Deep-Tissue Critique: 4 Ways to Make It Hurt So Good

deep-tissue massageLast Thursday, I had a fantastic, thoroughly painful massage. It was agonizing in all the best ways, and of course, this made me think of writing (yes, I know, I have a problem–I’m looking into the 12-step thing, but there doesn’t seem to be one for writing). I was lying on my front as my therapist dug her elbow so far into my lower back that it felt like she was tickling my spleen, when it occurred to me that good writing critique is just like getting a good steam-rollering on the massage table.

Fun fact: believe it or not, I used to be a massage therapist. (What can I say? It was the early 2000’s, I was in my twenties and had just moved to Boulder, Colorado…) When I was in massage school, we spent a whole semester learning deep-tissue massage. And the one rule-of-thumb that applied to all the various techniques was this: it’s supposed to hurt good. I remember looking around at my classmates in disbelief when we were first told this outrageous lie—pain is not good, it’s bad. Bad, bad, bad. But our massage guru explained that there is actually a difference. Therapeutic pain is a beneficial thing.

I would submit, after being part of various critique groups for the last *cough* decade and some *cough*, that getting a thorough critique has a similar feeling of therapeutic pain. It can be helpful thing—it lets you know when you’re getting to the source of something big, something deep, something that will cause you much greater pain further down the line. The point of deep-tissue massage, and deep-tissue critique, is to rout out the bad stuff before it gets worse.

Here are the four methods I use to really work out those knots in the stories I’m critiquing, whether they’re someone else’s or my own.

1. Myofascial release – Myofascia is a fancy word for muscle and connective tissue. Release is a fancy word for get that sucker moving. Connective tissue can get stuck in a holding patter over a period of years until it freezes that way permanently, losing some blood supply to the area and a whole host of other bad things. Plots, at least my plots, can turn out the same way. For whatever reason—I neglect to pre-plan effectively, I write too fast to let my plot catch up with me—my plot falls flat. There’s not enough action, there’s too much action that doesn’t relate to the main point of the story, or there’s far too much monologuing on the part of the bad guy. Whatever the circumstance, my plot has become stagnant. And after it’s been stagnant for a month or two, it’s really hard to get it moving again.

Myofascial release is a technique massage therapists use to warm up frozen tissue and get it working as it should. It focuses on specific areas of a muscle, stretching in the direction of the muscle fibers, to encourage the muscle to move. For a stagnant plot, try asking more of key scenes by pushing them to their limits in terms of forward motion. Even if it’s just dialogue, try heightening the tension by adding subtext, foreshadowing, stunning reveals, etc. Keep in mind that these scenes don’t necessarily need to be longer. Instead, think pliable, alive, and full of juices.

2. Friction – Friction is exactly what it sounds like—vigorous rubbing of a specific knot to get the muscle fibers to lie flat. In a critique, using friction can help smooth out lumpy language. The key to good friction is moving fast and being direct. Find the language lump that isn’t working, then ruthlessly cull out all extraneous words. Replace awkwardly worded images, similes, and metaphors with smoother wording or take them out altogether and let the writing be straightforward. For dialogue, look at the flow of conversation, try editing for smoother transitions between characters, and remove as many attributions (he said, she said) as possible. Once everything awkward and extraneous in the lump is removed, fill in the few blanker spots with phrases that add to the prose without overwriting it.

3. Trigger-point therapy – A trigger-point is a teeny-tiny knot of muscle that causes massive amounts of pain in what’s called a “referral pattern.” For example, a trigger-point in your neck can cause radiating pain and numbness down your entire arm and into your hand. The writing equivalent of this malady is a single, minor plot-point that has spun the story into some kind of wall. (Writer’s block is often a symptom of this problem.) It feels to the writer like she has painted the protagonist, or at least the main action of the story, into a corner.

The trick to treating a trigger-point is identifying its location. The same is true for this little beastie of a plot-point. The temptation is to rub the spot that hurts, or to write around the problem by tossing in a couple of aliens and an atomic bomb. This may work in some cases, but in my experience, it’s a quick fix that leads to a meandering plot with a nebulous sense of direction. In a massage, if you don’t take care of the trigger-point, the pain will only come back. So find that sucker and fix it and everything else that comes after will fix itself. (Okay, not really, a fair bit of rewriting usually needs to be done. But if the writer is anything like me, I actually enjoy the rewriting once I really have the right direction.)

The good thing about trigger-points is that they’re pretty simple to fix. You have to press down on the point until the patient feels the referral pain, and hold it while the patient breathes through the pain. The pain will begin to lessen almost immediately. Then you push a little harder till the referral pain ramps up again. Go down another two or three levels, and then let up, stretching the muscle to ease it. To fix an erroneous plot-point, I use a cloud map or whiteboard or other doodling device to apply a bit of pressure. I examine the setting, the characters involved in the action, the action itself, the conclusion the characters draw from the action, and the action that follows the plot-point in question to see if any of them can be changed to make the forward plot action go in the right direction. Brainstorm down as many levels as it takes. Keep in mind that it may take several deep-tissue critique sessions to really get rid of that trigger-point.

4. Elbow to the spleen – Sometimes there’s just no substitute for looking at each scene in thorough detail. If it’s not working, I ask “Is this scene really necessary—does it make the audience feel something for the character and/or advance the plot?” If it’s disjointed, I try to parse out the beginning/middle/end and make sure the action/dialogue is appropriate to its placement in the scene. If it leaves me feeling cold, I look at each character, especially the protagonist, and ask “Are any of these characters acting in a sympathetic and/or intriguing way? If not, what action or reaction from the characters might be more engaging?” If the dialogue is stilted or wooden or cliche, I think of ways to sharpen it, make it more real or more fresh.

Before wrapping up the deep-tissue critique, remember to give your critique partner (especially if it’s yourself you’re critiquing) some nice, soothing effleurage to further relax her and to help the critique settle in without leaving a painful aftertaste. In other words, always point out what you love about the scene/characters/story as well as what needs work. I aim for at least 30% positive comments, and more if I have them. Don’t be stingy! Those soothing strokes are the sugar that makes the medicine go down easier. It doesn’t hurt to warm up with a few positive comments as well, so your partner knows from the get go that there’s some redeeming quality to the work.

Also, remember that this is all about hurting good. That means modifying your language when explaining your feedback to be constructive, not destructive. Anyone who is a writer will be able to tell the difference. And as for receiving deep-tissue critique, try to look for the therapeutic in the pain. Divorce emotion from the moment, and ask “Is what this person saying going to help me, or is it just an attempt to tear me down?” If the answer is the former, you’ve got a good therapist on your hands. If it’s the latter, get out of that group/partnership as fast as you can!

Here are some other terrific blog posts about critique methods and groups:
How having a critique partner can improve your writing

Critique Partnership: Tips and Techniques

What do you find is the most helpful when getting your work critiqued? What is the least helpful?

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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