I finished reading the short story and held my breath. This was the first time in years that I’d willingly submitted my work (and therefore myself) to an open critique. There were only three of us there. We were all friends. But I’d put my heart and soul into my work, and felt more vulnerable reading it aloud than I would have felt had I decided to start stripping off items of clothing. I waited for someone to speak.
“I really like it,” Number One* said.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t know what people were so dramatic about. Critique-schmitique.
“It’s good,” Number Two* said. “But I don’t understand why they suddenly decided to climb on to the roof. Wouldn’t it make more sense if they kept running along the street? They’d cover more ground that way.”
Gasp! I reeled back, and almost fell out of my chair. Stabbed through the heart. I could feel my life-blood spilling on to the table and dribbling weakly on to the floor. Tears prickled my eyes, but I sucked it up and forced myself to be strong.
“They couldn’t keep going, because there would have been guards up ahead,” I explained, desperately hoping that my voice sounded steadier than my nerves felt. “And since Raven knows the city so well, he knows that getting on to the rooftops is going to be the best way to avoid the guys chasing them, as well as the guards ahead.”
I stopped talking. Number Two didn’t look like she was about to apologise for having wrongfully ripped my heart to shreds and then stomped it into the ground. In fact, she looked completely unmoved. So I kept talking. “Besides, they need to be on the roof for the next part of the plot to work.”
If I was trying to wow Number Two with my intricate knowledge of my own upcoming plot, I failed dismally. She still looked unmoved. I couldn’t keep eye contact. I started to fidget. I wished I’d never been stupid enough to read my story aloud. Then Number Two spoke.
“Are you going to sit next to everyone who reads your book and explain it?”
That scenario really happened. It was about eight years ago now, and I’ve come a long way with my writing, as well as my ability to receive constructive criticism. These days, I’d be more devastated by Number One’s response. I absolutely LOVE handing my writing over to someone, and getting it back covered in questions, notes, thoughts, corrections, and suggestions. Love it. In fact, I love it so much that when I’m struggling with writing something new, I print out my own work, grab a pen, and scrawl notes all over it.
(It’s not as good as doing it with a partner, but it does the trick.)
So, how did I go from feeling devastated by a single question, to actively seeking out people who will give me tough, honest feedback? Simple. The single question that I highlighted above.
The fact is that I’m not going to sit next to everyone who reads my story and explain my reasoning. So if someone (anyone) reads something I’ve written and asks, “Where did the owl come from?” or “Is Bruce taller than Sam? For some reason I thought he was shorter,” then it’s a serious issue. I have only ONE way to communicate with my reader — through my writing. If my writing doesn’t make it clear that a lump of play-doh was transformed into a living owl, or that Bruce is 6’5″ and looks like an American Gladiator, then I need to get back to work and make some changes.
When someone gives me a critique, or asks a question to clarify what’s going on, I wholeheartedly embrace it and act upon it. Getting defensive and “explaining” my reasoning just means that I’ll need to include an audio track when I have my novel published. And nobody needs to be forced to listen to a recording of my voice!
As a side note, there is one kind of critique that is unhelpful, and that I ignore. That is critique written by someone with I-would-have-written-it-this-way-itis. This type of critique-writer doesn’t point out inconsistencies or provide suggestions as to how to rephrase difficult sentences — he just makes changes to writing style and voice. That’s the kind of “help” I can do without.
* No, these are not their real names. Yes, I know you’re shocked. I haven’t asked the people involved if I can write about them on my blog, so their names have been changed to protect the ignorant.