Critiquing, General Writing

Working with What Is on the Page (and not with what isn’t)

“Test readers, however useful in some areas (spelling! grammar! continuity! O please yes!) can become a hazard when they begin, on the basis of incomplete information, trying in all good faith to help you to write some other book than the one you intend.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold

This quote applies equally for test readers, beta readers, alpha readers, and critique partners. When I teach creative writing, one lesson I give my students is how to be an effective critique partner. One of the lessons is “evaluate the story on its own terms.” That is, don’t critique the writer for not writing the story you wish he or she were writing, but accept the premise of the story, the internal logic of the story, and evaluate it based upon the values, the world and the rules the author has laid out. If you don’t like those fundamental things, you shouldn’t be working with that book or author, because you’re never going to give the author the sort of advice they need.

I would never agree to critique, for example, a military thriller and then tell the author that they should write it more like The Things They Carried. Just because I prefer lyrical literary anti-war war stories to action packed bro-drama doesn’t mean that the writer must write the former, but it does mean that if I can’t be objective about my preferences, maybe I shouldn’t critique the latter. I wouldn’t read a story written from soft-spoken character X’s point of view and suggest that cynical and sarcastic character Y is actually a better main character because I personally prefer cynical sarcastic main characters (I might, however, suggest how to make soft spoken character X a more compelling character, if that was a trouble spot). I wouldn’t tell someone who has a very direct and two the point style that I wish they would write in a more poetic way.

Agreeing to critique someone’s work, particularly in a long-term mutual partnership, should be based upon respect for that person as a writer, and an assumption that they have made their basic story and style choices for a reason. Unless they’ve specifically asked for a certain kind of critique, you must respect that their choices might not be your own choices but that their storytelling and their writing style is their own, and these choices are theirs to make. You can tell someone what is and what isn’t working, and suggest how it might work better within the set parameters of the story, but you shouldn’t bring your own assumptions to the table and suggest an entirely different story from the one the author is trying to tell.

This happens a lot more often than you might think. A well-meaning critique partner says “well, I liked the story, but it would be better with a romance.” If a publisher is saying, this book won’t sell without romance, that’s one thing, but as a critique partner you can assume that the author knows that romance is an option, and has chosen not to include a romance for their own reasons.  Perhaps a lack of romance will sink the project in the end, and that would be a pity, but it doesn’t change the fact that if the author had wanted there to be a romance, there would have been a romance?

So how do you know, which aspects of the story are part of the story’s own terms? Think about the terms of the story as the blueprints for a house. An architect has designed a house, and while the house is being built, you might make some minor tweaks here and there, you might even change some of the materials used to build the house. You can change the decorations of the house, change all of the fixtures, the trim, the color – but you cannot change the basic structure of the house without compromising the whole thing. So it goes with a story. A writer builds a story with a world, characters, a POV, a basic premise, and a rough plot. Details might need to be tweaked along the way, but just as we wouldn’t ask an architect to change an adobe house into a log cabin, we shouldn’t tell a writer his story would be better if it had Vampires and Werewolves. If the author wanted Vampires and Werewolves, they would be there already.

But what if the basic building blocks of the story really are posing a problem? You help the character solve the problem while remaining within the parameters of the story. Once you’ve ruled out the problem is your own personal and subjective preference (if I simply prefer books with a romantic subplot, that’s my problem, not the author’s), ask yourself, what is really the problem here? If I am suggesting sarcastic character Y makes a better main character than character X, what I’m really saying is that character X is weak, and his character needs to come across better on the page. If I think a book would be better with vampires and werewolves, what do I really want to say about this book? Certainly you’ve enjoyed books without vampires and werewolves in the past, so the lack of vampires and werewolves can’t really be the problem. Perhaps the world-building is flat? Perhaps the plot lacks sufficient stakes (pun intended)? Whatever the case may be, help the author solve that problem within the terms of the story. It can almost certainly be done.

And of course, sometimes the author is specifically asking for a certain type of feedback (“tell me if you think this would work better in first person POV instead of third?” or “I am feeling Y more than X these days, tell me if you think Y should be the main character?”), in which case none of the above is applicable. But here’s the thing? If you’re being asked for that sort of a critique, you’ll know it.

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