Critiques

Another blog post so soon? It’s almost as if I found a blog post I’d written over a month ago and just found it now…

Feedback is essential for good writing.  Sure, there is a “freak” segment of the population who can create in a vacuum, but this isn’t about those aberrations.  The trouble is, not all feedback is equal.  In fiction writing, there are so many elements:  plot, character, pacing, language, rhythm, and grammar.  All of it is subjective.  Even the grammar.  There’s this thing called “poetic license” which means a good writer can bend or even ignore grammar rules in service of an effect.  A good writer can play with punctuation, make a sentence run on and on, and form sentences without a noun or a verb.  Of course a bad writer can do all those things, too.  The difference is that a good writer can be forgiven for it—possibly even exalted for it. 

So, in the land of subjectivity, what makes a good critique?  For me, it’s a critique that improves the writer’s piece.  That can be accomplished in many ways:  finding grammatical errors (both intentional and unintentional), discovering holes in plots, moments that are confusing or boring, dialogue that doesn’t sound right, flow issues, underdeveloped characters, and the list goes on.  A given piece can have any number of problems and even more ways in which it could be “better.”  I put “better” in quotes because what makes something better for one person, might make it worse for someone else.  All of this is subjective.  

In my own work, there are so many elements to track, that I find it impossible to see everything with my own eyes.  I need those outside eyes and perspective, someone looking into the stories I write.  It’s always amazing to find out that something I thought was so clear wasn’t actually on the page.  It was still locked in my head.  Knowing that means I can work to try to make it clear, find a way for others to see a little bit more of what is in full bloom in my brain. 

I’ve gotten so much good feedback over my short career.*  Sometimes, someone will give me a specific critique and it opens up all these possibilities or gives me an insight as to how the story needs to change.  Sometimes, I get feedback, and I roll my eyes at myself.  Another comma splice, Hollie?  Seriously?  

There is also feedback that is worthless. General comments like, “I don’t care much for stories about angels.” Even positive feedback can be unhelpful. “I liked the writing.” Um. Okay. 

Then there is the feedback in middle. Sometimes, feedback that doesn’t ring true or doesn’t work for the author. Say I have a story I’m trying to write, and some gem inside is my inspiration. No matter how true or specific the feedback, asking me to change that core is something I’m going to reject every time. That’s someone else’s version of my story. Maybe my funky style of grammar doesn’t work for someone. I might change it. I might not.  

But what I really want to talk about is dark feedback. Every so often, a critique feels razor sharp, personal. My first instinct is to say, “Screw you.”** This is in my head (or out loud, but when I’m alone). My chest tightens; my stomach rolls. Every fiber of my being says “no.” It hurts.  

Here’s the thing, though, even mean, nasty, ill-intentioned feedback (or something perceived that way) can be valuable. Even if I like my run-on sentence, it’s valuable for me to look at it with a critical eye when someone is bothered by it. Maybe the way I like to paragraph isn’t the way my critiquer wants it paragrahed.*** If I consider their changes, sometimes, it makes it better, more clear. A person who hates the premise of my story, can still offer me ways to improve the premise I love.  And even more painful is the feedback that rings true. 

I do have issues sometimes with active voice. So, though I still mutter “Screw you”**, I re-work the sentence. My grammar is more intuitive than calculated, so I sometimes  forget to hyphenate compound adjectives or capitalize or don’t capitalize a proper noun. I make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Having them discovered by someone else, a witness to my incompetence, is rough. 

The trick is to work past the pain and resentment. I wish I knew how to do it beyond just pushing it aside every time it flares. It would be nice to be the kind of person who could look at the information objectively and ignore the barbs. I can’t do it, so I solider on. The other trick is to not let the feedback stop me from writing. I’m as pain-avoiding as the next person—maybe more so. But, growing pains and blah, blah, blah. When the work is what’s important, what’s a little pain?  

At least it doesn’t hurt as much as eyebrow plucking. 

*Can I call what I do a career? Huh. I’m going to say yes, under the umbrella of poetic license. 

**I don’t actually say “screw”, but I’m trying to save my hardcore profanity for my fiction.

***Maybe you think “paragraph” can’t be turned into a verb. It totally can!

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