Thursday, April 10, 2008

On Criticism

I'm going to try to articulate why I think constructive criticism is a critical tool to improving your writing. I know people who write without a critique group, and I don't know how they do it. I need someone to tell me this doesn't work, this does. My head is a pretty weird place (bet your's is too), and sometimes the bridge between the brain and page is nothing more than the-road-to-hell-is-paved-with-good-intentions scenario. My critique group has been invaluable, INVALUABLE, let me tell you. They have played an instrumental role in shaping the books that I have written, and I hope that they will play the same role for book no. three.

Anyway, I think people need to stop thinking of someone's comments on what doesn't work for them in your material as a critique. You need to stop thinking of it as someone saying, this isn't good. What you need to do is completely rewire those circuits. Because what they are saying is not, this is crap, what they are saying is, I don't understand. Yes, it's that simple. I don't understand what you're trying to say. That's what this is all about. It's about communicating what's in your brain to a piece of paper so that you can tell a whole bunch of people what you think. That's it. Writing is about communicating. It's the laptop and printer equivalent of sitting around a campfire and telling stories.

Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because writing is a frustrating and lonely process. You've got an idea that makes you squeak with joy. It's always more fun to squeak with joy with others than to squeak with joy by yourself (trust me on this one), so you want to share the squeaking and joy part. But since it's your idea, you want to maximum the squeak factor, so you write it down in a way will, hopefully, encourage as much collective squeak as possible.

If I were satisfied with only me squeaking and no one else, then I'd probably write something without pronouns and a lot of misspellings and every other word would be fuck. So, um, no, that's NOT a plan. Plus, again, squeaking with joy by yourself sucks. Back to the drawing board. Let's put down what will get us the maximum amount of collective squeak and don't forget the joy.

That's what writing is. It's about taking this lonely little idea that you have, in your brain alone, with all your baggage that you've collected over the years, the hang-up you have because you are really short-waisted (the fact that every woman in your family is similarly short-waisted doesn't mitigate the woe), the father abandonment issues, the growing up being the daughter of immigrants so you don't feel American OR European, um, where was I? Oh yeah, not that those are MY issues you understand, cough, cough, but we cart around those SORTS of issues and they affect how we tell stories. So our minds are full of this baggage and other people have baggage too (which makes it nice because baggage-less people often don't get those of us with baggage). Baggage usually differs, but the ACT of carrying baggage is the same. Storytelling is ALL about letting that dirty laundry fall out of your suitcase and having people help you pick it up and discovering, hey, I have a pair of socks JUST like that.

How I want to say what I want to say is unique to me, so unique to me that it's called voice in writing parlance. And when voice works it's marvelous, because the writer is speaking to you and I mean speaking full throttle. But when your voice doesn't connect with as many people as you want it to? Then it's just a question of learning how to communicate more effectively. That's it! Nothing more. It doesn't mean that you don't have great ideas, or that you don't have the most profound insight into the working mind of your protagonist. What it means is that you need to improve your communication skills.

That is what it boils down to: learning to speak a more universal language so that your angst, your humor, your insight, your *dream* becomes the reader's angst, humor, insight, and dream.

When I send something out for critique, I want full and complete honesty. Because for me, it's all about taking what's up here (visual, am poking at head) and putting it down here (visual, pointing at laptop screen) so that you and I can have a meaningful chat. And, hopefully, some collective squeaking with joy.

Communication skills. That's what it's about plain and simple. If your writing doesn't get a lot of wows, it doesn't mean you're a *bad* writer. I HATE IT when people denigrate their writing skills. Absolutely truth. Swear to God. I worked on this for years. I started seriously writing around my thirty-ninth birthday, and I'm looking at turning 52 this year. And my initial efforts (um, we are talking the first five years) were really pretty sad. But then I was learning how to "talk," yeah? So think of legitimate criticism as someone saying to you, I don't understand. It's that simple. Go back to the laptop and think, how can I say this so that people will understand what I'm trying to say.

Talk to me.


mascanlon said...

Hello Claire, I just found your blog by way of Dorothy L List. Followed the links, and here I am. Added the books to my Amazon pile and then read your note on criticism. I edit all day, totally different kind of writings, specialized reports but I try and make the same points...tell me your story in a way I understand what it is your trying to tell me... very hard work! I look forward to meeting Mary Ryan in a few days.

Elizabeth said...

I wish I had a writing group here. I have friends here who have read my novel, and they're smart people, but they're not writers and don't really think in that brass tacks way of what moves a narrative along, etc. How did you find yours?