Don’t explain your elephants

Someone asked recently, once you post work to a group either online or in person, how do you deal with the critiques you get back? I was going to respond in the forum where it was asked, but I want to talk about it here in more detail.

I want people to avoid the dangers of listening to unpublished writers teaching unpublished writers how to stay unpublished. Just to be clear, people do not need to be published in order to give you good advice. Published authors aren’t guaranteed to give you great critiques, and writing groups with the right focus can do a lot of good. What you want to do is avoid the critiquers who give you the advice you need to make sure your story will never sell. Don’t explain your elephants.

In a Worldcon in Boston, an editor said that he could always tell a book that has been workshopped vs one that has not. The unworkshopped book will have some obvious mistakes that can be fixed in lines, but the story picks up and goes. A workshopped book will stop and explain everything. He said it’s the difference between an elephant charged and an elephant, the world’s largest land-based mammal found in Africa and parts of Asia, charged.

I don’t know everything. I had to come to that realization as a twenty-something, far later than most people and far sooner than some. I hold my beliefs firmly, but if they’re wrong, I trade them up without worrying too much about it. I define my beliefs, they don’t define me. I was wrong about believing in there were no rules, and I was very wrong about critique group usefulness.

And I know it seems like I have an agenda saying that free critiques aren’t as useful now that I’m hanging out a shingle and offering writing coaching, but I gave far more than my fair share of critiquing for free before realizing that what I do has value. I’m very good at looking at a book as a whole and as the sum of its parts and make it better.

That one person who is dedicated to the novel, who is not only obligated but wants to read the work from start to finish, is worth something. I’ve done a lot of critiques for people where I’m the only one who didn’t say, it’s great, just watch the commas. I’ve spent hours trying to explain why the fatal flaw in chapter two poisons the branch and everything that comes from that is tainted, only to be told that everyone else didn’t have a problem with it.

This is why knowing who is giving the critique and weighing that into the value of the critique is so important. In my in-person writing groups, I knew within a year who to ask and who to avoid. Novice writers can give excellent critique and published authors can give terrible feedback to a genre they’re not familiar with. Online, it’s even harder. The emphasis seems to be on line critiques even for first drafts and nothing could be of less use than a line edit on a work in progress. That section that has no promise of making it into the final draft and will probably need to be totally rewritten isn’t worth agonizing over commas. But it’s impossible to look at the overall plot and tension in a single chapter or expect people to remember what happened in chapter two when it was posted nine months ago.

Even stopped clocks can be right twice a day, though, so how do you know good critique from bad? For me, it’s looking at the tone of the critique, how many comments there are, and how much benefit the critiquer gives the author.

Are the comments being sarcastic or snarky in the very beginning? If a book has a fatal flaw and the critiquer gets disengaged in the middle of the book, that’s one thing, but did they start off with the word choice that suggests they are looking at the critique as an obligation or something they have to do rather than wanting to help the work get better?

Where are the comments clustered? A critiquer who is engaged in the story usually won’t break up the flow to make a lot of comments, or if they do they’re from the second read through. A critiquer who is not engaged will pepper the prose with comments that the prose answers sometimes in the next line. Readers read a book knowing that they are not going to understand everything and the point of reading the book is to figure out what’s going on. When I got a bad critique, I asked a writer friend, at what point should you worry that you’re not answering the question? He said, if they get to the end of the book and you haven’t answered their questions, you’ve done it wrong.

If your critiquer is not willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you know what you’re doing, and doesn’t trust you to do it, take their comments with more than a grain of salt. They might have good points to say about other matters other than pacing but for the most part, it’s writers forgetting that other writers aren’t writing for other writers. They’re writing for readers who want the suspense.

And give another grain of salt to anyone who tells you that they understood it (because they’re really smart) but they’re worried others (read: people stupider than they are) might not. Your ideal reader should pick up what you’re putting down without telling them where to look and what angle to bend at the waist at. Don’t explain your elephants.

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