One of the things many writers will tell you is just how difficult it can be to get good, objective feedback on your writing. We go to workshops, critique groups, editors, readers and others, looking for some feedback. Is the writing clear? Do you get a good sense of the protagonist/antagonist? Is the primary plot clear? The conflict and the stakes sufficiently high? Etcetera.
We’ve done the writing. We know the questions to ask? Why is good critique hard to find? The easy out here would be to whine and moan about all those gutless critics out there, but I think for most of us, the answer lies within.
A writer needs to be clear about what they want out of a critique. Here are a few examples:
Acknowledge My Greatness: I’ve known writers who essentially want me to read their pages and then proclaim the scene perfect. Usually this writer goes on the defense, offering extenuating circumstances, declaring that the scene lacked clarity or conflict because the person giving the critique hadn’t read the fifty pages leading up to that scene. Whenever I sense my defenses going up I turned to my inner editor. He’s a real hard ass, by the way. “No, I don’t need to read the previous eight chapters. A scene needs to stand on its own with a beginning, a middle and an end, be clearly written and have sufficient conflict to create tension and forward movement.” If you really don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it.
The Writer Wears No Clothes: Every writer starts at a beginning. Especially when we’re starting out, there’s a need for confirmation which I think is often grounded in a fear that we’re making fools of ourselves. Sure I think my writing is great, but maybe I’m delusional. Everyone knows how bad my writing is and I’m the only one who doesn’t get it. The more naked you feel, the more need you have to be acknowledged. If you feel especially tender, then you might want to find safe, supportive places to get feedback with rules about always giving positive feedback first and offering a single suggestion for improvement. That type of critique group can nurture you as you start out, helping you build confidence.
The Truth and Nothing but the Truth: After you’ve been critiqued and have been critiquing others for a time; after you have send query after query to an unending list of agents; after you have pitched yourself hoarse: sent pages to literary contests; attended conferences and workshops and webinars; there comes a point where you don’t want praise or support anymore. Praise and support are nice, but they don’t get you across the line of publishing. You want the truth. Raw, unvarnished, objective truth offered with respect, but still, the truth of that reader.
On my own path, I’ve been in the support group, the participants so careful not to hurt each other’s feelings, that we hardly offered critique of value. And I’ve been in the groups where we spent our time amazed at our greatness, wondering how the publishing world didn’t see it. Sure, it feels good to not be alone, but we weren’t getting anywhere either.
I have my days when I just want someone to tell me I’m good. And other’s when I just don’t have the heart to hear one more thing I need to revise. But when I’m on my game, which happens more and more these days, I don’t want a person giving me critique to be nice or kind. I want them to be respectful, but brutally honest.
I was in a workshop led by Michael Neff (the Algonkian Conferences — highly recommended). At the beginning of the weeklong intensive, the six participants pitched their books to Michael. I started by saying, “The title of my novel is The Genealogist.” Before I could get out the genre and page count Michael interrupted me. I don’t have an exact quote, but it was something like, “The Genealogist? No. No, that’s not going to work. The Genealogist? We’ll work on it. Okay, go ahead.” I proceed to inch my way through the pitch, with frequent interruptions. On the one hand, my stomach dropped to the floor with each comment on my pitch. On the other hand, I knew Micheal was absolutely on point with his critique and my pitch came out the other side significantly stronger. I left that week by the Potomac with a renewed passion for getting clear, honest feedback that will push me to the edge of my abilities. Why? Because that’s where the best work happens.
What’s the new title? I’m not completely satisfied with it, but the working title is now The Inker War.