Guest Post: Surviving A Critique Without Killing Yourself, Or Even Other People, by Ferrett Steinmetz

In the past three years, Ferrett Steinmetz became bishopual, and became revitalized. In June of 2008, he went to the the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and then Viable Paradise in 2009 – and they supercharged him, allowing him to publish seventeen stories since then. (It should be noted that in twenty years’ of effort before that, he’d only published three stories.) He’s proud to be in such markets as Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, GUD, and Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, among others. You can see a full list of his stories at his profile page on WriterTopia.

He’s also participating in this year’s Clarion Blog-a-Thon – if you donate $5, you’ll be entered to win this nifty Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli proof, and if you donate $10 you’ll get to see him live-blog the writing (with commentary!) of his YA novel in progress. He wants you to donate. You wants the Precious.

So you’re about to sit down for your first real-life critique. Actual people will be sitting around you, dissecting your story in the hopes of making it better – and here you are, feeling like a pinata about to be dropped into a swarm of sugar-addled, stick-wielding kids.

How do you make this critique worth your time? Well, I’ve done the critique thing at every level, from the Clarion Writers’ workshop (which I’m doing a blog-a-thon for right now!) to my local crit group, the Cajun Sushi Hamsters. And I’ve gotten some good advice over the years that I’d like to hand to you.

The #1 Key To Survival: Write Down The Good Stuff

A critique will startle you with how terrible you are. All those clever traps you thought you avoided? You fell into them. The character motivations you thought so hard about? People don’t understand why the hell anyone’s doing anything. And let us not talk about that godawful fudge of an ending.

And here’s what you do if you’re stupid: you immortalize all of these flaws in your notes.

Why not, you ask? Don’t these flaws exist to be fixed? And they do. You should write them down. But it’s a truism in the writing biz that one piece of hate mail is worth ten ass-kissing missives of fluffery, and if you’re not careful you’ll concentrate on all the terrible, awful things in your story… And forget about all the nice things that people said.

The nice things are key. A surgeon doesn’t open up a cancer patient and start ripping indiscriminately, organs and tumors alike; he tries to remove the bad bits while bolstering the functionality of the working items. Likewise, when revising your story you have to remember what works so that you don’t start cutting the backbone out and throwing it on the fishpile.

So you need to write down all the nice things people said. They will be small, particularly towards the end of a live critique session when everyone’s saying, “Yeah, I adored the characters and loved the plot BUT” and then go on for their requested two minutes about everything that sucked. But write it down diligently: LOVED PLOT, ADORED CHARACTERS. Otherwise, when you go to revise a few weeks later, you’ll see the one note from that crank who said that he thought the characters were weak, and take that dork’s word as God.

Plus, when you go through your notes later, it won’t be nearly as much like chewing tin foil. There will be little bits of chocolate in with the tin, happy moments where you’ll look forward to revising because hey, you’ll hear the good and the bad. You’ll look at a grade that’s the healthy B-minus that it is, as opposed a steady stream of commentary on the F-worthy partss of your manuscript.

The #2 Key of Survival: Know Which People To Dampen

You almost never want to blow off someone’s critique entirely – that’s your ticket to exclusivity central, where you ignore anyone who doesn’t agree everything you do is a staggering work of genius. But after a couple of critiques, you’ll know who gets what you want to do and enjoys it, and who’s writing a kind of fiction that’s interminably at odds with your style.

The thing is, you never want to shut anyone out entirely. You always want to pay attention to the things that confused them, their notes on inconsistencies, their appraisal of your plot. But there are people who even if you got it 100% perfect, would not like it simply because you’re not doing what they enjoy.

This is not a fault. Someone who adores Heinlein is probably not going to be overly thrilled by a Catherynne Valente short story. Tastes differ, and you can get valuable feedback from someone whose tastes are the polar opposite of your own – in some cases, more valuable, since they’ll point out flaws that the authors you love also commit. But the truth remains: you could absolutely nail this tale in every way that you want to, and they’d still be hemming, I dunno. It just didn’t work for me.

So you learn to pick favorites in every workshop. You go, Okay, if Brent and Greta love this story, it’s pretty close to good. And conversely, If Jerry is irritated by it, well, he usually doesn’t go for what I’m trying to do anyway. A good workshop experience eventually becomes you realizing that if Brent and Greta don’t like it, then the story is way off, but if Jerry’s against it again, well, that’s just Jerry.

In time, you may even come to see a rave review from Jerry as an actual danger sign. Yes, this happens.

The #3 Key To Survival: The Provider Of The Problem Does Not Always Provide The Solution

There’s a saying in workshops: “If three people tell you that your story has a problem, it’s a problem. If three people give you advice on how to fix the story, they’re probably wrong.”

This is true because stories are deeply personal things, and bad fixes can fall into a lot of categories: Not My Kink (an acceptable solution, but not one that hits the things that excite you personally), Rewrites The Story To An Unacceptable Degree, They Don’t Understand What You’re Trying to Do With The Characters, Just Plain Silly. Or even the more-damning-than-you’d-think Good Enough, But Not Really You.

One of my most popular stories is As Below, So Above, the story of religious squids in a mad scientist’s moat, which was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (and later turned into an
audio drama by PodCastle
). When I first submitted it, the editor said he loved the story, but felt the mad scientist at the end lacked motivation (a problem previous crit-groups had noted – and sadly, one that I’d thought I had solved when I submitted it).

He suggested having the mad scientist be a little madder, getting into the political details of why he’d been hounded. And I looked at his suggestion and went, “No, that doesn’t feel right at all.”

Now, I was looking down the barrel of my third professional sale – the gateway to a full SFWA membership, something I deeply desired – and I really wanted to do what he said. Just follow the blueprint, and wham! A story sale! But I looked at it, and decided that his suggestion wasn’t right for this story. It’d probably work, but it wouldn’t feel like mine.

And I thought about the problem, and gave the mad scientist a literal God complex, playing up the reasons why he’d created these monsters. The editor responded positively, and a rewrite or two later, wham. I got it published.

The lesson here is that even professional editors are not always right – and you’ll hear this time and time again from writers who’ve stared a sale in the eye and said, “No, lemme fix it my way.” (And professional editors will suggest, often well, but are smart enough to get out of their ego’s way when
they see another solution.) Your way is usually better, because it’s your muse.

If people are saying they don’t feel like the mad scientist is a real character, well, then you’d damn well better buckle down and make him real. But there are a thousand approaches to creating that realness, and what your crit group is giving you is merely their solution to a problem. What you’re
looking for is your solution to a problem – because frankly, the uniqueness of you is the single thing you can add to a story that nobody else can mimic.

Take their suggestions to heart – but not to paper until you’re absolutely sure. And if you’re lucky enough to have that ventricle reaction of, Oh, yes, that’s perfect! Then by all means, steal their idea. (File off the serial numbers first.) But if not, ponder the problem seriously, but use your own smarts to get out of it. Even the best writers don’t know what’s best for you.

The #4 Key To Survival: Wait A Few Weeks

I’m a Protestant Kingist, which means that my writing Bible is largely Stephen King’s “On Writing,” with a couple of dissenting notes I’ve acquired over the years. And Unca Steve has one very valuable piece of advice:

When you’re critiqued, wait a while before revising.

Seriously. If you walk out of a critique and start chopping, there’s a good chance you’ll be all like, “I’ll fix everything they said!” and wind up turning a coherent story into a junk shop of other people’s opinions. Everyone’s process varies, but I’d say more often than not, you don’t want to have the critiques lodged too firmly in mind when you start to revise.

Think of it as a Darwinian process. The critiques that matter are going to survive long enough to stick in your head when you re-read the story. The ones that don’t will slide away, dying a proper death.

Now, I’m a completionist, so I read everyone’s notes before revising – but I also read the story first. You’d be surprised how your own words will appear once you’ve shoved them in a drawer for a couple of weeks – there will be parts that are way better than you remember, and parts that were saggier than you thought. Getting some distance timewise will give you some perspective, and you’ll most likely remember the extremely relevant crits as you read it over.

Take some time. You don’t have to do this right away, because a good writer is going to have a couple of balls in the air – if this is your only story, well, start another one. Get to work on a new process, because there’s always the chance that this won’t sell, and what then? Charge up your creative juices by switching around, and you’ll find you wind up being a better writer overall than if you just relentlessly sandpaper away at this same story until it’s a pile of sawdust.

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  1. Maggie Slater
    08/07/2011 at 7:46 pm Permalink

    Excellent advice to live (and edit) by, Ferrett! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. Esraa
    26/07/2011 at 3:12 am Permalink

    thanks a lot. I found this really helpful after weeks of procrastination after receiving a deadly critique form some university staff members in charge of accepting written works. Anyhow, the best part was when you mentioned The #3 Key To Survival: The Provider Of The Problem Does Not Always Provide The Solution.Thanks a lotesraa