Doesn’t Play Well With Others…

It isn’t that I feel your criticism unworthy of making my work better—that isn’t the case at all. It simply makes my work yours and I’m not willing to share the burden. You see, I don’t play well with others. Well okay, I didn’t just figure that out—I’ve known most of my life. It has just been brought back to my attention.

Yeah, I understand that this is part of the industry, get a thicker skin, blah, blah, blah. I’m not talking about career moves here. I know better than to argue with the editor who is trying to get my manuscript in shape, or to refuse my agent’s suggestions. I do have a brain and a smidgen of common sense (not much past that, mind you). I simply have a different opinion on the value of a ‘critique’ than most.

Before I say anything else, let me make clear that I have beta readers—a couple of which are brutally honest and I handle it just fine. I want to hear what they have to say, because I trust them. I know where they are coming from—I know their bias and their preferences. We don’t always agree on things and more often than not, we clash. But the dialog is always beneficial because I know what to do with it. Now, with that said, let me state that I personally would never join a critique group. Why? Because my belief in positive reinforcement pervades my ability to give what others consider ‘useful’ criticism, and I am an independent creator. I’m not alone in this viewpoint. There are a slue of other authors who agree with me, but an even larger population that doesn’t. When I’ve voiced my opinions on this in the past—without fail, I always get the you should toughen up and take what’s good for you lecture. It’s always well worded and backed up with solid logic. Problem is, Thalidomide also had fairly sound logic behind it…oops. Feel that an unfair comparison? Toughen up and take what’s good for you. Thalidomide is a powerfully effective drug, and works wonders for patients with Multiple Myeloma and Leprosy. In other words—what’s good for one person, isn’t necessarily good for everyone.

I did a little research to see if I was being a sissy. Turns out there are more than a few authors who swear by cautiously accepting critiques on their work. According to Kristen Painter:

“Luna/Berkley author P.C. Cast doesn’t use a critique group for two reasons. One is that she feels her writing process works best as a solitary endeavor. “Often it feels as if I’m soughing through mud, but it’s mud I have to fight through myself. That’s how I resolve plot problems and how I develop characters. If I had help, or even too much input from others, I don’t think my end product would be the same.” (http://www.kristenpainter.com/writers/CritiqueGroups_RWR.pdf)

Painter goes on to list the second reason Cast doesn’t use a critique group as time. “Many authors produce work at a greater rate than a critique group can critique.” To be fair—in addition to the authors she lists as not using groups, Painter also shows the other side. So, I’m not saying that there isn’t value in it. I’m merely saying that it doesn’t work for me. I find it infinitely more useful when a reader points out areas of strength than when they comment on what they personally didn’t like. If eight out of nine readers mention my character development as being strong and no one ever says anything about the worlds I’ve created—I’m going to get the idea that I need to work on my level of description. Maybe some authors don’t take subtle hints…rest assured, I do and have no need for others to tell me what they would have done had it been their story.

I suppose that gets to the heart of my issue. When you hand your work to other writers, you are asking for just that. No writer can read something in the draft stages without the question, ‘what would I have done here’ staining their ability to be objective. And that’s the problem, it isn’t your story. You’ll never hear me tell another author how a story should have gone—that isn’t valuable feedback. Nor will I ever suggest tearing a story apart because it isn’t ‘marketable’ the way that it is. Critique groups as they are now, are a relatively new creation. A writer in decades past would have a few trusted readers, if he/she showed an unpublished work to anyone aside from their editor. The concept of a collective or collaborative effort is an invention of mass market production. If you want to produce a manuscript to please the masses, show it to them first.

Personally, no thanks. I’m a purest when it comes to fiction. If it didn’t happen that way, I’m not changing it or adding fluff to make it more palatable to the market. Period. Burn me at the stake for it—the masses are good at that. I’m simply tired of seeing it worded as an absolute, when it isn’t. I’m tired of reading that in order to take yourself seriously as an author, you should sign up for the unsolicited criticism of an anonymous online community or a face to face, weekly commitment with other authors…because no serious author does it alone. This simply isn’t true at all. While we may be the exception, we aren’t a myth.

I’m not interested in hearing critique groups or critiques in general defended. I’ve heard it all, more than once, and saying it again won’t change how I feel about it. Writers get up in arms over this…which makes no sense if you think about it—I’m criticizing the norm and you’re immediately rushing to the defense…doesn’t that fly in the face of your argument? Shouldn’t you take my words for what they are and maybe see if you can’t learn something from them? Improve? My favorite argument thus far is the assumption that since a work hasn’t been published yet, there must be something inherently wrong with it. Really? You believe that? And passing it through enough critiques will eventually whittle down the ‘errors’ and you’ll have a ‘publishable’ novel at some distant point in the future? Formulas don’t work. That, is a formula. To hell with those who say it needs shredding. Tolkien himself told Lewis that he should scrap Father Christmas from The Chronicles of Narnia. Several years ago a poll was done in the united states that asked grade school children what part they liked best, and wouldn’t you know…Father Christmas won by a landslide. So, it isn’t even a matter of who is giving the criticism—whether they are qualified or not—you know when something is right or wrong in a story. Have a little more faith in yourself and your ability to write.

Stephen King said it best, No, it’s not a very good story – its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.”

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5 responses

  1. One of Robert Heinlein’s rules for writers was “Never rewrite except to editorial request.” I have personally improved my writing (in general) from some critique work, even if I rejected the critiques for the particular stories. I do understand where Heinlein and I believe you are coming from, though, and I won’t disagree
    -Michael

  2. I keep forgetting about Heinlein. He and I agree on quite a few things, perhaps this is one of them. I’ve improved through the scrutiny of those trusted readers and through the careful observation of how the books I read affect me, how they are written and why they work. Too many times I’ve found a formal ‘critique’ to consist more of what that author prefers instead of what really needs attention. Trite and petty things need not clog up the time which would be better spent polishing and proofing a manuscript. An hour spent arguing over the placement of a coma or some other subjective tool…the five minute discourse over one author’s misunderstanding of a common word’s definition…a half hour dedicated to defend style, it doesn’t do me any good. What does work is the beta reader who best represents my target audience telling me that she hasn’t the foggiest idea what the hell I’m trying to say in chapter two. That is a criticism worth hearing. Another author will likely tell me what chapter two should have been and only serves to frustrate me further.
    But again, I’m rambling.

  3. I can’t tell if you’re calling me an ox or an ass….
    Humility is very much an Ox, one I’ve had the pleasure of having in my lap like a lap dog more than once. That’s somewhere in-between the docile and stubborn I suppose. Every now and then (more often for some) we just have to clear our heads before we can get anything done. This week has been a mass exodus of all those things which have offended my soul. Consider me a clean, comfy-clothed, slate…

  4. I kind of agree with you when it comes to not using critique groups. I like to work on my own schedule. However, I do use a writing site where I occassionally receive good feedback, though I definitely give more detailed reviews than I receive. It’s a bit like a lottery, really. You never know what the result’s going to be. Still, the few helpful reviews I’ve received have helped me greatly improve my work. It’s all up to the individual writer, I guess.

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