Dirty Little [Writing] Secrets: Lesson Two: The Rules of Craft


Dear Reader,

Today continues my unauthorized lessons on the dirty little secrets of writing.  In my previous entry, I discussed the important distinction between critique based around content, and critique based around craft.  In a nut shell, content critique is shit, and craft critique is not so much.  I also, quite sagely, pointed out that learning to critique other author’s writing means you are better able to critique and change your own.

Today, I’m going to talk about the rules to follow to produce critique based around craft.  If you remember these five simple rules, you are well on your way to producing useful feedback about any writing.  The rules are as follows:

Rule #1:     There is no crying in baseball.  Or writing.

Rule #2:     Trust your feelings.

Rule #3:     Show your work.

Rule #4     Ask, and ye shall perceive.

Rule #5:    Take what you can.  Give nothing back.

For more detailed explanations, hit the jump!

Rule #1:     There is no crying in baseball.  Or writing.

It takes real courage to offer up a piece of your writing for critique, and it takes similar courage to offer honest feedback to someone else.  If you are looking to give the most useful critique possible, then you have to treat everyone at the table as if they have the courage and the resilience to bear your honest observations.  Does the entire second act of their play stink?  Do they need to go back and completely change a character?  Is the use of first person narrator like grinding glass into your eyeballs because their protagonist is about as interesting as burnt toast?  You have to say something!  Do you know why you have to say something?  It isn’t because they deserve it.  It isn’t because of some shadowy code of writer-hood that you accidentally signed on with when you first put finger to keyboard.  No, it’s because the degree to which you will spare the feelings of others, is the same to which you will spare your own.  Having the courage to be honest with other’s work is the starting point for being honest with your own.

Rule #2:     Trust your feelings

When I first started out critiquing in an environment where useful craft based critique was expected (maybe even demanded), I experienced a lot of anxiety about what I thought and felt in regards to what I was reading.  The process of going back into a piece of work and pointing out specific changes was a nightmare!  What if I got something wrong?  Or worse, missed the point of a passage entirely?  It got so bad, I was to the point that I could barely correct a writer’s spelling.  However, my writing professor gave me some great advice.  He said, “You like what you like, you don’t like what you don’t like.  That’s easy as pie.  The only work is just pointing to the place on the page where you started feeling that way”.  If you want to reliably produce useful critique, it has to start with your feelings.  Just like Luke-kid in the above clip, turn off your grammar computers, and your literary trope scanning droids, and just feel it out.  When a piece of writing makes you feel something, just make a little note or mark to say, “Hey, I was feeling something here.”  Then the critique becomes simply observing what prompted your feeling.

Remember: Even if you can’t tell the author WHY something worked or didn’t, if you can point to WHERE that something happened, then the author has something to work with.

Rule #3:     Show your work

Don't panic!  It's just for show...

Don’t panic! It’s just for show…

The first two rules are about the spirit behind craft based critique; the courage to be honest and the curiosity to follow your feelings.  The third rule is about the form of useful critique.  A good way to test if your critique is about the craft of the writing is to see where you are talking only about the story versus where you are talking about the way the story is told.  Let me give you a good example.

CONTENT(Talking about the Story):     “Jessie just did not work for me as a character.  I mean, I thought she was supposed to be a strong woman, but then she takes Gary back as soon as he asks.”

CRAFT(Talking about the way a Story is told):     “I feel like you set Jessie up as a strong woman on page three, when you showed us her inner thoughts, particularly when she looks into her own eyes in the mirror. But then, her character really suffered for me when she let Gary into the house on page five.  I don’t feel you give us enough detail into her viewpoint, it is all focused on Gary from page five on.  Why did you turn away from Jessie as your narrative focus?”

It is the same feeling in both examples, the same critique offered, but one is more useful.  The reason is because it gives the author something actionable to do.  In the example of craft critique, you’ve told the author where you started feeling the way you feel (rule 3) and you’ve also talked about your feelings in terms of the way the story is being told (not the story itself).  When you offer critique that is about the story itself, what you are doing is attacking an authors very concept.  The whole idea of a story is at stake when you take it as a whole, because content based critique is almost always a value judgment; this story isn’t worth telling.  Critique of craft, on the other hand, doesn’t say whether or not Jessie is a worthwhile character; critique of Craft talks about where Jessie’s character emerges for the reader and how to better express that character in the text.

The down and dirty test is simple: If you were the one receiving the critique you are giving, would you have somewhere to go with it?

Rule #4     Ask, and ye shall perceive.

Good craft based critique begins with the questions you ask yourself about the writing in front of you.  During the seminar where I first learned the art of critique, the leader would write the name of the piece for critique on the board, underline it in chalk, then randomly call on a student and ask the same simple question:  “How does it work?”

The resulting answers were always enlightening.  When you focus on how a piece of writing works, the worst answer you can come up with is still better than the best opinion you propose about the story itself.  So, ask lots of questions about what you are reading.  Why did they choose the perspective they chose?  What does it contribute to the telling?  Do they define the rules of their setting?  Do they conform to them?  Do they break them?  Why do they break them?  Does it work that they break them?  Any question you can think of, ask!  What you do not ask, you do not perceive, because you aren’t looking for it.  When you ask a question, it is like putting on a pair of new glasses.  It changes the whole way you view a work.

A final note:  Questions regarding the content of the plot are seldom sufficient for a good critique.  They are necessary, because the stuff of a story, start to finish, is what the author is trying to convey.  However, never stop there.  Go deeper, into the nuts and bolts.  Why does the writing work the way it does?  When you ask this question you stand to gain the answer, and the answer will change the way YOU write.

Rule #5:    Take what you can.  Give nothing back.

This last rule is about the cold truth of critique.  Let me put it plainly.  If you aren’t grabbing the good stuff from the work you are given, you aren’t doing it right.  We writers are a funny lot.  We both love and hate to help each other.  We are riddled with equal parts empathy and envy.  So take my advice and steal everything you can.

Now, I’m not talking about stealing specific stories.  That is like writer treason.  What I’m saying is, if you are reading along and someone really moves you with their writing, don’t simply wallow in self-pity that you couldn’t have thought of it first.  Look at how you could do the same thing yourself.  Try it out in a short story or a chapter of your own novel.  See if you can’t duplicate the dirty tricks of writing.  Play with a first person narrator if you read one that works (Look at Sam Spade and Robert Marlowe if you need any proof that emulation is a-ok), try setting your story in the present tense, instead of the past.  If it works, remember that it works, and give yourself permission to hoard the good stuff.  The truth is, nobody is born knowing this stuff.  We’ve been stealing it from each other for centuries.  That third act critical plot twist that makes you burn with jealousy?  Yea, that writer got it from a writer who got it from a writer who bummed it off Shakespeare.

A useful critique is exactly like a pirate raid.  Charge into another author’s work, tear apart what you can, and make off with the good stuff.  Take what you can, give nothing back.  Savvy?

That’s all she wrote folks.  Those simple rules, if they live at the heart of your critiquing process, will radically change the quality of your feedback.  They’re also pretty handy when you’re working in your own sandbox.  Do you think they were sufficient?  Can you think of any other absolutely vital tips for new writers?  Did you have a burning question about writing that you simply have to have answered?  Let me know in the comments below!


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