No Authors (or Elephants) Allowed!!!

A recent post on Dear Author sparked a discussion in my blogging network about whether authors should thank reviewers. According to the post, even a simple Thank You in the Comments of the review will kill discussion among readers.

I can see that happening if the review, or the ongoing discussion, is negative. Most people are uncomfortable saying unflattering things about a person’s work if they know that person is listening in. Especially if the phrasing is less than tactful. But if the discussion and review are positive, why would the readers abandon the conversation?

DON’T?

Now, in my Rethinking Reviews post, I stated that the best advice I’d ever seen for responding to reviews was simply DON’T. But, like everything else about writing, that approach doesn’t work for every author. Some feel compelled to acknowledge the roughly twelve hours the reviewer put in to read and review their book. In that case, a strictly professional Thank You comment or email seems to be the answer. Saying “Thank you for taking the time to review my book. I’m sorry it wasn’t right for you,” in response to a scathing review can be an effective method of taking the high road, and refusing to stoop to that level. For some readers, it gives the impression of class and professionalism.

No, see, what I really meant was…

One of the dangers of responding to reviews is giving in to the temptation to explain what we really meant when the reviewer obviously misunderstood. As much as we want readers to see exactly what we think we’re showing in the book, explaining can look like making excuses. We don’t want readers to think our writing is so poor that we’re unable to express what we mean, and thus have to provide explanations after the fact. Note – If we’re asked in an interview to explain something about our book, it’s a different situation. We’re expanding on, rather than making excuses for it.

What’s your motive?

Most of us write because we love it, and have a passion for writing. Like anyone else, we like to talk about what we love. So, are authors welcome to join in readers’ discussions of other authors’ books? Like the rest of it, we have to be careful of the impressions we give. If we didn’t care for the book, some people will assume it’s sour grapes, that we’re jealous of that author for whatever reason. And, if we loved the book, some will decide we’re simply promoting our friend’s book, hoping to boost her sales.

Squeee! Fangirl moment

Before I joined online writing communities and became acquainted with several of my favorite authors through the online conversations I’ve had with them, I would have been thrilled if an author deigned to discuss her book with me. These days, I’m ecstatic if an author talks with me about her book. There’s just something about talking with someone who created something that you enjoy.

 

How do you feel about authors joining in book discussions? If an author discusses books, hers or anyone else’s, do you doubt her sincerity and motivation?

Everybody’s A Critic

Many online writing communities have a place for writers to post snippets of their work for critique. Several communities revolve exclusively around sharing and critiquing, often on a sort of tit for tat basis. In order to post your work for review, you first have to critique several other writers’ work.

These sites can be invaluable for honing your craft and getting your work polished and ready to submit to editors or agents. But there’s a dark side, too. They can utterly destroy a writer, even a talented, promising one, with the drive and potential to be really good.

How the hell can a writing community destroy a writer?

Not long after I started visiting writing communities, I became a member of a tiny writing forum. One of the writers who often shared her work usually posted really short snippets, almost flash fiction. Her writing needed a great deal of work, but there were good points, too. The rest of us had picked up that there was something different about her circumstance – perhaps she was very young, or had a learning disability. But she loved writing and was proud of her work. We all offered some gentle criticism, and a bit of encouragement.

After a couple of months, one of the other members, who rarely ventured into the share-your-work area, deigned to critique her work. This other writer had been a member for quite a while, and was generally respected as an authority among the dozen or so regular posters. He posted a several hundred word long diatribe about why her work was “utter crap”. When challenged for his cruelty, he continued to rant, saying she didn’t deserve to call herself a writer.

In a very sad post, the first writer apologized for taking up time and space for her crap and promised never to “bother” anyone with it again. She left. I have no way of knowing if she continued to write or not. I hope she did. She enjoyed it, and what she lacked in skill, she made up in enthusiasm and unflagging support for other writers.

 Grow A Thick Skin

I’m not saying this happens on all share/critique sites. Far from it. But there are a few where the most out-spoken critics are harsh, even cruel, in their reviews.

So? Writers have to develop a thick skin. If you can’t take the heat… Rejection and harsh criticism are simply part of the game.

Of course they are. That’s not what I’m talking about. The fact is, there are people out there who totally get off on shredding someone else’s work in a way orchestrated to hurt the writer as much as possible. Even if a piece is decent, they do their utmost to find nothing good. Sometimes, it goes to the point of purposefully misunderstanding the writer’s words. If all that fails, it devolves into personal attacks.

These critics aren’t just critics. They’re bullies. Often, there are other writers on the site who jump in, backing up the bully. They certainly don’t want her attention turned to their work. In return for their loyalty, the bully gives their work favorable criticism, no matter how undeserving.

What about the writer whose work is subject to this form of bullying? Think about it. A dozen or more people, seemingly well-respected, tell you, in so many words, that your best work is utter shit. No one finds anything positive, and if they do, it’s something insignificant.

If you’re thick-skinned enough, you pack up your marbles and go play elsewhere, or perhaps you revise and re-post. If you revise and repost, chances are, the same thing will happen all over again, probably even worse. Heaven forbid you give a less than rave review of the bully’s work! To have such gall is to risk having the toxicity spill over from the writing site into other areas of your online life.

So, what do you do?

First, before posting work or critiquing, check out the community. Read the other members’ critiques, and their work. Do the reviews seem honest, offering constructive criticism that’s clearly explained, pointing out both the good and the bad? Do the reviews actually reflect the quality of the work, or is so-so work being hailed as the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Are the more negative aspects of the critiques worded tactfully, or cruelly?

Search for mentions of the site on other sites. Does it have a good rep among writers? Is there one person, or a small group, that makes the bulk of the critiques? Check the archives. Do people come and go fairly regularly, or do most people join and leave after a short period, with a few members staying for a long time? One or a few people making the bulk of the reviews over an extended period, while others come and go in rapid succession can be a red flag and warrants a closer look.

The answers to those questions will help you decide if the site has anything real to offer. If it doesn’t, keep looking. If you think it might, post a trial piece – something small that isn’t part of a work you’ve poured your heart and soul into. That way, if the critiques turn nasty, you aren’t hurt as badly. Once the critiques are in, ask for clarification of any points you don’t understand, to see if the other members are willing to explain their remarks, without flaming you.

Keep looking until you find a community that fits well. Above all, don’t give an anonymous stranger behind a keyboard the power to take away your dream.

What kind of experiences have you had with sharing your work for critique in online communities? Have you encountered bullies? Or have you found a site that works for you?

What can we do, as a community of creative individuals, to put a stop to this form of bullying, other than refuse to participate?

Writer Wednesday: Critique Series: Postponed

Due to a scheduling conflict (for me, not the blog), the conclusion of the Critique Series will be posted next week. I apologize for any inconvenience.

Writer Wednesday: Putting It All Together

Welcome to Part 6 of my Critique Series. If you haven’t yet, check out the earlier posts of the series: Fresh Eyes, 10 Qualities Of The Perfect Critique Partner, Where, Oh Where, Has My Little CP Gone?, Match Made In Heaven, Or Hell?, and How On Earth?

Later today, stop back by and check out Part 1 of my entry in the Rule of Three Blogfest. The post will go live about 1130am EST.

So, you’ve found someone you’d like to try as a CP, decided on what you want critted, and exchanged work. What’s next? How are you and your potential CP going to communicate your feedback, and what format will the crit be in?

We have several options today for discussing crits with a CP. Azure and I use a combination – we email our crits to each other so we have time to look them over before discussing them, then use IM for when we need the other to see short passages, and we’re normally also on the phone so we can cover more ground quickly, and save some typing.

We’ve just discovered another option that looks promising, particularly if the two of us are working with someone else. VYEW.com “allows you to meet and share content in real-time or anytime. Upload images, files, documents and videos into a room. Users can access and contribute at anytime.” (from their website) We haven’t had time to try it out yet, but it seems as if it would provide everything we need. I believe Google Docs also has some similar properties, and there are probably others out there that do as much, or more.

I’ve also simply exchanged emails for the entire crit. Whichever way you choose depends on the wordcount of the exchanged works, the kind and depth of crit, whether you’re revising and exchanging again, whether you prefer things more or less formal, and how much personal information you want to share. At first, it might be wise to set up an email account to use exclusively for exchanging crits with potential partners. If things work out and the relationship turns long-term, you might decide to share a bit more, even eventually home phone numbers.

What format should you use for crits? I normally turn on Track Changes for the document, and add Comments if the person uses MS Word. That way, I can make suggestions/changes right in the line, which the writer can either accept or reject as is, and I can explain myself in the Comments.

If the other person isn’t using Word, I like to type my suggestions/changes/comments right into the line of text, using a different font color. Some people prefer to just have notes typed at the end of the document, or even in a new doc. Others prefer something more substantial, like a bullet list of in-depth comments and suggestions. I’ve even done crits in real-time, IMing my thoughts to the writer as I read, though this is my least preferred way to crit. It doesn’t allow time to absorb the words, form an impression, understand more than the surface meaning, or make well-thought out suggestions.

Big, in-depth crits are sometimes easier for the writer to grasp if they have time to look over the crit, then a time to discuss it all with the critter. If they don’t understand something, they can ask questions, as well as point out misunderstandings by the critter. When writer and critter discuss the crit, what started as a sort of skimming-the-surface crit may grow into something more in-depth. If you’re going to revise and have the critter look at it again, discussion will also prove helpful, as you play with different word choices and sentence structures, etc.

It all boils down to finding what works best for you and your potential CP. If it all works out, and the two of you decide to continue, you’ll probably find that everything evolves as you both grow as writers and critiquers, and as you become more familiar with each other’s writing.

Some CPs keep everything strictly on a professional footing, while others are more casual. Still others, like Azure and I, become close friends. In addition to sharing our writing lives, we share our personal lives.

But, if things don’t work out, let the other person know right away. Dodging emails, or refusing to reply, is immature and inconsiderate. Keep it tactful, but straightforward. If the other person decides not to continue, take it gracefully. Hopefully, they’ll inform you it isn’t working for them, instead of just not answering emails. But if they stop replying, after a couple of attempts, drop it and move on.

Next week will be the final post in the Critique Series, at least for now. I’ll just list links for information and resources, crit sites, etc.

Writer Wednesday: How on Earth?

Welcome to Part 5 of my Critique Series. If you haven’t already, check out the earlier posts in the series: Fresh Eyes, 10 Qualities Of The Perfect Critique Partner, Where, Oh Where, Has My Little CP Gone?, and Match Made In Heaven, Or Hell?

With all this talk of crits and CPs, some of you have to be wondering exactly how you’re supposed to learn to critique someone else’s work. You might assume that if you can write, you can crit. Not so. Critting is an art in itself, and takes practice to learn to do well. A good crit is as valuable to a writer, especially one who’s still learning, as a good dictionary. We aren’t talking about your cousin’s “I loved it! Great job! Keep it up!” sort of crit.

Many beginning critiquers feel they have nothing of value to offer, but this far from the truth. Any reader who makes the effort can give tremendously valuable feedback. A beginning critter can tell you what worked and didn’t work for them, how the passage made them feel, if there were parts they didn’t understand, their impressions of characters, etc, just like any reader can. Never feel as if you have nothing to offer just because you aren’t an expert with grammar, or don’t know how to spot intrusions of authorial voice. Honest feedback from a lay reader can help the writer more than an expert crit with some issues.

Learning to crit as a writer, rather than strictly as a reader, takes time and practice. There are so many levels and elements to learn that it just won’t happen overnight, or by osmosis. If you want to get good at it, you have to do the work. I haven’t found any shortcuts – and since I’m lazy, I’ve looked. 😀  There are several things you can do to learn, and IMO, they work best if you do them all in conjunction with each other, not just concentrating on one at a time.

First, find some websites where writers share work for others to crit. Familiarize yourself with the site, then get to work. Read a passage, and as you read, take notes in a word processor document about your impressions of different parts of the writing. Does the grammar seem okay? Are details consistent? How do you feel about the characters? Why? And so on. Keep your notes to yourself. Read the other members’ crits of the passage, and compare them to your notes. Did you spot any of the issues the other critters did? Copy and past the crits into your document, and go through them carefully and find what they’re talking about in the passage. This will help you learn to spot issues, and no what the problem is. If you like, you can offer your input as a reader. As you become better at critting, offer your feedback.  *A word of warning: Make sure you’re tactful with your feedback and crits. And be aware that even if you are, some writers are only interested in hearing how lovely their work is, and may argue with your crit, or try to begin a flame war, etc. You don’t want a rep for arguing with the writers you crit, so your best bet is to just say “Sorry you didn’t like my crit” and bow out. If you see that writers on a particular site often attack critters, or vise versa, you might want to move on and find another crit site, rather than risk appearing unprofessional.

Practice critting your own work, just as you would another writer’s. When you’re comfortable your work is as good as you can make it, post short passages on crit sites for others to to crit. Remember to thank those who take the time from their busy schedule to help you. If you have questions about the issues they point out, ask for clarification in a way that doesn’t imply resentment on your part. If a critter engages in a personal attack on you, or is rude, keeping your response to a simple thank you is probably the wisest course. Also, remember, not everyone is going to like your work, and most won’t think it is as brilliant as you do. Part of being a writer is developing a thick skin. It’s fine, and normal, if your feelings are hurt or if you’re angry. Cry, vent to an offline friend, write out everything you’d like to tell the critter, then DELETE it. You don’t want a rep for being precious or speshul about crits.

Read everything you can get your hands on, particularly in your genre, both good and bad. Analyze what you read. How does the author deal with the issues that you struggle with? What works and doesn’t work? How could the author have improved the work? Rewrite passages to make them better using your crits.

Work to improve your own writing, and to understand and use all the tools and techniques possible. Don’t depend on just writing for that improvement. You need to learn new techniques and methods, and how to use them well, in order to improve. Find a couple of *good* writing websites or blogs and follow them closely. Use sites like AbsoluteWrite.com to understand different aspects of writing. Be careful whose advice you follow. Someone who has read a great deal about writing, but hasn’t been writing long, or hasn’t written much, won’t have as much to offer as someone who has been writing a few years and reads good writing info, etc.

Keep at it. As you learn, crit work  you’ve already critted, to see if you can spot elements you didn’t see earlier. Revise your own work from crits, being careful to use just what works for your story. Constantly challenge yourself and your skills. You’ll grow, both at critting, and at revising your own work.

Are there other ways you know to improve your crit skills? Other tips for dealing the giving and receiving of crits?

Next week, we’ll look at some ways to communicate your crit with your potential CPs. We’re nearing the end of the series, with two more posts planned, unless someone wants more information about a particular aspect of critiquing. I may not have the answers, but I might at least know where to look. The last post of the series will have a number of links to resources with more info about crits, and sites to post work and critique others’ work. If you know of a crit site, or another site with  helpful info, please post the link in comments.

Writer Wednesday: Where, Oh Where Has My Little CP Gone?

Welcome to Part 3 of my Critique Series. If you missed Parts 1 & 2, here they are: Fresh Eyes and 10 Qualities Of The Perfect Critique Partner. Both are Writer Wednesday features.

This week, I want to give you some pointers on the different places good CPs often lurk. Of course, they’re quite elusive creatures, and great care must be taking while stalking them… Oh, wait. Wrong critter. OK, OK, I get it. No more stupid jokes. For a while, anyway.

When it first occurred to me that there might be writing forums and resources online (I’m not the brightest crayon, OK?), I stumbled across a tee-tiny little writing forum, with roughly a dozen or so regular posters. Over the next few weeks, I learned a great deal, met some wonderful writers, and made a couple of friends that I figure will be my friends for a long time to come. The little community had a sub-forum for sharing work and receiving feedback. There, I read work of all levels, and learned to crit, and receive crits. One of the members had posted passages from an incredible story, and immediately hooked me. I messaged her and asked to see more of it. That writer was Azure Boone.

When she sent me more of her work, Azure asked to see mine as well, and we ended up exchanging chapters. We liked each other’s writing, and were at similar skill levels, and we gave each other useful feedback. We continued to crit each other’s work, and grew and learned together. We became close friends, and still are, nearly two years later, and we still work very closely together. We’ve worked together with other writers short-term, and we both seek other feedback on our work.

So, writing forums, especially those with Share Your Work sections, can be a good place to look. There are also many writing communities where the central focus of critiquing each other’s work. Book Country is a relatively new one, Critique Circle has been around a while. There are tons more out there. Just explore and find one that suits you, then start your search. Another site, Ladies Who Critique, helps female writers find CPs.

Don’t overlook social networking either. Facebook has more writing groups than I’ve been able to even read the entire list. LinkedIn also has a LOT of writing groups. You might even find a CP on Twitter. If someone writes your genre, and you like their updates and the links they post, see if they have sample material up on a blog, etc. If they do, and you like it, contact them and start talking. If you post on a social network that you’re looking for a CP, be prepared to either be bombarded, or ignored, depending on who sees it.

If you’re like me, and make a habit of surfing writers’ blogs, and you land on one where the writing appeals to you, start a conversation with the blogger. You might luck out. If you post on a blog, whether yours or someone else’s, that you’re looking for a CP, be prepared to turn down anyone who doesn’t seem like they will work out at first glance. A local writing group could offer up a potential CP, or a chance meeting at the library, bookstore, or coffeeshop might be where you get lucky.

Wherever you look, have a plan. This could be one of the most important decisions of your writing career, and you don’t want to go in unprepared. When you meet a potential CP, online or in person, remember – Safety First! Use the same precautions you would when interacting with with anyone else you don’t know. Also, protect your work by only sharing small portions until you’re more familiar with the person. Make it clear up front that you don’t want your work shared with anyone else, online or IRL, and that you aren’t giving them permission to use it in any way. Also, let the person know that if either of you don’t wish to continue, there’s no obligation. Go slowly – don’t just jump in without looking.

When you receive the other person’s first crit of your work, look it over carefully, and objectively evaluate it. Does the crit reveal qualities that tell you the person might make a good CP? Is it useful? Objective? Knowledgeable? If both of you agree, revise based  on each other’s crits, and have another look. On the other hand, if you don’t want to continue, be tactful – you don’t want to make an enemy of a writer who might be a valuable asset to your career one day.

Don’t just accept the first person willing to work with you. Be patient and selective and make sure you’re compatible. A bad CP can be *much* worse than no CP. Your writing could be derailed, you could be discouraged to the point of quitting, you could acquire an enemy motivated to ruin your career. And those are the nicer things that could happen.

Do you know of other places to find potential CPs? Other things to look out for?

Next week, a bit about the art of critiquing another writer’s work.

Writer Wednesday: 10 Qualities Of The Perfect Critique Partner

This is Part 2 in my Writer Wednesday Critique Series. If you missed Part 1, Fresh Eyes is about the value of having someone else’s opinion of your work.

I recently joined a community, Ladies Who Critique, for female writers searching for Critique Partners, and I’m also a member of several other writing communities that have areas for members to post work for critique (crit). Others, like Book Country, place a great deal of importance on reading and critiquing other members’ work. As I meet more people in these communities, it becomes more obvious that many writers out there aren’t sure what makes a good critique partner (CP).

I’m no expert, but I’ve learned a few things, from having a perfect CP, and a few bad ones. Other writers post about their experiences, both good and bad, and conclusions they’ve reached. So, these are my conclusions of what makes an ideal CP, no matter the genre being critted. Some of these can develop as the person learns to crit, but others are more personality traits, and if they aren’t there, the person won’t make a good CP for anyone.

  1. Their criticism is constructive, aimed at helping the writer improve the work. No “This is dumb” or “I hate this character” remarks. Instead, “I don’t understand this”, and why, or “This character needs work on being consistent”, and why.
  2. They are objective. They don’t just praise a piece because they like the subject, or like the author. Likewise, they don’t tear a piece to shreds because of their own agenda. They give reasons for why they like or dislike passages. (Not following their own agenda is essential from the beginning.)
  3. They recognize that your story is yours, and that all the decisions are up to you. They don’t try to make you change it to suit their tastes. No “This character should use more swear words” or “There’s no need for the sex scenes to be explicit. You should change them” or “You know, she really should find a dead body there. That would make it more interesting”, unless those comments actually fit your story. (Not trying to take over your story is essential from the beginning.)
  4. They’re fair, pointing out the good as well as the bad.
  5. They treat you professionally. They don’t belittle you or your work, and they give you fair and useful critiques when they say they will. (Not belittling you or your work is essential from the beginning.)
  6. Their skill level at writing and critiquing will be similar to yours. You can’t expect a good crit of your nearly publication ready novel from someone who just started writing last week. They may have valuable input, but it probably won’t be as comprehensive as you need. Likewise, you can’t expect an author who has several published books selling well to take on a rank newbie as a crit partner.
  7. They will be familiar with your genre. Ideally, they read widely in your genre, and write it as well. Yes, good writing is good writing, no matter the genre, but each genre has its own conventions. If your CP isn’t familiar with the conventions of your genre, they may feel something is incorrect, when you’ve actually done it right.
  8. They are proficient in the mechanics of writing – grammar, spelling, punctuation, as well as sentence structure, dialog, exposition, etc. If they don’t know how to punctuate dialog correctly, they can’t spot your errors. These elements of writing are where many of us make mistakes, and we need them pointed out early on, so we don’t propagate the errors.
  9. They are familiar with voice (narrative, authorial, and character), style, pace, flow, concept, theme – the more complex elements of writing that many of us find difficult to grasp. We often need someone to point out that the pace is a bit slow there, or the authorial voice is too intrusive in that passage, etc. Some of these elements are beyond the skills of many writers, so someone with a similar skill level may not be familiar with them. In that case, in a long term CP relationship, both partners will ideally work together to learn the more advanced points. Or, once a writer has surpassed her CP in skill level, it might be necessary to find a new CP. That isn’t being disloyal, it’s doing what’s right for your book and your career. Besides, no one says you have to end the relationship with the original CP.
  10. Finally, they will be able to accept, as well as give, constructive criticism. By critiquing their work, you sharpen your skills and learn things you can apply to your own work. If they have a tantrum over every less than raving-in-awe comment you make, you feel uncomfortable giving honest crits. Often, these people will start to tear your work down, in an effort to get ‘revenge’ for comments they didn’t like. (Essential from the beginning.)

Next week: where to look for CPs.