Writing is more than just a job. It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s a way of looking at things. It’s and art and a science. It can be one of the simplest, most straightforward processes. Or it can be a steaming pile of pretentiousness. It’s act of creation that we invest our time, energy, and maybe a piece of our souls into (if you believe in that sort of thing).
But how do you respond to criticism of your work?
I was reading through one of my favorite writing guides recently: How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. Towards the end, there’s a section about criticism and what kinds of criticism best benefit an author. He uses three classifications of writers’ groups to convey his point: puff, literary, and destructive. Puff groups are fun but ultimately unhelpful to writing because they consist mostly of gushing, blowing smoke up each other’s nether regions, and then having a snack. Literary groups compare its writers to the greats of literature, and then suggest additional reading from one’s prodigious mental catalogue of literature. It’s also useless know who we write like.
A destructive group, on the other hand, is very useful. Many writers write in a vacuum. We hole ourselves up in a little room with a screen and keyboard (or pad and pen if that’s your thing) and pull words out of the ether. We know exactly what we’re trying to say, and it’s awesome in practically every way. A destructive group tells you in no uncertain terms that your work isn’t nearly as awesome as you think.
It’s not a pleasant experience.
It takes me back to my own writing class in university. It was an advanced course that students needed to apply for with a portfolio. I was honored to be allowed in. The class was set up as a workshop, with a little bit of theory followed by analysis of two students’ stories. I had several of my stories critiqued, and they went fairly well. One of the stories was published in the university review. Another has been a dangling, unfinished novel for over a decade. Analyzing my stories, my classmates were polite, made excellent suggestion. They did not make for very memorable critiques. They were far too nice. Nothing cut me to the core (though one or two of the more particular compliments have stuck with me). I got a B+ in the class. Ho-hum.
Far more memorable to me was one story a classmate submitted. It was a short fantasy piece. (I was one of only three people in the class who read fantasy, the other two included this guy and another fellow who only read sporadically.) It was a classic trope of a portal into another world, I think it appeared in some kid’s bedroom and a troll came out. Really. It was full of errors and had clearly been slapped together the night before its due date. Most of the class gave it lip service, a comment here and there, and everything balanced: good thing/bad thing. As you might expect, I took a different route.
Essentially, I went on a 30-minute rant on the story. I said it was cliché. I said how many times I’d seen it before (from The Twilight Zone to The Outer Limits to pulp sci-fi and fantasy). I tore into plot holes and inconsistencies. I’ll admit that I got a bit worked up about it. Even the professor started looking to me for askance to speak. I may have gone overboard. The author of the offending piece didn’t really speak much to me, but that never really bothered me. My other classmates were a little more cautious around me after that as well, but not excessively so. Significantly, two things did happen after that.
First, he never submitted such a crap story again.
Second, he responded in kind on my next submission. And that was exactly what I’d hoped for. Kind of. I had my next work torn to shreds by this guy that I didn’t especially like, and he made really amazing suggestions. He exposed holes and poor writing habit that I didn’t know I had. Maybe he thought he was getting even, and it certainly did sting, but it made me at least marginally better at writing. While I never really did like that guy, I am grateful for everything he taught me.