The Good Critic

It’s awards season, and this Sunday sees the culmination of a seemingly endless number of awards ceremonies: The Screen Actors’ Guild, The Screen Writers’ Guild, The Golden Globes, The BAFTAs, The Emmys and I’m sure in amongst it all there have smaller, more low-key, but far more fabulous ceremonies for the Screen Hairdressers’ Guild and the Screen Animal Wranglers’ Guild too.

But yes, Sunday is the Oscar ceremony and the build-up has included the perennial favourite article in every publication going about speech length. If there is one thing people seem to agree needs to be shorter, smaller and faster, it’s acceptance speeches and every year the organisers tell us about their new, hard, fast rules to ensure the show runs to time. This year, acceptance speeches must be 45 seconds or less. That’s when the band will kick in and, for those who dare challenge it, no doubt the fat lady will start to sing too. The difference this time round is that the organisers want interesting speeches too. There is to be an off-stage ‘Thanks-cam’ where winners can thank all the family, friends, pets and agents that made things possible. On-stage they should make with off-hand Clooney-like charm, or there will be repercussions – like being made to star alongside J-Lo or some such.

So, I hear you ask, how are you going to segue this into something relating to the title that’s sitting in big bold letters at the top of this post? Well, quite possibly with a hackneyed “So how am I going to…” type sentence. Actually, the point is really that for authors, every book has the equivalent of the ‘Thanks-cam’ where they get to congratulate all those who contributed to their success. You know it, it’s that page you and everyone else out there skips unless there’s a slight chance of getting a mention: the acknowledgements page.

To the diminishing numbers of people out there actually reading books, the person responsible for the text is the author. In most people’s eyes, writing a book is one of very few things that is truly a solitary pursuit, but this ignores the impact other people can have on the finished text. Of course there will be people you will bounce ideas off, but the crucial input is made after the text is completed, only then do you get to find out if your work has achieved the desired effect, and it is vital that you find the best possible people to give you best possible feedback and advice. I cannot hasten enough to point out that by ‘best possible feedback’, I do not mean gushing praise, but feedback that will improve all that has gone before.

For professional authors, this position should, at least partially, be filled by the editor, but having people you trust around you to offer this feedback is invaluable regardless of your success. But what should you be looking for in a good critic? And, if you have been asked to give feedback to a writer-friend, what should you be aspiring to achieve with the information you give back? I come to this subject because I recently gave my nigh on complete book to a friend and received priceless feedback from him. I have, of course, given my book out to many people to read at various stages of development and I have received all kinds of feedback on it, but, partially because of the stage I am at and partially just because of the sheer quality of the information given me, this was a cut above. So let me provide some kind of cut-out-and-keep guide to what a good critic will offer.

  1. Gushing – As mentioned above, some friends will think you’ve done really well. The idea of writing 200+ pages boggles their mind so whatever story you have told, they are amazed. Either that or they are afraid to tell you they didn’t enjoy it. These people are no help at all. First things first, they must view your book as though they have plucked it off the shelf and have no emotional connection to the person who wrote it. If they can’t distance themselves they can’t be constructive because their thoughts will always be tainted by your friendship.
  2. Inconsistencies – A good critic should pick out any time your book is running into inconsistencies. And I don’t just mean “His eyes were blue in Chapter 1 and Green in chapter 20”, I mean inconsistencies in character, location, action, rules (important in sci-fi where your universe may display a set of physical rules different from ours) and so on. If you are reading a book and you find any of these inconsistencies you are brought out of the experience, you start thinking about why it doesn’t make sense and you forget about the story.
  3. Tone & Voice – This should probably be 1(a) really. Books assume a certain tone and voice. You can have several if you use several narrators. A good critic will let you know if you slip out of the appropriate tone or voice, even if just for a sentence.
    These three are just the basics, however. The kinds of things most people might spot because, as I mentioned above, they bring you out of the story when you come across them. The real work is done on the more subtle aspects of the book.
  4. Choices – Writing is all about choices. When to start the story, when to end it, who the characters are, what they do, how they interact. Most people, when they read a book, will accept the choices an author has made. The author is the authority. If people are unsatisfied with a book or a film they will say they didn’t like it, they won’t tell you why. They won’t necessarily be capable.
  5. Justification – In your criticism you should be forcing the author to answer questions. If I can’t tell you what role Max actually plays, aside from making a smart-alek quip or two and getting stuck up a tree, it may well be that Max doesn’t need to be in the story.
    And at this juncture there is an important point for authors – listen to feedback you get and act on it. If someone asks you a question and you can’t give a proper answer, that means something – don’t just decide to overlook it.
  6. Prompt – This goes hand-in-hand with Justification and Choices – If you ask your questions in the right way you will get the author thinking and imagining and things could go off an a whole other tangent. It is entirely possible that the right question asked in the right way could change the whole course of not just a book, but a career.
    Rather than justifying the choice made, I am suggesting you prompt a choice not made – “What if he didn’t eat the cheese/roll the 4 and the 2/jump the shark/fancy Roberta/ride a motorcycle?”. This is about spotting where a character makes a (wholly appropriate) choice but could just as easily make another. If the critic can spot the point where the story starts to go off he rails and can ask the right question, the author starts imagining and creates a whole new story.
  7. Avoid direct suggestions where possible – “What if he didn’t eat the cheese, but instead, ate the sausage that’s just gone off, and then he throws up and… and… and…”.
    We authors are a delicate bunch. We are the creative ones and we won’t be told how to create (this may just be me). If you ask the right question, we’ll know that he eats the sausage, but if you tell us that’s what he does, you can be damn sure in the next draft he’s a vegetarian.

In summary, don’t tell us we’re bad, don’t tell us we’re good, highlight the things that don’t work by asking the right questions, prompt further creation, and for God’s sake don’t tell us how to fix them

To be honest, I’m not sure how insightful all of that was. Perhaps someone could write me a quick critique, and I’ll whip it into shape*.

As a PS – writing about editors reminded me of this story I read a while back about Raymond Carver and the impact his editor had on his writing:

And I also have an update to the previous ‘links’ post. The Guardian recently picked up on the Elmore Leonard 10 rules of writing piece that I linked to and asked plenty-much authors to write their own 10 rules, and that can be found here:

*I won’t.


Leave a Reply