In which I consider when critique and comments are useful and when they’re really really not

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A blog post for the writers out there this week. I’m heading out in a few minutes to my little writing critique group, where I’ll be offering some comments on a chapter or so of another writer’s children’s novel.  Last time we met the opening chapter of my new work-in-progress (which could, possibly be the next big thing) was up for discussion. Usually I put short stories up for discussion or chapters from a novel that is already close to complete. I’m not sure how helpful critique on writing that is still very much in development really is.

My ideal writing and critiquing pattern goes something like this.

1. Write a first draft.

2. After a short hiatus read through first draft and deal with the horrendously glaring problems. You know the sort of thing, characters that age 20 years in a single chapter to make the plot work; sections where the first draft simply reads “Put a scene where x happens in here.” That kind of thing.

3. Then let another carefully selected and trusted person have a read.

4. Then do a proper 2nd draft in light of their feedback.

It is good to get feedback. Novels are big and complicated and it can be hard to see the problems when you wrote them yourself. Inevitably it either all makes sense in your head so you don’t notice the plotholes, or you’ve spent so long staring at the thing that you’re convinced it’s all a big ol’ pile of steaming terribleness and you should never be allowed to Do Writing again. A fresh pair of eyes is a thing of great wonder at that point. They have to be eyes belonging to the right owner though, not a person who will tell you it’s great when it’s not, but not a nitpicker who will steamroller through whatever fleeting confidence you might be clinging to by this stage in the process.

It’s bad, for me though, to get feedback too soon. People tend to ask questions to which the only possible answer is, “I don’t know yet. I’m still making it up.” Questions about character’s motivations and how you intend to get from the current point in the story to whatever vague end point you might have in your mind. There is also a risk that they’ll make suggestions about what should happen next, which is unnerving in the extreme. An embryonic novel exists only inside the writer’s imagination, and other people shouldn’t be allowed to wade into your imagination and move stuff around. It’s not good to go to your mental happy place and find that someone’s been in and rearranged the deckchairs. Embryonic novels are delicate transitory things, which can easily get broken by too many people clomping around in them and kicking the metaphorical tyres.

All of which means that while novel 2 is an embryonic work in progress, I’m going to have to write some short stories to keep my little critique group happy, which is good. I went through a long phase of not writing shorter stuff at all, while I was drafting novel number 1, but I increasingly find it to be a useful writing work out.

So, writers amongst you, when do you let someone else read works in progress? Do you like feedback as you go along, or do you prefer to keep your writing in a bubble until it’s reasonably well formed?

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5 thoughts on “In which I consider when critique and comments are useful and when they’re really really not

    Jane Lovering said:
    October 29, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    I used to let my (now ex) husband read as I went along, but now I find I work pretty much like you; first draft for me, second draft to make me look less stupid, then a third pass and out to my beta reader. After that, rewrite what she said. Getting critique too early is like asking people for their opinions on your dreams – only you know what it’s supposed to mean at that stage.

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      alisonmay responded:
      October 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm

      Well that’s reassuring. If it’s good enough for a RNoTY winner, it’s good enough for me 🙂

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    hollyannegetspoetic said:
    October 29, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    I guess with poetry it’s potentially quite different, but like you, I prefer to stay in my bubble much of the time. I think there’s a certain amount of learning to work with our own critical faculties and trust our own judgement. But I also have a few readers who I would trust.
    My main question when asking a reader to look at a poem is “what do you think it’s about?” As at times it’s difficult to tell if what is perfectly clear in my own head translate to the page… Mind you, everyone is different and I’ve had some surprising answers to that particular question! 😉

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    Polly Robinson said:
    November 3, 2012 at 9:46 am

    I employ pretty much the method you outline above, Alison, and like Holly have a few trusted readers to ask if I know something isn’t right but can’t quite work out why.

    Sometimes I use my blog to ask for opinions, as I did this week on a poem that received thought-provoking feedback; not intending to change the original work, but rather to see whether there was an opening for a different, more traditional version of the work.

    In common with many writers, I don’t think everything is perfect, there’s always room for improvement. Blogging friends were kind enough to take the opportunity to give ‘because’ feedback which might be too time-consuming in the normal run of events [so much easier / quicker to ‘like’ a post.] Interestingly, the majority preferred the original version.

    I’ve enjoyed this post Alison because it’s always interesting to see people’s preferences and to think about how work patterns differ [or not] ~ I like informative, questioning posts.

    Hope the writing critique group went well and that you’ve made progress with the novel 🙂

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    […] The other writing challenge I’m working on at the moment, is trying to get better at talking about my work. Writing a novel is such an unbelievably solitary experience. You find yourself living in your own head with only made-up people for company for big hunks of time. Those made up people are often delicate, and prone to damage if brought out and exposed to critical gaze too early or too often. (More thoughts on that quandary here.) […]

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