Thursday, February 3, 2011

Critique is about the readers

I'm a person who loves critique. Whenever I have a story done (or sometimes even when I don't have it done) I find a writing friend willing to look at it and send it over for their comments. I have learned so much through critique that I wouldn't do it any other way.

For me, the only bad critique is one that doesn't speak specifically about the text or story elements - one that attacks me personally or one so vague I can't make anything out of it. A critique that criticizes, or even one that makes me think "gee, he didn't get it!" is still valuable.

When somebody doesn't get it, it's important to ask why. That lack of understanding happened because the reader missed the boat somewhere - and that's why I think it's important to go back and take a look, to try to figure out what precisely it was that left them behind. Some missing clue, that if it had been there, would have saved this person from their misconception.

It's really important to remember that when we read, much of what we understand of the text comes from our own minds. Each word activates in our brains the set of meanings that the word has built up for itself over all the instances of its use in our experience. Story elements evoke emotions based on our experience. Every time we read, we bring ourselves to the story.

Obviously, this affects critique. I once had a friend read my beginner novel and tell me he thought I should have matched up the characters differently - X should have hooked up with A, and Y with B, not the other way around. I still don't agree with him! But what I can do is when I go back to get that novel right, I can make sure I put lots of evidence in for why my solution is the better idea.

If you ever find yourself writing off a critique for a reason like, "That person isn't a genre reader," you might want to reconsider. Who do you want to read your work? Is it only for the specialist reader of sf/f, or cosy mystery? Great works will transcend and be readable by a larger audience. In a sense each time you offer your work for critique, you're testing out a potential group of readers. If all your readers fall into the same group, you may not learn as much as if you give the work to different kinds of readers. Literary readers. Romance readers. Science fiction readers. Fantasy readers. Their opinions will give you a glimpse into what others of their tastes might think, and chances are there will be a way for you both to maintain your artistic vision and to make them feel more welcome in your world.

I think that's something worth striving for.