Author's Ink

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Critique sucks and then you die...



So you're ready to present your masterwork to the world.  You go to the website, critique group, or whatever the venue is, and lay it down with obvious pride.  It's good--you just know it is.  You've worked your tail off on the thing...really put your heart into it.  And you're half mad with anticipation of all the glowing comments you know you'll be receiving.  It's your baby.  Who wouldn't love your baby?

What you want to hear is that your baby is genius.  Pure genius.  And if you've allowed family members and close friends to examine the piece first, you've probably already been told that numerous times.  And let's be honest here...what you think you want is more of that.

And what is critique, really?  It's a mirror that someone holds up to your work.  You look into that mirror and you see one thing.  But then a reviewer turns the mirror around and shows you what he/she sees in it.  And that's all it is.

Writing is just a form of communication.  If the writing is effective, what the reviewer sees should look a lot like what you saw in there.  If not, then there may be a problem.  And it's not necessary to please everyone.  Obviously that's not even an option.  But I know one thing:  if you're not writing to reach the teeming masses then you may just be writing to yourself.  At that point you can congratulate yourself for being an 'artist'--for not selling out or becoming commercial--but you'll more than likely be writing in the dark, all that genius wasted.

So then the comments start rolling in and they seem lukewarm at first.  It seems like the group is not 'getting you'.  They begin to get more specific, listing things that they believe are obvious problems.  Things you hadn't thought of, things you aren't sure even matter.  The words feel as if they're coming at you faster and faster and not only are they tough to digest, it's becoming difficult to keep your composure.  What?  I have to start again?  I have to revise?  There's more work to be done?  My vision isn't perfect?  My baby not beautiful?

You can barely wrap your head around this new information and now the only thing you can think of to do is to defend your work to the death if need be.  Your brain is searching furiously for a means to convince your critics that they're wrong.

We've all been there.

I sat in front of my first critique group over twenty years ago in college.  It seemed highly personal to me at the time.  And some days were good.  There were times when I bathed in the afterglow of a session filled with high praise.  There were other days when I literally wept with frustration.  How could I be so misunderstood?

And it doesn't get a lot easier.  As recently as a few months ago, I posted a sample chapter in a small contest and was shocked that the group didn't find my work nearly as amazing as I did.  I wantd to scream and shout.  Are you kidding me?  Whaddaya mean this is all over the place?  Surely you see...????

And I'll admit, I did spend a bit of time sulking, and yes, even bitching to a couple of close friends about the unfairness of it all.  I'm as human as you are.  But the bottom line is this:  those people gave up a chunk of their time to read my work and to try and offer not only an honest opinion but also some helpful suggestions.  Their feedback was a gift to me, albeit a painfully honest one.

And I had choices.  I could remain angry and ignore their comments.  I could click X, run out of there, never go back.  Or I could slow down, realize it really wasn't personal, and consider what they were trying to say to me.  After all, hadn't I asked for their opinions when I submitted my work for critique?  Glowing reviews are oh, so nice, aren't they?  But are they helpful?  Really?  Do they go the distance towards improving our work?

In the end I swallowed my pride.  The work was more important to me.  I want to succeed!  And that didn't mean that I took each and every suggestion to heart.  It meant that I considered as carefully as I could, the things that they noted, and went back to work.  I revised.  And then I revised again.  I lost the contest but my novel is soooooooooo much the better for it.  And instead of arguing, I went back into the site and did the only thing that was right to do.  I thanked each and every one of them for their time and suggestions...the ones I used and the ones I didn't.  And that's the ONLY proper response for any critique. 


Because they gave their time to me.  Because for those few minutes, they put their lives on hold--their spouses and their children, their daytime jobs and their own problems--to read my work and to offer their help.  They owed me nothing  I am a stranger to them.  Still...what they gave was invaluable.

They gave me their honesty even though being writers themselves, they may have been only too aware that I may not respond well to that.  And all the while that they were delivering the bad news they were probably feeling my pain right along with me. 

We've all been there.

It's kind of like an oncologist who has to deliver the news that a patient has cancer.  I gotta believe that he's wearing a big, old grimace on his way to the consultation.  And he knows the treatment he's going to suggest may well be worse than the disease, but it's the only way he knows to bring the patient back to health.  And it's important to remember that you came in with cancer, the doctor didn't give it to you!

And while there are many reasons to handle a critique with dignity and gratitude, I can think of one other that's especially important.  This is a business and people are watching you.  There's not an editor or agent in the world who wants to work with an argumentative client.  You may have just written War and Peace, but if your agent suggests that you revise chapter four and you refuse, he will more than likely show you the door.  There are millions of starving writers out there who are more than willing to give him exactly what he's asking for.  And after all, he is a pro.  He got where he is by knowing what works and what doesn't.

And as far as critique groups go, if you've responded to someone's opinion in a negative way, what's to inspire others to read your work and try to help?  They can see from the start that they'd be wasting their time, as you aren't going to listen anyway.  Who needs that?

So always, always be professional.  There's no critique group so small, no opinion so uninformed, that you shouldn't at least consider it and be thankful for the gift that it is.  Do you have to take every suggestion to heart?  Certainly not.  If you've thought it over and disagree, then be silent and let it go.  It's not useful to you.  This is still your vision after all.  But please, do not ever shoot yourself in the foot by returning to argue the points and defend your work.  It doesn't look good on you.  If you need to, you can always hang up a picture of that person in your office and throw darts at it.  But do your crying in private.  And when you've done with the crying, be gracious, say thank you, and move on.