Surviving the Crytique

Post Date: September 13th, 2008


“It may be unfair to celebrate a writer for being so publicly rejected and railed against, but 40 years’ perspective should allow us to credit Styron for taking the risk of writing “The Confessions” and to appreciate the courage of the 10 writers who dissected it in searing detail. Their confrontation helped shatter the idea that there can or should be one version of “how slavery was”; now we have a hundred different versions — some omnipresent, some long silenced, some real, some fictional — telling a messier, trickier, less comforting story. This may not be the “common history” James Baldwin spoke of, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”

Jess Row, “Styron’s Choice” (thanks to my colleague Bob Mustin, writer and blogger, who shared this article with me)

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 264, 264. 3099 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 938

Critics and critiques. William Styron could speak to them. We need critics in a civil, democratic society that values dialogue and progress. Writers need to hear what works and what doesn’t when they make art. All of us need to dialogue about what’s Good, what’s Bad, what Matters. But what happens when critiques are “cry-tiques,” as my dad calls them – lists of all the wrongs the artist has committed with no celebration, recognition, or suggestions for growth? Why is it that so often the outcome of critique is tears?

We need to pause briefly for station identification: this writer is what you call a Quick Crier. I tear up at commercials. (I am impervious to Lifetime movie plotlines, if that gives me any credibility.) Knowing my high sensitivity may negate the import of my comments for some, but I’d like to argue that my susceptible antennae add weight to this dialogue. Sensitivity, as long as it works both ways, helps a critic anticipate how criticisms will be received. I’ve met critics who lack this gift and this habit of mind. Yet it can be taught. So listen up, critics, the Teach is talking. She’s talking about a certain type of critic — the editor or the professor — who needs to think more with the soul.

When your calling is to edit, a twofold mission of critique and coach, you can’t abandon the latter task. Some editors and teachers aren’t even aware their second job is coaching. They give their all to scrutinizing the work as if it’s already published and deal only in harshness. They pick up a red megaphone and begin hazing. This type of critic’s cry is so loud as to drown out the original work. So in love with the sound of his own voice, such a critic can’t imagine the purpose of the writer’s work nor the toil it took to get there. She is too busy talking at the artist, uninterested in any sort of exchange.

After my years of teaching tender egos in middle and high school classrooms, I am schooled in one thing: don’t kill the spirit of the future writer. Nurture it. Send the child back to that drawing board to try, try, try again. I don’t care how old you are or how bad you are at your artistic endeavor; if you have the desire to try again and you’re willing to listen, that’s all I need to coach you. If you believe in Edison’s mantra of 99% perspiration to 1% inspiration, full of earnest, well-meaning effort willing to surrender a work to comment, nay, pay for a critique, there is no need for you to go home crying. You should return home pumped to run the next scrimmage, to lift some weights, to spend the years it may take to get things better. No one’s promising you’ll get drafted to years in the pros with million-dollar glory. What I’m promising is that I’ll help you get better, taking you from where you are now to the next level. Coaching is teaching. So you can’t just call the play and pass the ball; you must show someone how to do those things.

When I submitted a manuscript of many pages and many years to a freelance editor, also a published author, my pages were returned with a deep sigh, “It’s sooooo long,” (as if I had done her, a paid professional, a disservice) followed by a long list of my wrongs. I asked and looked for direction but could not find any specific suggestions. For example, I would have really appreciated, “Let’s look at this passage and what I mean by ‘overwritten.’ Here you have a line of dialogue and then here you repeat yourself with five lines of interior monologue, saying the same thing. Cut, cut, cut.” There were no such specifics. I did get a few generalizations of “Revisit the plot and think about what this story’s really about.” Then the critique turned wildly personal. “I can’t stand your main character,” this editor said. Okay, I said. What can’t you stand? “I found her impulsive and rudderless.” (I’m paraphrasing here because I’m pretty sure that one of those words is not in my editor’s vocabulary, and there was my first mistake: not vetting the literary background of this editor. Though a published writer, she has neither professional editing credentials nor a college background that might have schooled her before undertaking an enterprise as serious as editing. Yet her Web site advertises her editing skills. Caveat Emptor.)

If I sound like a snob, stop right there, since I’ve never believed a college degree confers wisdom, empathy, or good sense. But like John Gardner says, college should teach you about academic discussion and Socratic dialogue. It should teach you to keep an open mind when dealing in ideas. Being told in tones of high umbrage, nay, disgust, that your protagonist is impulsive and rudderless and then, with an actual sneer, “If I had children in a public school, I’d never send them to this teacher,” is not objective critique. It’s a fair judgment — for a parent choosing his child’s school. But what does that isolated comment, sans follow-up, sans constructive criticism, have to do with the craft of writing? A flawed character and a badly-crafted character aren’t the same beast. The real questions to explore instead are, Do this characters’ flaws matter to the story? Is the story of this flawed person’s journey inherently interesting or significant, or are the flaws such – or the descriptions such – that they impede the story’s progress?

Here’s what the editor could have told me:

“I found myself repelled by your character’s impulsivity and rudderlessness. I wanted to see her think before she acted at least once. I wanted to have more faith in her. Does it matter to you that her actions of x, y, and z reduce her credibility? Is that your intent, to paint a picture of a character who’s a novice, rudderless teacher? Also, I found plot events, fueled by her choices, lacking a logical connection of cause and effect. I would suggest that you try outlining the plot in a systematic, calculated fashion: ‘A leads to B, which leads to C.’ That may remove some of this sense of the protagonist jumping from one square to another without any clear forward motion or urge, that yearning Robert Olen Butler discusses in From Where You Dream). We as readers must be propelled by that character yearning and motion so that we want to take the journey with your character, no matter how flawed. If she’s a train wreck, that’s fine; we won’t look away unless we have faith that this train wreck has some logic and meaning for its existence. While there can be consciously-constructed plot lines meant to show random motion, that doesn’t seem to be your purpose here. Am I right?

I do see Daria thinking before she makes choice x in Chapter One. That was a particularly nice passage when she pursues Selma and gets slapped back. I would follow that lead.”

Now that kind of comment I can handle.

If said editor wanted to argue she wasn’t getting paid to write such detailed commentary, she could have told me such thoughts in person. Could have pointed to a relevant, starred passage. Hey, I take great notes.

This writer can do but she can’t teach. Woe betides those students who get the master craftsman who can’t talk shop.

I have one theory about why certain editors want to make you cry. They harbor a secret, even unconscious hope that you’ll go home and abandon the manuscript. These critics believe in The Scarcity Model: that there’s just not enough art and money to go around. There is only enough room in this world for a few to succeed, so you have to scrap and edge out those who might win. Put a novice writer in her place and you narrow the odds in your favor.

Writing is a tough business. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you see someone’s success, or potential success, because you’re busy banging your head against too many walls. But when you edit you must adopt a teacher persona and forget all that work and effort toward self-promotion and submission. You must do what you are paid to do.

When I described the horror of my experience meeting with this editor (I’m leaving out all the other ugly parts not relevant here, like plain meanness and tactlessness), I had a number of friends who said, “You think this writer’s jealous of you?”

“Jealous of what?” I said with a laugh. “I’ve got miles to go before I sleep! I won’t be cutting her out of the market any time soon.”

Those friends seemed to think that jealousy can motivate a certain type of critic.

I won’t tell you what I paid this person but I will tell you what I got for free from my dear friends Chip and Nance.

Chip read every page of an early draft of the whole, convoluted beast that was my manuscript and told me when he was disappointed with a plot turn and delighted by a description. He fed my soul with his authentic reactions and his kind encouragements. He coached me to keep sending him stuff. I was even more motivated to make things good, knowing he’d be looking and vetting.

From my friend Nance, I got two single-sided pages of detailed feedback. Let me stop for some of the highlights, places where she, like Chip, was just the coach I needed:

“Ok, just finished your last chapter. First of all, CONGRATULATIONS!
Wowzers. What an impressive creative endeavor. I really got to know Daria and cared what happened to her.

I think there is a lot of talking and thinking. Totally true to life but not what I want in a novel. Sometimes it feels like events are happening in real time. But I want to be taken on a different kind of journey. I’ve pointed out some specific instances. I think there needs to be more action, less narration of Daria’s inner thoughts and her outer processing convos with various friends. She often picks up the phone to tell other characters about what is happening.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of and I wonder if you can whittle it down. I’m gonna try to list ’em out here real quick, to see what I remember….”

And so it goes. She makes several suggestions about how to resolve a plot line, about her wishes for the ending of the story, about two minor characters and a major who need to go, about an event that has no logical consequence…did I mention how helpful this feedback is?

The tone of the critique helps immensely. Nance wants to coach me, not hinder me. She wants me to make great art, not shoddy art. And she wants me to finish. After reading her detailed suggestions, I rolled up my sleeves. The other critic stopped me cold for about a month.

As Jess Row indicates in his analysis of the critiques of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, it takes courage to be a decent critic. You must not only know your craft but you must study it with discipline. You must study how to communicate that craft to others. You must keep foremost in your mind the heart and spirit of the soul before you, struggling to achieve the Good, able to rise above her own weakness and incompetence to craft Beauty. It also takes courage to be a decent writer, one who can speak truth back to those critics who would destroy.

This Confession of Lyn Hawks is a rusty voice calling for fair and educated critics who believe in Abundance.

Today’s Writing Goal: Cut at least another 1,000 words.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. © Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary:

What Starts or Stops the Crying?

Have you ever done something and the result was someone cried? Have you ever helped someone stop crying and made them feel better? Tell that story. What happened? Why do you think things happened that way? What choices did you make that you wouldn’t make again?

Then write the answer to this question: What do you know now that you didn’t know then? You might consider questions such as:

What starts someone crying?
What stops crying?

Why We Cry

Does it ever help to cry sometimes? Or does it always hurt? Tell a story about when you or someone else cried and how you feel about it now. Are you glad there was crying? Why or why not? Do you wish it hadn’t happened? Why or why not? What does your family say about crying? Do you know why your family says this?


Secondary/Adult:

Option #1: Think of a time when someone – a parent, coach, teacher, tutor, older sibling, relative – gave you feedback on something you were doing or had done. What criticism did you receive? Was it helpful criticism?

Write a mini-meditation on criticism: what works and what doesn’t. Give examples of times when you received constructive or destructive criticism. Let your thoughts meander from one anecdote to another, analyzing the ways you have been told what’s good and not so good about your actions and accomplishments. End you meditation with epiphanies you have about criticism. What kind of criticism works? How important is how it’s said? When is criticism tough love and when is it tough hate? What advice do you have for critics you’ve known? For yourself when you offer criticism?

Option #2: Think of a time when someone – a parent, coach, teacher, tutor, older sibling, relative – gave you feedback on something you were doing or had done. What criticism did you receive? Was it helpful criticism?

Write a letter to this person telling the person how you feel about the criticism. Give your honest reaction. Weigh the person’s words and see if there is truth from which you can learn. This may be a letter you never send, but say what needs to be said.

Or you can write a letter to a person whom you criticized and tell them how you feel now about that choice and experience.

8 Comments

  1. Lyn, you’re exactly right about what a critique should do for a writer. I’m so sorry that you encountered an editor with a rotten bedside manner, as it were.

    (I came to your blog courtesy of a Google alert for the phrase “freelance editor.”)

  2. bobmust says:

    Lyn, I think your statement(s), “Writing is a tough business. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you see someone’s success, or potential success, because you’re busy banging your head against too many walls,”is both at the core of the long-term writing experience and the essential bit of sensitivity for editors, agents, critique group members, and in-print critics.
    Literary criticism, while following publication, has always been just as important as getting a m/s ready for prime time, because it’s has been meant traditionally to improve future writing by examining how a piece works in the context of the grander literary experience.
    And regarding self-editing (your cutting another 1000 words): my N/F piece that won the NCWN Rose Post Award last year had originally been over twice as long as the winning version. I’d written the longer piece as part of a writing class at UNC-A, received an A on it. To enter it in the contest, though, things had to go, including some things that added “resonance.” Now, I don’t doubt that the shorter piece was tighter. So maybe overall cohesion counts for more than “resonance” or depth – or any other well-meant aspect of a story.
    Cheers on a great post!
    Bob

  3. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Katharine,

    I’m glad comments hit a chord with you. I’m a better person for having worked through a rough critique. Still, wouldn’t wish it on anybody. Thanks for visiting!

    Best,

    Lyn

  4. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hey, Bob,

    Great comment about cohesion versus resonance. I don’t know how we weigh such things in art on a global scale, since we only see artists’ finished products, but there are some interesting books like Deepening Fiction that talk about a work in progress vis-a-vis the final version. So what it takes is a patient eye and a gut-level knowledge of what amount of cohesion is worth sacrificing a certain amount of resonance. I have so many anecdotal moments in my novel that resonate for me personally but overall detract from the story’s arc and scope…I need to keep around the rough lens of rough critics somedays to whip myself into shape. So, that was a point I left out of my post: I’m thankful for even the mean-spirited critiques, because they prep me for as many readers as possible before I release the child into the world.

    Lyn

  5. Anonymous says:

    Lyn:
    Enjoyed your Crytique post. Perhaps the best outcome of this bad experience is it gave you the courage to fight back and improve your novel. Even though this faux editor offered no real help, her caustic and ill advised commentary gave you the catalyst to revisit your work and change it.

    I totally agree that coaching is at least equal if not more crucial part to the process of creative writing.

    My limited experience with a professional editor was much more positive than yours. For just one hour of his time, I got lots of critiques but also coaching(e.g. suggested books to read and advice on how to write a better synopsis. I have taken that to heart and have embarked on a tedious journey to cut, cut, cut and work to imporove.

    So far I have cut over 200 pages and about50,000 words. As this editor pointed out – too many characters, plots, subplots, etc., etc.)

    Based on his initial input, I plan to go back when I’m ready with the next version.

    Thanks for your insightful post.

    Archibald

  6. Anonymous says:

    Lyn:

    Thanks for the latest post. It resonated with me. Don’t know who your editor was but he or she reminded me of a person who conducted a class in creative writing.

    I attended thinking I would receive the benefit of his or her wisdom. Instead this person merely had the other amateur writers critique my work with the instructor sitting by observing with no significant contribution.

    This person let the students do all the work yet he/she was getting the paycheck. Lazyness comes to mind since I got neither critiques nor coaching.

  7. Lyn Hawks says:

    Archibald,

    The one hour of inspiration provided by that coach is significant, and I think it also speaks well of you — that you’re a quick study and respond well by “doing your homework.” That is the part of the equation I’m of course assuming when I discuss poor editors — the good student. There are plenty of excellent editors and unresponsive students who can’t appreciate what they are being given nor meet the challenges they’re offered.

    Lyn

  8. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Anon,

    I think laziness is definitely one component of that overdemocratized, weak gathering that some professional writers pretend to lead, AKA the writing workshop. Madison Smartt Bell dissects this experience in many MFA programs in his book Narrative Design. I think ignorance of the teacher’s role and how to conduct Socratic questioning, never mind an ignorance of craft, is what definitely was at work in your experience. That teacher ought to read what Charles Baxter has to say about running a writing workshop and how you take apart a story without getting personal or random (where everyone’s opinion floats around, and the writer’s left with too many voices in his head).

    –Lyn












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