Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Omit Essential Words!

Inevitably, in my quest to make my writing as taut as possible, I ended up cutting some essential words. My critique partners got lost in the geography of a chase scene. I hadn't given them enough information to picture the characters in the correct relative positions. Though the action was crystal clear in my mind, my readers/listeners weren't following the sequence of events as character B (the deuteragonist) chased character A (the protagonist).

The feedback from my critique partners reminds me again of how absolutely essential it is to read your fiction aloud to a listener. Or at the very least, hand your manuscript over to somebody to read and critique, if you can't participate regularly in a critique group.

A critical reader will identify problems that are quite invisible to the writer's eyes. I saw the action of the chase scene. But my critique partners made it clear, through their questions, that they were picturing a very different geography (the "where-ares" within the scene).

What Makes Critique "Valid"?

Recently I posted "The Guidelines for Critique" (an unsigned handout that I received at a writers' conference long ago). A couple of points in that handout merit further discussion.
"All critique, if valid and dispensed with good intentions, is positive."
"It's up to the [writer] to make the decision as to what he keeps and does not keep."
These statements lead logically to the conclusion that some critique is not valid. Writers may need to reject (not keep) some of the advice they get from their critique partners.

How do you tell the difference between valid and nonvalid critique?

I once heard a writer put it this way:

"If a suggestion just makes me shrug, if I have no reaction beyond a feeling of puzzlement, if I'm just going 'Huh?' -- then I know I can safely disregard that suggestion.

"But if I'm pounding the steering wheel on the way home from the critique meeting, if I'm alone in my car and yelling at the critic (swearing at them, possibly) -- that's when I know I've got to take their criticism seriously. I wouldn't be reacting so strongly to their comments if I didn't know, deep down, that they were right. If they've made me angry, it's because I know they've caught me in something. They've tapped into some problem that I knew was there. But I'd been ignoring it, hoping no one else would notice it."

That may be a bit extreme. My critique partners never make me that angry. But I can tell -- I can feel it -- when they've hit on something that I really must attend to.

I'm fortunate to participate in a critique group of highly accomplished, highly professional, wonderfully talented writers. They are published widely and well. I listen closely to every scrap of advice they offer me. Even if I don't take their advice verbatim in a particular instance, I generally find that it will apply beautifully someplace else, either later in that manuscript or in another context. They know what they're talking about, and I trust them completely.

If you're in a group of less experienced writers, however, you may find you get a fair amount of critique that you're tempted to regard as invalid. Take care. Even the suggestions that have you scratching your head and going "Huh?" may hold nuggets of validity within them.

Try to understand what prompted the critic to offer the suggestion in the first place. Even if you can't accept the advice offered, understanding why the critic identified something as a problem may lead you to craft another solution -- a solution that is uniquely yours, that will yield a stronger piece of writing.

When you're striving to "Omit Needless Words" (while retaining the essential ones), your critique partners can be invaluable in helping you figure out which is which.

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