Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dragon Slayer Checks Self for Scales

"Don't give a woman advice; one should never give a woman anything she can't wear in the evening." Oscar Wilde

A friend of a friend, KR, is a writer. On hearing that I was going to published, KR asked if she might talk to me about what steps she could take to arrive in the same happy predicament. I spoke to her by phone, talking about the ways she might procede to get her manuscript in front of industry professionals, namely agents and editors.

As we talked, it seemed to me that she also wanted some feedback on her work from another writer. Since once upon a time, I was desperate for that same thing, I did what I told myself I would not. I offered to read her first chapter. Gads.

Critiques are the trickiest bits of business. My intentions are good, but I can be blunt, which leaves me in great fear of becoming like the anti-role model, Tough Cookie. Tough Cookie is a best-selling author who during a writing workshop gleefully warned us that even her NYT bestselling critique partner has to drink alcohol before reading a TC critique of her work. When we pressed on, asking her if she would critique our work, she seemed to morph into Jack Nicholson in that famous scene from A Few Good Men when he's told that the lawyer wants the truth and he snaps, "You can't handle the truth." Proceed at your own risk was the definite message from TC. She claimed with a trace of malevolent pride that her critiques had made some unpublished writers quit writing altogether.

Stop me writing? You and what army, I thought defiantly. I've been trying to quit for years and can't. Underneath my bravado though there was some uncertainty. There are many ways a critique can wound. She couldn't stop me writing, but she might make me question my ability to do it. What if she tore my work to pieces and undermined my confidence? Dangerous proposition to slip her my story I thought, reflecting that the old line that the pen is mightier than the sword was surely written in anticipation of the poison ink from women just such as TC.

To hell with fear, I thought. I gave her my pages. It turned out that there was nothing soul-shattering in her comments. I took what I thought would make the work better and discarded the rest. With Goliath successfully slain, I still walked away with the sobering reminder that in this business, it helps to have a bullet-proof ego.

I read KR's pages and liked them, but I was not without suggestions. Having been to countless lectures on the craft and the business of writing, I told her all the things I wished people had told me early on. And as soon as I e-mailed the document, I regretted it. What if I hurt her feelings? What if she felt that rather than trying to be helpful, I was trying to be condescending? What if I came across like a watered-down but still malignant version of TC? Perish the thought.

I went to sleep at 1 am and woke at 5 am, a sure sign that the stress levels in my subconscious are too high. My first thought upon waking was that I hope my advice helps rather than hurts KR. My other thought was that while it takes courage to ask for an honest critique, it sometimes takes just as much courage to give one.


Rick Bylina said...

It is the morning after I've sent the first 20,000 words of my WIP to my face-to-face critique group. Giving and getting are both tough. The reason so many of us, as yet unpublished writers want validation from someone who has broken through that door, is to get feedback from someone who HAS crossed the threshold, HAS grapsed the knowledge of what it takes, and, most importantly, HAS been able to apply it to their stories.

Once you cross that threshold though, (and I can only imagine this from other life experiences) it is impossible to impart the harsh reality of what needs to be done to the millions of "just about there" stories to the thousands of wannabe writers because a vast majority (and I may be one of them) just won't be able to climb that next wrung on the ladder and may potentionally look upon you as the person who finally killed their dream.

Giving and getting is a heavy burden. For some, it is a burden too heavy to bear. And for some it is a burden that shouldn't be taken on. And that's okay.

Want to look at my first chapter? ;-)

Yes, I'm kidding. Take a nap. You'll feel better.


Kimberly Frost said...

Thanks,Rick. :) Enjoyed your post too this morning over at the Muse.

Anonymous said...

I look at critiquing the same way you do, Kimberly. If someone asks for my opinion/advice, then I give it to them. Not with a mean spirit, but I can't lie and say something's good when I don't think it is. I preface my comments with the reminder that it is purely my opinion, then tell them what I think, the positive AND the "this didn't work for me". It usually comes out fine. But this spring a relative asked me to line edit and comment on her mss, which I did. There was good and bad - unfortunately, far more bad. So I told her what I thought. She hasn't spoken to me since, and has been attacking me in her blog. Sigh. Guess you shouldn't critique a relative's work...

Hopefully your friend takes your comments as they are offered. Keep us posted!

Kimberly Frost said...

Oh, Beth, I'm so sorry that happened as a result of a well-intended critique. Hopefully with time, your relative's hurt feelings will get better and there can be a mending of the relationship. (That's assuming she doesn't make you so furious with her blogging that you can't forgive her.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, K. At this point we're just not communicating. I don't hold grudges, but I doubt we'll ever be as close as we once were. Oh well! It just makes me a little pickier about the work I agree to critique...

And I don't think I've added my congratulations to the list for your success - I'm SO excited for you! And can't wait to read your work. You're an inspiration to those of us still out here aiming for our dreams.

Kimberly Frost said...

I was happy and relieved to get a note from KR saying that she appreciated the honest critique. All's well that ends well.

KR said...

Kim - I truly did appreciate your comments and although I found my face reddening with embarrassment when I read some of your critiques, I am truly grateful for honesty. I found myself "of coursing" over and over as I read what you wrote!

I've never really received a good critique on my writing before. My professors in college always scribbled an A across any story I ever turned in, glad that someone had actually tried. My fellow students in my writing classes didn't really seem to care or have the cahones to challenge me.

So, I find positive critique rather refreshing. You did a good job. =) Stop worrying at night - I'm the only one who should be up at 1:00 in the morning and that's only because I've got a hungry 2 month old son to feed.


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