Thursday, 5 June 2014

Critical or caring: critiques

When I first began to write, I was convinced that I was writing fabulous stories, full of adventure and mystery that would keep any child glued to the page. How wrong I was. Something like eight years, four professional critiques, numerous beta readers' comments and several courses later, I'm closer to that dream - but still not quite there. Yet.

Critiques have definitely helped, but why do I, and many others, continue to subject ourselves to critique when it can be such an uncomfortable experience sometimes?

1. Because we like to show off. 
Shout it from the rooftops - "I've written a book!"

2. Because we want to know we're producing good stuff.
We need our ego stroked, and affirmation that what we've spent hours slaving over was worth every ounce of effort.

If you're lucky, your mum/dad/significant other/BFF will read what you've written, mainly because it's in their contracts that they have to be nice. You may have a beta reader instead - someone you trust, who will be honest with you, and whose opinion you will at least listen to. Or you can splash the cash and pay for a professional critique, though be careful; go by personal recommendation and reputation, and remember 'you gets what you pays for!'

3. Because we want to be better writers.
It's all well and good getting that warm, fuzzy feeling when someone raves about what you've written. But would they really tell you if they didn't like it? If they couldn't follow the story? If they thought you needed to invest in a dictionary/some punctuation lessons/a dose of reality? How can you learn from your mistakes if you can't see them yourself and no-one will tell you what they are?

Receiving critique/feedback is hard. The first critique I ever paid for slapped my wrist so hard and was so uncomplimentary about my story, I set aside what I was working on for a couple of years, convinced I was completely c**p at writing. When I finally got angry enough at the loss of my dream to start again, subsequent professional critiques were easier to stomach, mainly because they highlighted good things as well as bad, and suggested improvements by providing concrete examples.

Whenever I'm asked to read through someone else's work, I'm intensely aware that I need to be encouraging as well as 'critical', remembering how that first critique made me feel.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the same approach. I've seen a spectrum of responses in critique, ranging from the blandest of comments which don't really say anything about the work just read, to those delivered with all the subtlety of a brick to the head. I've seen critiquers slate the early offerings of new writers, giving no consideration to the courage, first language or educational history of the author. Equally, I've seen critiquers offer entire rewrites of the original, which is tantamount to shouting 'I can do it better than you!' I remember one particular post of mine where that happened - the critiquer even went so far as to say 'I'd love to get my hands on this to edit it!' By 'edit', I assume she meant left a very bitter taste indeed.

But the person requesting the critique is not a helpless pawn in this process, and how they receive the feedback makes a difference too. When you receive feedback that is unexpected or not to your liking, you could:
a) throw your toys out of the pram and hit back at the reviewer, because what do they know anyway? It's your book and no-one's going to notice the spelling mistakes/that the heroine's eyes change colour in chapter 3/that the mystery was never truly solved. You've written a masterpiece and no-one's going to tell you otherwise.
Or b) sulk/cry/eat a ton of chocolate/moan to anyone who'll listen about the unfairness of the review for as long as it takes for you to calm down. Then, you re-read the report and consider respectfully whether the opinion of the reviewer is valid and has any use in improving your work. Only THEN do you reply to the reviewer...

When you're on the receiving end of a critique, Debi Alper's 'rule' of Accept, Amend, Reject is invaluable; if I had a writing desk, rest assured those three words would be framed and hanging above it. As the writer, you have to be open to improving your work and making it the best it can be; very few authors write their first book straight off, with no changes needed. And as some have been heard to say - (paraphrased) overnight success takes years.

So the next time you ask for, or are asked for, a critique, take a deep breath and put a little caring into it. As Mary Poppins said, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

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