Turning Whine Into Gold
Bad experiences have damaged many a writer’s trust in critique partners. I get it. Peer reviewers may bring uneven skills and questionable talents to their assessment of your work. But as a practiced reader, each has something to contribute.
To unlock the gold hidden within their feedback, you must first learn critique-speak, an indirect mode of communication in which what people say is not always what you should hear. You might have to dig to find the nugget that’s of use.
In offering feedback on a memoir piece that became the basis of my novel The Far End of Happy, advance readers loved the actions of a woman who insists on divorcing her husband after his suicide—but they “didn’t need all that stuff about the farm.” Problem was, the piece, Standoff at Ronnie’s Place, was absolutely about the farm—and I was submitting it in answer to a journal’s call for pieces about setting!
I had to choose: scrap the project, or dig deeper to find the real problem. I chose the latter.
What I heard: “Your description is getting in the way of your story.”
Translation: “If you want setting to be important, I need greater orientation to this story by building characterization through setting detail.”
The public had spoken: I had not yet achieved my goal of using the setting to carry the emotional weight of the essay. After I went back to the drawing board, the piece got published.
In reading an early version of The Far End of Happy, a critiquer told me I could cut eight pages of backstory with one of the mothers—it was irrelevant. Despite how it felt, she did not aim that arrow at my heart. It was pointing toward a problem with story structure.
What I heard: “I got bored and started to skim.”
Translation: “This material does not feel tied to the character’s story goal.
I did not cut the material because the three-POV structure was meant to examine what brought each of the characters to the high-tension twelve hours of the novel’s front story. But that was my author goal, not the character’s goal. In revision, I made sure those pages felt relevant to the reader by raising questions about this woman’s past that showed the way her past seriously compromised her current goal.
Have you read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander? Oh my, I gobbled that one up. I stayed up late and got up early, operating on only three hours of sleep as I pushed to the end. I effusively recommended it to my husband, who, upon finishing, really didn’t see what the hype was about. Why? He read it over the course of two years, 1-2 pages per night! This makes a difference.
National Book Award-nominated author Diane Johnson pointed this out when she was my mentor at Sewanee Writers’ Conference. My first “forever in a drawer” novel was strong enough to gain me entry to the juried conference, yet while there I would learn it was woefully overwritten. Diane determined the reason: my critique group met each month to review one chapter at a time, a span too long for readers to retain continuity. I revised accordingly (read: mistakenly).
“No novel can stand up to that kind of scrutiny,” she said. A novel is an accumulation of cause-and-effect, questions raised and answered, expectations met and dashed—and so much more. That accumulation needs a chance to succeed.
What I heard: “I can’t recall the details of your novel from month to month.”
Translation: “This method of critique isn’t working anymore.”
My solution was to switch from a monthly critique group to full manuscript swaps. Since then I have received much more useful feedback.
In-person workshopping is a social activity. When one of your critiquers doesn’t get what you are trying to do—meaning she reads your piece and feels clueless as to what it is about—she is unlikely to admit it in front of the others. Worse, if someone does admit their cluelessness, a feeding frenzy can begin, piling one negative thing onto the next so the clueless readers can assuage their insecurities by dumping on you.
What I heard: “I was confused about the story so I corrected your grammar.”
Translation: “This story did not invite me on its journey. I need to know what your character wants and what incited that desire so I can root for him throughout the story’s complications.”
Why don’t critiquers just say what they mean?
Well, they do. But it’s up to you to learn to speak the underlying language, and then improve the piece based on that. And guess what? This dynamic will still be in play when your manuscript gets to a publishing house. So practice your translation skills now!
Do you have any horror stories from the critique trenches you’d like to share? What peer review model do you use and why does it work for you?
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.
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