The Power of an Honest Critique

by S.T. Ranscht

An Editor’s Eye. Not really as scary as it looks. (Photo credit: S.T. Ranscht)

There’s a word that describes authors who believe their work would not benefit from an honest critique: Wrong. To be clear, an honest critique is not a harsh judgment of the author’s manuscript. It’s a thoughtful analysis that is constructive, helpful, and — hopefully — kind. It lets the author know what works and what doesn’t work for that reader. It explains why what doesn’t work doesn’t work, but it does not tell the author exactly what to do to fix it. Neil Gaiman’s advice to authors sums it up:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Neil Gaiman

Both parties to any critique have some obligations to the process and each other to ensure its integrity and success. Chronologically, of course, the author comes first, but because the author also comes third, let’s start with the second party, the reader who critiques.

There are certain qualities the reader really should possess. First, it helps tremendously if they’re literate. Even more than that, they should commit, just for the purpose of critiquing, to read the manuscript carefully. Like, every word. After all, the author went to all that effort to write every word, so it’s only right that the reader should put in commensurate effort to read them. After all, a legitimate critique point might turn out to be, “Trimming unnecessary verbiage would tighten the pace, particularly building to and including the climax.” Or, to express a point that works, the reader might say, “Your use of language imbues your work with a lyrical quality.”

Sometimes authors ask for feedback about specific things, like whether or not the dialogue is natural. Or if the characters’ relationships convey enough depth. Or if there needs to be more world building. It is helpful — even necessary — for the reader to address these points, but the author’s request doesn’t limit the reader’s responses to only those items. It will be equally helpful for the author to become aware of other parts of the manuscript that might confuse the reader or seem to defy the internal logic of the writing. If you’re left wondering, “What is the author trying to say?” you probably won’t be the only reader to feel that way. The author needs to know that.

A few words of caution. It may happen that the manuscript you face seems so riddled with problems that your frustration crafts some cunningly snarky or scathingly sarcastic observations you are sorely tempted to share. Resist. You might be right, but it would be neither helpful nor kind. Then, too, you may someday be on the receiving end of that particular critique partnership, and you know what they say about karma…

If you are the author in our original scenario, you might think you did your part when you submitted your baby manuscript to the judgment of a reader, and now all you have to do is sit back and watch the compliments roll in.

*ahem* Wrong.

Let me amend that. Most casual critique partners will not read your work with an editor’s eye. Their analysis will be more superficial than deep. Not because they are lazy, but simply because the are readers first, not trained editors, and they have a natural desire to focus on the positive, especially if the author is someone they don’t know well. Unless you are paying an editor or having your work reviewed by an editor who has the power to publish it or not, an author must encourage their readers/beta readers to speak freely, and then openly acknowledge the validity of the thoughts they’ve shared so you can establish mutual trust.

When an author receives an honest critique, chances are it will include both positive and critical observations. The first obligation the author has is to resist — or overcome — becoming defensive. Take a step back from your creator’s eye view of the manuscript, and look at it objectively. (Yes, I know — that’s easy for me to say, isn’t it?) However, once you accept that the reader has shared their honest feedback, your second obligation is to examine how you might incorporate it to improve your writing.

And improve your writing it will.

Your mileage may vary, but I assert this from the experience of being both a reader with an editor’s eye, and a writer who has received both gingerly offered criticism and more direct editor’s eye notes. I’ve learned to value both and nurture the relationships that offer them, because even I see the improvement in my writing that results from accepting honestly offered constructive criticism.

Even more important than that self-serving, improved writing motive, I have developed trusting relationships I will value for the rest of my life.

That’s the power of an honest critique.


More thoughts on Contests…

There was a post in May, by Mike van Horn, called “Writing Contest Rant.”

That post stuck in my head for several reasons. I enter contests. I never expect to win, at least in the traditional sense. I find his rant entirely valid, as well as the ensuing comments from everyone else. I even posted a rumination on my blog about whether I should contest, or not. 

Yet, I still enter contests. Why?

After that post, and agreeing with all of his points, I re-evaluated why I still wanted to enter contests. What was I getting out of it? I’m writing full time now, so it’s not like I need an incentive to write. In fact, I now have enough writing projects to keep me happily engaged daily, not to mention the challenge of building and maintaining my own websites. 

Why waste my time on a useless pursuit then? 

At the same time I’m questioning my judgement, I also realized I lacked motivation for keeping up with my personal blog. Then I got the idea to use each contest to write the chapters of a story. Each contest would provide one chapter. Once I complete the story, I will post each chapter on my blog. I still write within the constraints of the contest parameters, but add the twist of how it relates to the rest of the story. 

I now have six chapters into a story that has been a lot of fun to write. Now when I get the feedback from the contest, I admit I feel a bit smug, like I’ve manipulated them to my purpose and they have no idea. I also feel like it has ratcheted up my writing skill a notch. 

At some point, though, I will reach a moment where I decide the whole exercise is pointless. I regard the challenge of writing within the contest parameters to be fun. But as I spend all day writing (and painting) I find I need that sort of challenge less and less. Also, the story that has evolved from these contests may be larger than the amount of contests I will enter. 

One final observation. In my personal writing journey, I struggle/d with endings and writing less than thirty thousand words. The contests have helped me learn the art of less is more. It helped me smooth out my revision process. 

While I understand contests are not for everyone, as a person who wanted to be a full-time writer, but had to concentrate on my day job first, they became a helpful skill building process. Especially when I removed any hope of winning from the equation. I still have a long way to go. But at least I’m honing some skills along the way. 

While contests lack the merit of reward for writing well done, they serve as a tool to improve aspects of an individual’s skill. Like all tools, they don’t work in all situations and, like some tools, they just need a new purpose or alteration to make them more useful.

At any rate, I’ll likely continue with the contests I enjoy until they become drudgery. Then I’ll know I played along as long as I could and then let them go.

Freedom of Writing, inspiration

Leaving the Comfort Zone

How ambitious are you? If I traced my ambition on a graph over the course of my writing life, it would look something like this:

I won’t go into a boring explanation – suffice to say that I turned my mid-life crisis into mid-life hubris, worked on a novel for 26 years, and eventually found a very enthusiastic publisher who barely a year later went bust. I like to think that’s not a cause and effect relationship. 

Naturally, the ambition took a nose dive. But it takes more than that to cure a writer’s compulsion, so I was perfectly happy to start again from scratch. And why is the curve creeping upwards again? Well, it’s partly due to a remark on this site by GD:  The easy formulas grow stale. I’m bored by antagonists still damaged from childhood trauma. Antagonists fighting others because they want something only one can have are maddeningly repetitive. Antagonists who can’t get along with others who are different from them annoy me. And don’t get me started on stupid conflicts arising because the antagonist simply misunderstands reality. It’s time for better antagonists.

At that point I was undecided what I was going to write next, with the favourite being a science thriller centred on virtual reality. Nothing wrong with the theme itself, but looking at my outline, it struck me that it didn’t break new ground, let alone develop a better antagonist. Scientists with a hidden agenda – what’s new in that? Virtual reality might be fascinating, but the conflict at the heart of the story has been done time and again. The Island of Dr. Moreau was written in 1896.

So now I’m planning a trilogy set on another planet. The possibilities are endless. It so happens that the planet bears an uncanny resemblance to Earth, so although I’m having great fun with the world building, it’s not really another planet at all. You may be thinking, ‘OK – but again, what’s new?’ Nothing probably, but it gives me a space in which to develop a large cast of characters, several different story arcs, and deeper issues than those of a crime novel or thriller. So yes, for me at least, it’s more ambitious. In fact I’m pitching it (to myself) as Lord of the Rings meets Animal Farm with a hefty dose of Game of Thrones thrown in. (Did I mention hubris somewhere?)

When I say ambition, I don’t of course mean sales or readership. Sure, that would be nice, and it’s certainly something to aim for, but we all know better than to have any expectations. All the more so as from a marketing point of view, leaping into a completely different genre is probably a leap into oblivion. But I don’t write in order to repeat myself. I once read a rather snarky comment to the effect that Danielle Steel hasn’t written 140 novels but the same novel 140 times. Which is fair enough. If you’ve got a formula that works, why change it? She’s found a comfort zone and is very comfortable in it. But I suspect most writers don’t have a comfort zone – every book is a new beginning, beset with anxiety and doubt. Which I’m all too happy to embrace, because even if I did find a comfort zone, I wouldn’t want to stay in it. That’s not what writing is about. So I’d like to conclude by thanking GD, who without knowing it rekindled my ambition.

VR Writing, Writing for the Metaverse

How the Metaverse Makes Megaprofits

Roy’s Metaverse Convenience Store offered virtually everything imaginable. 711 GENIES was a small store, given that retail space in the metaverse shopping center was expensive. But it accommodated Roy’s avatar, A-Roy, and an imaginary near-naked genie. Roy had modeled her after his girlfriend’s sister.

“Where do I put my card?” The teen, dressed in body armor and peacock feathers, was leering at genie’s breasts.

“Here, let me.” A-Roy accepted the credit card. “Now, what do you wish for?”

“Thanks. Uh, I can wish for anything, right?”

“Literally, it has to be a thing. Any thing you wish for, the genie will summon.”

Looking around the store, the kid saw an offering of items based solely on his demographics and personal preferences. “I want a Glock 19.”

“No problem.” A-Roy handed the card to his sham genie, which immediately transferred real-world money from the bank account of the kid’s father into Roy’s own, minus various fees and taxes, and then placed a non-existent Glock into his customer’s hallucinated hands.

Wow. Thanks!”

This went on around the clock. People avatared in 24/7 to purchase make-believe things with real money, most of which went into Roy’s real account.

Roy used some of his real money to support his father in a rest home, which impressed his dad.

“Let me get this straight, son. You have a business that exists only in peoples’ minds. You sell them things that exist only in their minds. They pay you real money.”

Roy nodded. “I couldn’t make this up.”

end of story

So what?

I think a big question in writing is one of identity. Writers and readers define characters based on the character’s behavior. If they say one thing and do another, it’s what they do that defines them. Because that is how it works in reality. But in the metaverse there is no reality. Future writers will have fun dealing with how that affects character identity.

Writers can cash in…

Because selling books in the metaverse will be easy. Attend book fairs.
As usual, people will want books they can relate to, so stories about life in the metaverse will be popular.
The book fair will exist only in their minds, and you will sell them stories that exist only in their minds. But the latter is not so different from now, is it?
Besides, your book could be made into -not a movie, but- a metaverse adventure.

Lucasfilm has a useful slant on writing in the metaverse

The metaverse will feel alive once ‘storytelling’ becomes ‘storyliving’
“You’re in a world, making meaningful choices, and you’re driving the narrative forward.”
– Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive in charge at ILMxLAB Lucasfilm
Star Wars is now a virtual reality experience.

P.S. The thirty million people who today play Blizzard Entertainment’s video game, Diablo Immortal, do purchase imaginary items to use in their imaginary world. In the first two months, the game earned Blizzard over 100 million dollars.
(I couldn’t make this up.)