Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Critique: Pitfalls, Spikes, and Ropes (Part 2)

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

(Part 1 is located here.  Part 3 will be published in Issue # 51)

Giving Critique for the First Time

The situation: You've received some valuable crit, and you understand that this is a give-and-take process. Now you're looking at a story that one of your crit-partners has written...


Pitfall: "I don't know what I'm doing! What should I say?"

Solution: Chill. First-time critique is often very useful. Critters who are in the groove with it all sometimes miss the actual reading sensation -- an overall feeling of 'that was entertaining' or 'something isn't right.'

Most of us, whether we've given critique or not, know a good story when we see one. In being hesitant to stamp recommendations all over a story, the new critter often provides a valuable summary.


Pitfall: The Unbalanced Critique

In the execution of critique we're looking to improve a story, which often means providing a list and explanations of all the weaknesses we see. Sometimes a critter neglects to mention any of the strengths. Unbalanced crit can be discouraging.

Solution: Most authors become accustomed to critique pretty quickly and aren't likely to abandon their writing on the strength of one list of negatives. However, it aids development to receive feedback on what really worked as well as what could be improved. A balanced critique will mention both plus and minus points, and it's easy to get into the swing of this -- most stories include a ton of good stuff and even if there's nothing good about the presentation, the actual idea might be brilliant. Or vice versa. Line-by-line critiques will pick up on micro-scale issues, but can also be used to acknowledge flashes of brilliance. Plot, pacing, dialogue, description... the chances are that if some of these things didn't warrant a crit-point, then they were spot on. It's worth bringing that to the attention of the author.


The Growing Writer

The situation: Your crit partners are supportive, highly qualified, and some have a long list of publishing credits. Under their expert tutelage you've developed much -- your sentences flow nicely and you can use them to tell an effective story with convincing characters.

Still, whenever you post a piece for critique there are comments about improvement on nearly every paragraph. Grrr! Will this learning ever end?! The perfect story is just around the corner, you can feel it, just gotta keep following this advice...


Pitfall: Writing by Committee

You have so much awe and respect for your seniors that you're tailoring your stories to include all of their recommendations. In doing so, you risk damaging three things: 1) the flow of your voice when under the influence of 'author enthusiasm'; 2) the original purpose of the story; and 3) your original vision.

Just as surely as you learned the basics and now subconsciously use them as part of your skill set, something else has happened: everything you've learned has combined with your natural talent to produce something new: your 'voice.' Sure, it changes with each piece, especially when switching between first and third person narratives; but it's there, subtle, talking through you. Over-editing a story will stifle this voice.

There is no such thing as a perfect story. The best lit fic in the world isn't going to impress an avid Sci-Fi fanatic. The most original monster in the universe isn't going to seduce a sucker for romance. So, by including every recommendation, in aiming for perfection, you're going to overstretch and damage your story. For the growing writer, holding true to an original vision can be a serious challenge.

This is the Big One. Most everyone does it, but a lot don't even realise it's happening. Even when you think you're clear of this situation, it's possible that you're partially still in it. And, having recognised and overcome it, it's possible to fall back in.

Solution: Try to consider the differences between your voice and those of your crit partners. Also, do they write in the same genre? There will be divergence between you in terms of where you want to take your writing. The greater that divergence, the greater harm you will do to your story when trying to incorporate all their ideas.

Start picking out the gems from critique and discard the rest. Take only what resonates with your own purpose for the work at hand. Even if a ghostly apparition of Dostoevsky coalesces in the steam from your shower, grins at you and says, 'There isn't enough description in the opening passage of your latest story,' thoroughly assess his advice for suitability. Perhaps the story, the way you see it, doesn't call for more description up front, in which case no amount of advice should shift your position -- even if it comes courtesy of a literary icon from beyond the grave.

This takes serious thinking about, and quite a bit of practise, before identifying what's relevant becomes an intuitive process.

If you're sending things out to market, you'll soon discover that keeping your story alive through voice and author enthusiasm can be a big factor in making sales. 


Pitfall: "Why is writing so hard!? I feel terrible and can't stand to type another word!"

Solution:  Another axiom: "Authors are the only people in the world who find writing difficult."

It's so true. The growing writer wants to be up and running, and with each new story feels their talent becoming ever more honed. However, their work still elicits piles of crit-points, which can be deflating, especially on the agonising occasions where the word-count on a critique exceeds that of the story itself.

There are really two branches to this problem. One has to do with the writing industry, and the other with the psychology of the creative brain.

Writing industry: unlike your crit partners, who will look to improve what's in front of them irrespective of its quality, a professional editor has the power to green-light your story, as is, and throw you some cash. The first experience of this, of course, is a helluva feeling, as is the second... and the third... and so on... The difference between the role of critter and editor is the reason you should send as many stories to market as you can, even if your work still generates a lot of crit-points per words.

Keep flinging your stories into the wild, and keep at least half of them away from critique -- you'll want to do things under your own steam and while critique teaches much, the fruit of those lessons is in the more advanced voice you are now routinely using. The chances are that the first thing you sell is going to be a piece of non-critiqued work throughout which your voice sounds fresh. 

Personalised rejections are also encouraging -- if you can turn the head of a professional, you know you're on the right track. Such contact with the industry often garners recommendations for your story, and these are big, industry-sealed comments. Take them to heart with more gravitas than a normal critique, but also consider that the story in question might strike a chord with an editor elsewhere -- even professionals are not all of the same mind.

Psychology: Writers despair and agonise and sometimes hate everything they ever wrote. They go through phases where given the choice between wading neck-high through a mile of bleach and opening a Word doc they'd opt for the bleach.

From what I've seen, every time a writer goes through a 'down on writing' phase, they return from it palpably improved. I genuinely believe that there are times when you've been doing too much -- all the lessons about writing come in a little too fast, a little too bunched together, and the brain needs time to make sense of it all. Rather than let you continue on, learning more stuff, writing new material, I believe the brain makes space to do some deep-rooted ordering -- it rebels; it'll say anything to make you stop writing and for a while you'll listen... and feel lousy.

Let it happen. While I believe that during such times most authors could force themselves to continue writing, I also believe that they shouldn't.

Pick any published work off your shelf, maybe even your favourite novel. Read it aloud and start to take the mickey out of the prose. Labour it, use a bizarre accent. You'll find that you can make the words seem terrible and the story sound obvious, boring, and cliche. This is the inverse of the rose-tinted glasses concept; it shows how an altered perspective can make something wonderful appear to be risible. So, knowing that your state of mind is not conducive to appreciating your own prose, there is no point in watching through non-rose tinted glasses while you force yourself to write something new. That's no fun at all and I'm sure it disrupts the natural break that something inside you is demanding.

Lecturers of creative writing and other writers have been known to recommend that you do something else creative. Have a secondary interest like painting, playing music, dancing, making silly videos for YouTube, anything. Stay creative but don't write until the desire to do so returns. And don't panic if it seems to take a long time -- the longer this period lasts, the bigger improvement you'll see when you get back to the keyboard. I guarantee it. This is based both on personal experience and empirical observation. You remember those days when you were aching to hit the keyboard? They'll return. Sometimes, the snake has to pause in order to throw off an old coat, but he always comes out looking shiny and new.