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Monday, November 16, 2015

My Personal Rules About Critique


As some of you may know, this January I start teaching at Regis University's Mile High MFA program. Consequently, I've been thinking quite a bit about critique. Critique I've received, critique I've given, and critique yet to happen (sorry--holiday brain).

Specifically I've been thinking about how critique, no matter which direction it is flowing, can be stressful. 

Years ago, when I first started writing, the very thought of showing what I had written to another human being brought on spasms of anxiety. Writing was like, getting caught in the act of admission. My writing was personal, raw, and tethered tight to the roots of my identity. To share this type of writing, and subject it to critique, would be to cut open my darkest innards, spread them ugly and haphazard across a table while handing another person a knife to finish the job of judging and killing my soul--this was not the type of writing to be shared with others. Thankfully, even though I had no idea what I was doing at the time, I knew enough to sense that these words were only for me.

Later, when my writing moved past that need to examine only myself and my personal histories, I started working on my first novel. I remember not having any idea what I would do with such a thing, I certainly didn't entertain any ideas about publication, but I did feel that I would like to share the story with someone other than myself. I wanted to know if it was any good, if I was any good as a writer and a storyteller.

I joined my first critique group.

I will never, ever forget that drive, that first night I would ever dare to read my words out loud to a group of other writers. Pages carefully printed and stapled for each person rested on the passenger seat beside me, a nervous and excited thrill coursing through my entire system, the thoughts about turning the car around, driving home and making up a lie about a sick child, maybe a sick *cough* me. I wasn't just scared, I was exhilarated and terrified to read those ten pages. But somehow, I managed to make it all the way to the back tables of that now empty Borders Bookstore and steady my voice long enough to get through all ten pages so that, in the end, I got to hear a fellow critique partner whisper the words, "Wow, I wish I could do that."

Jubilation!

For the record, my critiques have not always been this positive, but I've always felt fortunate that my very first one was. It set the foundation for beginning to believe in myself as a writer.

After that first night, I collected all my printed pages back with every note and correction, drove home, turned on my computer, and made every single change that every person recommended. Even the ones that didn't make sense or contradicted other changes! And the next week, I excitedly went back with that first, now revised chapter, and we all read it again with the suggested changes. And again, my generous critique partners offered up more revision notes.

This went on a few more times before one of the more seasoned writers suggested I bring in chapter two for the next meeting. (sigh, we all must learn how to do this it seems)    

It's hard for me to believe that those nights were almost exactly ten years ago.

Anyway, I learned a ton from those amazingly generous and kind writers, and much more from the many, many writers I have had the pleasure of getting to know since those early days. Some of the biggest and most helpful epiphanies are ones that I will share with my students this January and they have to do with incorporating critique advice into your work.

When you put your early draft work out there and ask others to help you view it through a different lens from your own, you're going to get back a wide swath of suggestions and some of it, maybe much of it, will be in opposition to other feedback from other readers. If you get too hung up, like I did in those early days, trying to please everyone, it's likely that your story will actually end up worse, not better.

I found that it was easier for me to incorporate meaningful suggestions once I had established a few ground rules regarding critique:

1. Realize that critique is a tool that you can choose to use to make your writing better. But always remember, it might not be the right tool--and only you as the writer can know the difference.

2. Critique of your work is not personal if you don't let it be. Regardless of how it is delivered, and it should be delivered professionally, it is still up to you as the writer to accept this feedback gracefully.

3. You are not obligated to change anything in your book--but you should really, really consider what other people are saying.

4. If you have more than one person giving you the same or very similar feedback, you should probably REALLY listen to what they are saying and make changes.

5. When a reader says, "I think...," and you get a strong, almost deja vu like feeling--there is something this reader is telling you that you sorta already knew but hadn't quite put your finger on yet--you've hit the feedback jackpot. This is absolutely when I for sure make changes.

6. Many, many, many critique readers can identify the WHAT is not working but are unable to hand you a good HOW to fix it. So while their suggestions to "Engineer a fight scene!" may sound exciting to them, while not working AT ALL with the tone of your book, it doesn't mean that they got the WHAT IS WRONG, wrong. Don't get hung up on the pieces of advice that are a miss. Be objective and separate the useful from the not useful.

7. And finally, always, always, always, thank a reader for taking the time to not only read your work, but to think about it critically and offer feedback. This is incredibly time consuming for them, acknowledge them and be grateful that you have such excellent people in your life.

2 comments:

  1. Your first point is an interesting one I've never heard before. I have had some crits that, had I followed them, would have led to a bigger mess. So I think you're on to something--that crits can be a helpful tool, but there are other tools that might help more with a particular issue. Craft books and seminars and meaty blog posts come to mind as other things in the toolbox.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by--I like the idea of critique as "tool" because we as the writers are ultimately in control of our story. The feedback we get using that tool can range widely from utter brilliance to complete crap--and we need to know the difference.

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