Rules of engagement

Rules of engagement

I’m in the midst of getting feedback on one of the two most important stories of my life, in that it is one of two that I will use in my Clarion application. Five people, all skilled at spec fic of varying types, have agreed to read and offer feedback on Story #1, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Being in the thick of it again, I’ve been thinking about when I started critiquing and workshopping my fiction, and what I’ve learned from it. I can’t remember which came first for me,, or the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. In either case, it’s been six years. I’ve done week-long conferences, weekend retreats, and been a member of four different writers groups. They all have roughly the same rules.

In Matt Pallamary‘s workshop at SBWC, there was one rule:

  • Do not speak until everyone else is done critiquing your story.

In there are several, but the one I have found most important is:

  • Do not argue with the critique.

That one also came out in the SBWC workshops by way of a gentle “Yes, but you will not be able to stand beside each one of your readers and explain that to them. It has to be on the page.”

Those are the rules that I have found most important over the years. It is sometimes an exercise in restraint, sometimes an exercise in humility, but those simple rules never seem to fail. If you’re going to follow up with your reader, it should be in the form of questions, not defense. Listing the things you are going to change and are not going to change based on their advice is not helpful to anyone. At the very least, you won’t make enemies by just saying “thank you” and leaving it at that.

Finding the weak points in a story is wonderful. Once you’ve identified what’s broken, you can fix it. But critique can often create confusion, too.

We all bring ourselves to each story we read.  Depending on my own experience and emotional spectrum, I may end up reading a different story than the one you set out to tell. Sometimes that’s because it’s not on the page, but sometimes it’s because I just don’t have the experience to relate to what you’ve written, or perhaps I do not like to read the kind of story that you are telling.*

So what do you do when you receive a critique where essentially the person is telling you to write a different story, the kind of story that they like best?

First, do not argue with the critique. This person did you a favor. Be grateful. You owe them, even if you disagree with every word. (Personally I have never received a critique where I disagreed with every word. There has always been *something* useful to take away from it.)

Second, see what other people have to say about it. If more than one of them say the same thing, then probably what you were trying to communicate is not on the page. But if that one person was an outlier, and nobody else seemed to have the same issue with it, if everyone else understood your characters and what the story was about, then you can probably safely disregard those comments. They may simply not be the right reader for the kind of the story that you like to tell.

I can think of exceptions to this – if that one reader is significantly more skilled than any of your other readers, they may have picked up on something that eluded the rest. Use your best judgment, ego aside.

That has been the hardest thing for me to learn in the critique/workshop process so far: when to ignore advice. The advice you take should be the advice that helps you to tell your story better. Advice that turns it into someone else’s story is advice best ignored.

Lastly, don’t act on any of it right away. Read the comments (or review your notes,) and then work on something else for a few days. I have sometimes been too eager to trust my reader and make changes immediately, only to get conflicting advice from the next person. At other times I’ve been simply too stung by someone’s tone (real or imagined) to take what may be perfectly sound advice. I need distance to sort it all out before I can apply any of it effectively to my story.

I need to remind myself of all of these things. So far I’ve received a lot of very useful feedback. The goal is make my story stronger, and I will gratefully accept all the help I can get.

* Do not ask me to critique mystery, space opera, or memoir. Just saying. It will probably not contain the elements that I read for, because those genres are often driven by other (equally valid and wonderful) things, and my critique would not be useful.

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