The Art of the Critique

So, if you follow me at all, you would know I’m writing a book series called ‘The Path Once Chosen’. I describe it as an epic regency romantasy, but it’s well truly camped in the fantasy genre.

It has been surprisingly hard to get good feedback while writing the first book ‘A Whisper of Destiny.’ It probably didn’t help I was literally learning the art of writing a book. You know the usual things: show, don’t tell; for love of god, don’t use adverbs; No dialogue tags. You writers, y’all know the drill. You’re probably rolling your eyes right now.

My favourite things: Point of view, some of you don’t even know how it works!

I get very passionate about these things.

But my most favourite thing in the world is grammar nazis. We’ll get back to that. I am actually going somewhere with this ramble.

It’s never good to rely on one source for your information. One of the glorious things about living in London for two years was mixing with lots and lots of other writers, and having lots of writerly things to do. All those lovely workshops, and writer’s groups, plus the occasional conference I’d sneak into, holding a programme tightly in my hand, because everyone looked so much more writerly then me, where as I looked like a kooky middle aged science teacher. I came away with my horizons broadened, and I was a better writer for it. I also took the time to do a few writing courses, do a few retreats, and in the process realised I was much better if I didn’t seek constant feed back from the wrong places.

I was constantly frustrated by the kind of feedback I did received. This buzzfeed article pretty much sums it up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve received some stellar feedback as well, and have met some wonderful writers on my journey. People who made all the crap critiques worth it, and they  gave me hope my little fantasy world will eventually find an audience. Most importantly, they’ve helped me improve leaps and bounds as a writer.

One thing I have learned, is writers eat their young. I personally didn’t have the luck of landing on my feet and finding a nice, nurturing writers community. Back in my early twenties, I had started a previous fantasy series. One day I very bravely submitted my first couple of chapters to a writer’s group. My chapters were riddled with newbie mistakes, but on the whole, I didn’t think they were terrible. I was shredded over my grammar, and received no other feedback. One guy even said, the grammar was so awful he couldn’t get through it. I nearly cried in front of everyone that day. I’ve never had that experience repeated, so I know now that was pretty unacceptable, especially  for a first time. I put down my pen, after being savaged by a flatmate the day after that experience. I’ve kind of blacked out what she and her boyfriend said but it was so bad and so soul destroying I wouldn’t pick a pen back up for ten years. My flatmate went a step too far and broke my spirit. I look at that work now, and I realise why one of the women pulled me aside and begged me not to stop writing. It’s been fifteen years now. I didn’t deserve the trashing I got. Some amateur mistakes, sure. It was my second attempt at writing a book. It wasn’t the grammar disaster everyone made it out to be. The woman was right, I shouldn’t have stopped, because you can have the best grammar in the world, but if you don’t have a story, you have nothing.

I had written a short story, just before I gave the whole writing gig up. It remains pretty unchanged to this day.

This is the seed for my series ‘A Path Once Chosen.’ It never left me during those ten years of quiet.

In 2012 I went on a trip through India and Nepal. My imagination was set alight, especially driving through the great mountains ranges of Nepal. I got back home and started scribbling like mad. The world of Airth was born and I was writing again. During that time I went through some wild things, including a move from Australia to the UK. One of my friends set me aside, just before I left Broken Hill and said, ” You’re a different person when you are creating something. Don’t stop, never stop. It’s who you are.”

This time was different.

I found a writer’s web site, and integrated with the community. Soon I was critiquing other people’s work. Writer’s aren’t always great with criticism, and some people definitely over estimated their abilities. I was probably one of them. Still I learned a lot, but it was an eye opener. I learned what a critique was, and what they shouldn’t be. I continually made amendments to my Work in Progress, writing to an audience. My MMC ended up a faded caricature of himself and my FMC wasn’t the most likeable. I soon found I could please no-one, no matter what I did. I ended up with a bland manuscript. So I tore everything down, and started everything all over.

I got into a close knit group. I’ve never really spoke about what happened to anyone. I learned a lot but there was much drama. The leader of the group was working behind the scenes, winding everyone else up against me. She would send me pm’s telling me how my MMC made her uncomfortable. How she didn’t think men acted like that. She emailed me my WIP had no themes (it had one very strong theme) and it was aimless. I reacted in kind, with trying to tell people what I wanted from my crits, but it backfired. I finally removed myself after they took exception to the number of sex scenes in my WIP. I have never told anyone that extent she manipulated behind the scenes, but six months later, another member apologised about ganging up on me. I still don’t know if they know what really went on, or if they even care, but it really cut deep at the time.

However I finished my second draft. I meandered through my third draft. It was a frustrating time, I tried multiple angles, and had many false starts, but during this time I had some of the best critiques. I hope these people know who they are. Several people during that time taught me the art of critiquing well, they also taught me a hard lessons about the art of writing.

I did a couple of courses by Writers’ HQ. It change my life. I’d been relatively instinctive about novel structure, and character motivation, but now I had workable tools. Without these guys, I never would have finished my fourth draft.

So why did I just tell you my life history. Part of it is catharsis. Part of it’s describing my journey so far.

1. Some people are just douches. There are certain percentage of writers within the community that can be arrogant and think themselves superior. This unfortunately is fact. The best thing to do with these people is ignore them. No matter how tempting it is to react. These guys often write those reviews completely missing the point, and will even make the opposite point. Every writer will have a run in with a reviewer of this ilk at least once, if not multiple times. I’m weak sometimes, I react.

2. It’s a cold hard fact that many writers are driven by jealousy. Writing is a competitive game. If it’s not jealousy, it’s black cynicism. I guess there is nothing more discouraging than finding out an aquaintainance who wrote a silly YA romance got a million dollar deal, where your serious literary work failed to get the attention of anyone. I wouldn’t know, I’m generally stoked when a friend succeeds. I know how much work it took to get there. The rest is luck and timing.

3. My last point, and one that will probably fall on deaf ears. Just because I have a character do or say something offensive, it does not mean I, the author hold the same opinions. This failure to seperate the authors from the characters and body of work is troublesome. It smacks of censorship, and restricts creativity.

I’m not saying do not have empathy for your fellow man. Sensitive subjects should be treated with care, and do least damage possible. Consult with communities, listen to what they have to say. Most of all encourage people to raise their voices and get their experiences out there. Expose yourself to other opinions.

BUT do not let other people silence you because they disagree with a character actions.

One very last word;

You are only responsible for the content you put out there. YOU are not responsible for other people’s reactions.

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