Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Importance of Critique

When advising aspiring writers, I always suggest that they find a way to get feedback on their work. There’s only so far you can take your work all by yourself.
And better you deal with that adverb addiction or propensity for purple prose before your work goes to an editor or agent. They most likely won’t offer critique—they’ll just say no.
You may be tempted to send your manuscript to an author you admire and ask for feedback. But as I pointed out in a previous post, most authors simply cannot take this on.

That said, finding the right kind of feedback is easier said than done. First of all, you have to be honest with yourself about what it is you want. And then you and your critique partners need to be on the same page, so to speak. If you want somebody to tell you what a genius you are, well, there’s always Mom (you take after her, after all.)
If you want to improve as a writer, you’re looking for something a little more directive than that. Something that will let you know very clearly what is and isn’t working, without breaking your writer’s heart.
What is often overlooked is that critiquing other writers’ work and hearing other viewpoints and voices also helps you grow as a writer. One important lesson to learn, early on, is that readers bring their own tastes, skills, and sensibilities to the table. And that not everyone will connect with what you write.
More than that, writing is a lonely and potentially soul-shattering business. Spouses may be supportive, friends empathetic, but sometimes only another writer can understand what it’s like to receive a seven-page editorial letter on the novel it took you five years to write. Or have your heart’s work rejected for the sixteenth time. Or have an agent tell you, “I didn’t love it.”
They can answer those questions that begin with, “Is it just me or…?”
Only another writer knows that your troubles aren’t over when you find an agent; when you find a publisher; when your first book is successful.
Other writers can help you recognize and celebrate your successes—even if that success is a personal note from an editor or agent scribbled on a rejection. Your spouse may say, “Um. But it’s still a rejection, right?” Your critique partners will know that it represents progress along the continuum to publication.

I used to belong to a critique group that had a little Snuffleupagus totem we passed around to the writer who’d received the most humiliating rejection that month. For example, it might be the one who had been rejected by the publisher with the lowest standards, had received the most impersonal, crooked, multiply-copied form letter or the most caustic scribbled remark. Like the newspaper editor who scrawled, “I DON’T THINK SO, MRS CHIMA!!!” across the article I’d submitted on spec. Or the editor who told my friend, “If it were possible to publish everything, we would have published yours.”

In a future post: where to find critique.


Amelia said...

"I don't think so, Mrs. Chima"? Oh my gosh.

Coming from such background (I go to a school where attitude is everything. You learn to stand up for yourself.) I don't take things lightly. Things set me off pretty easily when they're rude. If someone had written THAT to me, I would've...well...let's leave out what I would have done. Just that it wouldn't have been polite...or moral, for that matter.

About support groups, what do you think about online writing communities, like I've been on Booksie for three years now but I haven't posted anything in a long time. Do you think personal support groups are more effective?

I am mentally preparing myself for the rejections, for I know that no author gets taken in the first time around. But while preparing, I am also looking forward to it. *gasp* I know, it's shocking, but I think that it'll be proof that what I"m doing matters and that it's real--real enough to get rejected. Eh. I know it doesn't make sense. Ah well.

Lovely post. Thanks for the missives. :)

-Amelia R.

CindaChima said...

Amelia, I've never been in a strictly online community for critique purposes. I think it might help to be in a "closed" online group where you know the people and their level of commitment. I would imagine it would be difficult to gain trust in an ever-changing peer group. The "online" group i'm in is online because we live in different parts of the country. But we all know each other by now.
Rejection is hard. But most of us have to go through that process in order to find success.