Saturday, May 28, 2011

How Do You Like Your Crit?

With apologies to the vegetarians who may or may not read my blog, we're gonna talk about steak today.

My husband is an expert on the proper preparation of steak. So much so that he's rather insulted if you ask for steak sauce. Why would you need to cover up the flavor? He has strong opinions on how steak should be prepared, from the moment it stops walking around to the moment it hits your plate. He'll tell you about it whenever you want to ask. (Or whenever you just happen to mention the word steak, trying to make polite conversation.) I don't even think about cooking the meat in our house.
My husband's perfect steak, of course, is RARE. Most experts agree: steak is meant to be red in the middle, nice and tender. Barely warm. Still mooing. Rare steak is not tough to eat and you can often cut it with a dinner knife. It leaks red juice all over your plate. Yummm.

I'm more a fan of happy-MEDIUM. Pink on the inside, still fully cooked, little messy blood. It doesn't melt in your mouth, but it doesn't take an hour to chew, either. Plus, I think steak knives are cool. Why wouldn't I want to use one?

There is a small minority of steak eaters who foolishly insist on the WELL-DONE steak. Burned. Black. Fully dead. Brown all the way through. Chefs in restaurants (so I hear) set aside the worst cuts for these folks, since they'll never notice once the meat has come off the heat. Steak knives are required, and you might have to rest your jaw halfway through.

Honestly, I care not one little bit which one you prefer. Take your steak however you like. Let's talk about critiques.

There are those who like their critiques as soft as a rare steak. Easy to chew. Minimal cooking time. Tons of "wow, this was great!" and very little "dude, I did NOT get this part at ALL." Like the rare steak lovers, if their crit is slightly overdone, they're apt to throw a fit, challenge the competency of the chef, and regale anyone nearby with an account of the proper way to prepare a well-written story. Like theirs. If only everyone could appreciate their genius. Every once in a while, one of these types publishes a book and soon wages a public war against any who dare call it less-than-perfect. This war is entertaining to all, but less than helpful to the writer's career.

I do NOT like these types of crits. I refuse to give them, and if that makes me a bad critiquer-- well, it doesn't make me a bad critiquer. Just an insensitive one. I can deal.

Then there are those who recognize that, if they want to actually improve their writing and their stories, they will need to face the flaws head-on. Only, they're insecure and they know it. Criticism hurts, no matter how well-intended or how well they prepare themselves to hear it. Like the medium steak lover, they want the tough balanced by an equal measure of tender. If it is too tough, they won't be able to swallow it at all. If they don't hear "loved this part" almost as often as "eek, this doesn't really work, does it?" they might despair, throw the whole novel in the trunk, and take up cross-stitching. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

These crits I can handle. I actually strive to give this type in every crit I give. Even if I have to go back and add in the good comments later. :) I would never want someone to come away from one of my critiques thinking they or their story has zero chance of success. Any writer can improve. Any story can rise from the muck of mediocrity to become extraordinary (if only by stripping it down to its barest bones, finding the one good thing about it, and rebuilding from there). Happy-medium is good.

But it's not my favorite crit.

My favorite crit to receive is like the well-done steak. Burned. Black. Dead. No weak plot point left unpoked, no flat character left unchallenged, and no useless scene left unskewered. Mockery should abound. My ideal beta reader will mock the heck outa my book, whenever they can. They will leave comments in the margins to the effect of "Again? Really? When will you stop doing this? This is driving me crazy!!!" They will protest loudly and often when I let my characters wander into a scene without knowing what they want--and communicating it somehow to the reader. They will circle my -ly verbs and, just to be sure I'm aware of it, will  recite the rule that says we should use them sparingly. They will unapologetically point out when my tense shifts, when they can't tell whose head they're in, or when my tricky turn of phrase turns them off. They will mercilessly apply heat, they will ignore all sounds of suffering, and they won't let up until it's impossible to tell just how bad the cut of meat I handed them really was. They will praise on occasion, when driven to do so, and will offer the token positive points when writing their crit, but they will focus on the flaws.

Why? Because, someday, I want to be published. If I succeed, my little darling will be slid onto a plate, decorated with some garnish, and served to people who don't know me. Who don't care about me. Whose addresses I do not know. These people will not care if I think that this little cut of my soul is perfect in all aspects. They will not care if my entire sense of self-worth is tied to whether they like it. They only care about what THEY like, and what their hard-earned dollars have purchased. And they will say, loudly and frequently, exactly which parts they hated about it. They will mock my limp voice, my flat characters, my uninteresting vocabulary choices, and my yawn-inducing scenes. UNLESS I've already identified such things and fixed them. UNLESS I have friends wonderful enough to mock me before the general public has a go. Unless my crits are well-done.

Now, I'm not saying that brutal beta-crits will completely save me. Some people won't like my book no matter how perfect it really, really is. I'm just trying to limit the number of post-publication "ouch! he's right!" moments. I want them all up front. I can take it. I have my jaw all warmed up and my steak knife ready.

What about you?


  1. Great post! I loved how you used steaks to support your point (pretty creative--I would've never thought of steaks and crits together. Now I'll remember this post everytime we're grilling LOL).

    I agree with you: the best critiquers are those who are tough on you. I'm all about tough love, even if it makes me secretly weep in the bathroom. I don't want INSULTS, nor simple "This sucks" feedbacks, but I do want honesty. The kind that helps you improve and progress.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Thanks, Cherie. My dream in life is to be remembered at BBQ's. :)

    Beta-crit honesty is really, really cool. I'm guaranteed to get it from the general reading public after all.

  3. Excellent post. And as a vegetarian I accept your apology. :)
    Actually I love a steak talk. My character picks up an unusual craving for rare steak. Thanks for the research bonus. ;)
    Now for critiques, I'm there with you. I liked it well-done. I know my writing is rather weak at times and I would want to fix those sections long before the public reads them. All I have to say is "Bring it!"

  4. Melania--you are very welcome. You ever need to know more about the proper preparation of a steak, I can let you talk to my husband. :)

  5. Absolutely 'well done'. Burnt-black-dead!! I appreciate honesty and have pretty thick skin (I actually don't think anything I do is really finished so bring on the changes.) My cousin said she'd beta for me but she warned me, "I don't know how to be anything but honest." GREAT!

    I like the analogy. Beautiful.

    Do you still need Betas? I'm here for ya. shellybrownwriter at gmail.

  6. Great post! I love my steak rare and my crits well done. If critiques aren't the time to receive honest, brutal feedback, then when is the time? Reviews--and by that time the damage is done and probably even harder to swallow.

  7. Shelly--be honest or go home. Lie about how good it is AFTER it's published. :)

    CherylAnne--well, we could always stick our fingers in our ears, go lalalala, and just pretend that all the reviews are good.... #thinkitwillwork?

  8. Loved your line about "Lie about how good it is AFTER it's published." Amen! Once it's too late to change anything, I'd prefer a polite, vague "It was pretty good" to a detailed critique of what I did wrong :) Which probably makes me a wimp, but oh well.

    But from my test readers pre-pub, I need the truth. If it doesn't work, PLEASE tell me so I can fix it! I'd much rather hear it from a test reader than read it in a review.

  9. Stephanie--yeah, sadly, I'll only want good crits after it's published. Which is why I NEED brutal now. :)

  10. "will offer the token positive points when writing their crit"?


    Sorry. I've read your book. You have plenty of (nontoken) positive points. Besides, an occasional :) doesn't hurt and doesn't cost much time. A little salve for the wounds, if you will.

    For me, even better than the "that sucks" remark, I like the explanations. I'm new enough at this that I like to know why it doesn't work. Some things are obvious while others not so much.

    What makes me a little crazy is when I receive a crit--and I stew over it (sometimes for hours) trying to fix it--and then I receive a crit from someone else that is contradictory. I even experienced that at bootcamp earlier this month where the critiquers disagreed about whether there was a problem or not.

    I want to make my story better, and tough critiques--even if I end up disagreeing once in a while--make me look at things and think about them where I might have otherwise passed over them. It trains me to watch for problems I didn't previously know where problems.

    The funny thing for me as I'm learning all this is noticing how often the very things I get kicked for in a critique are in published books.

  11. Awesome post! I love a good well-done crit. I just wish I could give 'em as well as I can take 'em!

  12. Man, now I want a steak. Great post, Robin!
    - Sophia.

  13. Donna--Thanks! *blushes* Indeed, I didn't mean to imply that the positive comments aren't needed. I've interrupted critiquers mid-crit to ask "so... what did you LIKE?" I loved their comments, but the occasional bite of sugary glaze does help the medicine go down. I just want the main focus on the flaws.

    You're right about explanations, too. A crit is useless if you don't understand WHY they objected. The critiquer won't be re-writing it for you, so they need to explain their objections.

    If mistakes weren't in published books, none of us would ever have the "hey! I can write better than this" moment. :)

    Meika--giving well-done crits is easy. Just turn off Ms. Nice. Pretend you don't know them and you're leaving an anonymous crit on Goodreads. (Then go back and add in some "don't cut this part, this is good" comments.) See? Well Done. :)

    Sophia--steak is good. Happy to help answer the "what's for dinner" question for you.

  14. I love good feedback positive, and especially what doesn't work. But the hard part is finding people who can give good constructive feedback. I know that I have a few good in progress reviewers, but not everyone we have let read part of our WIP has provided quality feedback.

    I can remember when I was in toastmasters how there were speakers and reviewers. Everyone was required to do both roles at different times. Some club members were very good reviewers, others were not.

    I loved the reviewers that provided good constructive feedback. But the reviewers that only provided positive feedback did not help me become a better speaker. So I agree, the only way to become better at writing, speaking, or anything is to hear the hard feedback. Only positive feedback makes it almost impossible to improve.

  15. Eric--really good point about positive feedback. It's good, and soothing to the soul, but ultimately unhelpful if you want to improve.

    Plus, if someone is only positive, I sometimes have the sneaking suspicion that my work is such a mess they have no idea where to start.... :)

  16. We think alike in steaks and critiques:)

    Readers don't care if you've worked your butt off, queried for years and finally made it. They will still look for the flaws so the less the better in my opinion. I'd much rather have that fixed in the beginning rather than going back and shaking my head in shame because no one caught it before.

    So now you know when I submit for the first time to the group...I like it well done:)

  17. Deanna--Oh, good! Because, really, the well-done crit is the funnest to give, too. :)