Friday, April 27, 2007

Story and Critique

Over at his livejournal Frank Wu is talking about critique and one's partner/spouse/SO and the ultimate fact that an artist has to own their own work and have the final say on what happens with it. I responded over there, but thought a cleaned up and prettified version of what I had to say might be of interest to y'all here.

My wife is my first reader but she is also not an arts person (physicist). Most of her comments are of the "comma here" and "I love this bit" variety. Because of that I tend to listen very closely when she says "this doesn't work for me," because a story problem's got to be pretty glaring to pop for her. Then I figure out why it doesn't work and whether that's a failing of transmission (what I want to come across didn't) or of content (she's unhappy with the thing as I intended it to be).

Once I've got that I do what I do with every single critique I get—decide whether a change will make the story better in my opinion. If it will, I make a change. If not, I don't. I say a change because while I may not make the change suggested by Laura or one of my other readers, I do look very closely at anyplace someone has a problem and often change something there even if it's not what was suggested.

One important subnote when I say story, I mean "story," not my artistic vision. For me story is king and I know my vision is imperfect. I have blind spots and weird twists of personality and color preferences for the background. Sometimes those things serve the story I want to tell, sometimes some of them get in the way and I need to figure out how to get around them.

That's what critique is for, showing me where my vision and my intent don't mesh and helping me to find ways to sync them back up. It doesn't matter who gives the critique, what matters is whether or nor it will help me tell the best possible version of the story I want to tell.

How do you deal with your critiques? Who's your best reader? If your SO reads your stuff, how do you handle it when you choose not to listen to them?


Anonymous said...

My best reader is a friend with a wicked short attention span, and dyslexic to boot. No critique, just questions - "How come...? Why does...? And what the heck?" Plus no fear in saying "I had to put it down here, it got boring," "honey, you need to cut it out with the big words," and "that ending is a cop out."


Kelly Swails said...

Ken doesn't read my writing for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which he doesn't like what I write. I don't mean that in a self-pitying way; we seldom like the same books to begin with, so when he doesn't like something I've written, he probably wouldn't have liked the exact same story had it been written by someone else, either. Another reason: I can't be objective about his critiques. If he says "I don't like this, it needs to be changed" I hear, "I don't like the way you think, you need to change." This obviously isn't the case, and a critique from anyone else is just an opinion, nothing more or less. But I have a hard time hearing it from him.

My best alpha reader is a friend of mine. He's one of those guys that knows a little bit about everything from building motorcycles to greek mythology to world history, and so he comes to a story with an open mind. He can see a story for what it is and what it isn't, and he's usually good for a suggestion or two to make it better. Love that.

lydamorehouse said...

My partner reads my work, but she reads it last. She's my proof reader... plus, she gets the final say. :-)

Kelly McCullough said...

Just checking in while stealing ten minutes of webtime from the book.

CJD-short attention span, clever.

X-I can see how that would feel majorly harsh. Glad you've got a system that works.

Lyda-and don't forget to mention that she's a wizard with titles.

Michele Lee said...

My husband doesn't like the kind of stories I write, but he reads my books anyway. The big things I want to hear from him is if the rational for the character actions are good, if the characters are "real" or too annoying, if the plot is "big" enough.... things like that. He doesn't have to like paranormals or romance to tell me if those things work or not.

The touchier topic is his work. He is loads behind me when it comes to other people looking at his stuff. He is a filmmaker, as a hobby, he admits. He doesn't have a career in mind with his "creativity". But he does get very touchy sometimes if he's spent all day working on a script, he shows it to me and I correct things.

In a crit, I want honesty, but not cruelty. If I feel someone is just trying to tear me down I often just through out their whole crit.

Kelly McCullough said...


Interesting. I usually recuse myself as a reader from stuff too far outside what I would normally pick up on my own, because my lack of awareness of the genre tropes and jargon (which can be awfully subtle) often distorts my take on the work. My hat's off to your husband that he can manage that dance.