Wednesday, June 9, 2010

About Critiquing

I'm back... and I finally have something to say. You may not agree with me. . . but . . .

Everyone who knows me, knows I really have a problem with critique groups. It's not that I don't like 'em ... or want 'em or need 'em, it's ... well, it's that I don't always believe they're doing it the right way. I've never been completely satisfied with a critique. Not in a very long time. To my way of thinking, critiques are either too much or too little, or coming from the wrong direction.

Yes, yes... I participate in them. I allow other writers to rip me up one end and down the other--we all act and sound as if we truly know what we're talking about--and I do my share of ripping too. And then I come home, glance at their comments and suggestions, stuff them in a file folder and there they stay for a very long time. Because they just doesn't feel right.

And now I know why:

I've been thumbing through Natalie Goldberg's Thunder and Lightening, the sequel to Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. One paragraph jumped out and kicked me in the gut. It's on page 188. Goldberg is talking about reading Editor Linda's first comments on a manuscript and how Editor Linda was only twenty... what could she possibly know...and how Editor Linda "splayed me open with her red pen." Goldberg said she called Linda and asked how she knew so much, and here's what Linda said:

"I used my wild mind to edit. I drop away, enter your mind and move through your writing. What is Natalie trying to do, to say? I pull you out, make you clearer."

That's what I want. That's what I'm looking for. Someone who can move through my writing as if they're inside my mind. Someone who will look at my writing as if they're me... not another writer who thinks, "I'd do it this way. I could write it better." I think that's often what we think--we can't help it. We're writers. How can we NOT view everything we read in that I-could-write- it-better-manner?

Goldberg goes on to tell how she came to understand the intimacy of a writer-editor relationship. She writes: "Someone who edits your work--at any level--is giving you their mind, just as in your writing you have given them yours. Mind-to-mind transmission."

Mind to mind transmission.

I like that. Makes great sense. Someone who is giving me their mind, just as I've given them mine. I've only had one critique partner (out of many) who had the ability to critique me as if she knew exactly what I wanted to say. We wrote in the same genre and I honestly think that's the key to critiquing.

In another chapter, Goldberg writes of a reference she came across in the Book of Serenity: "Like pouring milk into milk." When you're done you can't distinguish the first glass of milk from the second.

That's beautiful. That's exactly what I want in a critique partner. I want to look at those comments and suggestions, written in bright red, and see missing puzzle pieces slotted into my disjointed sentences and haphazard characterizations, vague settings and faulty plots. When I get my manuscript back, I want it to look like one big, satisfying, glass of milk.


Erica Vetsch said...

I hope you're able to sift through your options and find that one person who mind-melds into your fiction. It sure makes the journey easier to have someone like that, doesn't it?

Winona said...

Beautiful post, Jess! I'm going to order that book asap. I know I'm not the best at critiquing and haven't had enough real experience to truly offer adequate critiques, but I can recognize where something might need a change even if I don't know what that change is. I've never received a critique that truly offered direction. I dislike the ones that simply say "good job," "I would change this or that,"maybe you should give her more of this or that," or "POV" without telling me what's going on. To this day I have trouble with POV.

Again, great post.

James R Tate said...

This is a very important and controversial subject for me. As you know, Jess, we’ve had this discussion before and I have yet to find a solution. All the editors and agents say on the internet about how the best thing you can do to hone your writing is to join a critique group—but it won’t help a bit if you can’t find that person that is “connected” as you say. Most of the time with my writing I feel as though I’m in a dream, running for my life, but not getting anywhere. Where is the help? How do we find it? What hope is there for those of us not in “the loop”? Who can you trust? I’ve seriously considered having a professional look at my work (for a fee of course) and shed some light on what I’m doing wrong—or right. Maybe I just need to attend more conferences and elbow my way in for my thirty seconds to impress them, you know, convince them of how great my story is and what a great writer I am in twenty words or less. Let’s not even mention that most of these agents and editors are half my age and look at the world through a different eyeglass.

Jan Rider Newman said...

I've heard what you're looking for referred to in other places as the ideal reader. I know what it feels like to be hungry this way and not be fed. Good luck in your search.