We’ve had some enquiries about how we Egobooers went about critiquing for the retreat so to answer your questions…
It can be difficult for the inexperienced critiquer to realise what is involved. There’s no doubt in my mind that critiquing is an art. Anyone can read a piece of writing, look at a painting or listen to a musical performance and say ‘I didn’t like it’ or ‘I loved it’. They are both quite valid comments in the context of personal reactions – but they are emotional responses, not a critique. A critique is a critical assessment of what you have experienced as a reader and that includes the good and the bad. By all means, if you didn’t enjoy a story you can say so but you must be able to say why – and this is when it becomes hard.
As far as the Egobooers go in terms of critiquing experience we're a mixed group. Two of us have attended Clarions (a great source of honed critiquing skills), one is an editor while the other two are less experienced. It didn’t matter. The range of experience in fact brought fresh approaches and different perspectives which added to the experience.
Some focussed more on the technicalities of language like grammar, structure and language usage; others on plot structure and coherency of ideas or characterisation. While we each brought something unique to our critiques, though, we all also brought a commonality of ideas. While I was sitting there, condemned to silent listening as my fellow Egobooers went through their comments, I was struck by how often the same issues came up. I had fifteen repeated points by the end of my session.
Despite our differences our critiques all followed a similar pattern – a short comment of what we liked most about the story followed first by what worked for the reader and then any areas that didn’t work with suggestions to be considered as to how this could be improved.
We found that while we hadn’t set out any specific criteria (although some of us did ask for particular aspects to be looked at) we all tended to comment on the usual important areas, those that make up the framework of a story of any kind - things like the opening, plot, point of view, writing style, character and characterisation, dialogue, setting and repetition and so on. If you go to any of the many excellent articles online or in books on writing you will find lists of what to look for when you are tackling a critique. They are a great source of detailed reminders of what you need to think about.
But that is the technical side. Beyond that there were certain basic precepts we all followed.
1. We were honest. This is not always easy to do when you are eviscerating someone’s darling in front of them but it is essential.
2. We were gentle. It is possible not to be brutal even if what you are saying is harsh.
3. We aimed at helping but not rewriting. The suggestions we made were just that – suggestions.
4. We made it clear that we respected the work we were critiquing. In every novel there were original ideas and great writing. Our aim was to help the writer improve on that.
5. We never criticised the person only the writing in its many aspects.
While these were not spelled out but came from our respect for each other I think they were an essential part of the success of the Eagle Bay retreat.
There is more to critiquing, of course, and I will look at some of those skills in another post.