Posted by : Sherri Cornelius Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In a recent post outlining the purpose of critique groups, literary agent Chip MacGregor says,

As a writer, you need a place to be bad, so that you can learn to be good. So if your ego is too fragile to allow someone else to read your work, it's time to learn this lesson. Allow yourself to be bad. Give somebody else (preferably not your mom, your spouse, or your best friend) the permission to be honest with you about your writing.

I'm great at taking literary criticism. Other areas of my life, maybe not so great, but about my writing? Yeah, for some reason that's easy. Maybe it's because I don't have an arrogant bone in my body (that sounded a bit arrogant itself, didn't it?) and always assume I'm in the wrong. But really, when a reader tells me a passage didn't make sense, or my character's profanity seemed forced, or to should have been too, how can I argue with that? It's the reader's perception, inarguable. But although accepting a reader's perception comes easily, I did have to learn how to sift through that information and use only what will nudge my book toward my vision of perfection, rather than someone else's. The best critter I ever had was also the biggest meanie. He was the best because he rarely tried to soften the blow, and he was often right. It took a while to realize he wasn't always right.

I really don't understand the over-sensitive, stick-your-head-in-the-sand mentality. If you ask for someone's opinion, by golly listen to that person. Just know there will probably always be more negative comments than positive just because that's how critiques are. However, you do need to know which people are helpful for you. Just because someone is above you on the ladder doesn't mean they have the best advice to perfect your vision.

Chip has a couple of items which go against most of the conventional advice you'll find on the Internet. For instance, he says it's a good idea to get fresh eyes on an early draft, whereas most folks advise writers to polish their manuscripts before handing them over for critique, something which never made much sense to me. I mean, you spend months on your first draft, and at least that much more on subsequent edits and weeks hunting down every typo. You hand it to a trusted meanie, who sees a huge problem with a subplot and advises you to remove it entirely. Of course that means cleaning up all the loose ends left by cutting the scenes in question. What's worse is that you see the meanie is right. Now, you can do a few things with this information:

  1. You make the necessary changes, which means tacking on another couple of months to your projected submission goal.

  2. You convince yourself the meanie doesn't know what he's talking about, by any means necessary. The sub-par sub-plot stays.

  3. You cry and cry, knowing he's right but being unable to face all that extra work when you thought you were done. You quit writing FOREVER!!!

That last one was just for fun, but it's possible. Another thing--what if your crit partner isn't a meanie, but an ol' softie? An ol' softie will know how hard you worked to get the manuscript just right and hold back on his critique of that terrible sub-plot, and then you're screwed and don't know it. The time I find myself most needing a critique is when the first draft is done and I've worked on it so long I can't see it anymore. Where are my plot holes? What motivation is missing? Is this twist as good as I think it is, or am I fooling myself? Those are questions which need to be answered LONG before the finishing touches go on.

So...when can I send you this rough draft?

{ 10 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. Great blog, Sherri! And I like the part about sending out the early rough draft for critique. I used to do that and I got great feedback too, but I think I spent more time beating myself up afterward for at least not taking the time to fix the obvious things before sending it out. I think it's part wanting to make their jobs easier, to the point where they can see the forest for the trees and not get entangled in a jungle of plot issues. It's tough reading a very rough draft sometimes. For instance, if I sent out the my current work in progress as-is, I think people would be very confused. I changed a few key elements as I was going, and I haven't bothered to go back and fix the holes yet. I would at least want to fill those in before sending it out to betas. I don't want them thinking I'm a TOTALLY incompetent boob. Just a partial one. haha

    And yeah, I am totally with you on being open to criticism. I need it to become a better writer. And I realize that once the story leaves my hands and goes to other readers--whether for critique or submission--it is no longer just mine.

  2. Great post. Does every critique group have the male meanie? And yes, I too had to learn when NOT to listen to him. But yeah, fellow writers can see what your friends and family can't.

    Also, for the very reason you cited, I don't see the point in polishing a work before you seek critique.

    Love this blog and I'll be back.

  3. Sherri, this post is dynamite. I too, share my rough drafts, especially when the stakes are really high (like trying to get a fellowship). I'd be happy to read any rough drafts of yours, though since I don't read fantasy, I'm not sure how helpful that would be. Having readers who understand your genre helps, imo. Then again, my son gave me great feedback on my novel, and he's not exactly my target audience :)

  4. I've heard advice from both camps on that topic, Sarah, whether or not your critters should be from your genre. I've had better luck with folks of my own genre, but I also think it's best to have lots of different kinds of critters, so I don't know where I come down on that. Thanks for the offer. :)

    Linda, thanks! The "he" in this post was meant to encompass ladies, too. :)

    Allie, I think there's something to be said for a happy medium. I wouldn't send out a Nanowrimo draft, but I might send my next-to-final. At that point it should be readable. As long as the readers know what they're getting into!

  5. This is one of the best posts you've ever written on this topic.

    OH WAIT! I mean...

    This is CRAP! Look at all this ... this ... STUFF. You need to get to the point, and drop that bit about "fun" -- there ain't no fun in writing! And what're you, a comedian?! Stick to the subject, don't try to get cute!

    *Sigh* Crap. I guess I'm just one of the ol' softies.

    I loved this. Awesome stuff. Good for writers of all stages to remember. Thanks!

  6. Thank you, Knyt. You're silly. :)

  7. I think these are wise words. I never get the "only tell me I'm great" zone that some writers seem to be in. If you only hear you're great, how are you ever going to get any better? You HAVE to take the salt with the sugar or your recipe will suck - salt enhances the sweetness.

    If someone asks for my opinion of their work, I try to find something good in addition to the not so good things about the work. Like a sandwich or a cookie - put the bad news in between some good news, and that helps it go down a little easier. Sometimes. ;)

  8. @Fal I don't get many of the oversensitive ones either, but I have gotten a couple. Usually what happens is they just stop asking for my crits. I think I may be too harsh. Or maybe they stop asking because I really don't know what I'm talking about. lol

  9. You? Harsh? Bahahahaha!

    One thing I've learned is that of all the writer types I know here, you're one of the most knowledgeable. Don't pull that humble crap with me, missy! ;)

  10. Or maybe my knowledge is a facade...the world may never know. *raises eyebrow*

    But thanks, you're sweet. :)


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