Friday, August 2, 2013

If you're going to give advice . . .

Everyone who writes at some point has the same experience. I finish a short story or a novel, go over it for the tenth or twentieth time, and print out a clean copy to give a friend to read. Perhaps I’ve been reading chapters to the members of my writing group as I go along, or perhaps I am a solitary writer with no group and a strong reluctance to share my work till I think it’s finished. But at some point it will be finished enough to share, and I will have to show it to someone. What I get in return can be significant.

A recent discussion on a chat list for writers touched on the problem of getting nothing but negative feedback from a first reader. The reader even went so far as to tell the writer to stop writing. The reaction of the other writers, including me, was that this negativity is not useful. It’s destructive and there’s no point in destroying a new writer’s dreams and determination. The discussion and comments reminded me of two things—first, how kind some of my first readers had been, and, second, a story I was asked to read by someone who thought he was destined to write the great American novel. In my opinion he couldn't write a grocery list. I learned from both experiences how to make useful comments without judgment. (And I have always been grateful to the editors who were kind. When I look back at my early work . . .)

First, I ask the writer to describe the “aboutness” of the story. What is the story about? Tell me in one or two sentences. Don’t give me a plot summary—that’s different. Tell me what this story is for me as a reader. Some writers will never have thought about this, and it helps any writer focus on the story and what is or is not relevant in the telling of it. A first reader asked me this once after I'd finished a novel, and I couldn't tell her. Her question and my reaction forced me to rethink the story and what I wanted to do with it.

Second, I ask about the opening line (and sometimes about the closing line). Where did it come from? What is it supposed to achieve? Is the writer satisfied with it? I’m almost never satisfied with my opening lines, but I sometimes am very happy with the closing lines. Are there alternatives that were discarded? Why?

Third, I try to find a sentence with an interesting or unusual word usage and ask about that. Why did he or she choose this word? What is the writer trying to achieve?

Fourth, if the story is a mystery or paranormal or science fiction, I try to ask relevant questions on structure and formula (I’m limited to mystery fiction mostly), and how the writer understands the formula. With this question I hope to learn something about how others see the formula.

Fifth, I might ask about characters’ names if there is anything unusual about them, or if too many characters are named Joe or Mary. I might also point out that the ethnic identities of the characters do or do not match the setting or story line.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There is nothing in any of my comments that is a judgment or an evaluation. Each comment is meant to take the reader and the writer deeper into understanding the story and the writer’s goals. This can be edifying for both writer and reader because getting another writer to articulate a way of viewing the world and trying to present it means that I will learn something.

In addition, if I read something I think is awful and have to discuss it, I am forced to dig deeper, to reach beyond my prejudices and blinders. I have to listen to another writer’s reasons for doing something I probably wouldn’t have done. And I have to read with possibility in mind, with the idea that the writer is reaching for something. She may not have achieved it, but she has reached, and I should be willing to view the story within that frame. All of this makes me think harder.

Being asked to read someone else’s work is a compliment as well as a responsibility. Anyone who agrees to do so, therefore, is obligated to provide something useful and productive to the writer. Offering up a visceral reaction isn’t enough, and that doesn’t count as any kind of thoughtful reading. There is nothing to be gained by telling a struggling writer that he can’t write. I am well aware that the one person whom I think can’t write a phone message may turn out to be the next Scott Turow.


Alice Duncan said...

Interesting blog, Susan. I recently had to edit a really bad book. The writing wasn't terrible, but the writer didn't know what he was doing. You're right about having to dig deeper when you're in the position of critiquing something that truly isn't ready to be read yet.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Hello, Alice. Critiquing is work and it's good to remember what it's like to be on the receiving end of this. Thanks for commenting.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

Critiquing is a responsibility, whether you are paid to do it or do it as a courtesy to another writer.
Generally, I don't critique. I suppose that's because I taught creative writing at both the high school and college level. For me, it would be part of a job. However, I do review books when asked. I simply don't review ones I believe are bad.
No one values negativity. You're right about that. Constructive criticism that makes our writing stronger though is another thing entirely. I believe nothing in writing is ever perfect. We can all improve with help.

Susan Oleksiw said...

You're quite right that a good critique is work--it takes time and thought. I am no longer in a writers' group, so I rarely am asked to read and critique now. Reviewing books, though, raises similar challenges, but that's another post. Thanks for your comment, Jacquie.

Kaye Barley said...

I had two critiques for my WHIMSEY: A NOVEL from which I learned a valuable lesson. When asked to do a critique, I think good manners should come into play, along with good communication skills. Start off on a positive note. Surely there's SOMETHING you like about what you've been asked to read! Don't jump right in with words like "Oh, I had SO hoped to like this." Or "This is going to make you cry." No no no no no!!!! Thank goodness I had some critiques from people (readers and writers) I admire and trust - otherwise, I probably wouldn't have ever written another word.

As it turns out, the reviews for Whimsey have been delightful. I'm not only pleased, but I am damned proud of it.

Susan Oleksiw said...

You're quite right, Kaye. Good manners and good communication skills are definitely key. I try to make a distinction also between my taste and what the writer does well. No one should ever say anything that keeps an aspiring writer from writing another word.

Congratulations on your novel, and on getting positive feedback from others. I hope you'll post more about it on DorothyL (or was that in a digest I missed?).

Thank you for posting and sharing your experiences.

Pat Browning said...

Excellent post, Susan! I'm printing it out. I especially like your comment on the "aboutness" of a novel. When I published my first book I ran around doing signings and programs without knowing how tell someone what my book was about.

That's the first thing people ask.
I finally came up with a logline. (The examples in TV Guide are perfect.)

When I started my WIP the first thing I did was get suggestions for a logline. The one I use came from Tom Sawyer (Murder She Wrote) who knows a thing or two about loglines. ((--: I'm forever indebted to him.

Pat Browning

Kaye Barley said...

Susan, Thank You! I've posted a few things about it at DorothyL, but it's not a mystery so I've tried to refrain. Besides which, no one seems all that interested - LOL!!!

Jan Christensen said...

Very useful advice about giving advice to other writers, Susan. I never thought of asking them certain questions to get them thinking more clearly about what they're doing and how to improve what they have.

Peg Herring said...

This is helpful for me right now, since I'm the first of my small town to publish professionally. Since I was also a teacher here for many years, others who have taken up writing now ask me to "look at" their work, meaning "Please tell me it's good." Often it isn't.
You've helped me think about how I can talk about their work without criticizing...and actually, it's just what I used to do with my students. I just hadn't thought about it in terms of my second profession. said...

Good blog, Susan. Reading manuscripts in progress is so different from reviewing a published work. I once was a guest at a critique while on a book tour. After the member read everyone had a go at her, including the group leader, a professional writer, I got to have a say. Watching the member tear up at the devastating, mean and cutting remarks, taught me a lot about being careful how you tell the writer your thoughts, as well as what you say. The experience also made me glad I wasn't a member of that group! Nobody needs that kind of abuse.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I am very late thanking everyone who left a comment. For some reason, the later posts, thought written only a day or two later, did not show up.

Thank you, Pat, Kaye, Jan, Peg, and Carl, for your positive reactions to the post. I'm very glad to hear that others take this critiquing business seriously. It's hard enough to show your work to basically strangers, but then to get back something in sensitive and not useful is even worse.