Monday, June 7, 2010

Critique-al Condition by Steve Liskow

When you love your WIP above anything except double fudge brownie ice cream, it’s time to have someone else give you objective feedback. The best way to do this should be to join a writing critique group, but my bitter experience is that finding a compatible group is slightly easier than winning the Powerball by picking Roman numerals.

I’m convinced that groups work better if all the members write similar material. “Literary” writers, who believe that Toni Morrison works harder to finish a book than Tess Gerritsen or Jennifer Crusie, sneer at genre writing. Somehow, they also cherish the illusion that “literary” automatically means “good.”

Feedback tends to focus on two main questions. The first is “Does this scene work?” Most people will probably agree on any particular sample. The second question is “Does this scene work HERE?” and it can generate sparks among the different genres and camps.

Sci-fi involves a different world that needs explanation at the beginning. Romance writers often introduce their protagonist with a blow-by-blow history of a love life going down in flames. On the other hand, mystery writers build tension by holding back on the revelations, so they tend to view the other approaches as an information dump.

The logistics of group meetings makes work on poems, essays, or short stories easier than dissecting a novel, but a chapter-by chapter approach won’t help on the second question. That may demand more time than the average group member has at hand, but our early schooling probably taught us to examine a novel in small chunks so we sometimes miss the full effect.

You don’t admire a painting by looking at all the red, then all the blue, then the green. Moving a scene or even a few lines of dialogue can change the rhythm of a piece. It can make information clearer, too—or give away a clue too soon. Move the punch line to the middle of a joke and see if it still gets a laugh.

Beyond these basics, everything else is subjective. I wrote Who Wrote The Book of Death? in present tense, which some agents and editors dislike. Others dislike first person POV or lots of description. My writing has a staccato rhythm and throwaway fragments to convey voice and attitude, but some readers try to “correct” it instead of seeing the content. My own invisible drummer makes it hard for me to read “older” styles and rhythms comfortably.

A really valuable reader “gets” your style and sees the choices you don’t even remember making. Right now, three women understand my stuff well enough to spot the real damage and make me apply triage. They are the best asset a writer can have: a reality check.

I send them chocolate and valentines.

Steve Liskow's first novel Who Wrote The Book of Death?, was published in May by Mainly Murder Press, and "Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award, appears in the summer issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Visit his Web site here

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