Writing: The Power of Critique Pt. 2

OK, we’ve established that critical, editorial skills are important.

If you missed that post start here. Once you’re on board about critique, then we can jump into the practical stuff.

The (Julie Berry) Sandwich Method

How you deliver your thoughts is just as important as the notes themselves. Remember kindergarten? Junior High? All those adults trying to convince you that how you say something matters just as much as what you are saying?

Yeah, that never stops being true.

When delivering a critical message about someone’s oh-so-precious book baby, one must do so with tact and balance. I had the very great privilege of learning from Julie Berry at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop several years ago about sandwiching. The concept is simple:

  • Start with praise. Specific is best, but a general expression of positive affirmation for the work in question is fine too. This tells the author that you are on their “team” and that all feedback that is forthcoming afterward is done in a spirit of helpful contribution and with an eye toward improvement.
  • Give “Good Notes.” More on the specifics of this soon. Keep reading.
  • End with more praise. This should be new praise, ideally. If you started with generic enthusiasm, get specific and talk about your favorite lines and passages. Talk about how much you love certain characters. Authors, and artists of all stripes really, need to know what they are doing right in addition to what to improve. This is how they confirm their good instincts and spot bad ones. This winnowing process is crucial to developing that elusive laurel: compelling voice.
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Viola! A praise sandwich full of meaty feedback that your critique partners will be eager to bite into. This method has served me well, when I’ve been mindful enough to employ it. Thanks again, Julie.

Good Notes

If you’ve been wondering what to read that will be both informative and entertaining, may I suggest Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace? It is a delightful look into the creative processes at Pixar, and there is a TON that can be applied to any creative pursuit.

But what we are going to focus on is the practice of giving “good notes.” Good notes are the kind of useful, actionable feedback that every writer is hoping for when they send a piece out for critique. Pixar is even self-aware enough of this process to poke a little fun at it.

Skip to about 2:00 if you just want the relevant bits.

Good Notes are specific, actionable, diagnostic, and focused on the work not the author. For example, a note like, “This sentence is awkward,” is a good note. It is about the work, it specifically diagnoses the problem, and it is an issue that can be easily rectified.

Other Good Notes:

  • This sentence is confusing. Do you mean X or Y?
  • The action here is muddy. Where is the protagonist standing? Make the blocking clearer.
  • This word gets repeated x times. Consider changing.
  • This bit of dialogue makes me dislike this character.
  • This paragraph is running long, consider breaking it up.
  • I feel so sad when I read this part. (Seriously, anything that can tell the author more about how a reader might emote in relation to what they are reading is GOLD!)

You see? They pinpoint specific places for improvement. They give the author the clarity they need about what is and isn’t working.

Good Notes can also be good questions. These point the author to ways to clarify or improve.

  • Why is this important right here? or Why is this character doing this?
  • How does the character feel about this?
  • Do we get to find out how this works later? or When does this get explained?
  • Is she saying this because he doesn’t know? Is she trying to get a certain reaction?

Questions that are character focused are especially useful because they point to the gaps in characterization that make stories both intuitive and surprising. And they can tell an author that they have successfully guided the reader to just the questions they want them asking, the questions that will keep them turning the pages to find out the answers.

What Good Notes Are Not

Oh yeah, the bad critique headache is real.
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  • Prescriptive: Good Notes never start off with “you should.” If you, for example, find an awkward sentence, do not rewrite it. That is the author’s prerogative. If they respond and say, “Oh, I know! Any suggestions?” then feel free to suggest away. But this is not your book/poem/essay. You are not there to create for the creator. You are there to point out the gaps they themselves cannot see. Nothing is more damaging, especially to new writers, than a critique partner who is constantly trying to turn the story the author has written, into the story they would have written.
  • About the Author: Comments that can be interpreted as, “You clearly don’t know basic grammar,” “You need to read more,” “You don’t know what you are doing,” are not helpful. For many authors, especially newbies, our writing feels like a defining characteristic of who we are. Some of us spend hundreds of dollars in therapy trying to unhook our sense of worth from the quality of our work. *cough* So any note that attacks the writer is not helpful, it is damaging. Focus on the work, not the writer. If there is an idiomatic turn of phrase that needs correcting, just correct it. Chances are the writer will chuckle to themselves and know immediately that they gaffed. Or they will curse autocorrect. But commenting, “The phrase is actually…” just comes off as condescending. Assume your author is smart, and let them know that if they have questions about your notes, they can ask for further explanation. But chances are they don’t need it. Which leads us to–
  • About You: Little in this world is less useful than feedback that is all about you as a writer. “When I have a character do such and such I always…” Great. Good for you. The writer does not care. And you have just impressed them with the full extent of your arrogance. Giving feedback is not an opportunity to show off. That’s what composing long winded articles about writing technique is for. Being asked for feedback is being asked for help. It is a call to be focused entirely on making the piece the best version of itself it can be. And that has nothing to do with how awesome you are. Want people to be impressed with your writing acumen? Write your own amazing book.
  • About the Genre: Speaking personally, nothing tanks my opinion of someone as a reader, and an intelligent individual, more than comments about not liking a genre and therefore being unable to read further. Good writing is good writing across genres. If you are unable to read a piece and know where the mistakes are because it happens to be a romance or a historical or a sci-fi then you are just not qualified to be reading critically for anyone. Sorry. It is totally ok to make a comment like, “I don’t read much romance, so I’m not sure if this is an expected trope, but the character doing X really bothers me.” That type of outside your fan-base feedback can be super helpful at clarifying your usage of genre conventions. But “I don’t like all this description about the magic. I don’t really like fantasy.” That is a personal issue. That is not a diagnostic, actionable critique. Keep it to yourself.
  • A Moral or Subjective Judgement: “This description is so bad.” “I don’t like tall characters.” “Stories about [insert character type here] are boring.” These are subjective, moral judgements that may inform your personal reading choices, but are not helpful notes. They are not specific enough to direct change, and they do not help the writer improve. They are snide digs at the author, which we know is a no-no. If you think that a passage/sentence/what-have-you might elicit a preferential reaction by some readers, consider phrasing it like, “The word ‘moist’ gives me the willies. It might just be me, but it pulled me out of the story here.” This allows the author to consider whether or not the risk of giving their reader the willies is worth keeping that word choice. Or they may giggle with glee, knowing that they have achieved the reaction they were striving for.

You Made It!

See? Not terribly difficult, just requires a little focus. Maybe a tiny mindset shift. If you approach every chance you have to give feedback as responding to a call for help, and you make your responses positive, diagnostic, specific, and actionable your critique partners will be singing your praises. They will come back frequently, and they will be more likely to read on your behalf.

You’ll soon have all kinds of interesting feedback on your precious creations.

Then what?

I have written a post for you on that very subject! Just sign up for my newsletter below and I will send you the link to it!

In it I cover:

  • How to respond to conflicting feedback
  • How to process the emotions that come with getting critiqued (Feels, am I right?)
  • When and how to respond to critique partners
  • The difference between critique partners and beta readers
  • And more!

Did this bring any clarity to your critique technique? Or maybe you suddenly understand why someone in your life gives the best feedback and others not so much. Tell me about it in the comments.

~Anika

Anika Goes to the Movies (Again!): The Personal History of David Copperfield

Quick Review: 4.5/5 stars. Throw Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Benedict Wong, and a trove of other delightful actors into Charles Dickens’ top hat, shake them about a bit, and drop them in a diversified version of mid 1800’s England and you will have an approximation of what a romp this movie is. Go see it. It will be, I suspect, a perfectly light repast for these troubled times.

David Copperfield

Longer review: I love a good retelling of a classic, especially when it is true to the themes and intent of the original. No “Netflixing,” if you please. No, this a bright brocade covered good time of a film. And you don’t have to worry about any stupid gratuitous nonsense being added, as has been the case for many a lovely tale turned “modern.”

Nope, from beginning to end this was a showcase of what a delight Dickens can be when you don’t have to slog through his writing. He is far too longwinded for most contemporary readers (though I enjoy his style), who expect brevity and a plot that moves apace with our modern world. But when you put all the auxiliary observations and redundant rambling aside, and put his characters up on the screen, something inherently charming and touching almost always takes place.

Jairaj Varsani, who plays young David, absolutely steals the show. He is the sort of wonder-filled, high spirited innocence to his acting that makes him a joy to watch. You wish you could join in the games of tag in Yarmouth and it breaks your heart to see him exiled to the bottling factory in London. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Dev Patel is always a delight, and I keep thinking that he will mellow in style as he ages, but he never ceases to bring an almost over the top physicality to his performances. You are never quite sure where his hands might fling and I often expect the blooper reels of his work to be full of shots of him accidentally hitting his fellow actors. But they don’t. The kind of manic presence he can bring marry’s perfectly with the anxiety of a suddenly penniless, older David, who must employ the evasive tactics learned in youth to keep away from creditors of his own.

The one note of warning I must give is of some over the top corniness in the middle of the movie. If you have a visceral reaction to social awkwardness like I do, then you might want to close your eyes and hum to yourself for a minute or so: once when Mr. Micawber, played by Peter Capaldi, tries to pass himself off as a professor at David’s school, and then during the montage of seeing Dora Spenlow everywhere. That latter isn’t awkward, just very silly. Which I guess is how we are meant to perceive the relationship.

Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie make the perfect Ms. Trotwood and Mr. Dick. They play off one another seamlessly, and I think really embody the characters as they were written. But then, I’m always on board for Hugh Laurie in period dress so make of that what you will.

The other thing I appreciated was that the diversity of the cast is never remarked upon. There’s no inserting horrible racism on the part of Mr. Murdstone, he’s just a horrible person as he is in the books. There’s no heavy handed preaching about the need for inclusion, inclusion is just present. There’s no implication that David’s race is an issue to him and Miss Spenlow getting married; it’s just the issue of money and incompatibility just like the book.

Imagine! A retelling and reframing of a delightful classic that updates it without destroying it. All the themes and characters are still there, and nothing unnecessary is added (FX channel’s A Christmas Carol, I’m looking at you!). It is absolutely adaptation done right.

The costumes are such fun, the dialogue is as winning as when it was written even as it is  changed.

Go see this one. It will lighten your heart.

Until next time, enjoy the show!

Anika Goes to the Movies: The New Mutants

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I am deeply saddened by the loss of Chadwick Boseman. He appeared on my radar as a cameo character in the tv series Castle. (I miss Castle) But I was floored by his performance in Marshall, and I did all the happy dances when I found out he would be playing Black Panther. His range and he presence on screen were easily at the top of his field. So sorry to hear about his battle with colon cancer, but all the more impressed that he continued to work while fighting that fight. My thoughts are with his family.

Quick review: 2.5/5 stars. This one gets a hard meh. Not a fan of underaged sexuality generally. Have a really hard time with depictions of sexual abuse. Don’t love shoe-horned moralizing. I can forgive the above when they really contribute to the story in a meaningful way, or are done with real tact and style. There was none of that. Wait until it streams somewhere and it doesn’t cost you anything extra to view it. Or don’t even do that. You’ll be fine.

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Longer review: If you’ve been passing your eyeballs over this blog for a while, you’ve probably figured out that I LOVES me a good super hero flick. I am trash for all things super powers and world saving. Quirky folks who can do quirky things? I’m here for it.

So this being my first foray back into a public space, risking lungs and mitochondria to take in a movie after the summer season that wasn’t, I was pumped. And maybe that was the problem. I was hoping for too much. My let down, was a hard one.

This whole thing felt like a poorly done prequel. The level of story-telling and characterization conveyed the kind of weakness that assumes you’ve already bought in to the characters’ lives. The only character I really care about is the one that gets the most ignored. And the acting overall (maybe it was the direction?) was subpar.

Dr. Reyes, played by Alice Braga, is by far the most interesting character. How does a mutant with forcefield capabilities get indoctrinated into killing her own? And since the mutant ability of the protagonist, Dani, is to make your fears physically manifest, why don’t we ever see what Dr. Reyes’ is? Dr. Reyes has forcefield capabilities the keep the young, out of control mutants within the confines of the “hospital.” At the point where her orders to kill Dani go south and she is forced to use her powers rather than toxin via syringe to do what she must, she takes forever. This gives time for Dani’s own fear, the demo bear of native legend (so many issues with this by the way) time to show up and maul Dr. Reyes to a pulp. You have a person trapped between impenetrable force and hard floor, a fast compression equals death.

The other truck sized plot hole is that Illyana Rasputin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, (Who is one of my favorite up and coming actresses. Her range is really superior for her age, can’t wait to see more from her.) is a dimension jumper. If she can pop in and out of her “special place” at will, then why can’t she just return herself on the other side of the forcefield?

No good answers to these questions.

Just lame storytelling.

For which there should be no excuse given that they had an extra six months. They could have done some beta testing and realized, oh, our plot doesn’t work and 90% of our tension is fake.

Illyana’s character is especially troubling. Her backstory, as far as we understand it, is she was a child victim of long term sexual abuse. Her deepest fear is the warped, horror show she has made of her attackers, the caricature “The Smiling Man.” The abuse of children is not entertainment. It makes me sick to my stomach. Illyana’s powers develop from her creation of a “special place” in her head to give her and her puppet pterodactyl Lockheed a way to escape the reality of her situation. It is the sort of tragic coping all abuse victims do, and if they survive to adulthood, the kind of behavior they have to unlearn in order to be functioning adults. To make a trauma-induced coping strategy into a super power is a kind of cultural acceptance of the crime. And while the empowerment of victims to heal themselves and move forward may have been the intent of the writers, killing all of your attackers is not empowerment, it’s derangement. Not to mention they totally make her into a sex object during the movie with an underaged (the characters not the actors) sex scene in a swimming pool. The message, intended or not, being “don’t worry, the objectification of children is fine as long as it’s for a movie, the pedophiles are fantastical monsters, and the other party is a consenting teen.”

All garbage.

The whole thing isn’t even that scary.

If you see the trailer and you’re thinking, “Oh, X-men as a horror flick, cool,” you will be woefully, disappointed. They pulled all the scariest bits for the trailer, and creepiest stills for the advertising and did what Hollywood does best. Lie.

So, no FOMO. You aren’t missing anything.

Now, The Personal History of David Copperfield, that’s a must see. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

Until then, enjoy the show.

Anika Goes (Back) to the Movies!!

For those that don’t know Arizona, where I fry in the sun, is allowing movie theaters to reopen!!

The hubby and I are taking full advantage and making a day of it. We are headed to cooler temps and a double feature in northern AZ today.

Be on the look out next week for reviews of The New Mutants and The Personal History of David Copperfield. I am trash for anything with Dev Patel and I’ve been waiting on tinter hooks for this one.

I am so willing to brave the virus (in my mask of course) to get that experience back and bring you all of my most excellent thoughts on the art of film. I can’t wait.

ON WITH THE SHOW!!

~Anika

Writing: The Power of Critique Pt. 1

If I had to rank the skills of a writer in order of importance the list would look thusly:

  1. Disciplined persistence/focus- these two are inseparable and form a kind of positive feedback loop.
  2. Critique- both the giving and receiving of such, identifying useful from not so much, etc.
  3. All the other writerly things in whatever order seemeth thee good.

The various structural and artistic skills of writing come to each of us in different orders, based on the level of talent and skill we bring to our careers. The more you do it, the more those will build on each other over time. So improve your craft, for sure, but don’t get so concerned about your prose that you lose sight of bigger picture issues. Furthermore, the artistic stuff is variable, not to mention subjective, there is no clear advantage to pursuing one’s characterization technique over one’s plotting ability.

No, the only advantage comes from dedication to Butt In Chair-Hands On Keyboard (BIC-HOK) style discipline and the constant improvement of your work not from your own eyes, but someone else’s. Others have filled volumes* with how to cultivate focus and persistence in your writerly ways, so I won’t go down that road. Rather, I think the skill of being a good critique partner and appropriately utilizing the critique of others is woefully undervalued and still a mystery to too many writers looking to improve.

So let’s see what we can do to demystify the process and amplify those skills, shall we?

top view photo of people near wooden table

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First, let’s take a deep breath and realize that perfection in communication is not possible.

We may revel in coming up with just the right turn of phrase or get a little giddy when we see how the plot twist at the end is going to both unhinge and delight your readers. But that doesn’t make them perfect. No one can communicate mind to mind (yet). So the best anyone can do is try, fail, and refine until they get to something that is close enough.

Do you know what this means? THERE”S NO PRESSURE TO BE PERFECT!!

But here’s the best part, since no one can perfectly put their thoughts into words, there’s no such thing as a perfect story.

Take any of the classics you like. You will find run-on sentences, awkward phrasing, typos, bad dialogue (so much bad dialogue), and all kinds of stylistic wonkiness that may have worked for its time, but isn’t working now. Tastes, trends, and techniques change. And that’s great.

It doesn’t give us permission to be lazy. Please don’t take the pass on perfection as a pass to write poorly and not try to improve. We need to edit. We need others to help us edit. But then we need to be done. We need to let the project go, and move on to the next so we can continue to improve and grow as storytellers.

Author Julie Berry once said, “It’s ok if you write a mediocre book. The world is full of mediocre readers.”

This was a kidding, kinda, moment from a keynote she gave at the ANWA Time Out for Writers conference a number of years ago. But I’m betting it made you feel a little less like the universe is lurking over your shoulder, demanding the highest quality product ever, before it will allow your manuscript to see the light of day. 

You might be saying, “But I pick up errors in books all the time. I’m a really good editor.”

And that may be true. Most of us who get into writing started as voracious readers. We know what we like in a good book or essay. We can spot a bad comma-splice a mile away.

In someone else’s work.

No one can see their own work clearly. All the story, character, and setting stuff that you have tucked away in that big, thinky noggin of yours gets in the way of your ability to separate what you see from what the reader will see.

You may describe the protagonist’s jacket as blue. Which you understand means it’s the same cerulean of the eyes of his lady love from so very long ago; clearly indicating that he is still carrying a torch. So when a would be mugger tears the jacket in the next chapter, it makes sense that he flies into a rage, and doesn’t merely fend the attacker off, but beats him senseless.

All the reader knows is that the jacket is blue. Not even what kind of blue, just blue. And what the heck is wrong with your main character that he would display such violence?

See the issue? We fill in the gaps for ourselves, especially after we’ve seen a chapter on our screen (or in a notebook for us old school types) again and again. It solidifies in our heads as being the prefect representation of what we are thinking because we can’t uncouple our meaning from our writing. So much of the subtext that we take for granted has to be on the page in some way, so that the reader has access to it, too.

This means that when you are getting feedback, good feedback, it’s not about you as a writer. It’s just about helping you get all that beautifully imagined wonderment onto the page so that the reader can see it. Too many writers think that the best outcome of a critique is, “I loved it! It’s amazing! It doesn’t need anything else, except I fixed one uncapitalized ‘I.'”

That is not the best outcome. This is a less than useful outcome.

It is the sign of a critique partner who doesn’t know what they are doing. Maybe they don’t have the experience to help improve your writing (maybe they are newer at this than you are). Or perhaps they are your grandmother who likes you so very much and doesn’t want to say anything discouraging and here dear have a cookie.

pensive grandmother with granddaughter having interesting conversation while cooking together in light modern kitchen

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

When hunting for good critique partners we are looking for folks with the skills not only to point out where the commas and the quotation marks should go, but who can say in a thoughtful, objective, helpful way how we can improve our composition as a whole. They say things like, “I’m confused by this word choice, do you mean x or y?”, “Why do we need to know this right now?”, or “How does the protagonist feel about what’s happening here?” These are the kinds of feedback that point an author to real improvement and awareness of where their own pitfalls lie. It gives them the opportunity to fix what’s broken, based on their own vast knowledge about their story or topic.

Good critique partners never seek to transform another’s book into the book they would have written (more on this in later posts), but to mold a Work In Progress (WIP) so that it more closely resembles the vision the author has established for their own work.

And how do you attract such helpful helpers?

  • Read my subsequent posts to discover techniques that will make you a valuable critique partner.
  • Find writer’s groups (most likely all virtual right now) and practice those skills by reading for others. This will invite others to read for you as well, and give you practice recognizing useful from useless feedback.
  • Don’t drive good critique partners away with either hostility or constant explanations about why you are right and don’t need to change what you are doing.
  • Remember that perfect is not possible. For anyone. So let that nonsense go.

The fastest way to ensure that others decline to read for you is to rebuff every bit of input with snappish comments or constant explaining about why you did the thing they are finding confusing/over-wrought/incorrect. You won’t be able to follow around every reader explaining bits of the book to them.

The book must explain itself.

And you are doing neither the story nor yourself any favors by acting like a shield warrior, deflecting all incoming missiles of correction. There are no prizes for rough drafts with less red ink on them than others.

So let’s get the blood bath going.

We can sop up the mess later.

You’ll find that writing doesn’t scar. The reader can’t tell you were corrected before they read the sentence. They can only tell when no one corrected that sentence/chapter/story arc at all. And they don’t appreciate that kind of disregard.

Ready to get into more of the nitty gritty?

Good. Next time we’ll talk techniques and best practices. And I’d love to hear your horror stories about bad critique partners, if you’ve had them, in the comments. It’ll remind you and everyone else how important giving and getting good feedback can be.

~Anika

*Here are just a few of the titles that might interest you if persistence is your weak link: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Take Joy by Jane Yolen, Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and many more. I’d love to see your suggestions in the comments!