Thursday, February 18, 2016

'Wired for Story' tells us why friends aren't good at critiquing.

The first thing I did after completing the first draft of my novel was to give it to my husband and three of my best friends. In fact, the drive to share it with them is what motivated me to write every day. They all gave me feedback on what they liked or didn't, what they wished there was more and less of and what they thought could be improved. Overall, the feedback was positive and I figured, after a little polishing, the novel was ready.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I put the first ten pages in front a critique group and ninety percent of the participants didn't buy the basic premise of the story. I reworked the protagonist's relationship and brought it back, receiving about the same success rate. I started the story in a new place and still got the same response. I even considered throwing out the basic concept because it seemed to be so unbelievable to so many people. Finally, I got advice from a critique partner to re-balance the risk vs consequences of the character's actions, and that seems to be working.

It left me with the question, though, of why none of my friends had questioned the premise of the story. Perhaps they were just being too kind, but they were critical in other respects. So why did four college-or-more graduates with credentials as writers, scientists and readers, miss it?

I got the answer last week when I  went to a class exploring Wired for Story, a writing book by Lisa Cron. She apparently postulates (I haven't yet read the book) that we tell and listen to stories in order to gain experience. We want to put ourselves in the protagonist's place.  When my friends read a story they know I've written, there is no barrier to slipping into my skin and believing the character's motivations as written. For strangers in a critique group, though, there is an emotional gap that must be jumped between them and the story. If the premise doesn't build a bridge, they are left standing on the other side of the river.

So now I know: friends can tell you if the story has gone too extreme (one of my common problems) or gotten too mundane (another--leave out those day-to-day boring actions) or has typos. But in order to get a true perspective on how well the character interacts wit the plot, a critique group is the way to go.

It doesn't answer the question of what to do as you become better and better friends with your critique groups, though!

References: by Lisa Cron
Crafting a Page Turner with Michelle Theall  (exploring Wired for Story)


Kara C said...

Interesting observation - I love your application of what you learned from the story to who should critique your stories. And as far as your stories becoming too extreme, when I mentioned you had re-worked a story from the past recently, my husband asked immediately, "Is it the one where the father smothers his baby?" So the extreme ones at least are memorable!

Kara C said...

The 'Wired for Story' idea is very interesting because in Christian circles, I hear a lot about how we are 'wired for story' because of our spiritual needs. I'm not an expert for sure, but as I understand, the most gripping stories are those which flesh out the potential for goodness, the painful shortfalls of our fallen world (and selves) and the possibility for redemption through undeserved, sacrificial love. The idea is that in any captivating story, we will find these elements of the biblical narrative.

It's always fascinating to me when the evolutionary and spiritual models are gleaned from the same principles.

Can't wait to hear more.