How we treat one another is so important. If you believe as I do bad karma will come back to bite you. More specifically, how we critique another writer’s work.
Recently I saw someone post their first chapter in one of the writing communities on Google (can’t remember which one) and ask for feedback/critique. Normally when I see an extremely green writer post something I move on, because in order for me to help it would mean hours and hours of teaching them the craft. And I just don’t have that kind of time. Besides, I believe it’s better to learn on your own, make your own mistakes and grow as a writer over time. That’s how most of us do it, anyway.
But on this day, for some reason, I figured I’d give her a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Without going into detail, because I don’t believe in publicly bashing ANYONE’S work, let me give you a for instance… The story she posted was written in the present tense and she opened by telling the backstory, everything that preceded the story she would presumably tell. As you can already see I could have mentioned a million different things, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or destroy her passion for the craft, so I wrote, “Please know I am only trying to help you. I think you have wonderful creativity, but you seem to “telling” your story instead of “showing” your story as it unfolds. Do you know what I mean?”
Well, she wrote me a friggin’ book defending her first chapter and explaining why she was telling it instead of showing. Her answer was, she was telling the story to HER CHARACTER and once her character understood the backstory she would begin to show the reader the real story.
My jaw went slack, head cocked, brow furrowed. I should have stopped then. But no. Again, I tried to help with, “Have you considered showing this interesting backstory in a flashback, or by dropping in little details from the protagonist’s past a little at a time and let the reader figure it out along with your character?”
She stopped responding to me. So, there you go. Did I help her? Or just piss her off? I have no idea. But it stuck with me. Today on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Twitterific links she listed a post about critiquing other writer’s work. In it, the author mentioned the narcissistic writer who doesn’t really want constructive feedback. They want you to tell them how great they are. And if you dare say anything otherwise you’ll be met with them defending their work and telling you why you’re wrong. Maybe I’m naive, but I had never even thought of this before. So I guess I came across a narcissist. Lucky me.
When I work with my critique partner we always try to be respectful but honest. If something just isn’t working we tell each other. And that’s what it’s really about. If you only hear how great you are and your CP is afraid to hurt your feelings than you are both wasting each other’s time. You might as well hang it up now, or find someone who will tell you the truth.
Susan and I (yes, we both have the same name) have worked on three different novels a piece, so by now it’s old hat (pardon the cliche). We each know where the other one’s coming from– that we want each other to succeed beyond our wildest dreams, want each other to write the best possible book we can. With that in mind we shred each other’s manuscripts– from missing words, commas, periods to getting rid of adverbs, too many adjectives, fixing pacing, format issues, story structure, etc. But we also help to rebuild. And that’s the key.
Critiquing is never easy. Someone is trusting you with their hard work. It’s your job to take that seriously, not breeze over it. I’ve had to re-read a chapter sometimes three or four times to make sure I’m giving the best advice I can. When I send her chapters back to her– we usually do fifty page chunks at a time– I know I’ve put everything I had into my critique. And she does the same. Then we take the advice that resonates with us and leave the rest. It turns out we usually take every suggestion because we are very compatible. But that isn’t always true for most.
And that brings me to my next point. When working with a new critique partner only take the advice that sounds right to YOU. I’ve made this mistake before and paid dearly for it. (another cliche) It was your vision that made you write that specific story. If the critique isn’t about craft and instead is about personal taste only take the feedback that resonates with you. Those of us going traditional have heard it a million times: This is a very subjective business. It’s on almost every rejection letter. But it also happens to be true.
I’ve known authors who have had to fight to keep things in their manuscripts when working with a publisher in order to remain true to their story. Though I don’t recommend fighting with your publisher or any of their editors, I do believe in not caving when you believe the advice will change your entire vision. What I mean is, suppose your protagonist is a PI and the publisher doesn’t like that and instead wants them to be a lawyer. Obviously this would never happen but bear with me. You know your story won’t sound right if you change your protagonist’s profession, it goes against your vision for your story. On the other hand, be open to suggestions. Don’t be bull-headed and just say, “Nope, that’s not what I had in mind.” You never know when someone else’s suggestion could propel your story to the New York Times’ Bestseller list.
It’s a fine line we walk between staying true to our original story and knowing when a suggestion will make it all that much stronger. I’ll give you an example. In MARRED, there is a scene where Sage (my protagonist) hears something in the loft and sees a shadow flit across the room. I originally wrote that it was a red balloon– a creepy balloon that someone put there. My CP suggested having something– can’t tell you what– inside the balloon and having Sage pop it. When I heard her suggestion I got goosebumps. It was perfect! And I knew it instantly.
Now part of that is because we are very simpatico. The other part is that I was OPEN to suggestions. And my story is that much stronger because of it. See what I mean? Don’t be the narcissistic writer who only wants to hear good things. That won’t help you. Grow your thick skin even thicker and listen. Just listen. You never know when you’ll get a comment like my balloon.
What have your experiences been with a critique partner? Have you ever had a bad experience? Tell me in the comments below.