Monday, September 12, 2011

Chapter-by-Chapter Critique Tips

(Or, Writing with the Door Open)

Stephen King advocates writing first drafts "with the door closed." He'd say that the first draft belongs only to the writer. Everyone has her own preferences, but because I participate in an online critique group with a place to post individual chapters for review, I've seen writers go pretty far with the door open.

Are there flaws in a process like this? Of course. For one, it's tough for critiquers to get an overall picture of the WiP. The flow that they would normally get by having the full work isn't there. In fact, if the chapters go up too slowly, then critiquers have a tendency to forget details from previous chapters. And for the writer, the temptation to go back and fix things rather than completing the project can be smothering.

However, I've also witnessed the benefits of this process in avoiding re-work and providing motivation. I like to get about 10,000-20,000 words into a WiP before posting anything, so I'm a part-closed, part-opened mix. But I like to post chapters pre-completion at this point for several reasons.

  • Huge Plot Holes: The process provides early feedback which helps avoid re-work later. It's overwhelming to have a completed WiP and then find out that a Huge Plot Hole exists, and will require tons of patching, reworking, and reshaping in order to pull it off. In fact, I've known some writers who completely give up on a WiP at this point.
  • Get General Thumbs Up: I like to know whether my characters are compelling, if the point of view works, and whether the story garners interest. Again, this helps me to avoid re-work later on. Or maybe, I have to abandon an idea until I come up with a way to fix it. But at least I'm not so far into it that I feel stuck.
  • Staying Connected: Posting as I go keeps me connected with my writing community. When I'm in my writing zone, I totally go into bear cave mode and not come up for air. Except if I take a few minutes to post a chapter here or there, critique someone else's chapter here or there, I stay connected.
  • Keeping Motivated: Staying connected also keeps me motivated. Is my critique group waiting for the next chapter? Why yes, yes they are, and they told me so after my last post. How lovely. And this? Helps me finish sooner.
Critiquing chapter-to-chapter posts, therefore, might have a different feel than critiquing full projects.* So, what can the critiquer do to ensure they are helping the writer get the biggest bang for her buck?

  1. Focus on helping the writer to avoid re-work. Find out where the writer has the most difficulty with first drafts, and help her when she's falling off her wagon. Is the plot faltering? Characters flat? Scenes unnecessary? Does something completely pull you out of the story?
  2. Don't worry about the perfect diction or polish. This is her first draft, so she won't need to know every comma misplacement or every participle that dangles. Save those suggestions for the final edit. However, if there is a glaring grammar infraction that happens again and again, then go ahead and let her know. It's easier to fix a repetitive issue before it happens rather than to go back and fix each and every one of the infractions later. This goes back to the number one, saving the writer work later on.
  3. Try to keep past details straight, which is more challenging because of the passage of time between chapters. If you're not sure if something was mentioned earlier, take a quick peek. Even if this detail was mentioned, if it doesn't "do the job," let the writer know.
  4. As always, take a minute to say what you liked to help keep the in-progress writer motivated, even if you simply write the word LIKE in the margin at the end of a fantastic line. Those tiny compliments always work for me.
Again, chapter-by-chapter critiques are not for everyone, and that's okay. Can you think of anything else I've missed for chapter-by-chapter, in-progress critiquing? Let me know.



*Some people post chapter-to-chapter but have the whole WiP completed before they start. The chapters usually go up faster, and this type of critique works more like a full WiP critique. Therefore, the above suggestions may not apply.




Nancy Kelley said...

I prefer something in the middle. I write my rough drafts in a NaNoWriMo, kamikaze style which leaves no time for critique. However, I don't wait until I have a completely revised draft before I start sending chapters out. I'll get the first section done and send it to my CPs while I'm working on the next section.

This gives me exactly the benefit you mentioned, Mary--when they catch recurring errors, I can fix them in later sections before sending them on. Fewer mechanical errors mean they have time to look at deeper story issues which means the story becomes stronger.

Marybk said...

Hi Nancy! You're a part-closed, part-open door writer like myself, but you wait until the 2nd draft. I love the kamikaze writing image you mentioned, BTW. :)

Nancy Kelley said...

Writing a rough draft in a month forces me to ignore all the voices in my head about how stupid things are. There are definitely times during the month when I'm sure I'm about to crash and burn. ;)

Jessica Silva said...

I do a bit of both, personally! Short drafts, I'm closed-door. Long drafts, I HAVE to have the feedback to continue. It hurts me to even think that I have CPs I haven't sent MNEMO to, but I want a few people to read a later draft with fresh eyes. But I'm so open I want all of my CPs to read it right now haha

Matthew MacNish said...

Hi Mary. When I asked my readers what blogs I should follow yesterday, Jessica Silva suggested yours. So here I am, your newest follower.

Nice to meet you!

As to your post, I've never entered a public, open critique group, but with my private group I've used both the section by section method, and the full method, and you make a great point. They both have advantages and disadvantages.

Marybk said...

Nancy - That's totally my angel/devil post!

Jessica - I'm totally like that, too. You just let me know...:)

Hi Matt - welcome to NaE. I heart Jessica. And new followers.

Anita Grace Howard said...

It's interesting because I've written books both ways. I think either one works for me. It kind of just depends on the story and how fast I'm writing it, I think. Great post!

Marybk said...

Hey, thanks Anita! So, the faster you write, the less likely you share while you go?

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