Critiques, or how to throw your stories to the wolves and like it

First off, for those of you who are attending this year’s WorldCon — Anticipation in Montreal — there are a few spots open in the Writers’ Workshop. If you’re interested, go take a look at either the English description or the French description. I’ll be helping out with it this year (I’m a late addition), and I’m looking forward to it. Spots are disappearing fast, though!

And speaking of workshops (ha! I segue!), there’s a lot to be said for it, and a lot to keep in mind if you’re looking to either go to a one-time workshop or join a writers’ group. Workshopping is a difficult process, and if you’re new to it, it can be very, very painful. Hell, the first time I had a story on the block at BRAWL, I was blinking back tears through the crit. Second time too, come to think of it. I built up calluses quickly after that, but it really drove home to me that workshopping a story can be rough.

Granted, some of this is because BRAWL does not do the huggy, nurturing method of workshopping. (As you can probably guess from the name of our group.) The unofficial motto for BRAWL was “we’re cruel because we care,” and that has been the case. Never needlessly cruel, never harsh for the sake of being harsh, and always with an eye toward making our work better.

And without the help that BRAWL gave me, my stories wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Nor would Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt, since the comments they gave me on these novels were invaluable.

So. How do you deal with a workshop?

BRAWL uses what I first heard called the Clarion method. As I’ve never been to that esteemed workshop, I don’t know how much our format matches the current format, but the way we do it is this: the person whose story is up for crit must remain silent while everyone else gives a short (less than five minutes) critique. Afterward, the author may give a short rebuttal, ask questions, etc.

It’s the “author must not speak” part that is the most difficult to deal with the first time through. But it’s important — after all, the story must, in time, stand on its own, and it’s not as if the author can stand behind the editor or eventual reader and say “Yes, but I meant to do this here — do you see?”

So based on my experience workshopping with BRAWL and Viable Paradise, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • For the love of God, do NOT go into a crit with the belief that everyone will love your story and only have small quibbles with it. Even if this is a subconscious belief, the kind that you dismiss when you’re talking about it, it will mess with your head and it will make it more difficult to get through the crit. The workshop is there to find flaws. And they will find them.
  • Remember that you are not the one getting critiqued: the story — and just this draft of the story at that — is the one being critiqued. If something is wrong with it, it’s not because you’re a horrible person; it’s just something that didn’t work in this draft. Your self-worth should not be tied up with whether the story is a work of brilliance straight off the bat.
  • Take notes. Yes, you’ll be getting a copy of the critiques later on, either electronic or hard copy, so this is in some ways redundant. But the points that catch your attention when you’re hearing a critique might not be the same ones that the critiquer emphasizes. And you’ll want to remember those points later on. Or a comment will spark a potential solution, and you’ll want to remember that as well.
  • Another reason to take notes: if you disagree wildly with what someone is saying — and you will at some point — this will give you an outlet for your disagreement. After all, even if you’re writing “this person is wrong! wrong wrong wrong!” over and over, if what you’re writing can’t be seen then it just looks like you’re attentively taking notes.
  • Even if something seems completely irrelevant — someone wants more about Joe SomeGuy who’s mentioned twice on page three and never again — make a note of it. It may come in useful down the road. For example, when “Bonefields” was being critiqued, one member of BRAWL mentioned that he wanted to hear more about Skald Six-Blade. Well, Skald’s only in the backstory of “Bonefields,” and I had no desire to move him forward, because that didn’t seem relevant to the story I wanted to tell. So I made a note and squirreled it away, remembering only that the character had been liked. Several years later when I started poking at the idea that would become “Dragon’s-Eyes,” I found Skald waiting, as if he’d just needed the right story to tell.
  • – When time comes for the rebuttal, don’t angrily defend your story from those who would denigrate your creation so. No. They’ve just put a lot of work into critiquing your story, and you owe them at least a little courtesy. Instead, now’s the time to ask “do you think doing X would work?” or “I’d intended to show Y, does any of that come through?” Granted, at this stage, you may just want to put away everything and not hear anything else about this story for a good long while.
  • You will have to change this story. There’s no way of getting around that. No matter how many times you revised it already, how much thought you put into each separate choice of word, how perfect and immutable you thought it was, you will have to change it. If you don’t, then what was the point of having it workshopped at all?

So why would you go through something like this? Why take something you’ve put so much effort into and put it and you through a grueling process that will, if it succeeds, only result in more work?

Well, there are two reasons that I’ve found. First, by being part of a critique group, you start to develop your own internal critique, and that’s incredibly useful. After articulating what doesn’t work for you in someone else’s stories, it’s easier to see the flaws in your own work. And yes, this is a good thing.

Second, and most importantly, because it makes the story better. A withering critique does not mean that your story is a failure; only refusing to make it better makes it a failure. (This has always been the “stick” part of the “carrot-and-stick” approach I’ve had to writing: I’ve only failed if I give up. Until then, I’m just striving. It’s a bit harsh, but I’ve found it useful.) And with all these critiques — some of which may be spot-on, some of which may be utterly wrongheaded — you will be able to make it better.

Next time: what to do once you’ve gotten all these crits!

4 Responses to “Critiques, or how to throw your stories to the wolves and like it”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    July 22, 2009 at 6:38 am

    Sometimes, the best aspects of a crit are those you don’t agree with at all. It makes you think, and think HARD, about what you were attempting and how well you pulled it off. Often, a “this person is wrong, wrong, wrong” turns into a, “Well, they’re still wrong but if I did this or that, it’ll be even better. So there!” 🙂

  2. 2 shaunduke
    July 22, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    “Remember that you are not the one getting critiqued: the story — and just this draft of the story at that — is the one being critiqued.”

    Sometimes the person giving the critique can forget that. I don’t know how it works in real world workshops/crit groups, but on the Internet it can be quite difficult to avoid people who see “poor” writing as an excuse to bash an individual. You should always be prepared to get reamed by people with less than adequate people skills.

  3. 3 mlronald
    July 22, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Shaun, that’s a very good point. I’m so used to in-person critiques that I hadn’t considered the difficulties of online workshops; it’s a lot harder to be a total jerkass to someone’s face than it is over the internet. (Not that it isn’t possible.) Most of my points were assuming good faith on the part of the critique group. I wonder if I should revise them in light of what you mention.

    And Terri, that’s often what happens to me once I sit down and go through the crits later on. The ones that I disagreed with the most are often the ones that hit the weak spots bang on. I’ll try to bring that up next week.

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