Thursday, March 25, 2010

Taking Criticism

I entered Authoress' 25-word critique fest over on her blog, Miss Snark's First Victim.

Here's my entry -- the first 25-words from the book I'm currently rewriting:

V-Day, 7 a.m.

The card for Marshall was gone. Totally gone.

I’d searched every conceivable place, even pulled my bed out from against the wall.

So far, I'm getting mixed reviews.

Now usually I feel like I can take critique. I appreciate feedback, even when it's feedback I don't want to hear. I'm pretty thick skinned.

But I'll admit, my internal dialogue while I was reading some of the comments on my first 25 words was disturbing. I was actually getting snarky.

For example:

COMMENT: Not really hooked, but it might be a personal preference. I just don't have a reason to care. MY REACTION: What do you mean, you don't care? Were you expecting to care? How can anyone possibly care about a character after 25 words. Are you kidding me?

COMMENT: I probably wouldn't read on. MY REACTION: Ooo-kay. That's not helpful. At. All.

COMMENT: Not much action or conflict going on here, but would read a bit more to see if it picks up. MY REACTION: How much action do you need in 25 words? What do you want her to do -- throw herself out of a building?

Okay, you get the point. My internal reactions were pretty ugly.

Now that I've had a bit of time to think about these critiques AND my reactions, I've come to some conclusions:

(1) A REASON TO CARE: If several people say they don't feel connected to a character, I have two options. I can get all upset and defensive and say, "How can you expect to feel connected to a character in 25 words?" Or I can recognize that this is a valid critique. I need to infuse more of my main character's personality into those first words. I have to. If I don't, I will lose readers. How am I going to do this? At this point, I have no idea, but it's a goal.

(2) NOT HOOKED: I do appreciate constructive feedback more than just an "I don't like it" type of feedback. BUT, I'm realizing I can turn even bare, subjective criticism into useful feedback. Obviously, something's not working as well as it could be here. I can't please everyone, but I can make this better in some way. In other words, it's not there yet. I need to accept that and keep working.

(3) MORE ACTION: I'm still not completely convinced the first sentences NEED action for people to keep reading. I was hooked by other participants' entries that weren't at all action oriented. Still, this is good feedback. Maybe I'm wasting words stating the obvious -- that the card is missing. Maybe I need to tinker with this more to bring out the urgency of her situation.

The lessons I've taken from this exercise?

  • Don't underestimate the power of those first 25 words! They might be the only words someone reads when they're skimming your book at a bookstore.

  • It's never too early to infuse character.

  • If you're going to include action, make it pop so that no one misses it.

Bottom line, taking criticism is hard sometimes. But ultimately, it's a writer's life, so I'd better get used to it.

Did anyone else participate in this critique fest? Any thoughts?

P.S. I wonder if I critiqued any of my friends' pieces without even knowing it. If I did, I hope my comments were helpful!


  1. Yeah, Amy, Bob's first 25 are over there, too, and I'm getting similar feedback. Unless your first few sentences are overly witty or feature a clever turn of phrase, they're probably not getting an overwhelmingly positive response. It's really hard to infuse the first 25 with voice, character, and forward-moving action - although, when you nail it, everybody can tell.

    I was already planning to rework my opening scene, so I keep telling myself this is just a confirmation of what I was already going to do. See, I just told myself again: You were already going to do it, Krista. You were already going to do it. Just chillax:)

  2. I totally got mixed reviews. Its weird because i think 25 words could really turn someone on to a story but I don't think it should really turn someone off.

    Some of these people were so turned off by my 25 words. One said it made her stomach turn - seriously?

    But I hear yah!

  3. I didn't enter because 25 words doesn't seem like much to judge a book by. I wouldn't judge a book by the first 25 words. And you're right; comments that say they like or dislike something without saying why are more frustrating than helpful.

    I did enter some of my dialogue in her Talkin' Heads a while back, and most of the comments were helpful. Even the guy who was negative said why he didn't like it, and I felt he made a valid point.

  4. Again, Amy, I'm just so impressed that you do this!

    (Do you need to hear all of my reasons why, or is this okay?)

  5. True, don't underestimate the importance of the first 25 words, but also don't OVERestimate it. I know that sounds like a zen koan. I think this is a fun activity (I entered, too), BUT I think we need to keep perspective. Critiquing 25 words with zero context (no back flap, no cover art, etc)is a strange exercise, and the critiques themselves can get a bit out of hand.

  6. I've decided I hate those 'first paragragh' contests. Too depressing! I've entered about three on Nathan B's blog and still haven't won;)Good to read, though. it makes you realize what the herd looks like.

  7. Thanks everyone! What great comments.

    Krista, you're right. And I'm dying to know which one was Bob!!

    Julie, I know! Snap judgements kind of bother me, too. I have to keep reminding myself that this is all subjective!

    Myrna, I've never done a Talking Heads, but after that last one, I kind of wished I had. I see what you mean about the 25 word thing, and obviously, I have/had similar feelings about it. :) Havne't decided yet if I'll do this next time. Still feeling a little fried here.

    Kim, if the response is positive, you don't need to explain. :)

    Empty Refrigerator, my refrigerator is empty, too. I think you nailed the analysis of this critique fest thing. It IS a strange exercise and we've got to remember that to keep a balanced (zen-like) mindset. :)

    Kelly, you're right, it is depressing! I think I'm learning to treat it like a good lesson in humility, though. Uggh. (As if I need more lessons in humility with 4 children running around!)

  8. Yes, I think 25 words is very difficult to test a steady heartbeat, but at least we can check if there's a pulse, which I think based on your feedback, would be a 'yes.'

    Personally, being a guy and such :), it's not my cup of tea genre-wise, but I like the opening b/c it creates a sense of mystery and (from experience w/ my wife :), I know how critical/important/sentimental something as seemingly simple as a card can be.

    I might cut the V-day part b/c it seems unnecessary (of course, since I don't know how everything after progresses and b/c I'm a gent, I could be dead wrong - wouldn't be the first time :), but, otherwise, I like what it does.

  9. Thanks for the feedback, Bane! I really appreciate it. I like your screenname by the way. Thanks for stopping by! Yeah, I thought about dropping the V-day bit because the entire novel (well almost) happens on V-day, so it might get a little repetitive....

  10. This is late and might not matter, but I would have typed in "Yes, hooked" if I had seen your entry (I did like 50 before I got burnt out). I like the genre, and I can see myself reading a book that starts off the way you have above. ;)

    The way I see it - these little contests do help you get used to putting your work out there for people to judge. You get used to it, and then it's fun. It's why even though I get weird or funny comments sometimes, I do look forward to doing this again.

    Nice blog<:

  11. So glad to find your post.

    With permission from Authoress (and my agent) I posted the beginning of my upcoming novel, (LEARNING TO SWIM, Shaye Areheart Books/Random House) - an opening chapter, mind you, that got huge positive response from agents and editors and multiple offers from publishers. Quinn Cummings recently did an unsolicited rave video review of it, reading the first two grafs.

    And, oh my, you should see the comments and the detailed criticism of my first 24 words. Even my title!

    What I've learned from this:
    *far too many people have no idea how to critique
    *when faced with 25 words, people feel compelled to overanalyze them
    *people like to feel superior, and ripping things apart seems to feed that
    *it's crucial for a writer to figure out who to listen to and who to ignore

    It's possible to have a kick-ass first 25 words that pull you in immediately, but not always necessary. It's also possible to have a horrible first 25 words that would make you drop the book - but neither yours nor mine fell into that category.

    If anything, this has made me a better critiquer. On one post I mentioned how much I loved the last sentence (other people were being disdainful and harshly critical) and found out the writer was just 15 years old.

    I believe in honest critique (my friends can tell you that!) but we need to remember that there's no need to be brutal, especially to strangers - and that it's a real live person who wrote the words we're commenting on. And it sure as hell doesn't hurt to comment on what we do like, instead of just the things that don't work.

    This whole thing has left me somewhat rueful and unsure of the benefit of posting things for public review, especially where the "reviewers" can remain anonymous.

  12. Catherine and Sara, Wow, thank you for the very insightful comments -- and I'm so glad to *meet* you. You're right, it comes down to being able to separate the valid comments from the off-the-wall ones. I'm realizing it helps, if there's a really snarky commenter in there, to look at some of that person's other comments on other entries. Usually they're pretty hard on everybody. Yes, this has been a learning experience on many levels!

    Sara, congratulations on your book. That is just amazing!!

    Thanks so much, both of you, for stopping by!