Thursday, June 16, 2005

Critique Clinic


My new guilty pleasure is ABC's Dancing with the Stars. I love this show! That's Joey McIntyre from NKOTB and his partner Ashley del Grosso, a professional ballroom dancer. What I love about this show, besides the dancing, is how brave these celebrities are. They're really putting themselves on the line. The show is live every week, not pre-recorded, and they only had a week to learn either the tango or the jive. It took me 6 weeks to learn just the basics of the lindy, so kudos to these dancers. Who knew that Rachel Hunter and John O'Hurley could really dance or that you could do the tango to a Britney Spears song?

What makes it even more impressive, besides the fact that the show is live, is the fact that the judges are professional ballroom dance judges. It's hard enough to take on the challenge of something unfamiliar but to do in front of the world and professionals, that takes guts.

It made me wonder about criticism. Some of the judges were incredibly harsh on the dancers, considering that they're amateurs. Even though Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsey can be entertaining, we have the safety of not being the ones up in the host seat. Simon professes that he is doing the singers a favor by being so blunt but is he really?

I've had the experience of having some really good critiques of my work (Thanks Bev, KMJ, MG, RY, SRN) and I"ve had the opposite experience of having critiques that were so harsh, it's a wonder I'm still writing. My first experience with the Simon Cowell school of critiquing came courtesy of RT's manuscript evaluation service. For $85, I could have my synopsis and first 3 chapters critiqued by a professional writer.

Cool! I had just had several 'dear author' rejections from agents, and I wanted to find out aht I might be doing wrong. I sent off my check and my work and eagerly awaited my critique. Well, what awaited me in the return envelope was nothing short of character assasination. The writer was a fairly well known historical romance writer. She ripped my work to shreds, and called me morally irresponsible for having one of my characters smoke.

How I kept my head out of the oven I'll never know. Did I learn anything from her critique? Not really, apart from some grammatical errors. The second, almost as devastating occured in my first workshop with the Queen Bee. I read my first 7 pages of one of my manuscripts. The verdict? She hated it. That's what she actually said "I hate it". Now she had some really good points to make , but getting past the "I hate it" part was difficult to say the least. Granted, this was just one person's opinion, and you have to develop a thick skin in this business, but I do believe tha tthere is a way to critique without destroying someone's soul.

Since then, I've been very conscious of how I personally critique someone. I always say something positive first, before I go on to talk about what I think could be improved, or what I thought was missing. I try to treat the writer with the same consideration that I would want to be treated.

What do peole think? Is it better to be brutally honest or to take the Paula Abdul approach to giving criticism?


Anonymous said...

I think you don't have to be either. You can be honest without being brutal. I think it's good to point out something positive before the negative. That being said, you DON'T, in my opinion, have to resort to cruelty in order to be truthful.

I love that show too!

Kelly Parra said...

How awful to have to your work treated like that! I'm sorry you went through that with her twice. I try to help my CPs the best I can, and be honest, but I always manage to offer my opinion carefully, not be harsh. And yes, I always offset good with the bad. Your critiquing approach is right on. =)

J.F. Cossey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
J.F. Cossey said...

Well Paula Abdul doesn't really give critiques... she praises the ones she likes (no matter how bad they are) and finds something to nitpick with the ones she doesn't like (no matter how good they are). I don't take what she says seriously. Sorry, had to vent.hehe BUT here's the thing... I myself cannot take bullying criticism, it makes me want to curl up and die... I do very well with what I call "constructive" criticism, ie/ how you do things. On the other hand, there are some people (and I've met them) who are severely motivated by really harsh criticism, for whom the gentler approach just does nothing. I've met some, but not many, though. So I guess that brings me back to Paula Abdul. She must have her place too, as I'm sure some people really need the coddled version of crit, and that's ok. If it makes a person more productive, if it makes a person that much more inclined and brave to reach for their dreams, how can that be bad? GREAT topic for a post!! :)

11:44 AM

MHGibson said...

I've always been of the school that it's really easy to sit and bitch, carp and moan about something not being perfect or right and not offer any useful why do it? If you're CRITIQUING for someone, it pays to give them feedback they can actually use...something that will enourage them and keep them going. Certain words should never be used. Discouragement should never factor into the equation. Your own prejudices and thoughts shouldn't come into play and you should always respect that the person you're critiquing has put themselves OUT THERE to be judged and read and mulled over. That's a big thing. The least give them the courtesy of trying to help out. Mean, harsh, bullying critiques are just not right. I'm sorry you've had them, too...

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks guys, for the comments. I think it's really important not to crush people's dreams when you critique. I truly believe that you can find something positive to say about anyone's writing, even if it isn't quite your cup of tea. If someone is going to trust you enough to let you critize their work, you owe it to them to give them a positive, constructive experience that they can use.

Gabrielle said...

I can't believe you paid for a scummy critique like that! I hope you asked for your money back. That was simply mean and, as we all know, mean people suck ;-)

In a group I was once a member of, one person was particularly vocal and brazen in her criticisms. Which is a shame, because she had a lot of good points to make, but people couldn't hear it past the word choice--words such as "pig," "hate," etc. One day I gave her my work and she said, "He's a pig because he stops to have an ice cream when he's on his way to see his kid." Didn't matter that he HAD to stop to take a ferry, and bought the ice cream while he was waiting. The other people in the critique group jumped on her, offended for me, but I started to laugh and said, "Well, if that's ALL you've got to say--no scene & sequel, no motiviation (she was a buzz word queen)--then I've done my job and you know it."

A little while later, about 7 of us left that group. We were tired of being treated like crap for 1. writing "differently" (we had people writing paranormal, chick lit, etc, while the majority of others were aiming for the UK market, and would give comments such as "I don't read stuff like this," after we'd done our best to critique them in a helpful manner) and 2. having success (some smaller publishing credits, contest wins, etc). The change in our attitudes to writing was amazing: it was, overall, a joy again. We critique strongly but kindly, using terms such as "I know where you're going here but I think you're just off the mark. How about..."

Within 6 months, one of our group made a high-six-figure sale for 3 books, others have picked up agents, and there have been more contest wins and a lot of info sharing. As well as a lot of chocolate being consumed.

Which is a long-winded way of saying, you have to be very careful who you let near your work. Susan Elizabeth Phillips says "Protect the work, whatever it takes," and I agree. There are times when we can be too sensitive, for sure, but your stomach will always tell you when someone wants to help or drag you down. Hell, there was even a case some 6-7 years ago of a writer being upset by a really nasty review on Amazon--I mean, REALLY nasty. She tracked it back to her critique partner.

Listen to your gut reaction, even when doing so might mean your not being a "nice girl" anymore. Many people who want to see you fail will do so while making it seem like they're supporting you, and they're counting on that nice face to keep you nice. Let 'em know you're serious about your work and they need to back off. It's difficult, but essential.