing Your Critiques

This past weekend I was fortunate to attend KidLit Con 2010. Where the Merry Sisters of Fate (Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff) gave a presentation on critique groups.

First let me say that KidLit Con was AWESOME! Really well put together, lovely venues, and great panels. Every time I attend a conference I'm reminded how awesome it is to be in a room full of writers. When the time came for Q&A with the Merry Sisters, every single question asked was about writing!

They talked about many fascinating and insightful things, but the one I want to focus on today is a comment they made about getting a critique.

Maggie was talking about editor's notes, but it really fits for critiques from crit partners and beta readers as well. She said (I'm paraphrasing), sometimes you might get a note back saying "I don't like that thing with the pickup truck at the convenience store, can you do something else?" And she said what you need to know is, the editor (crit partner, beta reader) isn't really talking the pickup truck. They're responding to something in the scene that isn't working. So if you like the pickup truck you don't necessarily need to take it out. You need to figure out what about the scene isn't accomplishing what you intended. You need to, in effect, (and this is me talking now) critique your critique.

Before you get all panicked and start slashing things, (or angry and defensive, whichever is your MO) really read over the entire critique and try to get a sense of what the critiquer is and isn't getting from your story. The things that tend to stand out to people are the things that are easily identified. So a reader might say "the pick up truck thing" but what they really mean is "I just didn't get why she suddenly went from sad to happy in that scene where he offers her a ride in his new pick up truck. It just didn't feel real to me, and it threw off what happened in the next scene."

These are the kind of comments the Merry Sisters work on together, and it's the kind of thing you can do on your own or with your cps. A lot of times a few in depth questions can help you figure out what's missing and what needs to be changed.

Before you start asking questions, be clear on what you want the scene to accomplish. Then work to figure out what it is and isn't accomplishing. The fix might be as simple as adding one line of dialogue or as huge as deleting the entire scene and starting from scratch. You might even find that what you were trying to get across isn't the best choice after all.

The thing I took away from the Merry Sisters' talk more than anything is when you get a critique that says something other than "that's brilliant!" Stop. Breathe. Read it, and then read it again. Take another deep breath, and then begin a dialogue either with your cp, or with yourself. Every crit is helpful no matter how basic it is. Try to find the useful bits and use them to make your ms shine.


  1. It sounds like an awesome conference! I also feel very fortunate to have such fab CP's because you guys spell out exactly why the 'pick up truck scenes' don't work. So I'd add that it makes it easier when you have amazing beta readers. :)

  2. Wow, I wish I'd been at that conference, it sounds like it was amazing!
    Great advice though. Sometimes it's easy to take what crits say literally rather than read between the lines. I'm so lucky to have awesome CP's who work things through with me if I'm confused. :)

  3. As I wait for some editorial notes to arrive, this is SO timely! Thanks so much!!


    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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