Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Thick Skin of a Writer in Critique

Several months ago now, I had a conversation with a couple of women from Midwest Fiction Writers after a signing. We did the usual things writers do when they get together -- gossiped about the publishing industry, our fellow writers, and generally bemoaned the trials of the writing life. Somehow it came up that I'm in a critique group. After the usual back and forth about how it all works, both of these women were stunned. "You must have really thick skin" one said, and other shook her head and asked: "How can you stand to have people read your work before it's finished?"

My first thought was: How can you not?

I've been writing this way for so long, I can't even imagine a writing process that didn't include the constant criticism of my peers. To me, it's far more shocking to think of handing in a manuscript to your editor having never shown it to another soul before that moment.

After listening to them, however, it occured to me that most authors write very much alone, and that a lot of people are really afraid of what others might say about their work. Even established writers who write for a public audience may not ever interact with a reader about their work other than their editor.

If it works for them (or you), great. I imagine like my earlier post about whether or not people keep rejection letters, this comes down to a matter of personality. For me, I'm kind of a life-long student. I like having a place I have to go every other week (or 2nd and 4th weeks of every month), and "homework" that's expected of me. Since I can't afford to stay in college my entire life, I think I suppliment by being in a critique group. This way I get to yell about esoteric stuff with a bunch of other people all engaged in the same process. Commas! Verbs! Passive voice!

Plus, I'm such a social creature -- which I realize many, many other writers are not. Being in a writers group helps me NOT be alone with my writing process all the time. For instance, I think I'd tend towards writers block if I didn't have "homework" to prod me along.

As for having a "thick skin," I guess I'd rather hear about any problems while I still have time to fix them rather than after I've sent a completed manuscript in to my publisher. But that may be a matter of preferring to do my work at the front rather than at the end.

I also realize that for many people the issue is kind of moot. They live too far from other writers to enjoy the kind of experience I get to have every other week. But if you had the opportunity, would you be in a critique group?


Kelly Swails said...

A few months ago at World Con I met up with one of my beta readers. She thanked me for being so understanding about her "harsh critique" of my novel. I gave her a blank look, because I didn't think her crit had been harsh. It had been honest, which is what I had asked of her. When I said that, she said something along the lines of, "You don't know how rare you are, to take criticism so well."

My belief is if you can't take criticism from folks you like and respect, how will you ever take it from a hundred nameless strangers? When I ask for a crit, I don't want any punches pulled. The meanest thing you say about the manuscript--if it's said honestly and from a genuine place--will never be as hurtful as a random stranger posting on amazon about how much your book sucked.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a critique group for 2 major reasons:

1) I need other people to find the holes. I hate the idea of working on something for months, polishing, perfecting, and then discovering there are major issues with the piece.

2) I need the regular influx of "you don't suck" from my group. Left to myself, I only see my struggles - it's hard to see the good stuff, or find my way out of dead ends. The moral support I get from my group is invaluable.

There is a certain amount of thick skin required of the critique process, but I know my group wants to see my work be it's very best. It's worth it!

lydamorehouse said...

Kelly -- I totally agree. Critique groups get you ready for the reality of... well, critics.

Nola, yeah. I love getting the positive too. That's the other thing I can imagine -- going through a year of writing and never hearing boo -- good or bad about your book. I like hearing what doesn't suck, too!

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine not having my work go through a peer review at least once (I prefer twice) before it gets passed along elsewhere. But I have a terrific bunch of readers who refuse to blow sunshine - they tell me what it is and what they think needs done to fix mistakes, providing copious notes. I like that.