Do NOT miss this story on StoryCorps (you do know what StoryCorps is, don’t you?), about a little girl in a family of migrant farm workers, and the day that the…well, read it or preferably listen to it here.  Hint: Bookmobile.  I cried.

Giving and receiving critiques, part 2 of 3


Suggestion: Read “Giving and receiving critiques, part 1” (here) before you get into part 2.  Just a thought.


Most writers are vulnerable, defensive, touchy, thin-skinned.  Of course we are: we identify with our work.  So assume the person you’re critiquing is nervous about being in the hot seat–and yet he’s opened himself to hearing your crit.  Treat him kindly.  Use the power of the positive.

Bad: I know you’re trying to get this chapter to work, but I thought it was way too confusing.  I didn’t understand what was going on at all.  You should have worked on it a lot more.

Good: It’s really clear that you’ve been working on this chapter–you’re definitely on the way.  But I had a little trouble following the action, and it might be a bit less confusing if you took the action step by step, in a more linear way.

Good nails the problem and offers an option for change, while trying to help the writer achieve his goal; Bad just tells him he’s done something wrong.

What about the power of the negative?  One nasty comment on the color of your new sweater is the one you’ll remember long after ten people tell you it’s beautiful.  So be careful about making negative remarks about a writer’s work.  Never say “I hated that scene” or even “I really disliked that character.”  First, those comments are too general to be useful.  Second, that’s just your opinion–is it relevant?

Instead, you could ask: What were you trying to accomplish in that scene?  Or you could say: I had trouble warming up to James, but you might want to ask if other readers felt the same way.

For a few lucky people, constructive critiquing is intuitive, but most of us have to learn the do’s and don’ts.

DO find the positives and state them sincerely–what you enjoyed, what you thought worked well, lines you liked, dialogue that felt real.

DO ask questions: If you don’t get it (whatever it might be–plot, dialogue, facts), ask about it because it’s not fair to crit things you don’t understand.  If something confused you, ask for clarification.  If you don’t understand what’s going on, ask for the bigger picture: What are you aiming for?  Where is this novel going?  How does this memoir end?

DO say what you’d like to know more about: the way the character looks; the events that led up to the conflict; the family history; the town the detective lives in.

DON’T be crabby or argumentative.  If you are, it’s likely that the writer will dismiss your remarks as…crabby and argumentative and not much help at all.

DON’T pound the writer, belaboring what you think is wrong with the work.  You don’t know what’s wrong or right, so back off.

DON’T nit-pick.  That’s not the best use of anyone’s time.  Make your nit-picks on the manuscript or give the writer a short list of nit-picky problems you’ve noticed–for example, the overuse of “but.”

DON’T argue with or question the writer’s basic premise or themes.  If he’s writing about World War II, don’t tell him it’s not an interesting subject for a book.  Work with him, not against him.

DON’T pile on!  Watch out for herd mentality or ganging up on someone, especially in a writers’ workshop.  Very bad, very unfair.

DON’T be bossy, like saying “You should do such-and-such with that character” or “This scene should end with something-or-other.”  Far better to say “I thought this character was a little generic.  Maybe he’d work better if we knew more about him.”

DO offer options, not solutions.  It’s the writer’s job to consider the options and choose the ones she thinks are right for her work.

And let’s always demonstrate respect.  Respect the work, regardless of what you think of it.  Respect the process: the writer has kept at it and had the courage to hear critique.  Respect the person, as you would in any social interaction.

DANGER ALERT: Work you don’t like may make you angry.  You might think it’s not worth your time and attention.  You may feel sadistic impulses to be mean or sarcastic.  If you consistently feel that way about a writer’s work, you should not be critiquing it.

The takeaway: You, as a critiquer, should accept what the writer presents and work with that.  To critique effectively you have to see through the writer’s eyes and enter into her vision.

Now let’s switch places: you’re on the receiving end of critique.  There’s real pleasure in getting a useful critique.  You come away feeling understood, cared for, inspired, and eager to get back to writing.  You feel as if you’re on solid ground, with good notes to work from.  So you must do your part to make sure you get good crits, and that means finding reliable readers for your work.

Critiquing is personal and intimate, but it also requires objectivity.  You should not ask for reading and critique from just anyone.  Your partner, your spouse, your sister, your BFF–these are usually not-so-great choices. These folks may want to help you, but they’re unlikely to be able to give you unbiased opinions.  Why not?

1. They’re often not writers; they may not even be readers.

2. They have too much at stake because they have complex relationships with you.

3. They may have hidden agendas not even they are aware of.

From an inappropriate critiquer you might get a totally positive crit that makes you feel good, but might not advance your work at all.  Or you might be stealth-bombed by a negative crit that stops you in your tracks.  Be careful whom you ask for critique.

Consider finding a writing partner, someone whose work you read and who reads your work.  (Be sure you’re actually helpful to each other and respect each other’s writing.)  Or think about hiring a professional writer or editor to give you a more objective, experienced crit.



Giving and receiving critique, part 3: the unhelpful critique; the Narcissistic Bubble;  surviving critiques 


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Bloomsbury Books, Ashland OR

Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn NY

Chapter2Books, Hudson WI 

Robert Fader, VP of indie Posman Books, responds to the NYT piece (see link post below or go here ) with an LTTE of his own, about  “Amazon’s rapacious assault on the publishing industry”:

A lot of authors and publishers are afraid of speaking out against Amazon, but independent bookstores have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  Here’s my favorite line from Mr. Fader’s letter: “By holding readers hostage to his vengeful corporate schemes, Jeff Bezos of Amazon has given book lovers yet another reason to buy at independent bookstores.”

Try it; you’ll like it.

And please don’t rely only on the NYT for news of Amazon/Hachette.  Take a look at Shelf Awareness too.



Upcoming later today: Giving and receiving critique, part 2

Remember when…

…Barnes & Noble dictated terms to all the publishers?  Remember how unassailable B & N seemed back then?  Remember how it was the only serious game in town for writers and publishers and if your book didn’t get into B & N you were a dead duck?  The mighty do fall, on occasion.

If B & N imploded (you could almost feel sorry for Nook), is Amazon beyond reach?

Don’t miss: Another (very good) article on THE publishing battle: “Amazon vs. Hachette: More Reactions As Battle Heats Up,” in a very good free newsletter called Shelf Awareness, to which you should subscribe if you’re interested in books, independent bookstores, and news from the book world.


Giving and receiving critiques, part 1of 3


In October 2011 I spoke at the New York Society Library, for the members-only “Writing Life Daytime Talk Series,” a program run brilliantly by Assistant Head Librarian Carolyn Waters.  My talk was called “Giving and Receiving Critiques,” adapted here.


When I’m acting as editor or teacher, part of my job is critiquing a writer’s work.  It’s my responsibility to get inside the writer’s head so I can give her feedback that will help her achieve what she wants to achieve; I want to foster her originality, her talent, and her vision.  When I’m back in my role as a writer, I’m on the other side of the table–the one being critiqued by a writing partner, my writers’ workshop, my agent, or another editor.  Most writers wind up on both the giving and receiving ends of critique. Shouldn’t we be good at it by now?

Easier said than done, since critique can slide into unhelpful criticism.  Critique is defined as a detailed analysis and assessment of a piece of writing; criticism is a judgment of its merits and faults.  In an ideal world, all writers and editors would learn to critique instead of criticize.

The goal of a responsible and perceptive critique is to send the writer back to work energized and excited, eager to improve her piece and get to the next draft.

Here’s a story for you: A couple of decades ago a writer wrote a first novel (it took her four years) and asked her agent to show the manuscript to Editor X at a major publisher.  Editor X and the writer had done a few nonfiction books together, and X had often urged the writer to try fiction.  So the writer felt fine–if nervous–about letting X see the novel.  Besides, the two women had a personal relationship: they were friends; the writer thought she was safe in X’s hands.

X read the manuscript, bypassed the writer completely, and sent a novel-trashing letter to the writer’s agent.

I was the writer, as you’ll have guessed, and the criticism (when I finally saw the letter) paralyzed me.  For a very long time I couldn’t write a word of fiction.  It was the end of my friendship with X, not least because she had bad-mouthed my work to my agent instead of just politely declining to publish the novel.  But in part it was my own fault.  I should never have let my agent offer that manuscript to that editor: X was mercurial, competitive, and too conventional to accept a novel like mine.  It was a rookie mistake, but I was floating around in what I call the Narcissistic Bubble (more on that in Part 3), convinced that my novel was so good that no one could fail to love it.

In retrospect I see that it wasn’t the worst critique and X wasn’t completely wrong in her analysis.  But she had little feeling for what I was trying to accomplish, however ineptly.  She preferred a nice protagonist, sweet romance, and an easy ending–none of which were my goals.  Instead of trying to help, X wanted me to ditch my story and write the book she preferred.

Learning how to give a useful critique to a writer and how to receive a critique of your own work are equally important because you learn from both processes.  Giving a critique forces you to be analytical about writing, to think carefully about the piece and why it is or isn’t working.  That helps you with your own writing.  Receiving a critique tells you what your reader is finding in your work, but it also teaches you to be analytical about that critique: Is it useful to you?  Should you pay attention to it?

Receiving a crit also toughens you up and reminds you to be sensitive to the next writer you critique.  You will never be totally immune to negative comments about your work, but if you toughen up, at least you might not burst into tears and run from the room.

One more story: I was in a writing group with five other fiction writers.  It was my turn to receive critique on my rewritten short story.  One of the other members started his crit by saying, “I’ve read this story before and I don’t like it any better the second time than when I read it the first time.”  He ramped up to a pretty insulting evaluation, which included the words “I hate,” and after a few minutes I told him to stop.  “That’s enough,” I said, “I don’t want to hear any more.”  The takeaway: Don’t tolerate abusive criticism.


Five basic rules for giving critiques:

1. Before you critique, read the work twice.

2. During the crit, stay on point.  Focus on the writer’s work and don’t wander off into irrelevant anecdotes. 

3. Your job is to be helpful to the writer, not to show how smart you are or score points off the writer’s fumbles.  Give comments and ask questions that help the writer improve the work on her terms.

4. Start your crit with something positive, which helps the writer stay open to hearing everything you have to say.  Starting with a negative comment will shut him down in a nanosecond.  And keep this in mind: when the writer rewrites, he needs to know what was good so he can keep it.

5. Go for the big-picture crits first.  Address larger issues (like voice, tone, plot structure) before you get into pickier ones (like a particular bit of dialogue or a misuse of language).



Giving and receiving critique, part 2: the power of the positive; the power of the negative; critiquing do’s & don’ts; finding a good reader for your work

Giving and receiving critique, part 3: the unhelpful critique; the Narcissistic Bubble;  surviving critiques 


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

The Owl & Turtle Bookshop, Camden ME

BookTowne, Manasquan NJ

Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston TX


Turning into the O.K. Corral…

Hey, you don’t publish with Hachette.  You’re not even a writer.  How could this Amazonian battle possibly affect your life?  Uh-oh: That’s like thinking the Clean Water Act is irrelevant to you because you only drink ginger ale.


What happened to New York, Chicago, and Boston?  Los Angeles?  San Francisco?

Old news today: On May 20 Amazon announced its list of twenty “Most Well-Read Cities” in the United States.  What does “well-read” mean?  In this case it means nothing but numbers: this list is about sales figures, not about being “well-read” in the generally accepted sense. Or perhaps quantity of books bought is the new accepted sense, relegating quality to the status of nonissue.  And let’s remember that books bought doesn’t necessarily correlate with books read.  

Actually, Amazon’s list isn’t strictly about book sales (print and Kindle, btw), since magazine and newspaper sales were included.  Does Iron Man magazine count when we’re assessing “well-read”?

Affluence might have something to do with a city’s getting onto the “Most Well-Read” list.  People with more money can certainly buy more reading matter–but does having cash to spend on books predict standards for choosing them?  Heading the list of “well-read” cities: Alexandria, VA, in which Dan Brown’s Inferno was the best-selling book, followed by Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.  Strange trio.

If you want to see the whole list (you really do: five out of twenty winners are in one single state, and it’s not the one you’re thinking of), go here.

BULLETIN: Authors, what cities have you been hitting on your book tours?  Stop.  Rethink.  Amazon has done you a favor!  Plan your next tour to include as many of the “Most Well-Read Cities” as possible.  You can thank Geralyn Lucas for that idea.

Not neat, not orderly

A writing group–ours, anyway–does not have to function optimally.  In fact, it should be a little disorderly and chaotic.  It’s a writing group, whose purpose is to foster individual creativity.  Kind of a dowdy old term, but useful.

That objective–fostering creativity–includes permission to think loosely, freely, a little or a lot out of the box.  The group dynamics I’m interested in, as the leader of the group you read about in the very first post (“What book under whose bed?”, now found on the left on a page of its own) are the dynamics that encourage invention, not convention.

I’m afraid there’s nothing neat and orderly about that.

Of course it’s necessary for a writing group to have some rules, like being punctual (we try our best), giving appropriate critique, submitting work on deadline.  Yet it’s essential to allow latitude too.  I do some occasional table-thumping in my effort to keep the members from interrupting each other too much or digressing into chatter, but I do not want to squash anyone or even lean too hard on anyone.   There’s no reason to do such a thing because “organizational optimization” is of no vital importance in a writers’ workshop.

It’s not the organization that counts in this situation.  What is important–and shows in the work–is that the members of the group feel safe, supported, involved, nourished, mulched, weeded, and watered.  I want them all to grow, and much as I long for at least some of the rules to be followed, I would not care to sacrifice all or even most of the uncontrolled outbursts that often turn out to be the genius moments.

Yes, sure, I have to whack the group down every now and then or risk the eruption of complete chaos (though chaos can be fun sometimes, I admit), but in the matter of group behavior we’re all concerned with keeping a reasonable and respectful attention on the speaker, and with fostering the amazing critiques that just keep coming.

Most of all I want each writer to feel unconstrained in her experiments with her work.  It won’t do to have organizational goals if the writing goals don’t come first and foremost.  Artists of all sorts are a messy lot, and though we need to learn discipline, we must then unlearn discipline in order to come into our most powerful originality.  That’s the long-range goal for every member of the group: learning to work artfully out of her own originality.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Mystery on Main, Brattleboro VT

The Dog-Eared Page, Holladay UT

Bookbound, Ann Arbor MI



3600 pages?  Six parts?  About child care and groceries?  With “meditations on art, death, music and ambition”?   You know the book I mean.  I haven’t read it and probably never will, but I wonder: Does anyone think that if a woman had written this autobiographical novel it would ever have been published?  

Reviewed widely, but it was today’s piece in the NYT (“His Peers’ Views Are in the Details”) that caused me to mull.   You might also want to take a look at the review in the New Yorker, from last August.  Or not.  Read it here.

Cutting, or not

Nobody loves paring away the extraneous (the excessive, the repetitious, the clumsy, the clichéd, I could go on) more than an editor.   As a writer I like trimming and cutting my work; as an editor I thrill to the task of trimming and cutting someone else’s work.  So I enjoyed reading Pamela Erens’s NYT piece called “The Joys of Trimming.”

“I love editors who get rid of things,” she confides. Erens takes pleasure in losing overwritten scenes and dialogue, but she’s clear that when you cut one thing, you’re probably in for many more changes. Few cuts exist in vacuums.  Every edit can lead to another…and another…and another.  I also applaud her relaxed attitude toward what is often so difficult for writers: letting go of words that were hard to get down in the first place.

Words seem to take on extra importance when it was bloody murder to get them onto the page at all: You carved out time to write.  You overcame your resistance to doing the work.  You figured out what you wanted to say and how you should say it.  You knocked yourself out finding precisely the right voice and tone.  You polished those descriptions until they shone.  And now you’re expected to take a machete to your prose?

The novel I’m working on is barely in a first-draft stage–and it’s 646 pages long.  I know, I know, I know: it’s too long.  I have to cut it.  And I will cut it.  Ms. Erens is right, of course: writing is better without the “limp adjective or superfluous sentence.”  The point, she reminds us, is making a book that works.

That’s the nugget.  You want to make a book (poem, essay, short story, memoir, novel) that works.  So I would like to make a case for the other side: Don’t cut too much.  

Beautiful writing is defined not as the least amount of writing, but as the right amount of writing.  When I read, I want to fall into the work as if I were tumbling down the rabbit hole or being sucked into a parallel universe.  I want to inhabit, with the author, a world–and it isn’t always possible to create a world with pared-to-the-bone sentences.  Sometimes the reader needs more, not less.

It’s tricky.  What’s enough and not too much or too little?  That’s the art part.  Erens invokes the well-known Samuel Johnson quote: “Read over your compositions and, wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”  What?  Why would you do that, unless it doesn’t belong there?  The quote could use a rewrite: “…strike it out if it doesn’t work, it reads badly, it’s not actually ‘fine’ after all, you hate it on second reading, it ruins the paragraph…”

Same story with that injunction from William Faulkner warning you–writer– to “kill all your darlings.”  That’s cute, and sometimes you do have to edit out today what seemed brilliant yesterday, but not always.  Be careful.  Be respectful, along with hard-nosed.  Faulkner was.  Faulkner didn’t kill all his darlings.  Have you noticed how long his books are?  The 1992 Modern Library hardcover edition of The Sound and the Fury: 368 pages.

I get worried around the Culture of Brevity, as if shorter is intrinsically better, and faster (even in arriving at the end of a sentence) is an indisputable virtue.  Short and fast have their places (like at the dentist), but I’d rather read smart and original.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City IA

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle WA

The Corner Bookstore, New York NY