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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Kathryn, I'm a novice writer, and just shared my first piece for beta reading. It was a learning experience in many ways. I'm SO glad to have your tips here as I get ready to graduate to more in-depth critiques of my memoir manuscript. Thank you!
I can almost feel your heart pounding from here, Karen. I doubt anyone forgets their first critique experience! Especially if your writing is undeveloped to the point that readers don't get what you're trying to do, as mine was. Even more challenging with memoir, where you are subject, author AND protagonist. It will be a great learning ground for you if you stay open to it--with a few translation tips on hand. Keep the faith and good luck!
I've been with a small online critique group for years, and we've gotten to the point where we can *usually* understand the meaning behind the words of feedback, but we also are comfortable enough to ask questions. Also, understanding the background of each member helps; if a member reads and writes romance, then they'll look at character arcs differently than a computer programmer. You have to learn to weed out the relevant comments, and, as you pointed out so well, be able to translate.
Hi Terry, SUCH a good point about taking writing backgrounds into consideration. My most recent ms was reviewed by a commercial YA writer, who picks nits like crazy, and a literary writer who gives me a wide creative berth. I love the dual perspectives, which often result in the exact same page passing muster with one and being heavily marked by the other. But as always, final consideration must come from me.
My writing suits me! Huh, that don't work. You are supposed to write to please others, arn't you? I like my writing, at least until I go back and read it. Then I find more and better ways to say what ever is said on the page. How can I fix that? By the way, I have never gotten a good report from a query. Why?
Love your article,
You point to something important here, James: our work doesn't rise to the level of literary art until it has been read, because art is a collaboration between artist and audience. It is no longer solely of the writer, but exists between the two. Figuring out how to trust the reader to bring what a/he knows to the reading of a work is an excellent use of the critique experience.
I'm not sure what you mean by "good report from a query." Do you mean your critique partners don't like your query letter? Or you fail to get a response when you send yours to agents?
Critiqueing each other's work, particularly as fellow writers (as opposed to hiring a professional editor) is so tricky. As always, Kathryn, you've approached it with a level head and an eye for reading beneath the words to the deeper meaning. I'm going to try very hard to remember this, both as one receiving feedback and one giving it. Thanks for your insights.
Haha my level head was hard won, Maggie, and evolved after many baffling encounters!
The gang mentality is alive and well in college and graduate level writing classes, which I found devastating to the ego until I figured out a couple of things. First, the professor who simply marks a red x in the margins of sections she does not like may, in reality, be an author whose own books barely sold any copies or she failed to publish at all. In short, she may be frustrated and bitter. That doesn't mean her points are necessarily invalid, but they must be approached with caution rather than reactionary edits. Second, make sure to read the work of that peer who gives the most cutting and brutal critiques. Do you like that person's writing? Be honest. Is it possible that they are simply insecure and cut you down in order to build themselves up? Again, this does not mean that their comments have no merit, but be sure you understand what lens through which they might be viewing your work and adjust accordingly.
Kim--ugh! Workshopping can be brutal without the right leadership, as I well know. What new writers need most is your patience and questions--i.e., "Is this what you meant?"--rather than our manhandling. I've heard many stories of workshop experiences that put an end to budding writing careers. When I was "beat up" by a gang for my first book (one lovely quote: " this is just some chick book" when yes, I was still learning to write women's fiction), and still had ten more days at this expensive conference, I made individual appointments with every single person in my workshop. I got MUCH more useful feedback that way.
Wonderful piece, Kathryn. I have had all sorts of critique partners/groups over the years and they have all helped me in some way, but I must say that one of the most helpful things for me personally was not only figuring out what they were telling me but also gaining confidence in my own writing so that I could use what they were saying and still keep the work mine.
And now that I've been through professional edits in preparation for my debut from Harlequin, I have learned that editors are far more interested in the story you're trying to tell than that adverb you used on page 3.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Carrie. In general I've found the same thing re: story vs words, but I sure do love editors with a keen ear for cadence that can help winnow those chapter ends to a pitch-perfect conclusion.
Your comment reminds me of an anecdote from my first critique group. A man told me he had sat by a river to "correct my manuscript" and a wind blew up and took the papers away. Clearly, the Great Creator knew how to save me from his "corrections"!
It's so easy to get discouraged by a critiquers comments! Often when I get negative feedback, I take a day away from it and then go back to translate. Somewhere inside that heart-piercing crit is a nugget of gold that makes all the difference to the story, as long as I can translate it properly and not take it as an emotional blow.
It may take as much as a week, Karla. I ask that my editing clients write down questions as they think of them, but not to get back to me for a week. It takes a while to do this translation and figure out what you can learn from it.
Great post, Kathryn. A critiquing partner really IS like a marriage in many ways. Without the pesky vows thing, thank God, because many drop out, or move on.
I can't find that quote - about if someone tells you something's wrong, listen. If they try to tell you how to fix it, ignore them.
Ha! Love the marriage analogy, Laura! It's like the languages of love, right?
"But you didn't like my novel!"
"Why do you say that? I told you your grammar was fine."
It gets easier when you get to know the way your critiquer's mind works!
So very helpful!! I've only begun to "allow" two of my novels be seen by human eyes - and my two critique partners' feedback was confusing. I'm going back to what I read, and translate into a more writer-useful statements. Your clear examples definitely give me hope to make my stories much better! Thanks.
Hoping you can figure out something useful, Celia. The best thing you did for yourself is not to submit for criticism too soon. I never let others read first draft writing—even I don't know what it's really about yet!
Super post, Kathryn! I belong to a wonderful critique group that has met once a month for years. We find it difficult to critique properly when we only get to see a few pages at a time once a month. It's vital to share larger chunks more often, so sometimes we post those in our on-line Yahoo group. Another helpful hint: once you've made whatever revisions you choose from your critiquer's comments, don't run your rewritten scenes past them again. You'll end up revising the same scenes forever.
To your last point, so true, Barb. Plus, when you add in that time factor, it may not look different to them at all. One of the comments I've gotten back from my agent is, "Kathryn, this is not different enough." What she is saying is—yes, even at this label you must translate—"This isn't about re-arranging words for maximum impact. This is about coming up with new story here."
Great article! Passed it on to my writer friends.
Excellent, Kathryn. I remember one early reader of my work, a really good writer named Paul Bishop, saying, "Why is this character hostile? Hostility is easy to do." I had to spend time thinking about it until I realized that he was telling me not to go for the facile emotion. I think your translations are great. Thanks!
Hi James, I've received the same note. Anger gives you a lot of fuel to burn to create forward momentum in a story and I've relied on it too much sometimes in early drafts. A great use for beta readers, to learn when enough is enough and dig deeper.
[…] Read the rest of this post HERE. […]
#3. Completely. Whenever I have had any piece of a piece critiqued rather than the whole thing, the advice is nearly always contradictory. It is well-meaning, but it is insufficient. It is like watching a single scene out of a movie and then saying well I don't understand the entire movie from this one scene, so could you please add x, y, and z and explain why the characters are doing all of this? Well, no, I can't. That's what the rest of the movie is for! 😀
Exactly. Great analogy, Erin!
I belong to a writing group that meets monthly and covers 15 or 30 pages. Contrary to what has been said here, I find the class does remember the previous mss. If someone doesn't, the teacher or someone else recalls it. Also, I don't find much contradiction overall. In fact, I'm amazed that so often everyone likes the same part, and several people often dislike the same things. That is not to say that their written remarks don't vary. But when they do, we talk it through and usually come to a consensus or agree to disagree. After the class, I read and re=read comments and decide what to change and what to leave in. These critiques really buoy me up--whether negative or positive. It shows they have read my ms. carefully. To me, that is affirmation.Marion Cuba
Your advice rings so true, Kathryn. I'm a long-time member of a face-to-face group and this year have been active in an online group. Both groups struggle with the nobody-reads-a-book-like-this syndrome, but often people are submitting works in early stages so that sharing whole manuscripts isn't always possible. But I do miss getting responses to my overall vision--and being able to offer big-picture critique to my peers.
Your article triggered so many thoughts for me. One I will share is that we all tend to read right over the positive comments in a critique and glom onto the negative ones. I'm as guilty as anyone about stewing over a criticism; at the same time, I sometimes fail my colleagues because I don't remember to hit the good stuff really, really hard early and late.
I also want to pick up on one of your responses to comments. It takes time to assimilate a critique. My rule: never argue with readers. The best response to even the harshest critique is "Thanks. I'll take a look at that." Within a week or so, I find myself thinking, Oh, that's what that was about!
Terrific piece! Thanks!
You bring up a great point about positive feedback--we can often learn as much from what we're doing right, and why it's working, as we can by "corrections." Fumbling around in the dark as we are when we begin our storytelling journeys, we need any lights turned on that we can get!
I know how awful that must have felt to hear that, but I get it. This is valuable feedback--even if you were writing a mentally ill character, she needs to be one your readers want to stick with for ten hours of reading. This issue is at the heart of why we seek feedback. We need to learn how our characters are coming across to others. Of course as critiquers, it helps if we can keep our own inner psychotics in check while delivering that news!
[…] is one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read about the critique group process, from guest blogger Kathryn Craft posting at Writers in the Storm. It rings true for me on so many […]
This is a super helpful analysis of the difficulty of translating critiques.
I've had bad and good experiences with groups--enough to say that I can identify bad as a bad critique, and not necessarily as a bad piece of writing. In the last group I went to, a guy said my main character was obviously psychotic, and if I wanted to create a mentally ill character he wouldn't want to get near, I'd done it. He said more, but it's not necessary to repeat the rant. The scene I'd submitted was a woman's reaction to the death of her husband after a difficult marriage. (The women in the group all were sympathetic.)
Anyway, as often as possible, I trade with trusted critique partners for a full ms read-through. In addition to the difficulty of remembering details month-to-month, there's the page-limit-per-session. You reach a point at which it's not realistic to spend 30 or 40 months getting feedback for a complete a novel.
crbwriter: Comment slotted in the wrong place. Please check above--my comment to you is the second after "vanderso" above!
I found this very interesting indeed, it's all about being willing to really listen to what is being said and not hear the words
A succinct way to put it, Amorina.
I'm a little late to this party, but this is great, Kathryn. Based on my group's schedules, chapter by chapter is what we've chosen, but we've run into exactly the problems you mentioned. If an issue is pointed out and you go back a couple of chapters and fix it, there is a domino effect. When the critiquer reads the later chapters, they're like, "But I thought she wasn't going to do that." The approach has its pros and cons. But everything you said is spot on.
Thank for sharing your experience, Densie. It's a conundrum. Early on in our writing journeys, there is so much to learn from the monthly approach, from writing more effective prose to how to externalize inner conflict to how to create a relatable character and more—but at some point, I do believe it can hold you back, for the reasons you state. At that point, full ms critique is the way to go. Yet many long-standing groups exist, so they must still get something out of it! Best to go in with eyes wide open.
[…] Once you write the manuscript, you need to polish it to (near) perfection. Gabrielle van Welie has 5 quick proofreading tips that have massive payoffs, and Kathryn Craft shares 4 tips for translating critique-speak. […]
Thanks so much for these tips, Kathryn. I've shared them generously online. It's important for writers to listen to critiques and then decide what actually pertains to the story they are trying to write. Critiques are tough, but necessary.
Thanks again! Enjoy your Labor Day weekend.
Thanks for sharing, Victoria. Critique prepares us for publication in more than one way--we'll need that thick skin it creates once reviews of our work are published!