Building It Up, Tearing It Down

Thirty years or so ago, I was a member of an active writers’ critique group called the Over The Hill Gang. This was before the Internet, you’ll understand. We met face to face, seven or eight of us every month, in somebody’s living room. The late Kevin O’Donnell, Jr., was the star of the group, but a couple of others (including myself) were also published authors. At each meeting, people would pass out copies of a story. We would take the stories home, scribble in the margins, and bring them back to the next meeting.

The group worked well, because everybody understood the rules. There was to be no criticism of the writer, but the criticism of the story was pretty free-wheeling. I can picture Kevin throwing his hands in the air, chortling gleefully, and saying, “This makes no sense at all!”

The author had to sit and listen to the critiques without interrupting.

Comments of that sort are, I’m sure, more palatable in person, among friends, than over the Internet — and Kevin would certainly have gone on to explain exactly why the passage didn’t make sense. He wouldn’t have flung the accusation and then sat back in smug silence, daring anyone to argue with him. If nothing else, he would have wanted to show off how smart he was. We all wanted to show off about that, I would guess. That’s part of the fun of being in a critique group!

I learned a lot from that group. At one meeting I presented a novella, and at the next meeting everyone said, “It isn’t finished! You have to finish it!” I turned it into a novel, Kevin arranged for me to meet his agent, the agent found a publisher, and that’s how The Wall at the Edge of the World came to be.

I also learned a lot by reading other people’s stories — and if I can say this without sounding snobbish, I learned from their mistakes. When you’ve written something yourself, it’s easy to be too enamored of it. But when you see someone else make an awful blunder, it’s an “aha!” moment. Now that I’ve seen that mistake down on paper in glorious black-and-white, I know not to make it myself.

One good habit in the group (I don’t recall that it was ever part of the rules) was to find something good to say about a story wherever you could. Mildly exaggerating your enthusiasm for the good bits would not have been frowned upon. It’s good for an aspiring author to know when she’s doing something that works; and quite aside from its actual literary utility, praise is also beneficial in maintaining decent social relations.

It has to be said that not all of the criticism heard in the group was constructive. One young woman sometimes cried, “I don’t get it!” That could hardly be called constructive, but it was useful nonetheless. We all need to be reminded to write clearly, bearing in mind that not all of our readers will have the same technical background we have, or will have read our story with the degree of meticulous attention we devoted to it while writing it.

Humans have a natural, innate tendency to be optimistic. This is an instinct. It’s safe to say that very few of us are quite as good writers as we think we are: We’re optimistic about our abilities. Because of this, criticism of our work can be painful. Criticism can undermine our self-esteem. But this is not a reason to avoid or reject criticism!

Today I got into a wrangle with an author in the Facebook writers’ group where I hang out. This individual posted the opening chapter of his upcoming novel and asked for “constructive criticism.” I went into considerable detail — exactly the kind of thing I would have done for Kevin, Lisa, Marina, Bob, Sasha, Donald, and the others in the Over The Hill Gang.

And wouldn’t you know it, the author got defensive. He plainly felt I was out to tear him down. But when you present a weak story, a story with major problems, and ask for criticism, you pretty much have to sit there and take it. The critique may be right, or it may be wrong. If it’s wrong, the thing to do is just smile politely, say, “Thank you,” and move on.

I could go into detail about the problems I had with this fellow’s chapter, but what would be the point? I can’t copy and paste his work here, because he owns the copyright, and without the original to refer to, you would have to take my word for it that my criticisms were accurate. Or maybe they weren’t. But whether or not they were accurate or useful, his hostile, defensive reaction is not going to help him as he struggles to become a better writer.

Let’s take an extreme case. Let’s suppose somebody reads your story and then simply says, “This sucks!” That’s certainly not constructive criticism — but the way to respond to it is not, “Well, fuck you too!” The way to respond is to say, “Can you help me understand exactly what it was about it that you didn’t like?” The answer you get might very well be constructive. Maybe your story really does suck. If you can get some details, you may be able to figure out how to make constructive use of them.

On the other hand, if the person who says it sucks is unable or unwilling to articulate the reasons for their negative judgment, their comment can safely be ignored. There’s no percentage in trying to learn from an idiot.

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