What Stace had to say on Monday, August 3rd, 2009
On Critiques 5

So thanks to all who played along and left comments/critiques to my little snippet on Thursday. I’m going to address a few of the comments specifically in the post, but more important than the specific comments is the Ultimate Lesson (yes, this series is just like a Very Special Episode) I’m hoping you’ll all see:

Critiques are subjective.

See, I actually rather liked those two paragraphs. They weren’t perfect at all, and I’m going to talk about my feelings on their specific problems in a minute. But I was fairly pleased with them, which was one reason I was so happy/curious to see what you all made of them.

To refresh our memories, there were the paragraphs:

Lucy pulled her ragged jacket closer around her shoulders, but it didn’t help much. The wind cut through her like shards of ice, whipping around the lonely buildings to shred her soul. Up ahead home waited for her, warm bright rooms and her mother’s smiling face. But here on the street only the echoes of her footsteps kept her company.

She passed through the square of pale gold light on the street made by the pub window. Inside men shouted and laughed, lifting pints, slapping each other on the back when one of them hit a bullseye. If she only had some money, she could walk in and have a drink too, defrost her aching extremities by the gentle coal fire.

Now. What I actually expected to hear was that as openings go, this is really rather cliche. A girl walking alone down a cold street at night? Whoo. Not particularly original. We also don’t really get any sense of Lucy as a character here. It’s cold. She’s going home. She seems…well, like she’s cold, and wants to go home. There’s no real sense of urgency here. There’s nothing which attracts us to Lucy.

Granted, it is only two paragraphs. It’s entirely possible–highly likely, in fact–that were this opening accompanied by a great blurb, and something exploded in the next couple of paragraphs, it would be just fine. But openings are important (no, get your minds out of the gutter; that was last summer’s series.) The job of an opening is to set scene and character and draw the reader in.

But. Keeping in mind this series isn’t about opening pages or chapters–it’s not even really about writing–we’re not going to focus on that so much as the fact that what I was hoping for was someone to point out that there’s little sense of character here, and it’s kind of dull.

A couple of you did point that out, and that such a large chunk of that piece is just about how cold it is. Yay!

But here’s the other thing, which will hopefully clarify the larger point I was trying to make, and that is how critiques, how we give them and what we look for in them, change as time goes on.

Let’s take, for example, the line “The wind cut through her like shards of ice, whipping around the lonely buildings to shred her soul.” I was actually rather pleased with that line. Not necessarily the bit about the shards of ice–I could have come up with something better–but the lonely buildings and the shredding of her soul. It felt like a very “me” sort of thing to write. It showed that the street was full of buildings and wasn’t, for example, a country lane with nothing but fields around. It was a bit overdramatic, and didn’t necessarily fit the rest of the piece–Lucy is on her way home, after all, and is looking forward to it, so why all the misery?–but I didn’t hate it.

Several of you didn’t like it at all. It was seen as me trying to be deep; it was felt that I should have clarified that Lucy was lonely and sad before using that line (which was intended to demonstrate that Lucy was lonely and sad); it was felt that the personification of the wind in that fashion didn’t work.

The point is, not every bit of writing is going to work for every person in the same way. And that’s okay. A critique isn’t about making people change their work, it’s about what does or doesn’t work for you specifically. It’s about helping you create and develop your own voice, your own style, as well, and understanding what you specifically will or will not attempt to convey in your own work, and how.

Let’s move on to another point about this, one which I found very interesting indeed. And that’s the number of you who apologized for your critique. Or who said they didn’t feel qualified to critique.

So here’s my question for you. If you’re not qualified, who exactly is?

Leaving aside any question about whether you’re published or by whom or whether you’ve finished a short story or novel or any of that nonsense, the simple fact is that you read the excerpt. Having read it, you are completely qualified to have an opinion on it, and to express that opinion. Period. I ASKED you to comment. Having asked, I was perfectly ready to accept any comments that came my way. Why would you apologize to me for doing what I asked you to do?

Did I agree with all of the comments? No. Did any of the comments hurt my feelings or upset me in any way? Absolutely not.

I certainly appreciated that many of you wanted to be sure you hadn’t hurt my feelings or upset me. It was nice of you. And I do understand that you don’t always know who you’re critiquing for, and that you want to be sure the crit-ee understands you’re just trying to help etc. etc. etc. I’m not criticizing anyone who left those comments, just remarking on them; I was surprised to see them.

The vast majority of comments were also well-reasoned and thoughtful. I felt a few of them addressed voice issues, and thus were to be ignored. I felt a few of them treated the piece a bit too literally; it wasn’t really necessary to specifically say Lucy looked in the pub window, for example, as her seeing what was inside implied she’d done so. It wasn’t necessary, IMO, to specify the man were playing darts, since hitting bullseyes in a pub implies darts. When we start feeling the need to clarify perfectly every action, we end up with grocery lists instead of books; endless scenes of people opening putting their hands on doorknobs, then twisting them, then opening the door, then stepping through, then reaching behind them for the knob, then pulling the door shut behind them, then pulling their key out of their pocket, then inserting it into the lock, etc. etc. Again, those comments weren’t wrong, I just didn’t agree with them. It’s entirely possible I’m wrong.

Like I said, the point isn’t whether or not the comments were “right” or “wrong.” The point is that you all analyzed it and gave me your thoughts, and that’s what critique is. The point is that many different viewpoints were brought to that piece, with the result that many different types of comments were made.

That ultimately was what I was hoping to demonstrate with that little exercise: is that what bothers one person may not bother another; what one person likes another may not. This is why it’s so important to find a critique partner who understands you and your work, who shares your opinions of what good work is. One who knows where you’re trying to go and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Now, I have another question, for those of you who were kind enough to leave critique comments: Were you specifically looking for problems, or were you simply reading the piece to see what you thought? Did you have to spend some time before you found something to comment on, or did it just leap out at you? What was your thought process?

Oh, and one last little thing. One, I’m not responding to the comments individually because if I do disagree I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings (we’re all such a thoughtful little bunch here, aren’t we?) I know several of you were nervous about critiquing and I want to say again that you weren’t WRONG. I just didn’t necessarily agree. And that’s all subjective. Simply by commenting you all added something to this series and I hope you’ll continue to do so. If I did mention your comment in this post as one I didn’t agree with please don’t be hurt or upset by that, either; again, you weren’t wrong.

So, tell me. How do you feel now? What is your answer to the questions I ask above?


3 comments to “On Critiques 5”

  1. Tyhitia
    · August 3rd, 2009 at 1:46 pm · Link

    I read the piece to see what I thought of it and I read it again to see if anything stood out at me. Nothing did. I actually liked it. 😀

    I see what you mean about varying opinions. I’m working on dark urban fantasy and a couple of my betas are hardcore horror writers who DO NOT read UF, so I had to explain a lot of things. So, I completely understand about having a compatible CP. It’s amazing how the comments varied on such a small excerpt. 😉

  2. driftsmoke
    · August 3rd, 2009 at 4:47 pm · Link

    Now, I have another question, for those of you who were kind enough to leave critique comments:

    Were you specifically looking for problems, or were you simply reading the piece to see what you thought?

    I read the piece the first time through and thought, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s even moderately interesting.” Then, I read your comments more carefully and read the questions you asked. I went back and read again (and again) and tried to figure out what I was missing.

    Did you have to spend some time before you found something to comment on, or did it just leap out at you?

    I had to spend some time finding something to comment on. Only one thing leapt out at me. (Lucy’s equal desire to hang out with either the men in the bar or with her mother.) But even that sort of intrigued me.

    What was your thought process?

    I wish I could say I had an identifiable one, but I don’t. I just read and reread the piece, trying very hard to picture each little detail.

  3. BernardL
    · August 4th, 2009 at 6:43 am · Link

    ‘So here’s my question for you. If you’re not qualified, who exactly is?’

    Great question. :)

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