Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Let's Play Nice

On Monday, I offered up my version of some Tiger Mother reviews. Overall, the consensus from the comments was that the reviews could have been nicer, but they weren't too mean. Thanks to everyone for commenting and also for providing your own reviews of my excerpt.

I want to emphasize that the point of my reviews was not necessarily to be mean, but to hold writers up to the highest standards, something I admit I don't always do. While I think those reviews might have been helpful, I hope today to convince you that being critical isn't the only way to show someone how they might improve.

For the following three excerpts, I'm focusing on the positive, with the idea that if a writer sees what works well, they can choose to do more of it. This isn't my version of sugar coating, because I'm being very sincere. Rather, it's just another side of the coin, leading to the same purpose.

Excerpt A

I was nine again. The word "again" here is unexpected and very interesting. Mother told me that my real father was a goat. There are some nice hints that this is going to be an interesting story. I like the phrase "my real father", and of course the idea that he's a goat is intriguing. William the Goat. Not the man who slept in Mother's bed, the man who Mother called Bill, the man whose dried lather and specks of hair fouled our bathroom sink every morning. This borders on being nonsensical, but in a way that really works for me. "Fouled" fits in perfectly in this spot because it creates a slight shock and keeps the tone of the piece from being too syrupy. We had homeschool every day. Even the idea of homeschool, and all of the connotations it carries with it fits nicely here. I associate it with families that are perhaps smarter than average and unusual in other ways. That meant I helped scrubs the floor and kept watch at the front window for Bill. After homeschool, Mother told me stories of my father and how they met when she was young. How he was strong and had a beard, a man’s beard, wild, dark and full. How he ran and leapt. And the way he laughed: distinctive, loud, an honest sort of bray. "Bray" here works the way "fouled" works above. It keeps the piece from getting to clean, and of course there's the whole goat thing.

It was May. Nice rhyme. Using candles during a rainstorm, I found a box of wood and brass, smallish good word, at the top of the closet that Bill used for his clothes. Inside, folded papers wrapped in red ribbon. I cut the ribbon with the little scissors Mother gave me and found letters; letters from Anne to William. I unfolded the top one.

You always smoke those silly cigars, cigarillos cabritos, little goat cigars? I loved you from the moment you laughed. Will you marry me, William the Goat? I will make you laugh always and we can do whatever you want, visit the lake country, live in a Paris garret, just make me yours and laugh with me always. I like the development of the mother character and the strength and open-mindedness she has. "Cigarillos cabritos" is also great.

Overall, I really appreciate the language in this piece. It really gives the writing a specific tone that suits the material perfectly. Throughout, there are a bunch of details that help keep the world of the story consistent. And, though this is short, I trust in the depth of the characters.

Excerpt B

Broad Street is empty as I approach the subway entrance, the early morning quiet broken only by a distant siren, a small dog barking a block away, the slow flutter of the flags That's a great detail that is quite unusual. I immediately hear the flapping sound. hung from the lightpoles. The humid August air clings to my skin, a fitful breeze bringing no relief, only the scent of damp pavement, exhaust fumes, and rotting fried chicken in the dumpsters beside the all-night diner This is another great detail. I like that you save these gems for the end of your sentences where they carry more power and work to add a little climax at the end as if each sentence was a mini-story on its own. The few patrons visible through the restaurant windows look tired and drawn, black and white alike partaking "partaking" is a cool word here that creates an interesting relationship among the characters and place. It creates a nice interaction between the two and pulls the elements of the story together. of the same fluorescent-washed pallor. The waitress, silent behind plate glass, argues listlessly on her cell phone. That ending is a lovely image as well.

This writing feels very vivid to me, and there's a poetry to the language I can appreciate. It's a short paragraph, but it gives me a good sense of the bigger world of the story.

Excerpt C

"Whitefish Lake"

Terri noticed a boot print in her sister’s blood. Having the intrusion be a boot print rather than, say, a tennis shoe, makes this already-brutal sentence even moreso. It instantly shocked her into a battle ready state that's a cool phrase that got me thinking. I feel like I can relate to that idea of being shocked into a ready state, even though it seems counterintuitive at first. and she drew her firearm. She should’ve realized that there could’ve been another perp I always appreciate the use of the word "perp", just as I appreciate the use of the word "maths".

She backed up into the shadows of the corner and waited for something to move. The only sounds were the crackling of the fire and the babbling from his dying counterpart this is a nice surprise that gives the character more strength and credibility hundred and eighty yards away. She silently waited.

After ten minutes, she heard a slow creak she recognized as the door to the basement. It was slow and deliberate - the other intruder knows I’m here I like this. The word "deliberate" is nice, and it's an interesting transition into an inner voice that works for me. She fixed her gaze on the laundry room looking for a shift in the shadows.

She saw movement and took aim. She knew his back was against the little wall where the pantry was. It would be the best place to peek out into the room. He made the faintest of whistles. This puzzled Terri. Interesting! Did he expect her to signal back? Marco, Polo? She knew her best chance was to shoot through the wall before he made his move. She judged the placement of the studs and fired two rounds into the drywall Again, I like how these details make me feel more secure that the character knows what she's doing, right down to the studs. He cried out and fell forward. She ran toward the doorway firing twice more. The first shot missed but the second shot hit his right hand sending his gun to the floor. She pointed the gun at his face and pulled the trigger but the rounds were spent. The intruder charged her sending both of them into the kitchen. He pounded her with his fists several times before switching for the cast iron frying pan. He didn’t see her reach for the knife and she plunged it into his

I feel like the details have been very carefully considered in this piece. The vocabulary works. The details help to build the character and the situation without slowing the pace down at all.


So, what do you think? Is it useful to get the positives? Do you think a writer can learn from this type of one-sided review? My answer is yes.

I'm guessing that most people usually provide reviews that are a mix of Monday's and today's styles. We've heard the term "compliment sandwich" tossed around already. (My sandwiches are open faced, for the record.) But, I'd like to suggest that it might be worthwhile to mix it up a little. If you're in a writer's group, or if you get together with someone else on a regular basis, consider trying different crit styles for each session. You could try Tiger Mother, or nice nice. I've heard of styles that only involve asking questions, or even styles that only allow digressions. If nothing else, it keeps the sessions fresh and probably helps every one stay on their toes.

Note: I know I've got a couple of other reviews left to do. You'll have those emailed to you today!

Note added later (I thought I put things well in one of my comments, so I'm adding it here):

Charlie, your comment is helping me to articulate something that I wasn't able to express well before. I think to properly use both types of reviews, one needs to hold the idea of an "average" standard, where the writing is neither good nor bad. If we hold onto that for a moment, then I'd say the Tiger Mother review points out the things that fall below that line while the nice review points out the things that go above that line. If you only care that your writing meets the average, then you'll get nothing out of the nice review. But, if you want your work to ALL go above that line, then you could focus on the parts that didn't get compliments because, perhaps, they were just average.


  1. I learn best from a mix of good and bad. I usually can't see where there are gaps, what could be improved. But I hate it if the reviewer can only focus on the negative. I left a crit group because of it. I need to know what I'm getting right and what can be improved because then I can compare and try to figure out why what I'm getting right is right. An endless stream of "I like this, this is good, etc" gets boring to me and I start to feel like they were struggling to find good things so they eliminated any mention of the bad.

  2. The positives are useful in some ways, and may help the authors grow their strengths, but these reviews are far less challenging, and I don't think will ever shore up the authors' weaknesses.

    Also, your positive comments need to be tightened up. Some feel stretched out and rambly and some feel almost unnecessary, like you're trying to force it.

  3. Haha, Nevets, you are funny.

    This was very interesting to read. The positive critiques remind me of local crit groups. The Tiger Mother ones remind me of college. I have only one friend who always serves up a mix of both, and she is absolutely the most helpful. As a writer, I need to know what works AND what doesn't. I need to know what I'm doing right and how I could improve. They are both essential.

    And, I think a good critique partner will have no trouble sincerely expressing both positive and negative feedback about any piece of work. I believe that if someone can't find anything positive or anything negative about a piece, they probably don't "get" it.

    It was cool to see you apply just one or the other to each piece because that really made it stand out to me how important both sides of critique are to a writer.

  4. This was a cool experiment. :) I was kind of surprised by how useful the nice nice reviews actually were. I always look at a paper pretty harshly when I'm editing, I guess looking at things from the other side could be really helpful both for my own work and for my critique group. Thanks! :)

  5. Stephanie, I'm going to guess that you're in the majority as far as wanting a mix of good and bad. I think part of the idea with this type of positive critique is that the writer will figure out what's not working on her own. I think some people might be able to do that while others can't.

    Nevets, I assure you I wasn't forcing anything. It actually took some restraint not to write more (though it helped that it was late at night).

    Jeannie, I was once in a crit group that suggested if you can't find anything positive to say, then you're approached the story with too much of a closed mind and, thus, shouldn't be trusted to give good criticism either. I think there's a lot of truth to that. If someone has put any care at all into their writing, there must be something good about it somewhere, and if a reviewer can't see that, then they didn't "get" it, like you say.

    Autumn2May, I'm glad you see things the way I do. I was skeptical when I first got this sort of review, but it really made me think actively about why the "good" parts were good and why the parts that no one talked about passed under the radar. It made me pay attention to those neglected parts.

  6. This was fantastic, Davin! I think a mixture of both would be the best way to go - and that's usually what you have given me with my work, and I want to thank you for that.

  7. Nevets, was that a jab at the more negative feedback you prefer? Hehehe. :)

  8. I believe you that you weren't forcing, but sometimes the language felt that way. It's not only the content of these critiques that is different, it's the voice and style, as well.

  9. Reading the nice review is great for the ego, but does little in helping the writer improve. Only after reading the nice review can I fully appreciate the tough one. Alternately, after reading only the tough one do I appreciate the need for a nice one.

    I'll agree with the masses on a balanced approach.

  10. Michelle, you're welcome. I should warn you that I'm getting more Tigerish over time, though. Hopefully that's a good thing. Otherwise, you can shove me in a hole.

    Nevets, I think in a way I had to "get into character" for both of these review groups, so I'm not surprised that they sound different. My usual reviews might sound more like me. Of course, then there are the voices in my head too.

    Charlie, Do you find anything educational about this type of review? You can be honest? I've learned a lot from getting them.

  11. I think one of the most helpful things about this type of critique is the exploration of why specific parts work for the reader. As writers, a good portion of what we do is intuitive, we work by taste and faith, and for someone to shed light on their experience helps show us our turnings.

    Domey, I don't know if you want or need more material for posts, but I think it's important to discuss how to react to critiques. Maybe it's been discussed somewhere in the archives.

    Each crit tells you something worth knowing. This may be positive or negative or, and this is the best, show you your work from a brand new perspective. But you have to listen. The number one rule of being critiqued: your words do the talking, you do the listening.

  12. B. Nagel,
    Great point. I'd be happy to write a post about reacting to crits. However, if you want to do a guest post, just let me know. You're more than welcome!

  13. I think this Tiger/Kitten experiment is interesting when applied to this sort of detailed critique. I wonder if people find the Tiger more useful because they already have a good idea what they do well?

    This is where I go off-topic and say that I'm becoming less interested in these sorts of detailed, line-by-line critiques. Doing them or getting them. Hell, if someone handed me back a MS and it was commented on at this level, I wouldn't read most of it and I admit it. A good deal of it is merely reader taste at this point ("why use this word? I hate words with doubled consonants" or whatever). What I'm leaning more towards these days is a style of critique where I say what I'd like to see more of and what I think the single biggest problem with the work is, and I try to be as focused and specific about those two things as I can. And I tend toward bigger picture stuff like story and structure and characterization and voice.

  14. Scott, I wonder if there are different stages in our writing lives when different types of critiques work. Maybe a beginner will learn more from a nice critique and an intermediate writer will learn more from a harsh critique. I very experienced writer may be in a place where they are aware enough of their own decisions and only want the general.

  15. Domey: I'll bet you're right about that. When I was just beginning to write fiction, I needed to hear encouragement more than actual craft advice, because I didn't have enough experience with the craft for that sort of advice to make much sense. Hmm.

  16. I may reverse my point about detailed critique because I've just thought about masterclasses with virtuoso musicians. Those are very detailed experiences, and a lot of the value comes from the personal tastes of the person giving the class.

  17. SGFB, We talked about the personal taste part of this briefly before. Everything I say is my opinion, and I do take it for granted that the receiver of my review knows this. I just don't like to qualify that over and over again for each person. I used to think it was pointless to give this sort of feedback because it was so personal. But, now I think there's value to it. It's the writer's job to find whose personal preferences they value, and that's probably different for everyone.

  18. Domey, Yes. I did find the review of mine excerpt educational. Thank you!

    I tried to keep only what was necessary and lose the extra descriptive prose. I hoped that I left just enough details to take the reader there, being that it is an action scene. I'm glad I got that part right. A Tiger mama critique would point out what's wrong with the scene. As far as I know - as far as you have told me, the excerpt (excerpt C) is flawless!
    Somehow, I doubt that it is.

  19. Positives and negatives are both useful. I do think, however, that the critique that works best when the reader doesn't set out to be positive or negative, and pays no heed the sandwich method (which smacks of gimmickry and tainted with falsehood IMHO) but instead responds honestly and with respect.

    Also, I think we have brought the Tiger/kitty metaphor as far as it can go. Writers want to be held to high standards and they want their readers to have read their work carefully before offering their suggestions. They are not always mutually exclusive.

  20. Domey & Scott, As a new writer, a combination would work best for me.
    Each type, on their own, is misleading.

  21. Scott: re master classes with musicians.

    Interestingly enough, the type of master classes that I have found beneficial are those that work on big picture stuff. The master musicians who go on details about how two notes need to be articulate tend to lost the audience because it becomes a lesson, not a public master class.

  22. Charlie, your comment is helping me to articulate something that I wasn't able to express well before. I think to properly use both types of reviews, one needs to hold the idea of an "average" standard, where the writing is neither good nor bad. If we hold onto that for a moment, then I'd say the Tiger Mother review points out the things that fall below that line while the nice review points out the things that go above that line. If you only care that your writing meets the average, then you'll get nothing out of the nice review. But, if you want your work to ALL go above that line, then you could focus on the parts that didn't get compliments because, perhaps, they were just average.

  23. Yat-Yee, thank you very much for your thoughts! I'm also not a fan of the sandwich. I'm finding myself having to be far to open in this discussion, but for me the honest response mentality would too often lead to immediate rejection of a lot of writing, including my own. Sometimes I get so down on the quality of all writing as a whole that I have to take some sort of stance and review from that stance. Wow, that's depressing, isn't it?

  24. Yat-Yee: That's interesting, because to me, the virtuoso lessons always seem to become broadly applicable. For example, I was at a class with Pinchas Zuckerman working with a violin student. About 15 minutes was dedicated to the articulation of the beginning of the very first note in the piece, and Zuckerman managed to change the student's foundation of bowing in an amazing way through that very focused work. I don't think Zuckerman let any of the students get more than a dozen bars into any of their pieces. It was very cool. You might have hated it. De gustabus and all of that.

    Also, I'm going to also say that I'm not a fan of the sandwich. That's more like managing the relationship than giving honest feedback. I just want to react to the piece however I react, like a reader does.

    Domey: I know exactly what you mean. I am frequently reminded of Brahms, I think, who said, "I hate all music; especially my own!"

  25. @Michelle - Now that you've heard my commentary on critiques, I'd sort of be interested in hearing where you thought my feedback actually falls. lol

    @Scott/Domey/Yat-Yee - One of the main reasons I don't make general requests for critiques is because I really don't find this level of detailed feedback on my stuff all that useful or interesting most of the time. I'm definitely more interested in big picture things (I can work the little things to adjust the big picture). A few comments about specifics are great, but I rarely want this kind of crit anymore.

  26. I should say also that these crits are more detailed because they are shorter. If I was looking at a whole story, it wouldn't come out like this and other elements would have been discussed.

  27. Domey: your comment relating honesty to rejection of most things written is rather depressing. Maybe what I was trying to say when I used the word "honest" as something writers is merely an antithesis of q reader trying to adhere to some formulaic manner to present a critique.

    Total honesty isn't always useful or necessary. It reminds me of the phrase in the Bible: "speaking the truth in love." Speaking the truth but with respect to care for the person. And I don't mean coating truth in sugar either. Yes, the delivery is important. But so are the choices on what needs to be said when.

    I'll stop rambling now.

  28. Scott: The way you described the Zuckerman master class makes me think that I might, in fact, have enjoyed it. I don't play string instruments but I perform with a lot of them, and knowing the mechanic of the instruments and hearing the differences in sound once something is achieved are all very interesting to me. The classes in which only the student and the master know what's going on or what changes have been made and the rest of us are excluded: those are the ones that make my mind wander.

  29. Yat-Yee, you bring up an excellent point, and I appreciate it!

  30. I’d like to give my reaction as one having received a Tiger critique, and then reading the above accolades.

    Initially, I was a little jealous of the glowing remarks. I consider myself more of a reassurance-seeking newbie, though I’ve been working hard at it for several years and know I have made strides. I’m at the point where I have a pretty good sense about when I’ve hit it right, and when I’ve been sloppy. I only needed to remind myself of my objective—Primarily, I want to progress. Reassurances from respected writers are a bonus, but it’s not what will push me to the next level.

    I will keep my Tiger Mother review, thank you! And know that I can and will do better.

    This has been great, Domey!

  31. Thanks for your thoughts jbchicoine! I appreciate the comparison.

  32. Ehh...see, I don't get that much out of critiques like this. If I were to make a request of critiquers, it'd be to keep the positive-negative comment ratio somewhere between 10/90 and 20/80. Seriously, I do better with the Tiger Mother critiques.

    Not necessarily at the level of individual sentences (as Nevets mentioned), but in terms of bigger picture--what makes sense, what doesn't, when do my characters act out of, uh, character, etc.

    Give me the tough love, baby. I can handle it.

    (That's figuratively speaking. Don't take that as an invitation, you sickos.)


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