Okay, that was harsh. But it’s true. Like it or not, having honest critics who care nothing for your feelings read and give their opinions on your writing is a very, very good thing.
As writers, we deviate from the norm simply by doing what we do. Not many humans have the ability or desire to sit and write much of anything. But then there are those of us who choose to do it. We choose to use words, as a mason uses brick, or a potter raw clay, to craft poetry, or the [hopefully] realistic and interesting dialogue of imaginary people, or even non-fiction essays and instructional literature. We do it without knowing whether or not it will have any effect at all on another person, or the world around us. We do it for the simple love of doing it. Because we can’t NOT do it.
Sounds like a wonderful, organic concept, yeah? While writing for the sake of writing can definitely be incredibly therapeutic, no matter the form, for some of us, there comes a point when the entire experience becomes complicated by the idea of publishing. And this is where too many writers get ahead of themselves (myself included).
I remember the excitement of the first letter of acceptance I received for something I wrote. I was maybe 14 or so, and had sent a short poem I’d written as a school assignment for Earth Day off to the address in one of the tiny ads in the back pages of my “Bop” magazine. I’d never had anyone outside of teachers read anything I’d written before. And those had just been essays and book reports. Nothing that I’d put any heart into. No one had ever truly criticized my writing before. And that wouldn’t change for a long time.
Oh, that acceptance letter? Yeah, they published my poem in an anthology. That they then sold back to me for $20+. Pay to play is never a legit credit, kids, no matter how well-disguised (see previous post Everything I’ve Learned About Publishing).
Anyway, fast forward to my first attempt at writing fiction for the purpose of publishing. I was still riding that high of acceptance from when I was 14, and all of the kudos I’d received throughout high school because I was happened to be one of the better writers in my classes (read: better bullshitter who knew how to write the technical drivel that teachers are looking for). I was awesome. I could sling adjectives around like some sort of literary ninja with nunchucks of descriptiveness. My [over]use of adverbs was a thing of beauty akin to the most elite ballerina’s performance. My fingertips were a fount of gold in the form of precious sentences that only my genius could have concocted. I’d written an actual…thing.
Please tell me you don’t believe any of that last paragraph. I mean, yeah, I believed it at the time, but I hope you, dear reader, can see just how silly I was. Seriously. Read it aloud from “I was awesome.” Put it into present tense, and pretend you’re referring to yourself. It’s alright, I truly believe that we’ve all felt this way, even if just for one second. Be honest with yourself. No one will know, and it’s best to purge those delusions now, rather than after you go looking for validation via publication, as I did. Save yourself.
Am I saying that we should never be proud of anything we’ve written? Of course not! As cringe-worthy as my novella is to me now, there are definitely still several passages that I find amazing and gorgeous and perfect. But I also know that none of those lines would have come about if the only people who laid eyes on my pre-publication manuscript were my friends and family. When I think back to the first five or six drafts of my little 24k word story, I want to crawl in a hole and die of embarrassment. There is nothing I’m more grateful for in my writing “career” than those who were kind enough to eviscerate every word of every scene I posted to a writer’s forum or IRC chat for critique. It’s that tough love that saved me from putting my book baby out into the world before it was ready for its close-up. I want to throw up when I think that without a bunch of assholes on the internet, I could have sent total word diarrhea out to acquiring editors, who would then possibly remember me as “that one woman who sent me that [awful, adverb-ridden, disjointed, flat, laughable etc.] thing last year.”
Let’s consider some critiques I received when attempting to write my first ever query letter. As any writer who has been around publishing lingo for any length of time knows, the query letter is the ~250 words into which you are required to painfully squish the story you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into for months (possibly years). You send this email of inadequate length to really convey the heart of your story out to agents and/or publishers in the hope that they will be just intrigued enough NOT to hit the delete button within the first two seconds of reading your utter crap of a story idea (or what one could only assume was crap, from an un-vetted query letter).
So I posted in a dedicated “critique my query” area of a large online writers’ community. Here are a few of the harshest, yet most helpful responses:
This query is too vague, generic and cliched for me. All I have is someone died, and some other people are sad.
I almost always line by line, but I’m not going to this time. Your problem: you have an extremely generic plot. I hate sweeping statements like that, but it’s the only way I can think to put it. There’s nothing wrong with your query the way it is – but I can’t see many agents requesting because, like [another critique] said above, it just sounds like another Nicholas Sparks weepie.
Give us something specific, let us know what your story is about beyond “sappy tearjerker”. specifics that can show us you have a plot, and know how to write.
I just saw the wordcount….who are you querying? This will be an incredibly hard sell to an agent as novellas sell like whatever the opposite of hotcakes would be…maybe cervical cancer?
The answers you’ve given are shallow and vague. They can fit any number of “someone dies, and some other people are sad” stories.
These ain’t your Grandma’s critiques. And I thank Jeebus for these jerkfaces each and every time I get that sweet, sweet $2 quarterly royalty statement from my publisher. Without them, I might still be sitting on that manuscript, thinking that I was some sort of literary prodigy the world just didn’t understand, because my Mommy told me how much she adored every last letter of the story I wrote. And it would just be sad how tragically gullible I was.
The moral of the story and the point of this post is not to rain on everyone’s self-esteem parade. It’s about making sure you all don some emotional armor before you go putting your writing out there for public consumption. Yes, those first few harsh crits are hard to handle. I won’t deny throwing a few pity parties. But boy am I happy that I got this tough love from other writers, rather than publishers who haven’t the time to coddle me as the critiques above did simply by virtue of taking the time to crit. Or worse yet, readers who have no appreciation for how difficult any of this shit is, and just expect everyone to be able to vomit up writing the likes of Anne Rice and Stephen King and then get all pissy and high-horsey when most of us can’t.
There was a time when I was a delicate flower of a writer, but only the weeds have the strength to make it in this world. To be cut down over and over and still have the courage to come back–and stronger–each time takes balls. Don’t try to brave the path of a lawn mower until you know you can rise up to fight another day. Be a weed. With balls.
What’s the meanest, most helpful critique you’ve ever received as a writer? Feel free to post it in the comments! Or better yet, go ahead and critique this post. I can always stand to be knocked down a couple of pegs ;)