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Critiquing Step 3: Remember the Golden Rule

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I occasionally watch the “reality” TV series Super Nanny on ABC, where this British lady goes into people’s homes and teaches them how to discipline their unruly children. The children range from just somewhat boisterous and disobedient to down right mean and angry—I even saw an episode this weekend where the little girl was so full of rage that she started hitting, biting, and slapping Nanny Jo. After witnessing what complete heathens the children are, she sits down with the parents for the “parents meeting,” which is basically a critique session. As a viewer, I cannot wait to hear what she has to say about the little beasts, yet I feel for the parents, too, who are already on guard because they feel like they’re going to be berated for being bad parents.

Instead of just lambasting them, Nanny Jo always starts out the same way: “You have three beautiful, active little girls.” “You have two wonderfully creative and smart little boys.” Only after complimenting the parents on the positives she’s seen (which usually isn’t much), she then starts the critique. “The children follow you around all day, scream, yell, kick, bite, trying to get your attention because they’re bored. There is no structure . . .” (After a while of watching this show, I usually have a pretty good idea of what’s “wrong” in the household that Nanny Jo is going to try to fix, and discipline and structure are usually two of the major areas). Now, she could just come in and tell the parents what they’re doing wrong—but would that help them improve their parenting skills? No. That’s why she works with them for several days, teaching them through action and explanation how to overcome the problems she’s pointed out. She then goes away for a few days, and the cameras stay behind to record how the parents do at implementing the new skills. They usually don’t do well, and she returns for a few more days, reinforcing the techniques until they can do them with confidence.

The main reason I like watching this show is because it’s the critiquing process in action: objective observation without interference (the first read-through), the analysis of areas for improvement (the second-read through), the parents’ meeting and training (giving the critique), and the second visit for reinforcement (positive reinforcement and continuing the critiquing process).

One of Nanny Jo’s tenets is Positive Reinforcement—giving the children lots of praise when they do what they should, and making sure that hugs and kisses are given after a punishment (the naughty chair or reflection room) is completed. I’ve never tried to raise children, but I have trained dogs and seen how far they will go for a treat or a word of praise or pat on the head. And just like them, people respond to praise much better than criticism—and this doesn’t go away as we get older . . . in fact, I think we respond to it even more strongly as adults because we receive it less often the older we get. (When is the last time you got a “Good job!” for doing the dishes or mowing the lawn?)

You’ve completed the two read-throughs and you have your rough notes. Great. Now, set it aside for at least one day, a couple of days if possible. Then, come back to your notes with fresh eyes. As you read each criticism, try to word it in your mind to make it as positive as possible. Here is an example:

Note: The opening is too slow, too much telling, not much showing, too much backstory. The action doesn’t start until page 10.

Critique: You have a great idea for a story. I really like what I’ve seen of the characters so far, but would love to see them in a more active scene right off the top. In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein writes: “Fiction should seem to be happening now.” And also: “The first sentences and first paragraphs of any writing are increasingly important for arousing the restless reader . . . to excite the reader’s curiosity, preferably about a character or a relationship.” If you take the conflict between the character and her mother that you have now on page 10 and make that your opening scene, you’ll drop the reader right into the action and also allow the reader to start getting to know your heroine through her actions, reactions, and words instead of trying to describe her personality while she’s getting out of bed and getting ready for the day.

Yes, it’s much longer than the original note. But which would you rather receive? “Too much backstory, slow opening” or a suggestion of how to rework it and advice from an expert in the field (Sol Stein) on why to make the change?

Cindy Woodsmall, a former critique partner, is the person who turned me onto citing an expert in a critique. It’s much too easy to discount someone’s opinion, but when it’s backed up by someone like Sol Stein, it’s hard to ignore the comment. When critiquing, I quote from Sol Stein, Don Maass, the Chicago Manual of Style (for technical/grammatical issues), the Writers’ Digest series of books—finally putting to use all of those writing how-to books I’ve collected over the years. And you know what? I’ve learned as much or more about writing through researching why I’m telling someone to do something a certain way than I have in any seminar or conference workshop I’ve ever participated in!

Think about the best and worst comments you’ve ever received on your writing. What made the best comments good? They were positive, weren’t they? Even if they were pointing out changes you needed to make? What about the worst? More than likely, they were negative and/or vague along the lines of “I don’t like your characters. They don’t do anything for me.” We’ll all get enough of those kinds of comments in rejections. We don’t need them from our critique partners, too.

So, Step 3 of critiquing is to remember the “Golden Rule.” To paraphrase it a bit: “Critique others as you would wish to be critiqued yourself.”

Before moving on to Step 4, here are some more examples of critiques I’ve given:

On a lot of backstory in a first chapter: The beginning of your chapter is dynamic—active and full of conflict for the POV character. However, nine out of your twenty-five pages (36%) is backstory. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Don Maass writes: “Backstory delivered early on crashes down on a story’s momentum like a sumo wrestler falling on his opponent. Because it is not yet necessary, I usually skim it. Remember that backstory is, for the most part, more important to you, the author, than to your reader. Once the main plot problem is focused and the characters have been launched on their trajectories, however, backstory can be a development, a deepening of what is happening. Breakout novelists hold it back for just the right moment, which can sometimes be quite late in the novel.” Your first three chapters are your opportunity to draw your reader into the action and current emotional state of your characters. Reveal their pasts little by little as the story moves along. I’ve marked several places on the manuscript where something crosses he heroine’s mind, and then I, as the reader, had to stop and go through the entire memory with her. Hinting of things that happened in the past are fine for the beginning of the novel—it gives the reader something to look forward to. Think of your opening chapters as the beginning of a relationship. That first time you meet someone, you don’t automatically tell them every minute detail of your past—you converse in a way and reveal only enough of yourself to make that person interested in you.

On Point of View: You have a good grasp on keeping the scenes only in one POV, which is a really difficult skill to master! I’d love to see you go even deeper–to write in a more active, deep POV. With telling phrases such as “she felt,” and “she thought,” you hold the reader at arm’s length and don’t let the reader get into the POV character’s head. Let the reader experience everything the character does through the character’s eyes without the “signpost” phrases that “tell” the reader the character is thinking, feeling, wondering, etc. Eliminate the word “was” and as many verbs ending in –ing as you possibly can. Using active verbs is the first step in showing rather than telling, and showing takes the reader deeper into the POV.

On Setting: You have a great voice for the historical time period you’re writing about. From the characters’ dialogue and the narrative, I know you’ve done a lot of studying of the era. As far as the setting goes, the sensory detail is good, but could be tweaked even more—more sense of the place, as I didn’t really experience the setting through her senses but through my own experiences.

  1. Shannon permalink
    Wednesday, September 13, 2006 1:26 pm

    These are great posts! Can I use them in the face-to-face crit group I’ll be starting soon??


  2. GeorgianaD permalink
    Tuesday, September 19, 2006 11:19 pm

    I love Super Nanny! It never occured to me that what she’s actually doing is a critique. Good pointers Kaye. Thanks!



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