Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Reading for Writers: Books That Suck and the Readers Who Love Them

As the facilitator for my local indie writers' group, there's one question I hear from new writers and non-writers more than any other: why is peer critique important?

Why, indeed? Well, there are the obvious benefits for the recipient of the critique. The feedback you get from peers lets you know what works and what doesn't from a readers' viewpoint. Also, exposing your work to people on a regular basis can give you confidence for the submission process and potential post-publication criticism. What's not as obvious is that peer critiques help the critiquer just as much.

When you do a peer critique for someone, you don't just hand the manuscript back and say, "I liked it!" (And if you do, your writer friend will be grumbling at you behind your back.) You tell her, "I liked it! Except for..." And then you give reasons. You tell her why you fell in love with the hero. Why you felt the mother/daughter relationship wasn't very believable. You tell her how tired you got of the gazes flying and the fingers wandering by themselves. And after the critique is over, you remember these things. And when it comes time to edit your own work, you might think twice about letting your heroine's eyes follow someone across a room. Because, really, who wants carpet lint on their eyeballs? Yick! (Can you tell this is a particular peeve of mine?)

A few years ago I read a post on Holly Lisle's blog about how she was analyzing the structure of books from the genre she was aiming to break into at the time and that's when I heard that wonderful clicking noise in my head: Just like peer critique, it's not enough to just read published books and determine whether you liked them or not. Not when you want your work to be among them on the bookstore shelves. You have to scrutinize them, too.

There are a few things you should keep in mind before you start picking apart all the books on your keeper shelf:

  • It's not very realistic to spend the same amount of time on a single published work as you would a peer critique. If you're like me, your To Be Read pile is already out of control and slowing down isn't an option! Besides, these books have already been edited by professionals and they don't need us to go spelunking for typos.
  • It's also not very realistic to try to analyze everything you read for pleasure or you'll burn out. Reading will start to feel like a chore instead of a hobby. So be choosy.
  • You won't learn as much by just reading the good stuff. (Besides, picking apart the sucky stuff is a lot more fun! MST3K fans can attest to that.) Select a short list of recent releases that are of varying quality and popularity. I'll be posting recommended lists in a variety of genres on a regular basis after completing this series.
  • Creating a venue for your criticism can do wonders for your motivation! You may or may not want to do this, but I decided that if I was going to do all of this work, I might as well share it with somebody. So I started reviewing for The Long and Short of It, and I do some contest judging. Be careful, though. You don't want to say something to alienate someone you'll meet at a conference, social function, or in the blogosphere later. Anonymity or extreme diplomacy is important when you're a writer critiquing in public.

When you settle down to read, make sure you have a notebook and a pen handy.

The very first thing I do is make a note of the structure. Holly's right. Books in the same genre/subgenre are similar this way. A James Patterson thriller is going to have lots of little chapters heavy on the action whereas a Robert Jordan epic fantasy is going to have longer chapters with more blocks of description. So I write down how many pages the book has, how many chapters, and how many pages are in each chapter. You could even go as far as breaking it down by scenes within chapters if you think you'll find that helpful.

While you read, make notes. You're not necessarily looking for typos or grammatical errors, although if they bug you or there's an excess of them, you can certainly mark them down. What you are looking for are the things that yank you out of the story. The things that give you pause. An oddly worded phrase. Clumsy dialogue. Illogical plot points. Character inconsistencies. Even factual errors. Confusing head-hopping. Anything that makes you think, "Eh?"

Don't forget the stuff that makes you go, "Wow!" Write down what you liked or the things you think the writer did exceptionally well. Using the omniscient point of view without giving the reader a headache, for instance. Witty dialogue. Did the book elicit strong emotion? Did it make you laugh?

All of these things are the "whats," and for every what you need a "why" and a "how." For example, understanding why that dialogue is clumsy (unnatural speech or overused regional dialects) and how it might be improved. Why that scene made you cry (reader manipulation by word connotation, good set up of the pay off) and how you might use these things in your own work.

When you're done, you'll have a ton of data. How you manage all that stuff depends on your writing process and your organizational style. I tend to be more organic than organized. I take the bare minimum of notes, and make a journal entry about the whole thing when I'm done. I internalize things better when I babble to myself in a notebook or in a Word document. I'll occasionally go back and read my thoughts just to refresh my memory, or to see if there's something I have forgotten.

Folks with a more organized mind might find an index card file handy for this. A section for characterization, a section for plot, a section for little things that drive you crazy like my fuzzy eyeball thing, etc. Each card should contain the what, why, and how for each issue. This could also translate to a database or a spreadsheet for writers with techy leanings. Ultimately, there are as many methods of dealing with the results as there are writers who devise them.

There are many ways to improve your writing, but I believe that this is one practice that can give you an edge that most unpublished writers won't have. At the very least, you'll better know your market. At most, you'll have a good things/bad things epiphany that will change the way you look at literature forever. Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle by finding helpful new techniques as well as annoying elements to avoid every single time you analyze a book.

Reading for Writers Series
Books That Suck and the Readers Who Love Them
March 13: The Care and Feeding of Your Local Librarian
April 14: Nonfiction - Not Just For Research Anymore

Series Coming Soon: Abusing the TBR Pile - Readers' Advisory For Writers


Trish Milburn said...

Wow, lots of good information in this post, Mel. I've learned a lot from doing critiques of others' work over the year.

LML said...


I find myself doing this mentally whenever I'm reading. (I'm a lazy soul, so I'm not sure I'll ever get around to writing my thoughts down.)

Seeing what others are doing right or wrong certainly throws up some guide wires when you're doing your own writing. (And occasionally makes you blush when you find yourself stumbling into the same mistakes...)

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Great post Mel!

I'm a born critic. When I read, I read for pleasure, but I can't help but notice when something just doesn't work. For instance, a character was a die-hard vegetarian and yet four chapters later she was wearing a fur coat. Erk! Now that could happen if the character had a major shift in her personality but as it was written . . . nope.

But being critical doesn't mean being mean. If a friend of mine wrote that I would tell her in the most constructive way without hurting her feelings. I always keep this in mind when I judge contests--I want to help this fellow writer not undermine their creativity or confidence. :)

Mel Hiers said...

Thanks, Trish!

Hiya Lindsey! Hey, you're not lazy. Your process is just more organic than mine, right? :P

Hi Anitra!
"But being critical doesn't mean being mean."

That is exactly right. I think a lot of people forget this. If a critiquer comes across as a know-it-all meanie head then the writer gets defensive and often doesn't hear a thing she says. Sounds like you have a gift for diplomacy!

Savanna Kougar said...

Mel, thanks for the all great info. I have learned a lot judging contests, not many. And certainly the times I've critiqued someone else's manuscript, it's extremely helpful to see what does work and what doesn't. I especially enjoy discovering where the writer is absolutely brilliant. Maybe, it's a mere paragraph. Maybe, it's the overall story -- but it's finding that jewel, or being able to say, hey just elaborate here, or this great, but awkward phrasing... certainly, you've taken it farther than I have...and I'm learning from you. Thanks. By the way, the Long and Short of It website and blog are impressive. If I had time I would enjoy reviewing, but it's write or read right now.And I gotta write.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

I think everyone has touched on the idea of being critical without being cruel. Just because I don't understand something in a writer's work doesn't mean it's wrong--my perception may be at fault.

Like Mel said, no one is going to listen to a meany-head who acts like a know-it-all. I always put my advice in terms of my perception, using "I" statements. Like "I didn't understand the motivation here" rather than "you need to flesh out the motivation."

One is my perception, the other is almost an attack. When I say "I didn't understand" it is so much kinder than "you didn't explain."

Lexie O'Neill said...

Thanks for the very informative blog! I feel like I'm so behind...basically, being able to write during the summer means I've truly only been at this a year and a half:) My plans for this summer will include critiquing. Also, let me say I truly appreciate those who have judged the contests I've entered--I have learned so much!

L.M.L said...

"Hiya Lindsey! Hey, you're not lazy. Your process is just more organic than mine, right? :P"

We can say that. ^.^ Sounds much better, certainly.

"If a critiquer comes across as a know-it-all meanie head then the writer gets defensive and often doesn't hear a thing she says."

Too right. This is probably one of the top things to remember when critiquing. It's why I always try to phrase things as questions or "how abouts?" and, like Anitra said, use "I" statements.

The last thing I want to do (or want someone to do to me) is to act like I know the writer's story or her characters. That's incredibly patronizing. (And sadly I've seen it too often in some workshop/classes I've attended.)

Helen Scott Taylor said...


Great post. I tend to notice when things don't work in a novel I'm reading, but get swept away with the story and not notice when everything does work. I only rarely take notes when I'm examining a specific genre.

It always surprises me how many NY Times bestsellers just don't work for me. I sometimes wonder if it could partly be a British/American English thing.