Monday, April 21, 2008

Constructive Criticism and the Calm of Objectivity

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." - Winston Churchill

I used to read these words to myself before reviewing a critique of my work. It put things in perspective, and allowed me to remove my personal feelings from my work - thus, allowing me to see my work objectively, so I can accurately assess whether the critiquer has brought up valid points. After all, I'm a writer, and I want to be the best writer I can be. Therefore, I need to be able to absorb critiques in a constructive way.

That said, there are things that can upset the zen of my objectivity. I call them unhelpful critiques. :) An unhelpful critique is probably different for everyone, but here's what's unhelpful for me:
1) Critiquer laughs or scoffs at any part of my story.
2) Critiquer is patronizing or condescending, or tells me that I'm doing everything wrong without suggestions on how to fix it.
3) Critiquer ignores any questions I have, or areas of focus I have requested.
4) Critiquer wants to change the story or characters based on his/her taste, not based on what is best for the story.
5) Critiquer does not understand the story and, instead of merely stating this, "teaches" me how to write properly.
6) Critiquer offers no positive reinforcement.

If at least one of these elements appears in a critique, I had trouble keeping my objectivity...and I was more inclined to not listen to future suggestions from that particular person. This could be bad, because that critiquer could have great advice - and just a poor way of delivering it.

So, after many deep breaths and walks around the block, I created a new method for receiving criticism. I read through everything once, let all my emotions out during that first read, then set it aside. When I'm sufficiently calm (this could take an hour or a week...depending), I pick it back up and wrench my objectivity back into place. :) I strip the critiquer's personal info from my mind and focus only on the criticism. If it's good, I make a note to incorporate it. If it's bad, then I set it aside with no more emotion than a yawn before bedtime. After all, the critique isn't personal. It's meant to help improve my writing. So why should I let my emotions take over, and my objectivity fall by the way side?

Objectivity is such a wonderful thing. To me, it's like a warm blanket because I know I'm looking at things as they are. Not as I want them to be, or afraid that they might be. It also allows me to see things through other people's perspectives. Say, a reader was confused by a certain passage in my story and went off on a completely wrong tangent in her critique. If I look at it from her perspective, knowing less about the characters and plot than I know, then that confusion could make sense and I can make a note to clear things up. Then, when the story goes back through critique, I can focus on that same reader's reaction. Usually, it's pleasant surprise. And the fact that I listened to her, even in a way she didn't intend, makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. :)

So, what makes a good critique? It's different for different people because we don't all have the same strengths and weaknesses. A good friend of mine is terrible with grammar, but great with plot. I'm good with grammar, but not so good on showing my characters. So when I ask for a critique, these are the things I find most helpful:

1) Critiquer finds holes in my plot.
2) Critiquer notices when characters are acting "out of character."
3) Critiquer points out the things that work well in the story - dialog, strong scene, strong character, good use of all senses, etc.
4) Critiquer tells me his/her reaction at key points in the story. This might include guessing at the story's outcome, pointing out that a certain revelation was predictable/not predictable, or comments on the character's growth (or lack thereof).
5) Critiquer addresses any questions I posed either before or after the story, and avoids the problems I already know about.
6) Critique is phrased in a constructive and encouraging manner.

These kinds of critiques usually come from experienced critiquers. And when I get one, I always make a point of thanking the person for being so professional and thoughtful. After all, we're trying to make this our profession, right? So why not treat our work with the professional respect we know it deserves? :)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Earthquake? In the Midwest?

Around 4-something this morning, I was shaken awake...probably by the earthquake that originated in West Salem, Il. But, at the time, I thought it was my husband. Annoyed and unable to comprehend what he was saying, I went back to sleep.

Later this morning, I heard on the news that we'd experienced an earthquake. And I said, "Earthquake? But we live in Chicago!" My husband rolled his eyes and said "that's what I was trying to tell you last night." Guess I should try to pay more attention. :)

Apparently, the midwest is on top of a pretty serious fault line. Wikipedia has some good info on it. There were some disastrous earthquakes in 1811-1812, measuring 7.0 to 7.9 on the richter scale. There were severe landslides and ground warping, the town New Madrid was destroyed, and the Mississippi river flowed backwards. This fault line acts up every few hundred years, and affects as many as five states. And we thought California had it bad! :)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Revision and the Art of Glazing Over

I'm currently revising my latest YA project, Royal Rose, with respect to characters and voice. I'm going over each and every word, figuring out if it does its job. If it does, it stays. If not, it has to be deleted or replaced with one that does. And let me yell ya, this is an eye-straining, glazing over, mind-numbing job. It's no wonder many writers don't make it through the many stages of polishing a manuscript, because this writing stuff is really hard!

I've figured out some steps that help refresh me, mind and body. So I thought I'd share.

1) Drink ice, cold water. I used to gravitate toward sugary snacks and caffeine, but then I'd have to deal with the "crash" a few hours later. But a glass of ice, cold water gives my body that temperature-related jolt, waking it up, with absolutely no after-effects (except the inevitable trip to the bathroom).
2) Get up to stretch your limbs. I'm one of those writers that, when I'm in the zone, will sit for several hours at a time. Sometimes eight or nine, if I have it. I need an alarm to tell me when it's time to pick up my kids. :) So I need to occasionally get up and walk around the room, just to keep from getting sleepy or stiff.
3) Breathe fresh air. Especially since the weather is improving, I've been doing this more often. I'm not sure what I'll do once it's warm enough to work outside because I'll already be in the fresh air. Or, maybe I'll just be invigorated all the time. Who knows!
4) Write longhand. Sometimes I need to set the computer aside and pick up paper and pen. Especially if I'm stuck. I dump everything in my head onto paper, then sort it out there. I also find it helps to switch from a computer screen to paper if my eyes are suffering from strain.
5) Eat a healthy snack. I've found that eating fresh fruits and vegetables keep me better hydrated than water, and keep my energy level up as well. My favorites are cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, grapes, and strawberries.

Anyway, this is what works for me. And it makes me wonder, what works for other people? So, if anyone is reading this, please share!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Authentic Character Voice

I think this is one of the hardest things to get right in a story. Or maybe I think this because I'm working on it right now and feel like my head is about to explode. :)

So, what is Voice? Basically, it's what you hear in your head as you're reading a story. If it's authentic, it'll be obvious that the main character (MC) is telling the story. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word is exactly what MC would say. If it sounds generic or jarring, then MC's voice is not coming through.

My next question is this: can Voice be taken too far? Can MC be inserted so much into the story that it slows things down? I think it can. I think it's extremely hard to find that balance between hearing MC's voice and MC hijacking the story.

But it's MC's story! How can she hijack her own story?

Technically, yes, it is her story. But I believe there are times when MC can get in the way. Particularly in today's YA books. I've read quite a few that have lots of inserted personality, especially in the beginning. Granted, this is a good thing because we get to know MC right away. And every piece of information, pondering note, and bit of backstory was clearly in MC's Voice. But it was sometimes so long that I found myself saying "get on with it, already." I've even skimmed through stuff like this, potentially missing important information, just to get to the next bit of dialog.

Of course, not all books are like this. I think SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson gets Voice across quite clearly. Every single word is a reflection of the main character, Melinda, yet the story is still moving forward. THE STORY OF A GIRL by Sara Zarr is another example. But there are other stories that have half a page of pondering or expostion right in the middle of a conversation. I mean, who can go through all those thoughts, simultaneously think up a reply to the conversation, and keep the other party from looking at her funny? No one I know.

So, how much is too much? To be honest, I can only answer that from a Reader's perspective. If my mind starts to wander, it's too much. Subjective, I know. :) I guess a good way to handle this is to find someone with a similar threshold and ask him to read the story. Based on his reaction, we can add/edit/delete as needed.