Advertisements
71 comments
  1. Jane said:

    HELLO LW.

    First of all, awesome kudos and puppy snorgles and cakes to you that you have made so much progress in your writing!

    The thing I wanted to say is: YOU GET TO EXPERIMENT WITH YOUR STYLE. You get to try things that aren’t quite “you” or aren’t quite “right.” That’s how you find out what you like! I feel like there’s an enormous amount of pressure for artists to be distinctive and unique IMMEDIATELY, but we learn through imitation and taking concepts a little or a lot farther than they ought to go. Even if these particular stories aren’t the purest incarnation of your personal voice, that is OKAY. You get to that pure voice by producing REAMS of work, circling around and crossing through the territory that belongs most authentically to you. Artistically, you don’t know if something belongs to you until you walk on that ground, so to speak.

    As far as your friend’s critique goes, I would let it sit and come back to it later, maybe after you’ve written another couple stories. This is my tinned advice for all criticism that doesn’t feel quite right off the bat.

    • lakeline said:

      This this this. I spent so much time worrying and dithering about how my photography didn’t have a unique style then eventually looked at it more carefully a couple years later and BAM. I totally see the progression towards my own style. But I couldn’t see it while I was learning it because it wasn’t… learned yet.

  2. I’m saving this whole post off to re-read every morning, dammit, but especially THIS.

    >> I am hearing the ding of the oven timer telling you that these particular story-cakes are done.

    • Ditto! Inspiring in a very doable way.

  3. *cheers this advice and LW very hard*

    “Too polished” is one person’s preference; it might be good, but they’re basically saying “this is not what I have come to expect from you”, and that’s not the same as “this is not your work”.

    To the second, I will just note that early Stephen King reads so much like Richard Matheson it makes my eyes cross. This does not make the stories bad. It makes the style recognizable. I will fight people who tell me stories are bad when they sound similar, and my weapon of choice will be a whole lot of Sarah Monette, who deliberately and lovingly writes certain stories which beautifully reflect MR James, and whose collection I have inflicted on at least four different people.

    I will second the hearing of the “ding”, and I hope you send these out and get acceptances.

    • neenerini said:

      Just wanted to give you a big internet high five for Sarah Monette! I know the collection of which you speak and it is amazing – and I usually only dabble in the edges of the horror pool!

      • I return your high-five! Let there be old books, and strange happenings, and a protagonist who says “er” a lot.

        Another Kyle Murchison Booth story is online at http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/monette_09_09/ ; it’s not in the collection, but it’s one of my favourites.

        • neenerini said:

          I’ve read that one and liked it too! I love that she links her writing on her website every once in awhile so I can get caught up on short stories I might have missed!

  4. The Captain is so right. The best way to stop going around in circles is to BREAK OUT INTO A STRAIGHT LINE THAT GOES TO A NEW PLACE.

    GO, LITEL BOKE!

  5. Virginia said:

    Critique and submission are SUPER HARD, and I’m not sure that they get any better, until you become Anne Rice and refuse to allow your work to be edited, at which point 32% of your readers give up on you, saying “UGH THIS BOOK NEEDED ONE HUNDRED FEWER PAGES.”

    My acceptance ratio for fiction on Duotrope’s submission tracker is 4.2%

    Four. Point. Two.

    I know, that makes me want to cry and throw myself into a ditch as well.

    However, that 4.2 (ugh, it doesn’t get any better upon repetition) has an asterisk beside it: *Congratulations! Your acceptance ratio is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets.

    Which is mind-boggling, right? Awful, yet still encouraging?

    Here’s another example:

    I have a story out on submission that is the lightest confection of a dirty joke. It’s a meringue of a story. I sent it out to a bunch of the top-tier, paying markets, and I got a warm, encouraging rejection from every single one. So that was frustrating-yet-cool.

    Then I sent it out to a bunch of the second-tier markets and got back only the formiest of form rejections, from every single one.

    There is just no telling.

    I’ve read slush for a literary zine, and it gave me real insight into the vagaries of acceptance/rejection. So much depends on things outside the writer’s control: what has already been accepted, whether the reader had a nutritious breakfast, whether yours is the second story in a row to feature purple-skinned mermaids who want to open a sushi bar at a Sandals resort and the reader just got food poisoning from sushi.

    Maybe “too polished” means that reader wasn’t as moved by this story as by others of yours in the past. Maybe it just means “I feel something is off here.” It would be weird to ask, though, right? I think the Captain’s advice to say thank you and move on is the happiest option. Think about it, but write more. Neil Gaiman had wise advice on this: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

    Rejectomancy and critomancy are subtle and confusing arts that cannot be mastered. All we can do is keep writing, keep trying to find homes for our words, and try not to fall into the Pit of Despair so often that our climbing gear wears out.

    • I mostly just tell myself that Bradbury got 500 rejections before his first pro sale[1]. Therefore, 5 rejections is a centiBrad, and every rejection gets me a teeeeeeny bit closer to being a bit more like him! And getting a centiBrad is an achievement! (And thus I have gamified “…does not meet our needs…”) (Also I have a list for each story, so when it comes in it goes right back out again before I hit the ditch with wine and chocolate.)

      Also I remember Connie Willis talking about how it felt when the time she got many many rejections (and was about to give up). Connie Willis.

      Also: 4.2! Holy crap, no, don’t cry! That means you have stories to send out and stories getting accepted, and these are both awesome things.

      [1] Or maybe it was 800. And maybe it’s not true. But it’s something to work with.

      • Virginia said:

        I love centiBrad! And gamifying submissions to prevent (or at least delay) Wine & Chocolate Parties in the Ditch. *fistbump*

        • *fistbump*

          (Some days I think of making myself little badges, like the ones you can get on Steam or for participating in lettermo.com’s A Month Of Letters. It is a distraction, but a fun one.)

          • Virginia said:

            Evil Supply Co. also has adorable badges.

          • nonniemu said:

            Oh, CURSE the reply limit here! This response is really to Virginia because THESE BADGES ARE SO AWESOME (https://evilsupply.co/categories/patches/) and I must have them all. Actually the entire website is just… fabulous. Bless you, Aphotic Ink, for bringing up the idea of badges, and bless you, Virginia, for introducing me to evil merit badges.

          • Virginia said:

            Evil Supply Co. is GREAT. They have awesome awesome customer service, their stationery is ADORBS, and their Tumblr is a total delight.

    • Jane said:

      *duotrope high five* 3.4% acceptance rate! Higher than 0, therefore awesome.

      LW, another thing to consider is: you get to decide you’re done with a story, even if it could still be improved. I have moved on from lots of old stories even though they were finished and edited several times.

      • Virginia said:

        *high five* THANK YOU – I felt pretty weird about putting that number out in public, and you have comforted me.

        (Seconding Jane WRT abandoning stories. Sometimes one is just done with them. I still send them out a few times, just in case.)

        • Akiva said:

          I hope this isn’t creepy, but I’m a nerd and I felt a powerful need to do the math. Based on your publications list on your site (39), that’s…. about 928 submissions total? Dang. I’m impressed! I’m not a writer but I’m a big reader, and I don’t have the foggiest idea what it’s like to be on the other side of the equation.

          • Virginia said:

            whaaaat now I feel like a superhero, not a ditch-dweller

          • …sweet… sweet merciful gahoogies. That is a stunning number of subs. I am proud that I managed to get fifty done this year (and I just got another rejection, so it’ll be 51 soon).

            I doff my nowhere-close-to-four-figures submissions record in Virginia’s direction. /bows

          • Virginia said:

            Well, there are a lot of years involved there.

          • Private Editor said:

            Oh my god, Virginia, it’s you. I mean, you’re here, at CA, commenting. I love your writing so much. Holy crap, that’s fangirly.

            Uhh this is a very useful, insightful comment and I’m happy I got to read it. CONFIRM

    • dr_silverware said:

      I don’t know if you’ve read the sequels to Anne of Green Gables, but there’s a bit where Anne’s submitting her writing around, and she publishes a silly story about talking flowers (or something) and not any of her more serious work. I think she kind of comes around on it but almost gives up on writing in the process 😦

      This didn’t have a point, except maybe, do you have red hair by any chance? Or a husband Gilbert?

      • Virginia said:

        I … do have red hair.

  6. This is fairly timely in its own way for me, as I am in the process of editing my first book. I’ve been published (and paid!!!) before, but not in long form. The book is nonfiction; I wrote it because I really needed to tell the story directly and doing so in a mostly fictive, metaphorical way wasn’t cutting it, and also, frankly, it’s part of a genre that tends to sell quite well, even in books written by people who aren’t trained writers.

    But of course I’ve spent the better part of this process deciding that I totally suck and should go back to school so I can get a degree in market research or something. And this is without showing any part to anyone but my best friend (who is a major figure in the book and whose words and actions I wanted to verify in one chapter)! My go-to response to people who have expressed curiosity about reading it is, “I’ll send you one of the promo copies after it’s published, but only if you don’t irritate me too much.”

    I don’t know if this is useful to you, LW, but what’s helped me was taking a break from this book for a few days to work on another, shorter idea I had. I’m still finishing that up, but I think that doing so will help me come back to my book with a clear head and a sense that this huge commitment that has occupied so much of my mental space doesn’t need to be the be-all and end-all of my writing career. I still have other ideas, other stories to tell, and if those stories don’t fit someone else’s preconceived notion of how I should be writing, well, fuck ’em.

    Listen to that oven timer, LW. Mine won’t be going off for a while yet, but give yourself a break and take some distance from these stories you’re stuck in.

    • This is really helpful to me actually. I’ve got the guts and beginnings of research for a non fiction project that I think needs to be written. But I don’t really think of myself as a writer. (I mean, I would be writing about my actual job. But I also don’t want to write the way a business book is supposed to be written, because part of what I want to do is challenge the way things are being done.)

      So anyway, the part where you think you totally suck, that makes me feel better. Because every time I start to do a little work I think “God, but why would anyone listen to ME?” even though I know the things I want to say are important and need to be said and that I’m right. It just feels like a lot. Especially since I still have an actual job.

      • And actual job I mean thing that keeps me from writing all day as my job, and not at all to imply that writing is not an actual job.(Because obviously it is super hard to do see this letter and your comment about how hard it is.) I just meant for me writing would be a side thing and NOT my job so it will be harder for me to do.

        • Not to worry! A lot of my working process involves taking long hikes to clear my head and also give me time to reflect and refocus, but I realize that I am in a very fortunate position where I can make that, as well as the writing itself, my full-time job. It would be different if my personal priorities necessitated a steadier source of income, of course, and I am aware that the life of a freelance writer with aspirations of being a full-time ski and hiking bum is not for everyone.

          As to your larger point, you should totally write that book if and when you have the opportunity! A lot of nonfiction books do very well even if the author didn’t major in creative writing, and some of the books that resonated the best with me in my own genre (which I’ve dubbed “wilderness disaster porn” – best example is Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air – though there has to be a better term for it!) were written by people who had no background in writing at all. I think as long as you know your subject and are passionate about communicating it, you’ll connect with an audience. And if you go the traditional route of finding an agent/publisher like I plan to do, there will eventually be an editor to help you with all that English major-y stuff anyway. 😉

      • Myrtle said:

        I love writing so much! What it’s taught me is to just start writing. It will speak with its own voice. I’ve written a couple screenplays, short stories and a pilot for an animated show, and each one of those came with a muse that taunted me to make it true to their worlds.

        One can read books that teach story points, plots, progressions and yet someone’s work breaks all those rules and soars to success. Good instructors know this.

        A friend who went on to become a credited staff writer on a big loved network show told me to consider any feedback coming from someone who wasn’t buying the work as just advice. The only one you need listen to is the person buying the work.

        Lastly, good writing software can be a huge help on corraling annotations, source material photos and footnotes, far past what a mere word processor can do. Not mentioning any brand names, but please do a search and download a trial version. I have both long-form and screenwriting -specific software, each worth every penny.

  7. jaynn said:

    It is arrogant to ignore criticism because your work couldn’t possibly have flaws in it. It is not arrogant to ignore criticism because you find it useless, which it sounds like these ones are for you. My mantra is always to consider criticism, but that’s not the same thing as always following it. As you noted these responses are fairly vague, and they both have a ring of “you changed it now it sucks” to me, which may say more about personal preference than about the quality of your work.

    • Courtney said:

      “My mantra is always to consider criticism, but that’s not the same thing as always following it.”

      Exactly! Advice is a gift, not an obligation.

  8. Lisa said:

    That pic is now printed and on my office wall. Just awesome.

    • Guava said:

      I know. It made me so happy, when I clicked on it this morning, in this context.

  9. egl said:

    In a way, both these critiques feel kind of like your friends weren’t comfortabe saying they really couldn’t find any flaws, yet knew the story isn’t perfect.

    Stories are never perfect. Follow the Captain’s advice and good luck with those submissions.

    • Not to mention that, since it sounds like these are fellow writers, there might be an element of, “Well, that’s not how *I* would have written it.” Which I know far too well is an easy trap to fall into, but it’s profoundly unhelpful as criticism when the author of the work isn’t the critic.

  10. espritdecorps said:

    So I took a break from writing to check CA, and here is this!

    I’ve finally started taking all the stories in my head and putting them on my Google docs. And today I wrote a quarter of a story I had half-finished, then put down a couple months ago.
    I loved what I just wrote, until I realized that it made half of what I wrote before need to be re-written, and also half of what I just wrote should maybe go into a different story, and why am I even pretending I’m a writer who can do this instead of a big silly wasting time tapping at a keyboard.

    So thank you, CA and commentators. This gift of your stories, It helps.

    • Very fresh stories are sometimes like a pile of kittens. First you get them down, then you look at them, and then you’re all “well all the orange bits go together, and I think all the long-haired bits go together except this one which is actually orange and just a case of the first kitten having a surprisingly fluffy tail, and I have no idea where this purple one came from but she’s purring really hard.” But you get them down first, and then sort things out.

      (Sometimes the kittens have writing on their stomach which reads “***a touching emotional scene goes here***” and this is also okay.)

      • Virginia said:

        (I love this analogy.)

  11. Amtelope said:

    I think the Captain is exactly right here. Critique can be useful, but when you’re down to comments that are more “I’m not sure I liked this story” than “here is a specific, fixable problem that I see in this story,” it’s time to send that story out into the world. It can be really tempting to keep editing a story until all of your beta readers/critique partners/etc. say that it’s perfect and wonderful. If doing that prevents you from either writing the next story or sending this story out for submission, that’s a problem. Kick these two stories out of the nest.

  12. dr_silverware said:

    I wonder if part of what you’re reacting to is a shift in your sources’ reading position. For previous stories they felt qualified to say: “it X, Y, and Z specific things that can be improved.” And now your writing has improved so it kind of has moved out of their wheelhouse, and now they’re reacting like an audience would–“something caused X and Y reactions in me as a reader, maybe it’s Z?”

    It’s still kind of hard to process, like, yeah these people who I trust don’t really like something about my work. But even if you feel pretty confident about your work–people are going to like and dislike it, even and especially the ones who might look at your submissions. And it’s rather a boost to have moved past the stage where anyone can look at your stuff and say, “too many adverbs.”

  13. e271828 said:

    Another vote for sending them out, putting them up for sale on Amazon, or whatever your ultimate goal is for these.

    On the polish question: Language is your call, but the comment is useful feedback. It tells you you have achieved a certain effect. Different stories require different kinds of, levels of, polish and refinement. Your job is to control that and deploy it to maximum effect.

    On the style question: It’s common, even usual, for a writer’s first work to sound a lot like an author she admires; I’m not going to list examples here, but derivative isn’t necessarily bad if you do something individual, unique to you, that the model or mentor doesn’t do. The derivative style is probably not a problem, as this is something a writer grows out of; what matters more is your personal insights and developments of the world’s common stock of stories.

    Good luck!

  14. Sarah said:

    So I have a lot of strong feelings about critique groups, and since my goal is to write fiction for a living, take this with a grain of salt but… Ugh.

    At a certain point, critique groups are more dangerous than they’re worth. Disapproving colleagues can be an excuse to procrastinate, to fiddle endlessly in some futile attempt to get Perfect. Perfect is a lie! And critiquers will always find flaws because *that’s their job*, it’s what you asked them to do, but the “flaws” they pick out (once you hit a certain skill level) are just… different. Not necessarily flaws, just not how THAT critiquer would write YOUR story. But still the Doubts kick in and you start wondering if you should change things because the critique sounds so goddamn reasonable. Ugh.

    Ultimately, I propose this: The only people your writing needs to please is YOU and the person who’s paying to read your story (an editor or straight to the public, whatever).

    I have one content editor and one copyeditor, both friends cause I’m poor (but both pro writers with decades more experience than me, thank fuck), and since I’ve stopped workshopping my pieces to death, I’ve started selling stories to real editors who pay real money and I’ve even gotten super-satisfying reviews from total-complete strangers. That’s the shit that really keeps me going. Write-write-write! Submit-submit-submit!

    • I would like to nod in response to this (although I am happy to have found a crit group where the levels of flaw are also addressed, so “I noticed X wasn’t clear, three-word fix” is not given the same weight as “your protagonist seems to be clinging to the Idiot Ball and there are unfortunate subtexts to the discrimiflip you are writing” (the latter has never happened, but it’s an extreme example)). Maybe a story isn’t perfect, but the perfect is the enemy of the good.

      And this, to address what LW was worrying about, is not “arrogant”. It’s knowing theyself, and to thine own self being true, dammit.

      • Sarah said:

        “…the perfect is the enemy of the good” is just beautiful. And I totally agree it’s not “arrogant” to occasionally dismiss feedback. I think it’s part of being a good writer and learning your own voice, and Joe Landsdale posted something related this morning on Facebook. In fact, he posts lots of good advice and is worth following, IMO.

        I’m so glad you were able to find a good group, Aphotic Ink! It sounds like you guys are really helping each other, and good writing support is worth their weight in gold. I just want to add (since I feel like I’m sounding extremely anti-critique) that I do think it’s important to get feedback and analyze writing (your own and in general) and hone your craft, it’s just that not all critiquers are created equal, and there isn’t some magic number of critiques you need to get before you’re “allowed” to submit or publish or anything.

    • Virginia said:

      *enthusiastic agreement*

  15. kbozukova said:

    Editing writer here! Man, this post comes at such a time for me. I hope I can offer a helpful comment.

    So I’ve worked with beta readers in the past, and then they’d moved on before I can show them a new version of the work. No fault of either party, just life getting in the way. It can feel super-demotivating. Sometimes, even finding a beta is hard because people get busy, or they don’t give you constructive feedback, or you’re not ready to edit the story again, or life suddenly gets in the way… For a writer in the middle of edits, this is like the perfect excuse to go down a rabbit hole of insecurity and doubt. And then you find a beta and you cling onto their every word because you now know how hard it is to find a trustworthy person and yadda yadda yadda…

    Here’s the thing – betas are human. You are human. Life gets in the way for all of us. Ask yourself what will help your story be the best story it can be. Sometimes that means listening to your beta. Sometimes that means trusting your own instinct and taking your story to the next level.

    I’m not published, but I do know that you need to trust yourself and trust your story. If you get agents and editors, they would probably want changes too. You need to be able to take their advice, but if you think something would not work for your story, you need to trust it enough to stand up for it. Or, to take it a step further, when you have your story published and the reviews start pouring in, you will inevitably feel a niggle of “damn, I should have done x, y, and z after all” but then the story is already out there, and you need to trust it to stand on its own too feet, as it is.

  16. Guava said:

    This was a timely read for me too. I’ve been working on a novel for a ridiculously long time, never been published, and I’m about halfway through. Some friends have been raving about this writing workshop, they say it’s been life-changing for them, and they really really want me to go with them to check it out.

    I’m terrified.

    I’ve taken creative writing courses before, and the part where I sent my work out to get criticism left me totally paralyzed. I’ve bought books on writing (like the Stephen King one) and ended up with the worst writer’s block ever. It’s really hard for me to distinguish between useful criticism and criticism that is thoughtful and well-meaning but ultimately not going to work for what I’m writing. I tend to have overly honed people-pleasing and approval-seeking tendencies, I guess, and so every time I hear a suggestion, I feel like I owe it to myself to become a better writer by letting go of my egocentric story idea and giving this person’s helpful critique a chance, and it doesn’t always work, and then I feel like a bad person and it takes me months to work up the courage to put my own words on a page again. And yet, I feel like my work is good. This is all to say, LW, that I feel you so hard on how to interpret those critiques.

    • Book_Belle said:

      My goodness, are you me? I do exactly this, especially getting paralyzed in my own writing out of fear of having not followed a critique partner’s advice or being afraid of what they will think. I am slowly learning to be true to my vision of the story, regardless what my critique partners think. Everyone is different, and a lot of times, the “flaws” others find in our stories are simply them identifying elements of our own personal style that differ from theirs and calling it a “flaw” because it is not the writing choice they would have made. Does that make sense? I’m recovering from whooping cough and the meds make my brain funny.

      tl;dr I feel you on the people pleasing aspects and join you in the struggle to be authentic to myself while taking critique into consideration. Fist bump of support, fellow unpublished writer working toward publication!

      • Guava said:

        Aww, thanks! That’s a really good point about “flaws”. Fist bump right back atcha!

    • h said:

      @Guava, If you want to someday receive critique but are nervous about it, there’s something you could try which IMO is a wonderful way to prepare. Go to a site called absolutewrite.com, make an account, look for the “share your words” section, and practice giving critique to others. It’s not presumptuous – in fact, it’s considered a way of paying your dues if you ever want to post your own work. It may sound strange, but when you approach it from the other side, you learn a lot! Things I’ve learned or seen others learn:

      * how to phrase critique respectfully (and thus how to recognize disrespectful critique, as well as when and when not to cut people some slack for good intentions)
      * how hard it can be to articulate _why_ a story leaves you dissatisfied (and thus not to give too much weight on any one person’s reason, and instead look for trends, or look for a spot in the story that many people react badly to)
      * that it’s possible to dislike someone’s writing while still respecting them as a human being
      * to respect the time and effort someone put in even when you think they’re just completely wrong (because you’ll find out how hard it is and how long it takes!)
      * that a good critique partner _wants_ the writer to have enough independence of spirit to know when to ignore critique (because you’ll want that yourself!)
      * that most people are self-taught at critique, and ability varies even among people who are skilled writers themselves
      * you get practice taking the “book learning” from books on writing and applying it to actual text, without the emotion of examining your own work
      * that a healthy critique group has a low tolerance for authors getting angry, hostile, or defensive at critique, both because it’s rude and because people giving critique need to feel safe before they will speak honestly (and thus to steer clear of groups which tolerate acting out, if you someday join a RL group)

      That site does have limitations (they only allow small amounts of text to be posted, and many people are very new, so you rarely get expert critique), and I don’t hang out there much now that I have a RL critique group. But it’s something you can do to ease your toe in the water, if it interests you. Many people find they learn as much from giving critique as from receiving it.

      P.S.Captain Awkward and volunteers, thanks for running this great site and doing such hard work to moderate comments!

      • Guava said:

        That is a really interesting point, I hadn’t thought about that. What a great way to get familiar with what constitutes constructive critique. Thanks so much for that suggestion, I think I will do that!

  17. Gregory said:

    If the feedback confuses you, you can ask for clarification. Just don’t argue with the provider of feedback – always thank them for taking the effort to give you feedback (especially if you actively solicit it).

    If you disagree with the feedback, or find it useless, then don’t use it. That’s a judgement you can only make yourself, though.

    Ideally get as much feedback as you can. The majority of what you get may be perfectly useless. but the more feedback you get, the more likely you’re gonna find something useful in there.

    • I suspect that the “intelligible” version of the criticism goes something like this. “Your prose is more polished and that’s good, but your characters thoughts and speech have also become more polished and that makes them less realistic, so keep your descriptive prose the way it is, and revert the way your characters speak and think to the previous, less polished versions.”

      Other than that, I think the Captain got it 100 percent right.

  18. KW said:

    Definitely ask for clarification! But “too polished” and “reads like X writer” do seem like pretty subjective feedback to me. There are also a lot of people who, when asked for critique in a story, feel that they’ve been asked to provide ANY critique and may cast around for something even if the story reads like it’s finished and perfect to them–it’s about wanting to deliver what’s been asked and not a need to nitpick.

    Seconding that you should send it out, and then think about the feedback that people have given you for the next batch of stories you write. At some point you just have to put them out there and keep going.

  19. Book_Belle said:

    So this is a very timely post for me as well, as I received very similar feedback from my critique partners, who consist of my 72-year-old ex-pastor’s husband (long story haha) and my twin sister. He likes to cross out words that he doesn’t like or try to reword things to fit his style, and she recently told me that she thinks I am trying to sound like Michael Connolly or Kathy Reichs and I need to stop. Which confuses me – they are without a doubt huge influences on me, as I’m writing in the detective murder mystery genre, but I am absolutely not trying to imitate them at all. I can be a style sponge if I write right after reading someone’s work, but it’s not a conscious choice I’m making. And if I compare my work to theirs, I can see major differences that characterize my voice.

    Like you, LW, I don’t know quite how to respond. I ask for specific feedback on characterization, pacing, tone, etc., and rarely get more than surface grammar edits, although my male friend did give me excellent feedback on characterization of my main protag, which was warranted and most helpful. I just don’t know how to handle the “you’re copying published authors!” accusation from my sis. Like, I’m flattered you think my work sounds like them, but it’s not plagiarizing or copying, I swear!

    On another note, does anyone have any advice on how to handle critique partners who can’t accept constructive criticism? My male writing buddy is writing a distopian story in which the general gist is that somehow, Christ has been lost from Christianity. (Not my genre or my interest – I’m pagan and queer so yay) but he’s my friend so I read. Given the huge meteor-sized impact that religion has had on this planet, for mostly bad and some good (Dante’s Inferno anyone?), I don’t find it plausible that Christ could totally be forgotten and “lost” from the religion, even if all books are burned. He’s practically seared into the collective Western thought fabric. I told him so as gently as possible and suggested some alternatives, like maybe Christianity has been warped into a polytheistic religion with people worshiping the 12 disciples etc., and having his priest protag “purify” the religion.

    Anyway, my friend was very affronted and later told me he got so depressed and considered quitting the story until his daughter, who is also reading it (and also Christian), got back to him saying she loved it and demanded more. I don’t know what to do with this. Like, it feels like he was blaming me for his insecurity in his story and implying that my comment could make him quit writing. I am afraid to offer honest critique now. I have zero interest in changing his story to fit my goals/purposes whatever, but does anyone have any comment on how to handle critique partners that can seem to take constructive criticism?

    • Exit Flagger said:

      For whiny critique partners:

      First offense: “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way! This is only my opinion, and I think (this element) and (this element) are strong. You shouldn’t stop writing something you believe in because of what one person says, especially when that person isn’t in your target audience. Keep going!”
      Second offense: “Yeah, we’re done here.”

      Seriously, beta readers and writing buddies are a dime a dozen. I have infinite patience for poor writers who take constructive critique well and zero patience for talented writers who are full of themselves. Find a better critique partner.

  20. gravitag said:

    ” but does anyone have any comment on how to handle critique partners that can seem to take constructive criticism?”

    In my opinion, if your critique partner can’t handle constructive criticism, don’t give them construction criticism. This is a real life friend I’m assuming, so your goal should probably be to preserve your friendship with them. (If it’s just a person you don’t know well in a critique group, maybe it doesn’t matter if they can’t take the criticism, but for a friend, preserving the friendship may be more important)

    You can either decline to critique their work or you can simply not say anything particularly critical about their work even if you are thinking it.

    For example in your scenario you could have asked “What happened to make everyone forget Christ? I didn’t understand that part” if you wanted to address the issue without risking alienating your friend by making a qualitative judgement. But if your friend is really sensitive, maybe that would have bothered them too, I don’t know.

    I do also say when giving a critique that’s negative that there’s lots of popular stories I don’t like, so when I give a critique, quite honestly I don’t think my opinion is anywhere near the last word on the matter.

  21. Yet another vote for sending out those stories, LW! I’ve had a story that was critiqued by a lot of beta readers, and learned that I had to pick and choose the feedback that I found the most useful. When you start submitting, you should also know: when you get personal rejections, sometimes the critiques will also contradict each other from time to time.

    Good luck on the submission process!

  22. Gotgingham said:

    Great advice from The Cap’n for a great question from LW.

    Feedback only carries you so far. Things you want to know is, does the story *carry* the reader?

    If your writing style is distracting from the story then yes, you need to allow the story room and the reader to use their imagination …

    I was next to an old barn in the frozen winter once
    ..

    See? Did you need much more than that? We need to want to know what *happens next* enough to care what is happening now.

    If your stories are sound, and replete with enough action and amusing literary tourism for the target audience that is *into* that area of storytelling, there is little left for you to do.

    In calligraphy and sign writing, we are instructed very early on to learn the standards, and allow originality to come from necessity–not searching.

    This is how I realized that writers and artists are like plumbers and pipe fitters building a network in a building that is unfamiliar to them. Working with plumbers showed me how creative they were when faced with surprise situations as they applied the standards to their craft. Any construction site is full of these daily acts of originality.

    So I say to you keep building these houses, with rooms and people in them, doing acts and saying things that only you can tell us of.

    The art racket is a long road. As you go further along it, the more your own “standard” becomes emphasized and noticeable amongst all the other “plumbing styles.”

    Watch an electrician enter a room. They will scan it much like sculptors see a new piece.

    So keep turning those lights on. The editors are the ones who are going to be the ones to tell you if its too polished or not. That is their job.

    Write the stories you would want to read and let the words keep coming.

  23. Another thing to possibly consider is that when you ask a conscientious reader to provide feedback, they may feel obligated to provide at least some constructive criticism (I know I do). So this structural feature of the feedback-giving process may skew against just saying, “Looks great!”, even if that’s what they really think.

  24. Exit Flagger said:

    Semi-professional writer here (as in, I’ve made very low four figures in the last two years from writing, but not nearly enough to live on). The Captain is dead right. You take what works for you, throw out what doesn’t, don’t feel bad about not taking advice because it’s YOUR story. Send these pieces out as soon as you are able and write some new ones. My first story in a professional magazine was a piece that everyone in my writing group hated. I loved it. So did the editor. In the end, these are the only people you have to please: yourself and the person who pays you (I guess audience is another consideration too, but they are not as important as the other two entities). Send out those stories! Do it NOW!!

  25. CW Workshop Veteran said:

    I have a bachelor’s AND an MFA in creative writing, am on staff at a literary magazine, work as a freelance editor, and have plenty of publications under my belt.

    I have a LOT of feelings about workshops/critiques from other writers/etc. and how it can be helpful or harmful.

    1. The people critiquing your work need to generally understand your basic style/goals/milieu. Like I don’t read any erotica/romance, so when that stuff comes up in writing groups or workshops that I’ve been in, I put as much effort into reading it and commenting on it as I would for anyone else, but I also note that I’m probably not the best reader for this piece.

    2. “Constructive criticism” as it is usually conceived of actually tends not to be helpful. The popular conception of constructive criticism is basically: “I think X is wrong with this project. Maybe try making it more Y by doing Z.” This does not work for writing fiction. Whatever Y and Z the critiquer comes up with are probably not going to fit with the author’s vision of the story—a vision the author probably hasn’t fully figured out yet during the workshop stage—even if the author completely agrees that X is wrong.

    3. The ~*~ideal critiquer~*~ will not just say “X is wrong,” they will point out what they see ON THE PAGE that makes them feel that way. So, for example, instead of just saying, “I don’t think there’s enough character development,” they’d say, “Your protagonist reacts the same way to her girlfriend on page 1 as she does on page 10 and page 20, so, in this draft, it doesn’t seem like she’s learned or realized anything about their relationship or developed as a character over the course of the story.”

    4. BUT not every critiquer is the ideal critiquer, and sometimes they’re totally right that “X is wrong” but they can’t exactly point to why. I’m working on this story where the characters are fleeing a wildfire, and I had multiple people tell me, “Well, I’m just not getting a sense of danger from the fire, it doesn’t really feel urgent,” but none of them were really sure why and I had to figure it out on my own. But the fact that I got that same feedback from so many people indicated it was probably something I needed to think about.

    5. Instead of offering ideas for “solutions” (like the “make it more Y by doing Z” example above), it’s usually more helpful for critiquers to offer ideas for exploration, i.e., prompts. For example, a recent prompt I got was: “Your protagonist wishes she could have had her dream job instead of getting married and having kids. What does her wildest fantasy of the dream job look like. where she world is 100% perfect and she gets everything she wants?” (I wrote this fantasy and it became one of the key scenes in the story and helped me totally rewrite the rest of the story. Notice that the critiquer didn’t give me any suggestions about what should be in the fantasy or why.)

    SO, in your case, I think you do not have ~*~ideal critiquers~*~ because “too polished” and “sounds like Other Writer” are very vague. (Also “overuse of adverbs” is the kind of comment that should only happen during the final stages of editing, not when you’re still on draft 3 out of 10, so that might also be a sign of a non-ideal critiquer.) Can they point to actual passages, with page numbers, where they felt it was “too polished” or “sounded like Other Writer”? If so, you can look at those passages and think about whether or not you agree with those judgments. If these readers can’t give those specifics, I would a) find other readers who can, and/or b) ask them for those kinds of specifics beforehand on your next draft/story so that even if you never figure out what they meant by “too polished,” you can hopefully figure out what their next critique means.

    • JenniferP said:

      This breaks it down so well! Thank you.

    • Agreed! Very good explanation of how critiquing fiction is different from critiquing other kinds of writing.

  26. This post is such a mixed blessing to me. It’s hard to deal with the fact that after fifteen years of writing, my major roadblock is still not the work itself, but the work process.

    My heartiest well-wishes to every other writer on this comment thread.

  27. LW said:

    You’re all so wonderful and this is so what I needed to hear right now thank you thank you thank you ❤

    PS For anyone who is interested in the dark fantasy/horror/fairy tale author I was referring to, her name is Angela Slatter and she is MASTERFUL. If you want something to read, 'The Chrysanthemum Bride' is shiver-inducing: http://www.fantasy-magazine.com/fiction/the-chrysanthemum-bride/

  28. I love that CA does questions like this. My partner is a writer, though he would never describe himself as that. I LOVE his writing even though it’s riddled with misspellings, grammar errors, confusing syntax – his style is unique and so vulnerable. His experiences and feelings (as an undocumented immigrant torn between his culture/family of origin and assimilating to the country he has lived in since he was a toddler) are so important and his voice, to me at least, is magical. I struggle doing his editing because his grasp on English grammar isn’t that great and I have made the mistake of making his blog posts too polished – of removing his very unique voice by hyper-focusing on “fixing” the errors.

    All this to say, those “errors” are often what makes your work special and meaningful and connects you to others. Now if only I could take my own advice when it comes to my own work . . .

  29. Blow Pop said:

    LW,
    Firstly, HUGE CONGRATS FOR WRITING SOMETHING YOU WANT TO WRITE! That’s phenomenal.

    Second, I’m hearing exactly what the captain is hearing
    “You are hearing “almost not quite good enough” but I am hearing the ding of the oven timer telling you that these particular story-cakes are done.”

    As someone who occasionally beta reads for people (mostly fanfic but books and plays occasionally) that’s what I’m hearing from their criticisms. Definitely read the work out loud and see how it sounds. Maybe even record yourself reading it so that you can listen to it a few times (if that’s a thing you can do and want to do because it MIGHT help). Make any changes that YOU feel need to be changed and send it out. As a voracious reader, I’m all for people publishing more books. I sincerely wish you the best.

  30. I’m an editor who critiques manuscripts professionally, and I don’t know what “too polished” means either. As a couple of people have said above, it’s absolutely okay to ask for clarification. Can they give you an example of a sentence that’s overly polished in their mind, or where they think you sound too much like somebody else?

    There’s a good chance that they were struggling to articulate what they meant, and that they were frustrated that they couldn’t quite get there. Probing questions might help them.

    • oregonbird said:

      The thing is, these people do not need help. They did a solid favor for a writing colleague and are finished with the entire subject. They don’t need help articulating their feelings; they actually agreed on an important point.

      At some point in every writer’s career, they start to fall back on the obvious. The writing and plotting tics creep in, the little personal stylistic quirks become rote, and the work becomes easier to turn out and polish. The writing *stales*. It loses life. Both the critiques note the change in the author’s work in their own way — basically, they found it slick and referential. Ah well, middle-aged writing. Time to shake it up and try something different, recharge the creativity onion.

      Writers. Sure, they’ll tell you the truth, but they have to do it *literary* fashion.

%d bloggers like this: