Last time I talked about some of the responsibilities the members of a critique group or writers’ workshop had to the writer whose work they were critiquing. This time, I’d like to address the responsibilities of the writer, which go beyond the helpful “Don’t panic!” and “There’s no crying in writing!”
At a panel on critique groups at a recent science fiction convention, some of our audience members (aspiring writers, all) were surprised when the panelists unanimously agreed that the writer whose work was being critiqued also had responsibilities to the group and to her work. They’re important duties, too, because they can make the difference between whether the critique group is ultimately a beneficial experience that makes a writer’s work better, a torturous experience from which she learns nothing (except “critique groups: just say no”), or a ruinous experience that destroys both the story and the writer.
Without further ado:
- Listen to the critique as you would have your comments received when it’s your turn to offer critique of someone else’s work.
- The significant word in point #1 is “listen”. Try to hear what the critic is really saying. Sometimes this is different than what they seem to be saying. Often a critic will point out what they think is a problem, when the real issue is just to the right or left. Example: A critic complains that they don’t buy the relationship between your hero and heroine. They feel it doesn’t have enough chemistry. The problem may not be the chemistry between the characters as it is that one or both of them may not be well-defined as individuals. Which is important because it might change how you respond—by pumping up the “romance” factor when the two are together or by drawing your characters more clearly.
- Be open to thinking outside of what you’ve written. In the situation above, let’s say the problem is really that you’ve paired off the wrong couple of characters. In that case, be open to change. I’ve had stories stop dead in their tracks because I was trying to force a couple of characters together that, for whatever arcane or mundane reasons, didn’t “click”. It took work to fix that, but it was worth the effort—especially since it allowed me to finish the novel.
- Accept the critique graciously. Don’t get personal with the critiquers. And don’t argue or defend your ideas. Telling the critic, “You’re just not getting it. Fred isn’t being snide, he’s being sophisticated” will not help other readers “get it”. Trying to figure out why the critic thinks Fred is a smart ass might.
- So, if a critic’s response puzzles you, seek clarity. Again, explaining what you meant to convey so you can figure out where you dropped the ball is not the same thing as defending your ideas. Saying, “This is what I meant to say,” then getting feedback on why that didn’t come across can be very valuable. It can also keep you from changing what doesn’t need to be changed because you weren’t clear on what a critic was saying.
Don’t be stubborn about elements in your story that are not issues of craft. What does that mean? If your critiquers tell you that the joke in chapter two that you got from your best buddy throws them out of the story, strongly consider removing it. I once was in a convention workshop that critiqued a story the writer had based on a dream. I write from dreams frequently myself, but dreams are illogical and don’t always make sense when you start to write them down. They also often have huge gaps in action or wild POV shifts. When I experience this, I find a way to make the story work by filling in the gaps or smoothing out the points of view. This writer, however, stubbornly refused to do this. For example, when asked why there were sudden POV shifts in the action scenes (which made them impossible to follow), the writer replied, “That’s the way it was in the dream.” When we—every last one of us—recommended he fill in the gaps, adjust the pacing (which went from plodding and surreal to frantic) and detangle the point of view shifts, he responded that he felt he had to stay true to the dream. At that point, we realized that nothing we said would be taken seriously. We wished him luck and moved on.
- Conversely, don’t let the critiquers tell you how to rewrite your story. Try to find symptoms in their critique, not necessarily diagnoses or courses of treatment. Unless you’ve asked an experienced writer or mentor for help with a particular issue, and hope to learn something about craft from them, try to find your own way to fix what needs fixing.
- Don’t overreact. Last time, I shared the tragic experience of the writer who turned a pretty good story into a train wreck trying to accommodate every comment of every critic. In the destruction of that story the writer, himself, was partly to blame.
- I’ve saved what is probably the most important responsibility until last. Don’t change to accommodate the opinion of one critic, unless you feel strongly that she’s just hit on something you’ve already sensed yourself. If more than one person tells you the same thing, you may wish to consider changing it. If everyone tells you the same thing … well, you get it.
You may have surmised by now that this is a matter of balance; take the critiquers’ comments seriously, but not too seriously. Your mind should be open, but not so open that your story gets away. Above all, you want it—no, need it—to remain your story, no matter what your critique group or mentor tells you.