September 13, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 3: “Ask for Criticism and Go Home Angry When You Get It.”

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, and are taken from his webpage: )

I’ve mostly experienced this one from the giving end. While not to say that I haven’t had my fair share of critiques – some of them brutal! – I’ve always believed that critiques are the only way I can get to be a better writer. That’s what the books say and that has certainly been my experience.

But I’ve been the target of intense ire when I’ve GIVEN critiques with the best intent.

For example, many years ago, I was in a newly formed writing critique group. There were four of us – two went on to write several novels and one of us won a major SF award. You all know who I am and what I’ve written, so I’ll call the other person Number Three.

Number Three was a very intense person. They were SERIOUS about their work and SERIOUSLY wanted to get better. Number Three took a one-year leave-of-absence from their day job to focus on the writing of their novel and they churned out pages!

The critique group (which never went by any cute name) worked on the round robin precept – each month, one person hosted and another provided a manuscript to critique. Number Three wrote like crazy and when their turn came ‘round, presented the group with a manuscript. Which was really…not…um…very well…um…done…I can only speak for myself to say that I tried so hard to find good things about the novel – but it was too hard. It was…well, I’ll leave it at that. Number Three quit the group. They do still write, but from what I’ve seen it’s primarily been non-fiction.

Another incident occurred more recently, this time with a student who was referred to me through an on-line writing program that sought to match older writer mentors with younger writers. Once again, I received the manuscript and read it. I soon realized that even taking into account the fact that the individual was young and somewhat inexperienced, the manuscript lacked in many, many ways. I wrote a letter back, commenting on the MS – and received an angry letter back from the student writer’s parent informing me that I knew little if anything about ‘real writing’ and that my comments had devastated this parent’s student and that they hoped…well, I’ll leave it at that.

Not all of my experiences have been negative – I was pleased to be accepted as a volunteer “first reader” (along with several others) for James Maxey’s third novel, DRAGONFORGE ( ). He happily perused any comments I made, responded promptly, thanked me profusely, included me on the “Thanks To…” page as well as sending me an autographed copy of the novel.

Lest you think that maturity is only a matter of age, I’ve had the privilege of coaching a young author who has been published now three times in STONE SOUP ( ). I had nothing to do with this story, but I’ve commented endlessly on OTHER stories he’s written. The way he easily takes critiques of his work bodes well for his future.

All this to say that writers, in order to become the best writers they can be, have to have more than thick hides (you’ve heard that one, I’m sure!), they have to be able to take criticism.

Lest you think I’m immune, I leave you with this little anecdote: I’ve been hard at work on a series of short stories using a black, middle school girl as a CSI. I’ve churned out six of these ditties. I’ve gotten comments on them from a few members of the staff of an online magazine I submit to and while I took the advice they’d given on one story, I’d pretty much gone off in a huff about the rest. Then an individual whom I deeply respect took time from his busy schedule to comment that Jasmine Ward hadn’t faced any obstacles and basically solved the cases by telling everyone what had happened. I reread the story in question and found he was right.


So I’ve gone back to the drawing board and I’m currently revising NOT the story, but HOW I WRITE STORY. I’ll let you know how the experiment goes. In the meantime, if you ask for honest criticism, go home angry when you get it AND WRITE THE BEST DANG STORY YOU CAN!

That’s what I’m gonna do anyway.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Guy. I may try to diplomatically direct some people to this one from time to time. I wonder how much of taking a good critique is personality, how much is attitude, and how much is just practice?

Any specific advice on giving critique to younger readers? This has begun to come up for me from time to time ...

Anonymous said...

Learning how to take constructive criticism well, and to give the same, can only get better with practice. One can't let their love for their "golden baby" (manuscript or illustration) obscure the journey to becoming a better writer or artist.

James Maxey said...

Guy, I'll repeat my thanks for your criticism on Dragonforge. The thing I remember most about it is that I had one image of the character Pet in my head, and you were reacting to the character in a completely different way than I had anticipated. I could have just shrugged off your comments as one datapoint, and figured that not every reader has to like every character. But, I decided instead that your reactions were telling me that the character in my head wasn't the character making it to the page. I think the book got much stronger in the final draft as I spent more time fleshing out the character.

By the way, the first time I got really harsh but honest criticism on my first (unpublished) book, I nearly shouted for joy. I felt like I'd been wandering aimlessly in a wilderness of words, and the critiquer had finally handed me a map that could turn my meanderings into an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. A novel is a work of art requiring that the author have an active partner, a reader. Discovering how your words affect a reader is priceless information.