(Or, Respecting Choices and Style)
For those of us who loved Katharine Brauer’s thoughts on critiques, and the fact that she’s masterminded a Crits for Water campaign, this interview with Jessica Lei is a must read. You can donate to Crits for Water today for a chance to win a 2,500-word young adult critique from Jessica, and if that’s not generous enough, she’s also got a drawing for a first chapter YA critique on April 22nd.
All I have to say is: Jessica gets bonus points for seamlessly integrating the word critiquer in her interview responses. (Yes. Critiquer is a word, even if your spell check doesn't recognize it. Or your online dictionary. See Minor Announcement the Third.)
Jessica is a 22-year-old intern for the amazing agent Elana Roth
at the Johnson Literary Agency and writer of YA fantasy looking
for a miracle (aka an agent).
NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?
JL: Walk away! I always recommend walking away for a short period of time (a day to a week, or longer if you need it) after reading an in-depth critique to gain perspective. After letting the comments marinate for awhile, sometimes they make more sense than before and a lot of times, you can look at them from a less personal perspective. Once you can approach the critique with an analytical mindset, you can really hit the revision full-force and pick apart your own work, which is always the most beneficial part of revising.
When I started this whole process, I was one of those types that thought she could fix everything in one or two revisions. I learned pretty quickly that you can't. My advice for the revising process is to focus on certain things each time, and build on what you've already worked on in subsequent revisions. You and your writing will be much better (or less insane) because of it :)
NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?
JL: Go with your gut. If something feels wrong to you, always speak up. If you're afraid it's going to be hurtful, reassure the writer that it's merely your opinion and to take it with a grain of salt. But I've always found honesty helpful in a critique. If something isn't working for someone, I can probably exercise some imagination to find a better way to do it! And my manuscript has always grown better because of the honesty of my critique partners.
NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process (e.g., line edit as you go along, read once before editing, read several times, etc.)?
JL: When I critique, I try to hit on everything at once (aka I'm lazy and I only read once). I line-edit as I read, and also pinpoint places of confusion or lost opportunity. I'm also known to fangirl once in awhile when one of my partners writes something totally awesome. I'm not too proud to compliment! Depending on the chapter and things I commented on within, I might write a summary or wrap-up of my thoughts and suggestions to help the writer in revisions. And I'm always open to questions after I send a critique back, in case I was confusing. I also love brainstorming!
NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing (e.g., plot, grammar, characters, emotions, etc.)?
JL: I gravitate toward what WORKS or doesn't work for me (--and only me since it's a subjective business). Usually it has to do with plot, if there's a thread of causation laced throughout the narrative that strings the conflict into one, culminating point. Sometimes what works or doesn't work has to do with characters (are the likeable or not? Are they redeemable even if they aren't likeable?), character motivation (what is driving them to do A instead of B? Why are they more attracted to character Y instead of Z?), and stylistic choices (could this be better in first person, or in past tense? Does this story need to be in alternating points of view?). I just try to identify ANYTHING that could help make the narrative, story, and writing stronger.
Q added by JL: When can a critique become unhelpful?
JL: I chose this question because I've had unhelpful critiques before (haven't we all?), and I think some people take "their opinions" too far in this writing game. Critiques become unhelpful when the critiquer is trying to CHANGE the story or the writing. As a critiquer, you have to be respectful to the choices and style of who you're critiquing. For instance, I like the Oxford comma (it's my favorite punctuation mark), and I always use it when I'm writing. However, my best friend doesn't ever use it. Do I correct her every time she doesn't use it? No, because I know it's her decision to leave it out. It's okay to correct grammar and punctuation, or to suggest changes to the plotline or characters--but never expect all of your corrections or suggestions to be right for who you're critiquing. It's their story, and they have the right to decide what works and doesn't work for their own story.
Thanks, Jessica! (Kat’s so lucky to have Jessica in her crit group.) Spread the word about Jessica’s Crits for Water drawings, and don’t forget that you are eligible for Kat’s 250 words/$1 you donate for the cause. And also? You’re giving the gift of water.
Stay tuned for another Crits for Water interview with Jodi Meadows on 4/17.