Sunday, May 30, 2010

Many Hats

By Lisabet Sarai

I've been publishing erotica for eleven years. I've been critiquing other authors' work for nearly that long. A few months after the initial release of Raw Silk, I discovered the Erotica Readers and Writers Association. For several years, I participated in their Storytime email list, writing four or five in-depth crits per week. I probably spent seven or eight hours weekly on this activity. (That was before the advent of social networking and blogs and other time-suckers!) It helped that I was unemployed during most of that period!

I left Storytime when I couldn't reconcile the time demands with the rest of my life, but I have continued to do on-request critiques for friends and colleagues. I also started writing erotica reviews for ERWA and later, for Erotica Revealed). In 2002 I undertook my first erotica editing project, working with S.F. Mayfair to produce the anthology Sacred Exchange. Since then I've edited four other volumes, with several more in the pipeline.

Reviewer, editor, critique partner: these roles obviously have something in common, as they all require evaluation of another author's work. However, the objectives and the audience are distinctly different, at least the way I see it.

When I wear my reviewer hat, my audience is composed of potential readers. My goal is to provide an overview of a book, to highlight its strengths and to warn the reader about any weaknesses. As a reviewer, I also have to recognize the influence of my own preferences and prejudices. I recently submitted a review of a highly acclaimed short story collection that I really didn't like. In my essay, I tried to explain what it was about the book that turned me off—but I left the final decision up to the reader. Any reviewer who claims to be “objective” is fooling herself.

When I wear my editor hat, I'm talking to the author. I want to help him or her improve her work. However, the overarching goal is getting the book out. I focus on the most blatant problems in a story: awkward sentence structure, inappropriate vocabulary, factual inconsistencies, grammar issues, and so on. Of course, if I am editing an author's contribution, this implies that the submission has already been accepted on its overall merits. I may see ways to make the story even stronger and more compelling, but normally I won't mention these issues unless the value-to-effort ratio is pretty high.

When I'm critiquing, however, any aspect of a story is fair game. Critiquing is a kind of collegial collaboration. Unlike the editing situation, the individual offering the critique has no particular authority over the author, who can (and should) reject any or all of the critic's comments if they conflict with the author's intent or instinct. Critting can also be an exploration of new directions for a story. What if you started here, in the middle of the action, instead of before anything happens? What if your hero was actually attracted to men as well as women? What if you tried narrating the tale in the first person instead of the third?

In my critiques, I often suggest far more sweeping changes than I'd ever consider as an editor. Unlike some critics, I tend to focus most on structural and thematic aspects of a story in my crits—the big picture—as opposed to issues of language. I always try to begin my crit by citing the strong points in the piece, the things that work well. Then I go on to suggest modifications (sometimes quite extreme) that could make the story even more effective.

Back when I was on Storytime, I would adjust the level of my crits to consider the experience of the author. With a newbie, one has to tread lightly so as not to be discouraging. Novice writers also tend to exhibit different sorts of problems than more experienced authors. Grammar, continuity and point of view are often significant issues. “Mistakes” like excess description, “telling” as opposed to “showing” and abrupt transitions are more common.

These days, most of the crits I do are for colleagues who are published and experienced. They return the favor—as I see it, your writing is never so perfect that it can't be improved. These crits are often far-ranging, heady conversations that go well beyond the specific story under consideration. Of course, the better you know your colleague, the more effectively you can communicate. I have a handful of authors with whom I often exchange crits. I'm probably losing some of the critiquing skills that I developed on Storytime working with less seasoned writers.

So how do you do a crit, step by step? Every individual will be different, but here's an outline of my strategy.

1. Print a hard copy of the story or book. I can read for a review on the screen. I can edit directly in a digital file. For a crit, though, I have to have the work on paper.

2. Read through once, red pen in hand. My goal on this pass is to get an overall sense of the story. As I read, I'll flag things that bother me. I don't get specific at this point. I'll just circle a word or sentence or draw an arrow in the margin.

3. Read through again, focusing on the previously-flagged "problem" areas. At this point, I begin to ask myself questions. What's wrong here? What is the fundamental problem and how could it be solved? Is my discomfort with this area really a result of decisions the author made earlier in the work? Often a red mark at one point in the story will lead to my seeing more pervasive issues that are not really localized.

4. Open a document and begin writing my critique. Some people who crit edit their comments directly into the manuscript. This can be a lot less work for the critic, but when I get comments in this format, I find them less useful than a stand-alone document might be. In-manuscript comments make it difficult (for me at least) to home in on the issues and problem areas, since all my text is there to distract me.

I usually begin my critique with positive comments, sharing what I like about the story. Next, I'll talk about global problems: problems with flow or pacing or the arc of the plot; issues relating to the characters and their motivations; weak beginnings or endings or awkward transitions; redundancies or passages that I feel should be removed; areas that need to be expanded.

Then I'll move step by step through the manuscript, highlighting particular areas where I think revisions are necessary. Usually I'll quote the original text and then provide a suggested rewrite. This can take a lot of time, but as I said, I think this is more helpful to the author than simply inserting the suggestions into the manuscript.

I'll conclude by emphasizing the most important issues and once again congratulating the author on his or her successes.

5. Review and edit. If I have the time, I like to let my crit sit on my hard drive overnight and then re-read it. Even if I need to get the crit out right away, I'll reread my document once or twice for clarity. I usually end up making some changes--mostly additions to elaborate on my points or my logic.

6. Send the crit to the author. Given the unreliability of email, I usually ask for a quick acknowledgment so that I know the critique has been received.

One thing I notice in articulating this strategy: for me, critiquing is a highly intuitive activity. I do not begin with a checklist of topics to consider. Rather, I let the story talk to me, and pay attention to the places where I lose the connection or the communication. I'll be interested to discover, over the course of this week, whether this is characteristic of other critters, or whether they tend to be more analytical.

I review, edit and crit partly because I'm fairly good at it. Even more important, though, I want to bank up some "Writers Karma". What goes around comes around. As an author myself, I need thoughtful reviews, careful edits and perceptive critiques. So I try to give them to others. As a result, I wear many hats in addition to my "author" chapeau. I'm convinced, though, that these other activities ultimately benefit my writing.


  1. Morning Lisabet!

    Just want to say thank you for all the crits you've done for me and hopefully many more to come. Also hope your hip is doing well. You'll always be the hippest critter I know.


  2. I like the way you distinguish editing from critiquing. I'm not much of an editor at the sentence/word level but my author friends have found me very valuable in finding plot holes, unrealistic character actions, and pacing problems. As a result, it's frustrating when they send me a piece when they're under deadline. If I think of that as 'editing', it'll help.

  3. Hi, Garce,

    Actually I have learned a lot about critiquing from working with you. And the crits you've done of my stories have been invaluable.

    Greetings, Ed,

    I think that many people confuse critting and editing. That's okay. Both are necessary. Furthermore, it's a good thing that some people focus on the "nits" that I might not even see.

    On Storytime, if you were lucky, you'd get several crits. This could be really useful in homing in on what needed to be changed.

  4. I had the same CP for 5 years. But she's emigrated now and I miss her insights so much. There is nothing more valuable than a good CP. I'm still looking for my next one. Great blog.

  5. Good critiquing is a definite art form. Not everyone can do it well. I have a couple of CP's and use them for different aspects of my writing because they each have their own strengths and weaknesses.

    I do different kinds of critiquing as well depending on what my CPs are looking for.

  6. No matter which hat you wear, I admire the person beneath the brim. :)

    I like in-depth critiques rather than those who just skim for missing commas and misspellings. I belonged to a crit group for a few years, and I probably enraged some because I do a line-by-line, and I offer suggestions. The only way I can do that is show how else the sentence might be written...but I do preface my critiques with the fact that the words I use are mine and I expect the author to use their own voice and style.

    Yes, there often is a lot of red, but critiquing has helped me learn what to avoid and how to improve my own writing. The fact that a few of the authors still seek my help since I left the group tells my efforts were appreciated. It's most time-consuming to crit in that manner.

    I caution authors NOT to listen to everyone, because there are people out there who may not have learned as much as you have, and you should only apply what works within your "knowledge base." Critique groups can be confusing because you're bound to run into conflicting suggestions. :)

    As for reviews, I've also done those for a number of years, and I always try to be positive, but I'm honest. If something is continually off during the story, I'm going to point it out. I recently returned a manuscript to an author and told her that I felt no review was better than the one I would have to do on her work. It was self-published, obviously not edited, and really, really hard to follow because she jumped from first to third person every other paragraph. If she would've been in a good critique group, the story might have been awesome, but I couldn't even get into it.

    Thanks for the interesting topic, Lisabet.

  7. Lisabet - I have learned so much about all aspects of writing being connected on all these social networks to you. I always wish I had the perfect critigue partner, but these days I just don't have the time. I have to put all my writing efforts into finishing my novel and Guest Blogging as much as I can. When I started a writer's group and was doing critiquing on a weekly basis, I was much more the big picture girl - how the story moved me and why, where I saw gaps or lapsed connections, where I saw better starting points. I'm a good editor I have a side biz helping kids write their college essays and I really can help them to have a really, really good product. Like you, I think I operate from an intuitive base. I probably drove the line-by-line crtiquers in my writer's group crazy, I'm sure.
    For the past decade I've been a judge in a writer's contest where I read about 300 manuscripts to pick
    1st, 2nd, 3rd and HM winners. My categories have changed from short story, to literary non-fiction, to memoirist, to humour and next year the prose poem.You start to see how the first paragraph and sadly, even the first sentence, must really grab the reader or the manuscript gets tossed on the floor.
    I'm much less hard on myself as a writer b/c of this. I realize we all have topics and styles that move us that may have little to do with the actual writing.
    ANYWAY, hope ur healing well. Loved the topic, your insights and just being connected...Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget and the upcoming novel Night Surfing

  8. Wow, great comments, everyone! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Nina- I agree, different CPs focus on different aspects of the product and that's all to the good. Like you, I'll try to find a CP for particular story who I know will focus on the aspects I'm most unsure of.

    Margaret - Maybe you and I could exchange crits some time. Although I'm probably much further away than your old CP!

    Hi, Ginger! You're right about not listening to everyone. It's not just that some critters don't know their a** from their elbow--some readers just don't get what you're trying to do in a story, or are so turned off by the subject matter that they cannot approach your work objectively. I don't ask my husband to crit my BDSM stories (he's not a writer but he's very good at crits) because they make him uncomfortable.

    And about reviews--I recently declined a requested review because the book was so pedestrian and cliched, I gave up after two chapters. What's the point of making someone miserable by highlighting his or her foibles?

    Greetings, Mary--I agree that I learn a lot through the process of critiquing. I probably was more sensitive to many issues when I was doing it more regularly.

    Thanks again to all of you for visiting.


  9. Lisabet,

    Thank you. I keep forgetting that there are many different hats to the roles we take on. Whether it's writing, editing, critiquing or reviewing, the focus is on writing - although the perspective is often quite different. Good advice and beautifully summarised.




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