Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A couple of thoughts on critiques

I am, undoubtedly, one of the most arrogant S.O.B.s to ever put pen to paper. Trust me. If I'd known it was possible, I would have nominated my high school essay, What I did this Summer, for a Pulitzer. Everything I've ever written was magnificent. Me, and Willy the Shakes, we're the real deal, Master Wordmiths, Men of Letters...


Every day I learn something about writing. My writing library started with Webster's and Roget's, and has expanded to fill five 6-foot shelves. I own the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Manual of Style, and three copies of the Elements of Style. I have On Writing in writing, and On Writing on tape. I've read Bird by Bird, and Word by Word, and dozens of other books on the art and craft of being a crafty artist, but every single day, I learn something new.

Before I sent Transit Gloria into the world, I had two professional editors, and a pretty well-known writer, go through it line by line. I cut, and slashed, and burned, and when I felt ready, I gave it wings and let it fly.

Last week, with parts of manuscripts floating all over New York, California, and states in between, a successful author offered to critique my work. Last night I visited with her, and she told me three different ways to improve -- my first 15 pages -- ARRRRGGGGHH!!!

She was aware of the god-like status we mere humans elevate our best-selling brethren to, and she was afraid her critique would crush my soul, so she preceeded her criticism with a list of things I had done right. I don't remember that list (none of us remember the good reviews), but she need not have worried. The first couple of times someone critiqued my work, I felt I had been kicked in the chest. Their criticism knocked the wind out of my lungs, and left me gasping for air. I felt the same way about my first rejection letter. Not any more. Now, I feel about criticism of my work the same way I feel about someone saying a picture is crooked.

You don't get your feelings hurt when someone tells you about a crooked picture, do you? No? Of course you don't. You just get your tools and go to work fixing it. That is how professional writers have to take criticism. If someone says something needs to be fixed, we should just get our tools and fix it.

Guess what I'm doing this weekend?

Yep. Straightening pictures, all weekend long.

p.s. If you haven't already read Kathryn Wall's books, I highly recommend them. She writes mysteries about a retired accountant, and sometime detective, named Bay Tanner. Kathy is... you guessed it... a retired accountant, with a mind like a steel trap. Her latest, Resurrection Road, is available from St. Martin's Press. You can find it at all the big-named book sellers, but Kathy is a fan of local independent book-sellers, and so am I. Check it out.

Mark Pettus,
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

9 comments so far. Thank you, Anonymous Travis, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger Bunneh, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger Bunneh, Blogger Amie Stuart, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger Amie Stuart, Blogger Joanne D. Kiggins,

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at 3:37 PM Anonymous Travis said...

Just wanted to say thanks for dropping a line at my site the other day. I've only just started to read through your old posts, but I am especially glad to see this one. I have always had trouble accepting criticism as constructive and never considered the "crooked painting" approach.

Hell, just reading about it made me feel better about all of the criticism I've ever encountered. And, after careful consideration, has made me more willing to actually seek out help and critiques in the future.

It's amazing how you can feel everything change when you hear/read something that changes your whole perspective. Criticism is not an attack on me personally. How refreshing.

at 10:00 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Travis, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I liked your essay. I always enjoy writing that contains universal truths, people and situations we each recognize from our own lives. Although I'm two decades farther down the path, I still recognize the part of the trail that you described. Good Work.

at 12:29 AM Blogger Bunneh said...

Thought I'd drop you a line and thank you for commenting over at my blog. This was a refreshing post -- too often writers get themselves in a snit over the prospect of editing. A good friend, whose opinion I respect and trust, read through my work so far and made a lot of suggestions. Some of them were hard to take, but she was quite right. I'm back to chapter 3, and will spend this week editing chapters 3-7 to follow the change in 3. Not looking forward to it, but it needs to be done.

It's hard, though, isn't it? It's impossible to take everyone's advice, no matter how much you respect their opinion. One editor will say something needs to be cut, and another will say it's the best part of the chapter. The subjectivity can get frustrating sometimes, doesn't it?

at 8:12 AM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

The subjectivity is the most frustrating part. Sometimes it seems like they are trying to erase your voice. If you listen to your voice it will usually let you know when you need to pay attention.

Good Luck on your rewrite.

at 8:58 AM Blogger Bunneh said...

Yeah, I agree. Sometimes it's like a gut feeling, you know? Although I've found that even if I don't agree with the actual advice I'm being given, I do agree that that SECTION requires work. Though recently one of my beta readers made a suggestion to me that went against the established rules of my "universe," and it frustrated me for a few different reasons. Part of it had to do with annoyance that she didn't seem to care about the rules. Part of it also had to do with the fact that I knew she was right about the part that needed alteration, leaving me with the task of figuring out a way to follow her advice while adhering to the rules.

I know what you mean about critiques, though. My worst came as a grad student -- one of my MA thesis readers read through my first (very) rough draft, without realizing that it was a rough draft (a fact my thesis advisor neglected to mention when she passed it on). I was forwarded the reader's comments to my advisor about the draft. It reduced me to tears for three days, and I couldn't even stand to look at the thesis. It was awful, but I wasn't going to graduate if I didn't finish it, and I wanted to graduate, so I pinned my ears back, sucked it up, and edited the hell out of that thing.

That was another case in which two separate readers were making opposing suggestions regarding the draft. Gotta love academia.

at 7:55 PM Blogger Amie Stuart said...

If you listen to your voice it will usually let you know when you need to pay attention.

I love this! Great advice! You definitely have to learn what to take and what to toss and occasionally, trust your own instincts over feedback. I recently won an auction for a critique from a well known author and I got the critted 30 pages back and just jumped for joy. I've got pretty thick skin, I've been through more than a few critique groups and I'm a pretty tough critiquer anyway, but she hit some stuff dead on.

I've finally reached the point where (often) I can go to my CP's (one of whom is a brilliant plotter) and say "this ain't right!" and I listen to my instincts even if one of them says it's fine. I"m rambling--sorry *g*

at 8:58 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Ramble on, Cece.

I'm a revise-aholic, so ignoring even bad advice is tough. I'm trying, though. I really am.

at 3:27 PM Blogger Amie Stuart said...

I used to be a revise-a-holic and now it's all i can do to edit. Ok I need to stop dreaming about steak and go scrounge some food. Too bad Chilie's doesn't have a drive-thru.

at 12:21 AM Blogger Joanne D. Kiggins said...

What a wonderful theory about corrections, criticism and critiques. Straigtening pictures! Now if I can just find my tools. :)


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