02 September 2010

critiquing - why it's important

I can't promise that this will be a long or elaborate post, but the subject is one I feel deserves another look.

As writers, we oftentimes view our craft as a solitary venture. The characters are ours alone; they live in our minds, usually overtake our thoughts, and tell their stories to us so that we can tell them to the world (or at least the roommate/significant other/family member/friend we subject them to). But, as forums like QueryTracker, the Bransford forum, and Agent Query Connect show, we need more eyes on our projects than our own or even the above subjected people. We need fellow writers. And fellow writers need us.

There are two incredible advantages to critiquing another writer's work: A) helping out one of our own, and B) becoming a better writer.

Let's look at A.

Writing in itself is tough. The old saying that "everyone's got a novel in them" is probably true, for the most part. BUT not everyone has a novel written for a number of reasons.

1) It requires effort. You and I both know that words don't just flow from brain to hand to pen/pencil/keyboard/hammer and chisel without forethought. A LOT of forethought. There's researching. Plotting. Character descriptions. Backstory. Frontstory. Sometimes, even sidestory and upside-down story (but not west side story.) There are story arcs, there is tone, sequence of events, POV selection... The list goes on and on. And that's *mostly* before you even start writing. Even for pantsers, there's some forethought going on.

2) It takes time. For my MS, I had a lot to research. Since I'm using a lot of different animals for the Humani, I had to research hunting habits, sleeping habits, habitats, food sources, and natural predators (for about 7 different Humani, yeesh). I had to figure out what parts of the animal would end up in the final result, or how much of an animal the Humani would be. Dima's about 55% animal-45% human.
I also had to look at the psychological aspects of being mixed with an animal. I had to make out the physical and cognitive exams, even if all of them aren't used (and they aren't). I had to figure out how to combine DNA (amazing what anatomy lab can teach you).
Then, even as I was writing, I had to figure out character relationships. Doing that prior to writing will help you not spend 6 years with the wrong antagonist like I did... If I had given more thought, I would have figured out that James was the bad guy, not Lorenzo. And I would have saved myself a lot of time.
All of this isn't even considering the laboriousness of WRITING the novel. It took me nearly 10 years (partly because of that 6 year setback) to complete my novel and revise it to a point I'm comfortable sending it to agents. This was the novel I workshopped in my college novel writing courses. Yeah. And it still needs work.

3) It requires dedication. Writing a novel is like having a relationship. You build a world inhabited by the different people residing in your head, and somehow, once you put their thoughts, emotions, and actions onto paper or pixel, they are more alive. And they need YOU. You are the one they've trusted with their story. If you've done your needed research, you're the one who understands them. You're the only one who can write this out. And it. Is. HARD. The words don't always flow. Plot points don't always make sense. Some scenes would rather sacrifice pigeons than work. And some words plain just don't look right. Sometimes you can't grasp your MC's emotion. Sometimes you spend 7 pages describing a door (and unless you're the second coming of Tolkien, you probably shouldn't). Sometimes you get so fed up that you just stop.

And here is where you meet the difference between writer and novelist. The writer will simply pack his bags and leave his characters to fend for themselves. A novelist will push through the writer's block and turn bad plot points into good ones. A novelist will grit his teeth and do the work. And a novelist is the one who ends up with an ending.

Then it's revision time. :-D

So, we know how difficult it was to get to this point. We understand the drive to slave away hours and hours to get to the finish line and how excited we are to type "THE END." But our manuscripts aren't perfect. We need fresh eyes. Eyes that don't know the story backward, forward, and inside-out. We need others to tell us it MAKES SENSE.

Some of us can be our own editors, sure. For the most part, anyway, but what about those fledgling writers who need guidance and support? We need to be there for them, too. Writing is a hard, and sometimes soul-crushing, business. Writing, plotting, rewriting, etc. can make us crazy. So why not share some of the crazy by helping out fellow writers? We're all in this boat together. Helping out is the right thing to do.

Now, let's look at B (because I'm tired of A).

What a lot of people don't realize is that critiquing another writer's work actually improves a person's writing. We can learn a LOT from one another, and regardless of level of publishedness, we all have a lot to teach as well. I am a grammar nazi (do not judge me by this post, please), and I like to help people with the building blocks of writing. Am I perfect? No. Not by any means. My own manuscript tells the tale. However, good grammar is the basis of a good story. Good grammar = good organization and cohesiveness of thought. Knowing the order in which words should flow helps them to make sense on paper. Also, using correct grammar the first time lessens the mistakes you find during first round edits, thus allowing you to concentrate on the bigger issues. Just using grammar as an example, reading a person's work and paying attention to their grammar and sentence structure automatically enters into your brain as: something I'm already fine with OR something I need to work on (and of course, neither of those is grammatically correct, but whatever). Also, knowing grammatical conventions helps you to break said conventions because people aren't always grammatically correct when they speak. Moving on. (I love grammar!)

You can also learn about your own writing weaknesses. Granted, we don't all have the same style, and our MCs don't speak alike. The glory of writing is its variation. HOWEVER, that's not to say that the mechanics aren't useful, because God knows that they are. I'm currently reading a friend's first 40 (and I love the writing, seriously). While reading and critiquing, I've found things she does well that I don't. For instance, I have a slight telling problem. She...well, she doesn't. She's good at setting up scenes and showing the action rather than saying, "then she walked to the store in the rain. She was afraid." OK, I'm not THAAAT bad, I hope, but I gleaned a bit just from her first 40. And I found grammary stuff that needs addressed. But that's just one example. Hardcore critiquers (those in groups, unlike myself who works redonkulous hours and can't find a group that meets at 3 AM) are probably chock full of more knowledge than I am, but this is a good start. Critiquing is a part of writing, pure and simple.

And now that I'm out of stuff to talk about...



Jude said...

Totally. I applaud all writers. Y'all got balls.

lexcade said...

thanks lol :)