How not to be a writer (part 3: you are not the story)

The final element that held up my writing career was critiquing – or rather the lack of it.

I didn’t receive any useful critiques until I was in my thirties. If I’d found an experienced writer willing to give honest feedback – as opposed to the occasional long-suffering friend who’d usually say the story was ‘quite good’ – then I might have realised that I had issues earlier. However, the experience related below put me off the whole idea of critting for some years.

Whilst at college, an acquaintance wrote an SF novel and submitted it to a publisher, who politely turned it down. I was impressed at her achievement and sad for her rejection and so I offered to have a read and make comments. Though it was a damn sight better than I could have done, I thought I understood why the story had been rejected. When I next saw her I started to say ‘I think I know what the publishers meant—’ but she cut me off, and walked away. She never spoke to me again. I believe she still writes, and hopefully enjoys it, but as far as I know she has yet to be professionally published. 

And therein lies the first lesson of critiquing: you are not the story. We put our hearts and souls into our writing, so naturally it hurts to realise it’s not the work of genius we assumed. But the critique is about the work, not you. It isn’t (or shouldn’t be) meant to belittle you through your work. If you’re sure – rightly or wrongly – that a critique is about you, not your writing, then it’s probably going to be of very little use, and you should feel free to ignore it.

It was about ten years after this unpleasant experience that I received my first critique, at the end of One Step Beyond. I cried; not with rage or frustration or self-pity but with embarrassment. I’d had a week to see the error of my ways and the critters were entirely right. If anything, they were too gentle on me. How could I have been producing crap like this for so long?

I’ve now been getting, and delivering, crits for over a decade. I’ve learnt that when critiquing someone you don’t know, you should start with the positive points, so hopefully I won’t make any more enemies over it, though consenting semi-pros get few concessions from me, as various Milford veterans will attest.

There are many professional writers with more talent and experience than I who don’t need to get everything they write critted. However I would never submit anything that hadn’t been read critically by at least a couple of my peers. (That includes already accepted novels; my editor’s job is to improve something that’s already of a professional standard; my job is to make sure what she sees is the best I can produce.)

And that’s the second lesson: no matter how good you believe something is, it can almost certainly be improved. It might just be tinkering, say a bit of repetition that could be cut without loss or the odd phrase that needs sharpening. On the other hand it might be a sodding great plot hole you’ve failed to spot. We all write to our obsessions, and they can blind us.

There’s a lot that could be said about what constitutes a ‘good’ crit, but I’ve already gone on for long enough so I’ll just say that the essential qualities for me when I’m on the receiving end are honesty and thoroughness. When I get a critique I hope that the critter has read carefully and thoughtfully. If some part of the story doesn’t work, I want him/her to be honest and tell me, and ideally to say what the problem might be. Suggestions for improvement are always welcomed; I’m at liberty to ignore them. If something did work, it’s good to have that pointed out too, as then I’ll probably try and keep that phrase/descriptive passage/scene/plot twist in during future revisions. However, ‘It’s very nice,’ will not help anyone improve.

In summary: honest criticism – ideally from other writers in your genre who’ll understand what you’re getting at – will help you improve. Trust me on this.

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