To be critiqued or not to be critiqued (apologies to the Bard)

I had a nice little post drafted last night. It was going to be about the craft of writing but when I awoke this morning I found that my subconscious had been busy on a related subject – critiquing. Now critiquing is a subject I know very little about but what I do know has me worried, worried enough to throw my draft out the window.

This all started when I stumbled across a website called Bookcounty. This site gives writers the opportunity to have their work critiqued in exchange for critiquing the work of others. In essence critiquing is like giving feedback on technical issues such as ‘pace’ and ‘voice’ and is said to be invaluable for all writers but most especially for new ones.

So why am I worried? Because I began reading the first ten chapters of a book called ‘Pathfinder : Lost’ on Bookcountry and found it to be wonderful. Confused? Read on. Pathfinder is a story with the scope and depth of ‘Dune’ written in flowing, clean prose [bar the odd typo] with characters so real they almost jump off the page.  It is the kind of science fiction I love to read and most definitely the kind that I would love to write, yet it was given only 3.5 stars. How could this be right? And on a personal, selfish note, what chance did my own much poorer writing have if this story was only ‘average’?

I was shaken, I have to admit it. Very shaken. And so I set out to discover why a story I considered to be so very good had been canned by other critiquers. Yes I know I just made up a word but it’s very early in the morning and I haven’t had my second hit of caffeine yet so be gentle.

I found 10 reviews/critiques and began reading. Most echoed my reactions but one, by another writer who clearly felt himself to be an authority on the subject, was harsh. As I read through this critique my eyebrows kept going up and up as I tried to reconcile what he was saying with the story I had just read. Some of the criticisms were against features of the writing  that I most liked while others implied that the author of Pathfinder – Hudson MacHeath – did not know the first thing about the craft of writing.

By this stage I was bristling like a porcupine bailed up by a pack of savage chihuahuas. And then I found it, the clue that put the whole critique into perspective. It was hidden in the words  ‘we writers’. These select, elite few clearly included the reviewer but did not include the neophyte Hudson MacHeath. Ah hah…

Now to be fair to this ‘we writers’ twerp, the version of Pathfinder I read is not the one he first reviewed close to a year ago – this version apparently includes some restructuring and editing. Nonetheless I find it hard to believe that the story is fundamentally different to the original because the prose is just too good, too mature.   So I am left with the conclusion that the ‘we writers’ person either did not know what he was talking about or was a jealous prick. I very much suspect he was and probably still is the latter.

Most of the writers I have met online in the last four months have been good people who are supportive of each other and critique gently but the digital world also has an underbelly from which dark and slimy things can emerge. Professional jealousy, self-importance and its mirror image, low-self esteem are human traits but that is no excuse – they are still dark and slimy and when they are validated by the word ‘critique’ they can lead to a very nasty form of intellectual bullying.

A real critique is objective and is motivated by a genuine desire to help polish someone else’s work. It is an act of generosity. Intellectual bullying however is simply a way of making yourself look good at the expense of someone else. This ‘we writers’ person did not succeed in disheartening Hudson MacHeath but with a more fragile writer he could well have done so. And yes, I am thinking of myself here.  I know I need to develop the hide of a rhinoceros when it comes to my writing but I am nowhere near that level of self confidence yet, so had I been on the receiving end of that critique I know I would have been devastated, perhaps to the point of giving up entirely. I’m not a coward but I do take criticism seriously so I will think long and hard about ever submitting my work to Bookcountry.

Who am I kidding? I will never submit my work to people like ‘we writers’! Editors, especially good ones, are not cheap but they are worth every cent they charge because they know what they are talking about and are not likely to put writers down just to stroke their own egos. This is one benefit to having a professional editor that no-one seems to mention yet in some ways it is the most important reason of all. Critiquing groups cost nothing but as the saying goes ‘you get what you pay for’. Phew… I am so glad I discovered this.

My thanks to all those who have given me the benefit of the doubt on this post – I really did need to work through this issue and sometimes writing is the only way I can clarify things for myself. As for ‘we writers’,  all I can say is ‘take your ego and put it where the sun don’t shine’. To Hudson MacHeath I’d like to say ‘please finish your wonderful book because I want to find out what happens!’

Cheers all!

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

16 responses to “To be critiqued or not to be critiqued (apologies to the Bard)

  • Candy

    The need some people have to rip into the rest of us never ceases to amaze me. Writing is one arena where I know I have a level of competence and yet…. I also know I can be hurt by needlessly harsh critiques. Determining the quality of literature is a subjective process. I’ve hated books that were tremendous hits and adored books that never found a publisher. I can’t say that my opinion is more valid than the next, but — it’s mine.

    I’ve found that trust is a big part of the equation. There’s a short list of readers (including my agent) who can, and do, get me to question my own writing choices. I got a few serious notes on my new Monster manuscript yesterday. She was surprised at my positive reaction. I trust her because she really wants the book to be as good as possible. I will make the changes and have it back to her in a month.

    On the other hand, I’ve tentatively joined a writer’s group and I’m very worried about the first meeting. I’m one of the first four to be critiqued and, after having read two of the other three selections, I honestly don’t know what I’m in for. I don’t want to be that cruel editor, but I don’t want to lie, either. I’m also scared of what they’ll say about my work-in-progress.

    You’ve got me thinking. I’m going to remember that it’s all subjective and that one 3.5 for a great book is, in the end, meaningless.

    • acflory

      Ouch :( You are braver than I am Candy. Much braver. I honestly don’t think you have anything to worry about with regards your own writing, even as a work in progress, but if anyone does rub you up the wrong way remember that ‘we writers’ are slime!

      As for reviewing someone else’s work, honesty is not malicious! Good luck!

  • lorddavidprosser

    Dear acflory, I’m very worried about you. Since they eyebrows seemed to go up and up and not seeing them come down I assume you now have two caterpillars running across the back of your head and a very large expanse of forehead. No doubt you’ll adopt this look as fashionable in the future by a denizen of one of the worlds in your book but in this world all you’ll get are hair restorer salesmen. May I suggest you remove the look of surprise and restore them to their original position?
    It’s not worth being angry with or dismissive of ‘we writers’ since they are currently examining their own colons from the inside and can’t hear you.
    Also, they don’t accept criticism of their own work since no-one else is fit to make judgements.
    What it comes down to at the end of the day is taste. We all have different taste in books so if you don’t happen to like sci-fi or fantasy it’s very easy to be dismissive of it because you can’t enjoy it. For those who critique, they should only do so with a style , a genre they understand and enjoy.
    Far better to offer to review books for people who write in your favourite genre because then you have something to comment on- your enjoyment of the story.
    I won’t say it’s wrong to use ‘critiquers’ (your fault) but be prepared to grow a second skin and to suffer pretentious remarks from some ( only some) who think themselves better than reviewers.
    Your writing as always is great fun, even on a serious subject. Now enough, stop skiving and get back to working on the book !
    Hugs

    • acflory

      Yessir, Captn Sir! I did do some writing today but I also went to have my first needle-less acupuncture session so I’m now knackered :D
      It was a cross between having a massage and getting static charges on a regular basis. Fantastic! Fell asleep twice during the 1/2 hour session.
      Tomorrow I shall attack The Book with renewed vigour. As should -cough- everyone else -cough-.
      Re the ‘we writers’ I guess I was a tad naive but I still think I’d rather be critiqued by friends or by someone professional who doesn’t have an axe to grind :D

  • metan

    It never fails to amaze (and horrify) me that people get off on making others feel bad. If someone doesn’t like how another has done something it takes more intelligence to think of a nice way to get your point across than to just open your mouth (or tap the keyboard) and vent without engaging your filter. If you can’t say anything nice, just stay quiet!

    It always seems that those who have the meanest things to say are the ones who feel the worst about themselves, and as such have less nice things in their head waiting to get out.

    That book sounds great, hopefully Mr MacHeath dismisses this nastiness as the jealous rantings they seem to be! You are right, you get what you pay for, it sounds like a paid editor is definitely a better way to go, just to preserve your sanity if nothing else!

    • acflory

      Couldn’t agree more Metan. It’s why I never review a book I have actively disliked. Lashing out /is/ far easier than struggling to find a kinder way of saying something negative. Anyway… I feel purged now and am getting off my high horse ;)

  • Ilil Arbel

    Hi Acflory!

    I really enjoyed your article. I have been publishing for a long time, and I would never give my work to authors’ groups for critique. I give it to professional editors and/or proofreaders, people who know what they are doing. The only authors who get to see my books before publication are those who I consider good friends and terrific authors themselves, and we help each other, but the groups you are describing are completely pointless. I suspect that indeed a lot of these “We Authors” have a strong streak of envy and resentment, but that is not what concerns me. What does is the fact that I can’t see what are their qualifications to improve my work. Don’t waste your time on them, just sit down and finish your book. You are a very good writer — I can tell you that with certainty since I have read quite a bit of your blog — and you can ignore their “advice” and move on. I’d love to read your book, whatever the subject is!

    • acflory

      Thanks Ilil. I think I felt that I ‘needed’ feedback from these groups because that seems to be the general trend of all the advice I’ve read but now I agree with you whole heartedly – it has to be people I trust, whether they be friends or professionals, or not at all.

      And thank you also for the kind words about the blog. I ‘had’ a book finished, back in December of last year. And then I discovered that it was twice as long as it should be for a debut novel. So now one book is being torn apart to make two. Sort of.

      Not sure exactly what pigeon hole it fits into – probably sci-fi-fantasy fusion? I’d love to get your feedback when I have something whole again. :D

  • Ilil Arbel

    Yes, I know, they have these little critique groups all over the place, they even have some sort of workshops they are not qualified to lead. It’s all nonsense. I’ll be delighted to look at anything you like and help you decide if it’s sci-fi, fantasy, or both. You may rest assured I’ll never tear anything apart out of envy or inflated ego, since I don’t have either. Come to think of it, I do envy the fact that you can have alpacas and I can’t, but that is another matter…

    • acflory

      lmao – the alpacas are contributing to global pollution at the moment, well, global pong at least so believe me, you’re lucky you can’t have them! And thanks :) I know you were instrumental in getting Lord Daud to publish so I have great respect for your work!

  • Stephanie Allen Crist

    Critiquing can be a very slippery slope and the pit at the bottom is all slimy muck, but, at the same time, that steep climb can reach a beautiful sky of blue and twinkling stars.

    Whether it’s pre-publishing, post-publishing, or anywhere in between you will encounter people who tear into your work. They’ll have no good reason to do so, but they’ll do it anyway, because it makes them feel smart/powerful/superior. Your label “intellectual bully” is spot on.

    It hurts. It sucks. And the only way I know past that kind of behavior requires a two-fold step:
    1) Believing that you have something worth saying, even if you might not know how to say it well enough just yet.
    2) Finding other people who believe that you have something worth saying, even if you might not know how to say it well enough just yet.

    I haven’t seen any of your fiction yet, so all I can go on is your own confidence level and what you say about it. And, by what you say, it’s not ready for public consumpion yet. There’s nothing wrong with that, because the key word is “yet.” Some of the best “first” books I’ve ever read were over a decade in the making. It takes time to learn our craft. It takes time to figure how to use that knowledge to tell the story we want to tell. It takes time to work with this awkward thing we call a manuscript and turn it into a book.

    Perhaps it will sound over-simple, but don’t listen to the naysayers. If their comments don’t show that they believe in your potential, then they’re not worth the effort. If their comments prove that they do believe in your potential, but they still don’t like your product, then that’s when you need to sit up and listen–but even then you need to realize that they may not be right. Now, if three or five or ten of those people are saying the same thing, then, despite your instincts, it might be time to reconsider. But it’s still your story and it’s still your decision.

    • acflory

      Yeah it is a slippery slope. On the one hand we all know that we need feedback on our work but on the other we risk being dismembered by the wolves out there.

      I know my fiction is not ready yet. I’m a perfectionist so my manuscript is going to be well and truly polished before it goes out into the world. And even then I’ll be holding its little hand all the way to kinder :) Hopefully I’ll be able to afford a professional editor for the last, final stage. After that I’ll be investing in valium!

  • Stephanie Allen Crist

    “well and truly polished” is god, but perfection is unattainable. Don’t commit yourself to perfection or else you’ll never be finished.

    A professional editor is good, and so is the hand-holding to the kinder side of the community. But, however your book is received, remember that you’re learning and your second book will be better than your first if you do it right, which I’m sure you will.

    • acflory

      I do know that, up here [taps head], I just have trouble with the motivator in my gut :) Plus I’ve always hated the kind of people who use critiques as a thinly veiled excuse for self promotion. If the author I was speaking about in my post gives me permission I’m going to post an excerpt to show what a fantastic writer he is.

  • Stephanie Allen Crist

    Sometimes it helps to show one’s experience in a critique, but I agree that it should not be an excuse for thinly veiled self-promotion. Of course, I’m not a fan of the idea of critiquing strangers’ work or of having a stranger critique my work–at least, not before it’s published.

    A good critique requires trust. For me, trust is something people earn. If you don’t know someone, how can you trust them to provide an appropriate critique? If you can’t trust them, then what’s the point?

    For example, if I were to write a sappy, sentimental romance novel, I wouldn’t have you critique it, because based on our interactions I can assume that you don’t like that kind of thing. You’re not the target audience. On the other hand, if you told me that my fantasy story with a romantic subplot was too sentimental, then I’d have to sit up and listen.

    When you have no idea of the merits a critiquer brings to the conversation, how can you evaluate the merits of their critique? What’s the value in that?

    Really, networking among authors/writers, even for those of us who are not socially savvy, isn’t that difficult.

  • acflory

    I couldn’t agree more about ‘earning’ trust, not to mention credentials. And thanks for the vote of confidence! When you do get that fantasy done you know I’ll happily beta read it for you :)

    Hudson MacHeath, the author who wrote that sci-fi story I was talking about does not even have a blog so I think he submitted his work with the genuine expectation that he would get helpful feedback.

    He has very kindly let me read the first 2 books in his trilogy and I’m determined to get him published somewhere, somehow. I’ve been thinking about asking his permission to post an excerpt of his first book on my blog because I genuinely think it’s that good.

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