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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Build A Better Crit Partner: Taking It To The Next Level

Build a better crit partner. That's the aim of this post.

A crit partner or crit group is an indispensable resource. I have been helped a great deal by various crit partners over the years and I'm thankful for their investment of time and energy into my work. I know likewise I have been able to help others by critting their work.

But like automobiles, when we critiquers get some mileage on us, we need a tune-up so we can run better--and everyone benefits.

This post will wrap up thoughts from the Dangers of Taking Advice On Writing we discussed in late February. If you are not familiar with those posts, to sum up, we discussed that sometimes allowing the Ironclad Rules of Writing to be driven into your head like a spike can become a bad thing. Sometimes it can even cause writing paralysis.

I've been thinking about what adherence to the ironclad rules of writing does to a person's ability to critique. We are all taught these same ironclad rules, so naturally, critiquers are generally spotting the same things and giving the same advice.

As critiquers we all want to give our absolute best advice to our writing friends. But sometimes I think we forget to think outside the box. Let's examine a few issues--a few comments critiquers usually make out of habit:

Critique Advice: Use only 1 POV per scene.
How many times have we all heard this one? How many times have we given this same advice? The majority of time, this advice is undoubtedly sound. But there may come a time when to get that extra edge in a scene, someone's work requires stepping outside that particular rule. As a critiquer, do we quote this rule by habit, because it's "what everybody does" or do we cite this rule because it is necessary to that person's book? Being receptive to when a manuscript can "break the rules" can make the difference between cookie cutter writing and a fresh new approach.

Critique Advice: There are too many characters in the opening of this book.
Okay, this one is a pet peeve of mine and one I could spend an entire blog post on. Again, it's advice we've all either dispensed or received countless times. Often, I fear, from habit, and from having the rule drilled into us. The danger of this advice? Assuming readers are dumb. It is one thing if you have a bunch of characters that are not uniquely defined, one from the other, and there is indeed a balancing act to how and when to introduce a series of characters. But I was able to read War & Peace and distinguish the characters, thank you very much, so in the name of giving credit to readers for a little intelligence, please don't quote this rule from habit. As a critiquer, the goal is to clear up any muddy areas, but NOT take away tools in the writer's toolbox for telling their unique story.

Have you noticed the common thread in these two pieces of advice?

Both are geared to make the author's writing more clear. To eradicate confusion for the reader.

And since we need to be able to communicate clearly with our writing, making our work clear is absolutely necessary. But maybe those ironclad rules aren't always the way to achieve that goal of making the writing less confusing.

But there's another element that's MISSING from this common pieces of advice: We often quote the same rules, but seldom offer comments on how to take it to the next level.

What would take this writer's piece from good to fantastic? What would make the difference between a book read once and set aside to a book treasured and re-read multiple times? After all, isn't that our heart's desire? I don't lay awake dreaming about the books I write thinking "It'll be the highest achievement of my life to write a book that adheres to all the rules of writing." YAWN! No, I want to write a story that the reader won't forget!

So why do critiquers spend more time simply making a submission "rule" compliant rather than looking for the extraordinary?
1. Habit
2. Perhaps rushed to get the crit done
3. Sometimes may simply not know what to suggest for how to take it to the next level.

I am guilty of all these things at one time or another. I suspect every critiquer is. Especially if you have problems saying "no" and end up critting for more people than you truly have time to help. To me, it is better to restrict your number of crits and take time to think outside the box than to spread yourself too thin and become a rule spouter.

Don't get me wrong--I don't think anyone does this with the intention of harm. I find writers to be very giving of their time and energy to other writers. And writers do need a foundation of rules to guide them. The key thing is to remember that rules serve a purpose--achieving clarity for the reader, and are not an end in themselves.

Let's help each other. Let's strive to surpass rules and achieve extraordinary writing!

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