Putting My Head on the Chopping Block

It wasn’t that bad, really.

Some of us from the local NaNoWriMo group decided to continue to meet after November, and what we really wanted was a serious critique of our work.  We all have friends and family who are the victims of the snippets we continue to inflict upon them, who are kind enough to tell us how wonderful we are as writers, but what we felt we needed were people to tell us where we could improve.  And who better than other writers?  But let’s face it; nobody wants to be criticized.  Art is very personal.  Exposing it to criticism is nerve-wracking because so much of ourselves is exposed to the open air, like a good flesh wound.

But criticism is an important part of the process.  I mean, think about it: if you’re a writer, and you’re serious about publishing, then you intend to expose your work to thousands (hopefully millions) of people who don’t know you from Eve and couldn’t care less if they break your spirit or not.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people can be grade A asshats on the internet.  In the modern world, internet reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and other platforms have a significant impact on the sales of your book, whether you traditionally publish or not.  If there are flaws in your work, wouldn’t you rather hear about them from people who do know you and do care if they shatter you or not, before you expose them to the rest of the universe?

There are other reasons to expose your work to others as well.  Often, an idea is clear to the writer because of the vision in a writer’s head, but it doesn’t come across in the writing.  No matter how many times you personally edit your draft, you won’t notice when that happens .  But someone who is reading it  for the first time will.  Maybe you’re trying something with your style and it’s not working.  Maybe your dialogue is stilted and weird.  (Dialogue is amazingly hard to write, particularly in speculative fiction).

Since I had something that I was ready to take to the next level I volunteered to be the first sacrificial victim.  We were still feeling out the format, but what we’ve decided to do is this: the writer sends a piece for critique in advance of the meeting.  Then each person has 15 to 20 minutes at the meeting to hear points that the other members of the group bring up, or to ask questions about the critiques they received back in the emails.

I suppose everyone kind of secretly hopes that the whole group will say, “Wow!  That was wonderful!  You’re so amazing!”  But of course that didn’t happen.  Some of the points brought up were shared concerns from more than one person (which, by the way, makes them into legitimate issues.  Which I could ignore, but the truth is that if they noticed those flaws, so will someone else).  Some were disappointing because they meant that things I was trying very hard to do did not work at all.

One should keep a few things in mind when receiving such criticisms.  The first is that these people are trying to help you, not trying to hurt your feelings.  You need to accept that their friendly advice is offered in love, whether you agree with it or not.  The second is that you don’t have to take criticism as gospel.  Maybe you strongly disagree with their opinion.  It’s your work, not theirs.  The third is that your editor is probably going to tell you the same thing, and you’re paying them to rake you over the coals.  Wouldn’t you rather get that done for free?

Hmm; that doesn’t sound right somehow . . .

Truthfully, it wasn’t that bad.  Nobody pointed out any major issues with any of the really important stuff.  No one said my plot was boring, or that the characters weren’t likable, or that they didn’t believe the conflict, or that the world I was creating lacked substance.  These are the kinds of statements that tell you that you have a major problem and you might want to re-think your idea.  No, the critiques I heard were housekeeping matters; still important, because they help or hinder the expression of the story, but not structural.

Well, other than two people suggested that the way I kept cutting back to the past from the present was confusing.  Inwardly I groaned (do I really have to say, “and his mind was drawn back into the past, and he remembered?” to differentiate the parts?  Can’t I trust the reader to figure that out?)  One person said that they were waiting for the conflict through the whole story, and my flashbacks just frustrated and annoyed her.  (She didn’t use the word “annoyed,” but I got the meaning.)  For me, the story was a truncated bildungsroman — an origin story, if you will — and so the flashbacks were also part of that story.  I found myself questioning whether I ought to write them as two different stories, but I am reluctant to do that because I think the story composited from the flashbacks will be extremely childish in tone and that doesn’t fit my concept; while in the meantime, the story that happens in the present would be extremely brief and seem a little pointless without the context of the past.

But maybe I do need to write them as separate stories, because obviously the connection that I saw between them, the thematic element that bound them, did not come through to other people.  Also, I discovered that I had not accomplished one of my goals with the flashback pieces, which was to explain part of what the group that the MC was part of was all about.

One person objected to how my tone flipped between two genres.  I had a lot of resistance towards that criticism because that’s kind of the point as I see it to the world I’m building, but all the same I took her suggestion and picked up a novel that was set in one of those two genres (the one she thought I was neglecting).

I was excited to hear these things, even as they left me feeling a little raw.  It’s important to get feedback, and skilled feedback is a special kind of gift.  I’m blessed to have this opportunity.  If you’ve ever sent a story to magazines or a book to publishers and collected rejection slips, and asked yourself, “What did I do wrong?” — this is how you find out.

What do you do with this information?  You give it time to process.  If something was hurtful, allow the hurt to fade before you return to it.  If something made you feel resistant, consider that resistance.  It comes from a desire to protect something.  Give it enough time to determine if what you’re trying to protect is integral to your story, or if it’s your own fragile ego.  If you really love someone’s suggestion (which can also happen; and yes, that happened too, and I can’t wait to try some of the things my comrades suggested!) give it a little time to see if it fits within your framework before you go slashing your story willy-nilly and making it into something that is not yours.

And also, consider your audience.  If you brought your story to a bunch of literary writer types and your target audience is gaming geeks, maybe take their criticism with a grain of salt.  (I can’t make that claim though.  These guys almost universally seem to read sci-fi and fantasy like I do.  And that was such a good excuse to protect my fragile ego, dammit!)

Keep in mind that good critiques and good editors help to refine sculptures from the clay shape of your story, even though they rarely get any credit on a book jacket.  The big thing that often separates success from failure in the publishing world is a good editor.

Above all, remember that the final decision is always yours.  Ultimately, you have to like whatever you put out there.  And if the criticism you’ve received leaves you feeling like maybe you shouldn’t publish your story after all; well, give it time for the hurt to fade before embracing that idea, but don’t let it stop you.  Only you know what’s right for your story.

I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom (and humour) from Jenna Moreci, who has a YouTube channel where she talks about the writing process.

Thank you to the members of the Vernon Critique Group for roastin- er, I mean, tempering my story. 😉

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