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