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!’