Saturday, December 6, 2008

Critique, and the Writer's Compass

I'm thinking about critique today.

No single thing has been more critical for my progress as a writer. Showing my work to other people and asking what they think helps me to step back from the words and look at them from the outside. I can work and work and make a story the best I think it can be, but then when I show it to others I find my eyes opened to entirely new parameters of consideration. This is why I always, always have my work critiqued before I submit it anywhere.

Taking critique is an acquired skill. It's not just a matter of listening to someone tell you what they think you should do with a story, and then doing it. If that were all, then you'd never have a finished product, because everyone who reads it has different tastes, different preferences, and brings something different to their reading of the story. You'd just get pushed around. This is why it's important to have what I call the Writer's Compass.

The Writer's Compass is basically an instinct that holds onto your own idea for what you want the story to do. You want character A to come across as sympathetic. Or you want the city to be impressive. Or you want the scenery to be bewilderingly complex. When you set down a first draft, you make your first shot at achieving an effect, and you (hopefully) achieve it at least partially.

Then people start to critique. Remember that a great deal of the meaning of a story does not come from the story itself, but from the mind and experience of the reader. A reader will say, "I'm confused." Or they'll say, "I pictured him with black hair." Maybe they'll say, "The dialog sounded stilted to me." Or "I don't like him/this whole story."

This is part of where writers develop their thick skins. The other part is of course from the editors who say the same kind of things, along with the words "alas" or "I'm sorry."

But let's not think about editors yet - or at least, consider them as another voice in the process of critique. Say you wanted a particular effect, and you didn't achieve it for one of your readers. The next step is not to do what they think you should do. The next step is to try to figure out why they said what they said. Dig in and analyze the critique along with the manuscript. They may have pictured a character with black hair simply because you didn't specify his hair color early enough. Or because they found dark elements in his character. They may have felt the dialog was stilted because of the dialect that you used when writing it. Or because there was something unnatural about the situation in which the dialog occurred, which made the words themselves come out oh-so-slightly funny.

What I'm trying to say is that the effect you want to achieve should never be forgotten, and a critiquer isn't always going to suggest exactly the way to get there. So evaluate your manuscript with an eye for the difference between what you wanted, and what the reader wanted, and try not to say, "They just didn't get it." Try to ask yourself, "Why didn't they get it?"

It's a hard question to ask, but if you can find the answer, sometimes it can raise the story to a new level.