Two Girls Kissing:
Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica
with Amie M. Evans
How to Survive and Benefit from the Manuscript Critique Process
The manuscript critique process is a critical tool for every writer who wants to develop her craft skills and polish her techniques. Since writing is by its nature a solitary act, I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of having someone read your manuscript prior to submitting it to an editor. This is a critical step in the manuscript development process; one that should not be skipped or over looked. Whether you choose to use a selected group of personal readers, an informal writing group, or a formal writing workshop, the process can be overwhelming or difficult to deal with especially for writers who have little experience with it. Understanding how the critique process works, knowing what to expect from it (its strengths and weaknesses), and what to do with the feedback you receive will enable you to get the most out of the process.
Your Attitude Is Everything
Your attitude towards the feedback you will receive during the critique process is critical to your ability to benefit from it. It is often hard for writers, especially new writers, to accept constructive criticism about their works in progress. Everyone has an ego; writers are no exception. It is only natural—especially when you have spent a great deal of time polishing your prose and believe a manuscript is finish—to feel defensive when others are giving you feedback that you fell is less than flattering. But it is critical for your development as a writer that you develop a thick skin when it comes to feedback regarding your writing and that you develop the ability to process the feedback about your prose without your ego getting involved.
You should think of the critique process as a positive experience in which your work is being seriously reviewed by other authors. You should be open to all potential possibilities to learn from the experience. In fact, it is a multilayered learning process in which you will not only learn what other authors think about your writing, but also how you as an author accept, reject, and react to feedback about your craft. In this way you will not only learn something about your work, but also about your self. Be sure to remain open enough to act on the information being offered to you so you can use it to improve your craft skills and your attitude towards feedback.
The purpose of feedback should be to allow the author insight into how a reader experienced the manuscript with the sole intend of helping to improve the quality of the prose. In other words, the point of feedback is to help the author know what worked, what didn’t, and any general impressions a reader may have had of the text as they read it. You as the author should keep an open mind to all of the criticism you receive.
Constructive feedback should include both positive and negative comments about the text. The reader should point out weaknesses and problems as well as things that worked well. It is also acceptable—but not required—to suggestion how to improve problem areas. Good constructive feedback usually includes an explanation of why something didn’t work or for that matter why it did work.
For example: (1) I was unable to relate to your characters or feel any sympathy for them BECAUSE they were one dimensional stereotypes. You didn’t show me who they were. FOR EXAMPLE, on page 2 you wrote that Sue was blonde and thought she was hotter than must people, but you didn’t tell us anything else about her (physical or emotional) until page 12. Or, (2) the elements of your plot were very interesting, BUT there were so many twists and turns for a short story that I repeatedly had to go back and review to keep the events straight and I often felt as if I didn’t truly understand why the twist were happening. PERHAPS, you should pick and keep 2 of the 8 twists and expand them in more detail and clarify why they are happening. This would make it easier to follow and allow the reader to understand and follow the significance of the events. (3) Your description of the church on page 4 worked well. I felt as if I was in the church. I believe this is because you not only described the way the church looked but also what the main character smelled, felt, and heard.
Pay close attention to the constructive feedback you receive both positive and negative. Positive feedback helps you se what you did that readers liked and allows you to learn from a success. For example, if a majority of folks thought Scene 1 worked but didn’t think scene 2 worked and they commented on why this was so; you could ask your self: What elements in Scene 1 worked that were not in Scene 2? Do not dismiss constructive feedback out of hand without first considering it.
Destructive feedback usually makes grand, sweeping statements and generalizations about the writing that is being critiqued. It rarely uses concrete examples or provides justification for the negative critique it delivers. It may also attack valid choices the author has made that actually do not affect the story quality or impacts it. Often it attempts to superimpose the superficial (as opposed to valid) needs of the reader onto the prose in a way that may leave the author feeling abused, attacked, or violated.
For example: (1) Your plot was dumb. Your characters were flat. Your settings were unbelievable. (2) Why did you make the main character a redhead? I don’t think people really like redheads. (3) I wish the story was set in the winter. I don’t like the fall.
Likewise, destructive feedback can also be positive in nature. A string of complements on how great your prose are without any critical analysis or, for that matter, details about what elements of the manuscript worked or why are also unhelpful. It is nice to hear what you did well in the manuscript, but receiving only positive feedback will not help your writing skills.
You may be able to glean some valuable information from destructive feedback as long as you do not become to self involved with it. Using the examples above as a sample, you might ask yourself: “Why did I make my main character a redhead?” If it was because you wanted it to symbolize her passion, then build those character details into the story to make her an even more developed character. In other words, dig below the surface of the destructive feedback to see if there might be any constructive feedback lurking.
It is rare, but it does happen so I will mention malicious feedback. This is when the reader is purposely mean or hostile when giving feedback to an author. The motivation for this can be any number of things. Sometimes an author is insecure with her own writing ability and needs to breakdown the confidence of writers that she views as a better writer than herself in order to make herself feel better. Some authors are unable to see anything positive in other’s works. Some are just jealous and others are just plain mean. Malicious feedback can be very hurtful, and rightly so as it is often not given with the best of intentions. Other times authors may be uncertain of how to provide feedback and it may come off as malicious when in truth there was no intent to cause hurt.
While I suggest you dismiss malicious feedback, I caution you to be careful not to label all feedback you disagree with or find hurtful as malicious. Sometime constructive feedback can feel like malicious feedback especially if it is directed at your favorite part of the manuscript and you have not yet developed a thick skin. Our writer’s ego can be fragile and easily hurt. Be sure that the feedback is actually malicious before disregarding it. If it is than don’t dwell on it; just let it go.
And Some Things Are Just Wrong
It is true. Some things are just wrong. It isn’t a matter of style or preference. There isn’t an opinion or room to disagree. Some things are just wrong. There are rules about punctuation, verb usage, and for all grammatical issues and concerns. And there is also a large body of prose that came before you where many of the stylistic problems that plague new writers have already been worked out. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. It is also alright to experiment with form and rules, but in order to do this in a productive way, you need to actually know the rule and know how to use it. And always remember that some things are just wrong.
The Critique Process
If you choose to have a number of individual readers critique your manuscript, it is very likely they will be sending you written comments and a marked manuscript. If it is possible to get all of your readers together for a discussion of the manuscript, I suggest that you do this; but it isn’t necessary. In either case, I go into greater detail about the process below under Classrooms and Writing Groups.
If you are using private readers and not a formal group, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Do not select all of your readers from family and friends. While many folks in this group may be able to provide honest feedback and have the skill set needed to provide quality feedback. It is important to have some folks who do not know you personally read drafts.
- Go for diversity when constructing your readers. It is ok to have all lesbians if that is your target audience but try to get an age range, different racial, educational, etc…backgrounds.
- Be realistic in your expectations about how long readers will have to give you their feedback.
- Be extremely clear about what you are asking the reader to do and the date you will need it.
- Establish a commitment and schedule. For example, the reader will agree to read 1 up to 30 page chapter/story a month for 6 months.
- Since yours is the only manuscript being critiqued, be sure to do something to thank your readers.
Classrooms and Writing Groups
In general, a critique of your manuscript (whether done in a class or a writing group setting) will consist of the group members (normally 5 to 15 people) reading your manuscript (normally 5 to 30 pages) in advance and providing you with feedback. The feedback usually comes in a verbal form as a discussion by the group members of your work while you are present. Often written feedback in the form of a brief 1 or 2 page letter to the author, sometimes in combination with notes written directly on the manuscript, will be provided.
During the critique it is normal (and advised) that the author not be allowed to speak or in any other way react to the presentation of the feedback on their manuscript. It is also customary to allow the author to ask specific question or for clarification on feedback they did not understand once the discussion is done. It is highly unusual (and not recommended) to allow an author to defend his work during or after the discussion. Once the work is published, the author cannot speak with each individual reader to explain it. Therefore, if the work cannot stand on its own; it needs to be fixed so that it can.
When your manuscript is being critiqued, bring an unmarked copy of your manuscript and a pen and paper to take notes on the feedback as it is delivered to you. Write down who said which comments. Indicate if anyone seconds the comment or refutes it. (For example: Jack said my plot is unrealistic. Janet and Jim both agreed with Jack while Cathy and Tina disagreed saying this was clearly Sci-fi and the plot worked.) Try to capture as much detail as possible without distracting yourself from the listening to the conversation. If someone refers to a page number, you can mark the actual text and include their comments in the margin. Depending how lively the discussion is, it might be easier to just write the page number next to the comment and look at the actual text later. While you will most likely get written comments from each member after the discussion, sometimes people say things that were not included in their written comments. Feel free to also write down questions that might arise as you listen to the discussion.
Don’t worry about processing the feedback and determining if you agree or not during the actual critique process. Instead, just listen and make sure you understand and capture the feedback. Later when you are alone you will have time to process and determine which feedback to act on and which to toss out.
The group manuscript critique process is set up so that you not only learn you’re your own manuscript critique but also from everyone else’s. Remember that you can also learn from other’s mistakes. If you do a serious critique on your class members’ manuscripts and pay attention to the discussion you will increase your learning options.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Group Critique Process
- Getting 5 to 15 thoughtful opinions on your manuscript.
- Establishing a group of people who are familiar with your work over a period of time.
- Creates deadlines that may motivate you to be more productive.
- Exposure to 5 to 15 other author’s work from which you can learn from their mistakes and successes.
- Critiques are only as good as the knowledge of the readers.
- Everyone in the group must give the same about of attention and detail to each manuscript for the process to work.
- You are committing to read 5 to 15 other people’s work and this will cut into your writing time.
- Often the groups contain writers at drastically different points in their careers. This is great if you are an emerging writer surrounded by intermediate and advanced authors, but potentially a problem if you are the most skilled writer in the group.
To Ask Specific, Concrete Questions, or Not
Often authors are allowed to ask specific, concrete questions of the readers in advance of the reading of their manuscript. If this is the case and you choose to ask questions, ask no more than 5 direct questions and attach them to the front of the manuscript on their own page. Make sure the questions are direct and specific. Do not ask: What did you think of my character? Instead ask: Was my character believable and life like? Or: Were you sympathetic to my character’s view point? If not, why? Note that the two questions about the character are two questions. Do not ask compound complex questions.
My concern about allowing authors to ask questions in advance of having their manuscripts read and discussed is that there may be an undue influence on the readers’ view point and this may adversely direct the flow of the critique by drawing attention to some elements (and thus drawing attention away from other elements) of the text. And this might not have happen organically if no questions had been asked in advance.
If the option is available to ask advance questions, the choice is ultimately yours to make. I, however, reserve asking advanced questions for manuscripts that have already been workshopped at least once. Instead, I arrive at the discussion with a list of questions and asked any that have not been answered at the end of the review period.
Giving Good Critiques
Give back the type and quality of feedback you want to receive. Here are some guidelines for providing feedback to others:
- Provide constructive, not destructive, feedback.
- Good job. As a writer, hearing what you are doing well is as important as learning what you are doing poorly. I always like to start with one or two outstanding things that are working well when I do a critique of a manuscript.
- Needs work. List the problems you had with the text. I like to start with the small items first and progressive to the larger problems, but there is no correct way to present the issues. State not only that you didn’t like something, but why.
- Page number and paragraph. Reference the text whenever possible when you are explaining a problem. This gives the author a concrete point of reference within their text of what you are referring to in your feedback.
- Basics. Comment on characters, setting, plot, scenes, and dialogue.
- Not your problem. Do not feel compelled to “fix” problems in the text; that is the author’s job. Simply sate what the problem is in as much detail as possible. However, if you have a potential idea of how to fix the problem feel free to briefly suggest it.
- The story you have been given. Your job as a reader is to provide feedback on the story submitted and not to turn the story into a different story. Often it is tempting to readers to change the basic idea behind the story or do other rewrites that transform the story into something it wasn’t originally intended to be. Avoid this. Provided feedback on how to make the story you are given better, not turn it into a different story.
- The story without hope. If you feel that the story you are reading is a complete mess and has so many problems you do not think it can be saved; please keep that to your self. It will do the author no good to hear this especially if they are an emerging writer. Instead, select two or three items that would make the biggest difference to the story and, more importantly, to the author’s craft skills and provide feedback on those items. Suggest in your written critique, but not verbally, that the author consider taking a writing class or reading a writing manual. Recommend your favorite instructor or book. An exception to this would be if you are reading an advanced writer’s work and are aware that they are “attempting something different”. In that case, it is alright to voice your opinion and concerns. But remember even the most acclaimed author has an ego.
What to do with Feedback
All writers have egos. All writers take criticism personally on some level especially when they are new writers. This is a great time to start developing a thick skin in relationship to your writing and feedback. Editors, publishers, and book reviewers will not be concerned with your ego or your feelings. Here are some things to keep in mind as you work with the feedback from your manuscript critique:
- Everyone has an opinion. You know the old saying, so I’ll leave it at that.
- Just because it is suggested doesn’t mean you have to do it. My mother said something along these lines that involved jumping off a bridge.
- A negative critique of one piece of your writing is not a verdict on your career or your craft skills.
- Learn from your mistakes. My mother also doesn’t believe in mistakes. Nothing is a mistake if you learn something new from it. It is just a different way of getting at the knowledge.
- Do not take feedback on your writing personally as an attack on your character.
- You cannot please everyone. So please yourself.
- Do not fixate on any one critique or element of the critique. If a child returned home with a report card that contained 5 A’s and 1 C. What would you think? Most people focus on the C as a weakness instead of celebrating the five A’s.
How to Process the Feedback
Weighting the Value of the Comment
I wish I could say that every comment holds the same weight, but that isn’t true. Depending upon the source of the comment you will apply different value to its credibility. As you work with a specific group of people you will realize what their strengths and weakness as critiques and writers are. Keep in mind that some folks who may be poor writers may also be great readers and provide the most insightful feedback.
You will have to determine the weight of each comment and whether or not to act on it or ignore it. A good rule of thumb is that if two or more people make the same comment you should give it serious consideration even if you don’t agree with it. If four or more people make the same comment, chances are great you need to address it regardless of whether or not you agree with it.
There are always exceptions to rules. This one is no different. Every time I workshop a lesbian story with a group of straight folks (no matter how progressive they are) they always want me to add in more details about lesbian life and politics. I always ignore this. My target audience, lesbians, don’t need to be told what a butch is, for example, and, while I am happy to have straight readers, they will have to hone their “what do lesbians do” knowledge elsewhere.
The important thing to remember is to truly consider each comment and not reject anything that is suggested out of hand.
You, Your Manuscript, and Your Feedback
I always read the written feedback the same night as the critique takes place, but I don’t process the feedback that night. As soon after the critique as possible (I recommend with in three nights) find a good place to work with enough space and time to process the feedback. Depending on the number of people in your group and the depth of their feedback this should take between 1 and 3 hours.
Gather together your marked manuscripts, written feedback, and any notes you took during the discussion. Also have a clean copy of your manuscript (referred to from here on as the master copy), a pen, two different color highlighters, and a note book.
Review the marked manuscripts for any line edits or comments in the text. Transfer the ones you agree with to the master copy. Highlight in color number 1 the comments or edits you are unsure of so you can find them easily later.
Read each of the written responses and consider the suggestions one at a time. Do you think the idea is a good one? Would you like to incorporate it into the revision? If not, why? Indicate the changes to be made on the master copy. If the idea is long or complex feel free to cut up the feedback letter and staple the idea to the correct page. Any ideas you aren’t sure about, highlight with color number 1. You can just ignore any ideas you disagree with.
Now using your master copy and the notes you took, see if there was anything said that wasn’t in the written feedback. Also, look at all of the items you highlighted and see if you had any notes on them. If you resolve a highlighted item cross it out. Add any changes you decide to make to the master copy.
Finally, take the master copy and consider any item that is still highlighted. Feel free to consult another writer if you cannot figure out what to do about a piece of feedback.
At this point your feedback is processed and the changes you want to make are all in one place on your master copy. Try not to let too much time pass before making the actual changes to the manuscript.
Setting Up Your Own Critique Group
It is relatively easy to set up a writing group that is focused primarily on critiquing the group members’ work. You need 4 people who are writers and interested in doing serious critiques of each other’s work. Basic rules or guidelines need to be established in order for the group to run smoothly. Here’s a list of what I consider critical items to be established in advance and agreed upon by the group:
- How often the group will meet (once a month, quarterly, weekly)?
- How many manuscripts will be reviewed at each meeting?
- How long will the manuscripts be? Will there be a minimum and maximum number of pages?
- Does the work need to be new or can old unpublished work be turned in?
- When and how will the manuscripts be distributed? Will standard manuscript format be used?
- How will feedback be provided (written, oral, both)?
- What are the rules for the actual feedback session (can the author talk; ask advance questions, how long will be spent on each session, etc…)?
- How will the group handle adding new members or asking members who are not holding up their end of the deal to leave?
The critical thing to remember is that all of the feedback—positive and negative—is just a suggestion. What’s more, for almost every artistic suggestion someone makes you can find a reader who will disagree. Finally, the critical approach to take to critique is to always remember that the goal is to improve your writing and your story. If you do not want to make a change, then don’t do it. But understand clearly why you are not making the change. Is it ego or is it the best thing to do for the story?
NEXT TIME: How To Submit your Manuscript
Amie M. Evans
More of Amie M. Evans' Two Girls Kissing in ERWA 2008 Archive.
"Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica" ©
2008 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.
About the Author: Amie M. Evans is a widely
published creative nonfiction and literary erotica writer, experienced
workshop provider, and a retired burlesque and high-femme drag
performer. She is on the board of directors for Saints and Sinners
GLBT literary festival and graduated Magna cum Laude from the
University of Pittsburgh with a BA in Literature and is currently
working on her MLA at Harvard.
Read Amie M. Evans' full bio at the
Erotica Readers & Writers Association.
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