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During the Great Writing Crisis of 2009 (okay, it spilled into 2010, but let’s keep it simple) I learned a lot of lessons on writing and life. Let’s hope I learned them by heart and they stay with me long enough that the jealous gods of writing don’t feel compelled to teach me again.

On the off chance I might help somebody else avoid the same pitfalls, I’ll try to articulate my experience for the rest of you. The topic for the day is criticism. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t take criticism well. I need it, I seek it, and have been known to go to pieces under the weight of it. Yes, my mind clearly understands that it’s only opinion, and that I, as the author, have the final say. I know that some criticism should be ignored. I’m not very good at this. Some of my writing friends know all too well that I have a tendency to lash out in response. And when the last of the critiques came in on Swimming North, I found myself seriously doubting my ability to put two words together in a way that anybody would ever want to read.

Let me stop right here to thank my beta readers and crit partners, and any passing random bystanders who may have read or commented on the WIP. Your insights and comments have been invaluable. This little learning experience is not about you – it is all about me.

Criticism is like dynamite. It is an essential tool in the quest for polished and publishable writing, but should be handled with the utmost respect and only while wearing full protective gear.

  1. Make sure that the person you are handing your beloved manuscript to is a trained professional who understands the explosive nature of that little red stick, and exactly what happens when you put a match to the fuse.  Or at the very least, somebody who has experienced a few explosions of their own and has a healthy respect for the risks involved.
  2. Terrorists like dynamite. There are people out there who will blow your work to smithereens with great glee, in order to meet some twisted agenda (conscious or unconscious) of their own. Not everybody who wants to read your work has your best interests at heart.
  3. Don’t hand out the dynamite to too many people at once. You know that old adage about ‘too many cooks spoil the broth?’ Yep. It’s true. Everybody has an opinion. Some of them are awesome. And if you have a whole group of intelligent, perceptive readers, each with valid but highly conflicting opinions on what you’ve written, should be writing, or how any of this writing should or should not be done, it’s easy for the entire ms to get blasted into inchoate fragments.
  4. Don’t hand a stick of dynamite to somebody, fuse already lit, and expect that it won’t explode. Other writers are, for the most part, not going to just read your unpublished work and hand it back without comment. We can’t. We’re not wired that way.  H.G. Wells wrote, “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” I think there is some truth to this, and I’m not saying it is a bad thing. I’m just saying – be prepared. If you want that unadulterated rush of enthusiasm about how wonderful the ms is, give it to kind friends and family members. Don’t give it to me – I’ll want to help you make it better. And I’ll swear to my dying day that I gave you feedback with the best of intentions. And I’ll mean it.
  5. Wear protective gear. Explosions can be dangerous. Never start handing out the dynamite until you are aware of the risks. It’s possible the ms won’t (and shouldn’t) withstand the critique. It’s possible that the blast will knock out a major support or two, and you will have to do some serious structural repair. If you, the writer, are not prepared to engage in the work of cleaning up the mess, don’t facilitate the explosion.
  6. Give yourself time to grieve a little. Any time explosives are involved in a process of construction, something is going to dramatically change. There is loss here. Words, subplots, plots, characters can be blown out of existence by a well placed charge.  Take some time to let the dust settle before you make decisions about your course of action.

Well, that’s about it for my thoughts on critiques, except to remind you to be careful out there. Watch this site for the next post on The Ever Present Danger of The Green Eyed Monster, or alternately, focus on your own writing and your own goals if you don’t want to turn into a lunatic.

Apparently last Friday’s post, written in a hurry and just a little bit flippant, summoned the attention of the Critic, whose full attention had been elsewhere.  It had the effect of putting on the One Ring and jumping around on a hill top shouting, “Hey, Suaron!  Look at me!  Neener, neener, neener…”

Unwise.

Said Critic spent the entire weekend whupping my writerly ass.  However, the creature perhaps fails to properly estimate the fight that is still in me, and I remain defiant.  I will write the damn book, whether it’s abysmal or brilliant or (God forbid) mediocre.  And then I will write another one.

Synchronicity came to my aid as it often does, and this morning I ran across a new Blog: Deadline Dames.  Check it out – these nine wonderful women are offering a goal setting challenge, with prizes!  How much better could it get?  I mean, I know my Friday Weekend Challenge feature is awesome, butI have to admit it’s pretty much lacking in the prize department.  

On the writing front, I did not get much down on paper, but I did figure out where and why I was blocked and got started on a scene that I believe will resolve the current problem.  So, as I venture off into another day of the weird and wonderful world of Mental Health crises, all is pretty much well with me.

Your war stories of weekend writing or other battles are always welcome – leave a comment, say hi.  I love to hear from you.

Friday.  So many possibilities await.  What words will you write this weekend?  What ideas will you get down?  How much will get from your head onto the page or into the computer?

I had a writerly epiphany this week.  I was reading The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.  The book is a Pulitzer prize winner; it probably deserves to be.  And yet, when I was done, I realized something.  If I’d written this particular novel, I’d be busy tearing it to shreds, thoroughly convinced that it was far from done.  If a writer friend had handed it to me as a manuscript, I would have said, “it’s brilliant, but… would you consider changing this, or adding this, this part seemed incomplete to me…”

My point being that I may, just possibly, be far too critical of anything that is in the process of development, my work and others, and I very much doubt that I’m the only one.

My challenge this weekend to all of you who are in various stages of the writing process, is to get your own personal critic under control.   I’m rather partial to Ann Lamott’s method of imagining all critical voices as mice, putting them in a jar with a tight fitting lid and turning off the volume.  What I usually do, though, is just treat my critic like one of my kids and ignore it, until the constant nagging makes me totally lose my cool, throw something, and walk away from writing for awhile. (No, I do not throw things at the kids.  I don’t.  Honest.)

So – this weekend I vow to experiment with better Critic Control Measures, as well as to keep on stringing scenes together and worry about tying it all together later.  What about the rest of you?

“It seems that the necessary thing to do is not to fear mistakes, to plunge in, to do the best that one can, hoping to learn enough from blunders to correct them eventually.” (Maslow)

I found myself, the other day, staring blankly at the computer screen for about an hour.  Really.  No tapping of keys, rapid or slow.  Nothing.   There was a major change I thought I wanted to make in my manuscript, but the ‘what if’s’ had caught me.  What if I’d be better off leaving it as it is?  What if I’m not talented enough or skilled enough to pull off what I want to do?  What if I really can’t write at all, and would be better off adopting a dream of becoming a hotel room cleaning person, or something?  What if I’m like one of those poor misguided souls who show up on American Idol, unable to sing a note and thoroughly convinced that they are the best writer..uh… singer in the world while everybody is secretly laughing at them?  What then?

I will say that while this war raged in my head, I did stick firmly to the computer screen – no errant quests to wash the cats or collect deer fur caught on brambles and spin it into yarn, or other adventures of that nature.  Not a lot of writing happened, but I’m proud that I at least did not give up and walk away.

In this current economy, it’s easy to fall into hopelessness about ever being published (as though it was difficult to accomplish feeling hopeless before!)  Not to mention the ongoing mind battle about whether or not I have any business writing in the first place and the subtle feeling that perhaps I am desecrating the Art with my awkward efforts.  As writers, I believe this is where the battles are fought – in our heads.  We are warriors of a sort, but it all happens on location – no trips to foreign territory for us, and nobody will ever see or celebrate the battles that we fight.  No Bard’s tales sung before the fire of the Great Writer’s Battle with Despair.   That doesn’t make them any less.  For whatever reason, we feel called to write, to tell the stories as they come into our minds.  And our greatest enemy is – ourselves.  Sure, call it the Critic, or the Editor, but it’s you talking, saying things you would never dream of saying to somebody else.  (Well, okay, maybe some of you are mean, horrible people, and would walk up to another writer and tell them how hopeless they are and that they’d be better to give up now and burn every word they’ve ever written, I don’t know you.  It’s possible.)  Why, oh why, do we think it’s okay to talk to ourselves this way?

We do it, I believe, because we are afraid.  Our internal editors and critics aren’t really being mean,  they have our best interests at heart.  They fear we are wasting our time, or making fools of ourselves, or exposing vulnerable places we’d be better to keep concealed.  

They need to get over themselves.

Face the fear, say I.  Write on.  Take risks.  Never, ever, give up.

This weekend, even with Christmas rapidly approaching and me woefully unprepared; with sweeping changes on the home front and the work front that have left me feeling bloody and battered and insufficient to the challenge of anything, I persist in proclaiming the weekend writing challenge.  I will continue to experiment with the revisions in Chapter Two of Swimming North.  I will explore, and then make decisions and press on.  That’s it for me, just a small chunk.  Revision of one chapter.  Oh – and finishing the polishing of my synopsis.

Who’s with me?

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