Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Pitfalls, Spikes and Ropes (Part 1)

By Wayne Squibbs
Copyright 2009 by Wayne Squibbs, All Rights Reserved

Critique is an awesome resource for improving writing. Both the giving and receiving of critique helps to sharpen an author's skills and often gifts them with new tools for their box-o'-tricks. Naturally, something this good comes with a bunch of hidden dangers. What's worse is that the spiders in this particular sugar bowl get bigger as both your critique and writing skills improve. Here's a quick run-down of commonly encountered pitfalls on the journey from first time critique through to expertise.  


In the Beginning: Writer Seeking Critique for the First Time

The Situation: You've got a dozen or more short stories, two or more novels, a truck-load of partially completed projects and some great ideas floating around your head. Your nearest and dearest say your writing is good and you get a kick out of showing off your latest creations. A pile of 'How to' books on writing have been read cover to cover and you have at least one subscription to a writers' magazine or email service.

Unfortunately, agents, publishers, and editors have developed an unpleasant habit of responding to your queries with standard rejections. The philistines! You can't figure out why. You've written to the very apex of your ability and cannot see a single way in which your work could be improved.

It's time for critique!


Pitfall: "I don't want to have my genius diminished by getting sucked into a situation of the blind leading the lame. These people are merely cajoling each other into producing post-modern homogenous garbage which barely deserves to be called literature."

Solution: Find good crit partners.

A lot of real-world writers' groups are established and organised by authors with novels on the shelves. The organiser of my local group has three books in print by traditional publishing houses. Such people won't mind if you ask about their experience for your own peace of mind. Other members of the group may or may not have publishing credits, but all of them will be dedicated. These groups can provide a regular social outlet alongside great tips on writing.

Holly Lisle did the writing world a huge favour when she created Forward Motion for Writers ( Strong critters can be found on the boards at FM. Way back, when these guys nervously tapped the mouse and posted one of their favourite stories in pixel form, it wasn't long before someone posted beneath their work with the words: 'consider this...' Said authors did, and now they're regularly hitting pay-dirt. They're more than willing to express their gratitude by passing that favour on.


Pitfall: "I'm scared!"

Solution: "Just do it!"

There's a saying: "If you have to show it to your mum/sister/friends/hubby/kids for approval, then it isn't ready for the market."

As a writer, sooner or later, you're going to have to show your work in public. There are a number of benefits to kick-starting this in a critique group.

It's much easier to have a friendly critter point out areas for improvement than it is to receive an endless stream of rejections from the market. Having other writers look over your work and make comments is also better than having your name attached to less-than-polished stories which are scattered around the internet. Somewhere down the line you'll produce sleek market-friendly stories which make those earlier efforts seem like the literary equivalent of crayon drawings stuck to a fridge. Readers of your later work might want to Google your name...

A lot of critique groups are real-life based. Reading your own work aloud is good practise -- if you're a novelist -- for when (don't think 'if'!) you'll be doing PR. A less harrowing option is to exchange critique online. Either way, most writers come to realise through early critique that they're not the masterpiece-producing-machine that they hoped to be. Not yet, at least. This early experience also brings the realisation that with enough work, a writer really can get somewhere.

Your first critique will kick-start an avalanche of useful information on prose, description, grammar, element ordering, foreshadowing, veiling, character, dialogue... everything to do with the creation of a story. It may also start an addiction. Addiction to feedback is not a pitfall, and will form the basis of a great relationship between you and authorial improvement.


Pitfall: "I received my first critique and it hurts!"

Solution: It can, at first. But remember that critique is about the story, not the writer.

You produced the story and will naturally be dismayed if the sequence you saw in your head isn't what's on the page. However, "He who is aware of his faults, is destined to change them." As soon as you know what is missing/unclear/doesn't work, there are only two more steps to go -- understanding why, and putting it right.

Remember too that everyone, from the first-timer to the top professional, occasionally produces a dodgy story. This doesn't mean they're a lousy writer, much less a lousy person. Hiccups happen in every profession: half the lawyers who walk into court today are going to lose their cases; builders sometimes accidentally destroy the very things they're supposed to be building; banks can go bankrupt; the most advanced mode of transport on the planet -- the Space Shuttle -- sometimes explodes... and writers have been known to write stories that suck. We're all human, and everyone stumbles, more especially when they're inexperienced.   

The worst thing you can do at this stage is run away. Some people wander from crit-group to crit-group seeking acceptance of their writing rather than digesting the critiques they receive. This is no way to develop your skills.

As well as finding out where your writing weaknesses are, you will also discover where your strengths lie. Those may abound and other writers will readily acknowledge the talent they see in your writing. 

(Watch for Parts 2 & 3 in upcoming issues of Vision)