Friday, February 18, 2011

Give and Take Part 1: How to Give a Critique

Inspiring Me Today: The Alibi by Sandra Brown

[Author's Note: Sorry about the long break. I keep saying, "I need to write a blog post," but just haven't.]

As many of you know, I've been knee-deep in revisions gearing up for DFWcon (which is SOOO soon!). As part of that, I called for beta readers, who were so awesome to read through my book and provide feedback. Thanks SO MUCH for all y'all's help!

Well, as I've gone through this process again, I was struck several times by all the awesome little things my beta readers did as they critiqued, and I wanted to share what they showed me, not about my novel, but about how to give a critique.

Now, this ISN'T a post on literary aesthetics. I trust that each of you have a sense of what's "good" and "bad" in a novel. You don't need me to tell you, and I wouldn't presume to try. No, this post is about logistics. This isn't about what to critique. This is about how to critique.

  1. Give the forest and the trees. When doing a critique, you should include two things. First, open the manuscript in some sort of document that you can edit. Make comments and changes as you read, and then send this back to the author. Second, in the email, include overall comments about the book. The document you'll send is the trees. These are the specific points that you want to comment on. The email is the forest. This is where you tie those comments together into larger thoughts about the book as a whole. The author needs both, and they'll read in the reverse order of what you'll send. They'll read the overall comments, and then go to the document to see where specifically you've pointed out these issues. 
  2. Have an overall impression. This is the initial reaction to the book as a whole. Taking everything else you're going to say into account, what do you think? This is more than "I like it." This is, "I think the heart of the characters and plot are good, but it needs a lot of work before you're ready to submit," or "I like this a lot, and think if you make these changes, you can submit with confidence!" This impression part is important, because otherwise, the author can be left going, "Ok, they have all these comments, but... is it any good? Is my book crap, or is it finally ready to send now?!" Either way, they need to know. What if it is crap? Well, first, don't say it like that, obviously. Use tact. But tell them. If you aren't buying the premise, then let them know. Maybe it's good but they're just not handling it right. Tell them why you aren't buying the premise. Maybe it's something they can fix. Or maybe it just isn't your thing. That's ok too. If you let them know why, they'll have a better idea of whether they should ignore you or not. 
  3. Point out the good things. This goes back to the "Is my book crap?" question the author may be having. Always, always, always point out the good things in a manuscript. And yes, they're there. If you aren't seeing them, then you need to STOP READING. Take a break and come back to it. Every manuscript has something good going on, no matter how much work it needs. Even if the very premise just isn't working, the author at least has something they're doing well that they can take to the next project. This is especially true if you're loving it. Don't just say, "This book is awesome!" That is much less helpful than saying, "I really liked the part where the kid traded a corn dog for a space ship! That was hilarious!" Maybe this was a part the author was thinking of taking out. Saying you liked it will reaffirm what they need to keep, and will lessen the blow when you make other critiques. 
  4. Cover plot arcs in general terms. Going back to the forest/trees metaphor, writers many times have trouble seeing the forest. We get so focused on scenes that we can't put the whole book into the right perspective. Rarely do we get the chance to just read straight through the book. That's why, as beta readers, we need to give those overall comments about the plot arcs. If a particular subplot isn't working for you, say so, and say why. They need to know if character development starts too late or if the romantic plot plateaus. They need to know if you figured out the murderer in the second act. You can give the perspective they don't have.
  5. React to the manuscript with specific comments. Now, we're turning to the other side of critique. As you're reading through the manuscript, document your reactions in comments (that is, Insert Comment). This gives the author a blow-by-blow to your reactions. Note that I'm NOT telling you to point out errors. I'm telling you to give your reactions. These include, "Oh no!", "Wait, HE'S the murderer?!", "LOL!", and, yes, comments like "I don't understand what's going on here" and "You could make this better by doing such and such."  This process makes pointing out the good things a lot easier to do. It also helps the author know what's working and what isn't. Comments like "clean up this section and get rid of the adverbs" are, of course, helpful, but need to come naturally.
  6. Editing doesn't need to be line editing. Remember that the most important part of beta reading is for structural corrections. Most basic line editing can be covered using Word's Style Checker. This doesn't mean you can't do "micro" edits rather than only "macro" edits. It also doesn't mean you shouldn't help point out how to cleanup language, identify overused words, etc. You should DEFINITELY do that. I'm talking about getting so absorbed in pointing out each thing that you never finish or fail to point out the more important structural changes. Pick a few key times they do that repeated offense and then move on.
  7. When line editing, use track changes. This is a small thing, but it really helps. You'll inevitably be tempted to fix a punctuation or spelling error somewhere. That's fine. If it's bugging you that much, it'll bug an agent, editor, or reader. However, how do you identify it? The best way I've found is by using Track Changes. This will help the author navigate through all the corrections and not miss it. 
Ok, I hope this has been helpful. After all, it's one thing to give critiques. It's another to give helpful and meaningful critiques.