How to critique

This is a repost from my old blog, with updates where they felt necessary. Hope it helps!

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“You are insufficiently white and fluffy!” you scream at a passing cloud. The cloud pays you no mind. It is secure in its cloudness and has no interest in your opinions, but more importantly, your critique was not a very good one.

“But Valerie,” you ask, “what should I do instead, I who am insecure in my critiquing abilities but eager to develop them further on my path to writing the BEST THING EVER?!”

The simplest method I’ve encountered so far came from an Odyssey workshop taught by CC Finlay. Behold, the four-part critique process.

1) Summarize what you read.
2) Say at least one thing it did well.
3) Say at least one thing it did poorly.
4) Offer at least one suggestion to fix it.

Step 1: Summarize what you read. A couple of sentences suffices, and ideally you want to touch on any theme or subtext you noticed.

Example: “This story is about a puppy who goes on an epic journey to find the Slipper of Superpowers, but his best friend finds the slipper instead and in a jealous rage he becomes a supervillain and vows revenge. It’s an allegory for the inherently self-destructive nature of capitalism, the literal representation of a dog eat dog world.”

Why do this: If the story you read and the story the writer thought they wrote don’t match up, then either the writer needs to figure out where they went wrong, or you didn’t do a great job of reading. Possibly both! But it’s important to know up front that something is amiss.

Step 2: Discuss at least one thing you thought the story did well. Maybe the characters were fully fleshed out, or the imagery was vibrant, or the language took your breath away. Think about stuff like character, plot, setting, language, etc.

Example: “I thought the dialogue was clever and felt true to the experience of puppyness. I laughed out loud at the jokes about eating cat poop.”

Why do this: It’s good for writers to know when they’ve done something right, so they can keep doing it. We all want to fix our flaws, but it’s important to maintain our strengths as well. It also helps cushion the blow for the next bit.

Step 3: Discuss at least one thing you thought the story didn’t do well.

Example: “I thought the setting of the story was poorly described. I wasn’t really sure where they were at any given time. A castle? A cave? They were just sort of walking through blank spaces. Where did all the cat poop even come from?”

Why do this: Regardless of whether you tell a writer HOW to fix something, it’s good for them to know that a reader stumbled over a certain part, or couldn’t suspend disbelief, or found a particular character excessively gross. Just because I can’t fix a car myself doesn’t mean I can’t identify that it’s making a weird noise and smoke is billowing out from under the hood PULL OVER WHAT ARE YOU DOING STOP THE CAR.

Step 4: Offer at least one suggestion for how to improve the work. Yes, I know what I said in step 3, but this is a different step, okay?

Example: “I would give more detail about the setting, maybe show us how they’re going through this maze of catacombs, which is why they keep finding cat poop (CATacombs, get it???).”

Why do this: While the writer is never under any obligation to use your suggestions, it can be helpful to see how other people would fix a problem. Maybe you have exactly the right solution. Maybe your solution helps point the writer in the direction of the right solution. And maybe your solution shows the writer what the obvious answer is, so they can go in an entirely different and more satisfying direction.

So, one more time, the steps to a useful critique:

1) Summarize what you read.
2) Say at least one thing it did well.
3) Say at least one thing it did poorly.
4) Offer at least one suggestion to fix it.

While I tailored this to stories, it can apply to poetry just as easily. These are not required for any and all critiques offered here, but it’s a good template to start with.

“But Valerie,” you say, “I’m not sure the above is enough, and it’s not super useful for line editing. Got any other ideas?”

Another simple method by way of Mary Robinette Kowal: the ABCD method. It works overall, but is also good for figuring out which bits you should call attention to as you’re reading.

Look for four things: Awesome, Bored, Confused, Disbelief. If something is great, say so. If there’s a place in the story where you find you’re getting bored, point it out. If something confuses you, ask about it. If some part strains credulity, note it.

The two methods mix and match together pretty well. Step 2 covers the awesome things, while step 3 lets you talk about the boring, confusing or unbelievable stuff.

Additionally, going further to describe WHY you feel bored, confused, etc. will help both the writer and you. The writer, because they can see into your thought process as you read, which gets them out of their own head to consider stuff from an alternate perspective. You, because the more you think about the how and why of other people’s work, the better you’re likely to be at doing the same for your own.

Personally, I like to do a minimum of two reads of any story. For the first read, I approach it like, well, a reader! I let myself sink in and enjoy what I can and be surprised by things. Then I do a second reading, armed with the knowledge I gained from the first one, and use that to find elements I missed from the first read, while hopefully better analyzing what works and what doesn’t. First reads are good for surface impressions and immediate reactions, but second reads are vital for more nuanced analysis.

Now go forth, and explain to some clouds how you enjoy their sun-hiding properties, but perhaps they could be a little less rainy.

The other D&D: drafting and deadlines

A row of role-playing game books on a shelf
Yes, I even own a copy of Rifts.

I used to play D&D about a decade ago. Other times, too, but that was the longest-running game I played in, DMed by a friend who came up with some of the most amazing characters and adventures I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Heroes turned villains! Zombie apocalypse caused by our own hubris! Alternate reality versions of ourselves! It was truly epic.

The best part was, we played every Sunday. It was this magical anchor for the rest of the week, a thing I could look forward to and plan for and daydream about. We’d make food and shoot the shit for a little while, then dive in and play for hours, from the afternoon well into the evening, and sometimes later.

For my friend, of course, it was a constant rolling deadline, pulling together the threads of what we had already done and what he was gently nudging us to do while leaving extra thread for whatever we actually did end up doing. Then it was hour after hour of performing, playing different characters and listening to our bickering and tolerating our endless tactical scheming instead of just shouting, “HIT IT with a SWORD already!”

It’s not so different from writing a novel, though I’m never in danger of losing my voice from too much talking. Unless you’re Moorcock, it can take months or years to draft an entire book. You have these characters and plots floating around in your head, and periodically you sit down and let them bicker and scheme until it’s time to do whatever else life demands–eat, sleep, work, parent, etc.

Sometimes the characters hit things with swords, and that is pretty great.

Now that I don’t play D&D on Sundays, I write. Every week, I go to the same place with (more or less) the same people, and for a few blissful hours we put our butts in chairs and make words happen. When you don’t have external deadlines–when there isn’t a room full of your friends waiting for you to make magic every week, same Bat time, same Bat channel–it’s easier to let things slide. Having a firm date with myself gives me enough friction to keep the slide under control.

I also like to use NaNoWriMo in November and its brethren Camp NaNoWriMo events in April and July to get work done. Being a part of that community of writers three times a year gives me an additional set of deadlines, even if they’re still largely self-imposed. The structure of it helps me focus when it would be easier to procrastinate or let other life needs take priority. And there will always be something vying for the little time I have for myself.

My approach won’t work for everyone, but it works for me, for now. My novel comes together one Sunday at a time, just like that D&D game did. And someday, hopefully I can share its magic with everyone else.

Swords definitely included.

Smart kids eventually grow up

Piano keys and a music book
My old nemesis, the piano.
I posted this on Twitter yesterday and it resonated with a lot of people, so I’ve reproduced it here for ease of access. I’ve also added a few postscripts based on responses.

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Hey, friend. Were you a smart kid who always heard about how smart you were and are now not feeling so smart? Are you, in fact, feeling fairly shitty about yourself? This thread is for you.

It can be extremely difficult for smart kids to decouple their sense of self-worth from external validation. Especially praise for supposedly innate qualities instead of hard work. You grow up hearing how smart you are from parents and relatives and teachers and other authority figures whose opinions you’re pretty sure matter. They’re in charge, after all!

But praise is a fleeting high, and when you get too much of it too early, it takes more and more to get your emotional fix. And the older you get, the less praise you probably get, because frankly fewer people give a shit, and just being smart only gets you so far.

Worse, if you haven’t managed to get a handle on the whole “hard work” thing instead of coasting on your smarts, chances are you’ve started to fail in ways you never did as a kid. You used to be able to do most things quickly and competently because the bar was low. Crap out an essay/project/whatever in a few hours, get an A+ and impress your teacher, bask in praise, repeat.

Now you start projects but never finish them, or you talk about them but never start them, or you finish them and then discard them because they’re not good enough. You start to question a lifetime of compliments. You think maybe you aren’t so smart after all. You wonder whether you’ve been lied to all this time by people you trusted.

So you end up with this awful combo of craving praise, getting very little praise, and doubting the truth of the bits you do get. It is, to use highly technical jargon, incredibly pooptastic.

“But how do I overcome this problem?” Well, you can buy this book that explains my foolproof method for entirely changing your outlook in 113 easy steps haha just kidding, I have no idea. I mean, I have some ideas, but they don’t all work. Some work once, or you can rotate them with limited success, or they’re not for you. They’re tools, not solutions.

  • You can practice accepting compliments with some variation of “thank you so much, I appreciate it” instead of reacting with reflexive self-deprecation.
  • You can pause whenever you notice you’re talking shit about yourself in your own head and say, “ah, this again,” and shift your attention to something else.
  • You can distance yourself from people who always drain your well instead of filling it–or worse, ones who straight up shit in it. They can go shit in their own wells.
  • You can make goals that are generally within instead of beyond your control, like “submit one short story a month” instead of “sell one short story a month.”
  • You can break big tasks into smaller ones so the big task doesn’t feel like a baseball-sized kidney stone you’re trying to pee out all at once. It can’t be done, friends. IT IS TOO BIG.
  • You can celebrate every time you accomplish something, even if it’s a minor or partial success, instead of freaking out about what’s still left to do. TREAT YO SELF.

What you’re trying to do is gently, lovingly wean yourself from reliance on external validation and instead find fulfillment from internal validation. Self-satisfaction instead of praise. Secondary goal: teach yourself to enjoy process rather than end product. It can’t all be magical unicorn fun times, but laser-focus on a destination can make the journey a slog.

Remember: you’re not alone, and you’re not a failure. Forgive yourself, every day if you have to. Being smart is great, but it isn’t everything. It never was, you just didn’t know it until now.

Anyone else have advice? Tell me things! Seriously, I can always use more tools in my toolbox for coping with this stuff, and I’m sure other folks can, too.

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P.S. Many people have recommended Carol Dweck’s mindset language work, so maybe give that a gander? And here are some other tools that might help you on this journey:

  • Practice giving sincere compliments to other people. This can help you be more receptive to accepting and believing in the praise you receive from others.
  • Go into new things with the expectation that you won’t be good at them. Embrace the suck. If this works, it alleviates the pressure to be perfect and ideally lets you have fun doing the thing instead of worrying about outcomes.
  • Remind yourself that while you shouldn’t give up on things just because you’re not immediately good at them, or because the journey is long and difficult, you do get to choose what you spend your time on. It’s okay to choose NOT to do a thing because there is other stuff you’d genuinely rather be doing.

I’ll add more as I find them. Thanks for reading, and may you be as well as you’re able.