I've been in critique groups over the years, but for various reasons, I'm not in one right now. That doesn't mean I'm not critiquing. I still teach my young adult writing classes and occasionally will critique adult writers for hire. So I'm taking a slightly different path in this discussion, non-group critiquing. Here are my suggestions in working with one person at a time (some of them also work in group situations, so I am not really getting off topic).
Being critiqued can be a traumatic experience. I've had people (professionals who should know better) literally treat my work as if it were bird cage liner. On the other hand, I've had critiques that said that my work was the best thing since Harry Potter. I suspect the critiquer gave my work a once-over-lightly if they read it at all. And, as my husband says, you don't learn anything by being told how great you are.
This is not to say that critiques have to be all negative. They do have to be specific. Saying "I like your protagonist" is all well and good but really doesn't tell the author anything. Why do you like that character? Is it their personality, the way they think or talk or their relationship with another character?. Be specific. It's always good to know that something is good and why
The same thing works in reverse. Saying "This scene just doesn't work for me" tells me nothing. Often the author already knows that scene doesn't work. They are looking to you for suggestions. My rule of thumb is if I don't have any idea how to fix something, I don't mention it. Or, if the author backs you in a corner and says "The scene by the old mill stream isn't working, what can I do?" I throw it back in their lap. Why do they think it isn't working? Talk about it a little back and forth. You two will either come up with what is wrong with the scene (or character or whatever) or you will decide the old mill stream scene isn't moving the story along. One of all time favorite movie scenes comes from Tootsie. Bill Murray is a playwright working on a piece called Return to Love Canal. Throughout the movie he keeps spitballing ideas with his roommate Dustin Hoffman for one particular scene that comes to be known as "The necktie scene." (By the way, the movie audience never learns what the necktie scene is about.) At last, Bill tells Dustin, "I've solved the problem of the necktie scene. This time I'm writing it without the necktie." Great writing advice. Sometimes if something is giving you that much trouble, it doesn't belong in your story (or play) to begin with.
Asking someone their opinion of your work is a lot like asking "Does this outfit make me look fat?" I have tried to take as much fear and loathing out of the process as necessary. At the start of a session I remind the writer that he is already a writer; working together, he will become a better writer.
I always ask if there is something in particular the writer wants you to look for in their work. Do they want to know if their characters are believable, the plot plausible, is it overwritten? I learned to ask because I have a tendency to point out every little inconsistency or flaw when all the writer wants to know at that point is if the main character is likable/interesting enough that you want to read the whole story.
If your author doesn't have any particular questions, I try to stick to the Big Picture items...inconsistencies, missing transitions, failure in logic, vague characters etc. As I said before, if you don't know how to "fix it," don't bring it up.
Most importantly, respect your author's vision. I read a lot of stuff that left me wondering "What were they thinking when they wrote this?" So I ask, "What made you decide to write this particular story? Hopefully the answer is not "because pirates/werewolves/dystopian fantasy is hot right now." If they really like and want to write about one of those topics, great. Just remind them that by the time their manuscript has wound it's way through the publishing labyrinth, that topic will probably not be quite so surefire.
What I've often discovered is that the story the author has written (and isn't very good) wasn't the story they meant to write. Don't get me wrong. I'm not playing Freud here. I try to approach the subject as gently as possible. I once asked someone why they had written a picture book about talking organic vegetables. After a little conversation, it turned out that what the writer wanted to write about was the sense of community after 9/11. She wanted to write about a community garden and the sense of healing that it gave the gardeners. I don't know if she ever went back and wrote that book. I hope she did.
You know the best thing about critiquing? It is so much easier to see the flaws in your own work by recognizing them in someone else's. You are not only helping someone else improve their work, you are helping yourself as well.
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Posted by Mary Ann Rodman