I have only ever taken one critique of my writing personally, and that was largely because it was meant personally. The critiquer mostly wanted to put me in my place and take revenge for an honest review I did of her Very Precious Novel. I told her that her writing was lovely, the characters in her book were interesting people I liked hanging out with, but I thought she’d done some chickenshit stuff with the plotting. Although I used, yanno, polite language, phrased things as positively as I could, trying to be supportive.

In turn, she said my novel was such utter dreck that she couldn’t make it past chapter 3 and didn’t want to waste anymore of her Very Precious Time actually finishing. Except, yanno, in semi-polite language. Though not very polite. Rather dismissive, in fact. Really hard not to take that personally.

Her novel went on to be published, mine did not, but mine got some positive response from agents. The ending was too controversial and “anti-market” but send the next novel along, and etc. Life took over and I wasn’t able to do any of that.

I admit to some perverse gratification when my critiquer’s novel was reviewed in Locus. They called her on the selfsame chickenshit plotting I had. Although the reviewer used, yanno, polite language. Though not as polite as mine. And I’d be lying if I said I was anything less than perversely gratified when the novel didn’t sell well.

Mostly, however, I take criticism like a grown woman. I ask people to read and critique my work because I want honest opinions so I can make it better. And I stay away from the perverse gratification as much as possible because I really do believe that negativity breeds negativity. It’s not healthy for me as a person or an artist to nurse grudges. They’re rather like hoarding useless junk. Too much of it in any one life and you wind up being one of those people buried alive and suffocated to death when a pile of old smelly junk falls on top of you.

No, envy and salacious glee at another person’s fail tend to choke the creative process. That needs to be as free-flowing as possible and if the artist encumbers herself with negative emotions she’ll stop moving altogether. I see it even more clearly now that I have so little time to do creative work, so little Me Time. An artist needs to be able to take those precious moments and run with them whenever they occur, wherever they lead.

And that includes being grateful for the time others spend reviewing and giving honest critiques of my work. I’m grateful for 99.9% of the reviews I’ve gotten. As you can probably tell from the opening of this post, I haven’t entirely succeeded on letting go of that one unfair one. I still grit my teeth when I see that person’s name. Fortunately, I don’t see it much anymore unless I masochistically google it. And I hardly ever do that. Hardly.

I don’t have time for that. I don’t have time for hoarding old newspapers of envy, scrap tin of grudge, and empty boxes of perverse gratification. I need to let go, lighten my load, and liberate myself completely from the junk preventing me from moving freely.

So, here I am reading a book I’m enjoying immensely. I come upon a chapter in which the writer does something that I know, positively, I have told some young writers in my capacity as a critiquer to never do—switching POV late in a book to one not encountered before. Hey, I’ve been told not to do that myself. The thing is, it works perfectly in this book. As a reader coming upon that shift, I could give a hairy pontiff’s left ear whether the writer has changed POV. I want the information it can give me, I want to know what happens next. And in that moment of realization a great crap paper tide of old critiques fluttered behind me and a voice called across the abyss as it filled with the perfidy of my Writing Thoughts, It doesn’t really matter what you’re supposed to do. The only thing that matters is if you can make what you do work.

Not the first time I’ve had that thought, but it came home especially strong to me today. It may have something to do with rereading one of my older novels—a shuddering experience if ever there is one.

Experience. That’s the key word. The perfidy mentioned above is all about the difference between critiques based on experience (and maybe instinct) and those based on regurgitation. “The Rules” only matter if the story doesn’t work. And here’s the other thing, even if a beta reader or critquer or critic says the story doesn’t work, it still might not matter. That “doesn’t work” can be a question of individual taste, or prejudice, or the sour feeling left in the reader’s stomach by the cafeteria food. If your own gut—not the one turning sour—tells you that something is right, you need to stick by it.

I’m not saying we writers have a magic I’m A Genius Don’t Bother Me With Your Tiny Opinions card. No. If enough people tell you that something isn’t working, you should probably pay attention to that. Be very sure that your gut is talking, telling you a thing is right, and not some fractured corner of your ego.

And even as I’m typing that last paragraph, I’m thinking “Regurgitated Wisdom.” (Because, really, haven’t you heard the one about “if enough people” ad nauseam?) In this case, it happens to be regurgitated with a side of experience, so maybe it’s not total bullshit. Maybe I do sort of know what I’m talking about in this particular instance, as opposed to some of the half-assed critiques I have offered up over the years.

But you never know. Reading my old stuff and realizing how deluded I was about the quality of that work has me stumbling through a funhouse of fractured and distorted opinion. What do I really know?

This is an existential question and has no real answer. The question is the black matter holding the universe together like invisible glue. It is self-contained and complete and needs no critique to make it whole. Sufficient unto the day is the question thereof.

I’ve been reading some good blog posts lately about self-publishing and quality control. First from Richard Parks:

“Evolve or Die”

Then, by way of his comment thread, Jim Van Pelt:

“Writing: Self Publishing and Quality”

“Evolution of a Writer”

“So How, Exactly, Does a Writer Grow”

“Evolution of a Writer (redux)”

They support the new publishing paradigm of “indies,” but they also talk about the vetting process that Big Time Publishing does to separate the wheat from the chaff for readers, to cut down on the high ratio of noise to signal when everybody who can starts slapping their writing against the walls of the internet. They also talk about the stages in a writer’s development, how rejection and writers’ groups and critiques, et al., help the conscientious writer improve her craft.

But I’m not going to paraphrase what they say. Read the articles yourself—they state their case better than I can restate it.

What I am going to say here is that, for the most part, I think they’re correct. Oh yes, I am considering adding to the white noise by self-pubbing one of my novels, but I don’t do it out of any sense that this is going to be a Brave New World for me: doors that have hitherto been closed to will suddenly fly open and I will become the next web millionaire. I think that if I sell one copy I’ll be lucky. I haven’t got a pre-sold audience, see, and making oneself heard through the sea of static is quite difficult to do without making oneself obnoxious on every writers’ and readers’ forum on the interdweebs.

So no, I’m not considering doing this with the expectation of Incredible! Breakthroughs! and Millions! I’m doing this purely to have something out there, something I can point people to if they happen to get curious.

I’ve done a hellacious amount of writing (almost certainly a lot of hellacious writing). I have done a heap and then some of critiques, and I have received a heap and then some of critiques. I have submitted and submitted and gotten feedback. All of that, the giving and the getting, have been invaluable to me, have made me grow as a writer, have improved my craft. Some very generous and talented writers and editors have given me priceless feedback. I have listened, I have learned, I have grown.

But I have little to show for that yet. Maybe I didn’t listen and learn enough, maybe I haven’t grown enough. Or maybe my subconscious and writerly changes proceed at ice floe speed. None of that advice has been wasted or ignored. I just process it in a different time zone. I haven’t given up on trying to grow and I haven’t given up on traditional publishing, perverse and dog-eared as that belief may sometimes be. I see no reason not to pursue both e-publishing and traditional publishing at the same time.

Because I do believe in that vetting process. It provides a valuable service. I do not believe there is a vast conspiracy to keep the little people down. Not everybody is as good as they think they are. Myself included. I want to put out the best product I can. I want to grow an audience. Writing isn’t just about screaming to be heard, it isn’t just about gushing out Your Message. It’s about honing your craft. For that, you need the input of other people, the ones existing outside your own head. Not the ones who love you and want to be your friend, or the ones who you’re related to by blood or marriage. No, I’m talking about objective others who have no vested interest in convincing you that you are a Special Puppy and a Very Good Dog. People who are generous enough to be honest with you about what works and what does not work in your Very Special Creation.

That is truly what separates the wheat from the chaff. That’s truly what turns white noise into a beautiful melody.

Still home with the crud, but there are signs that health may be returning. I will almost certainly go back to work tomorrow.

I’ve felt blech since Saturday so I haven’t touched Sympathetic Magic since my regular writing session on Friday. *sigh* I hope to get back to that tomorrow, too, but I haven’t had that kind of concentration. I worked through some scenes in my head as I laid around feeling blechy. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten what I figured out in the interim. It seems a bit vague now, but I’m hopeful that when I re-read the previous session from Friday, it will all come back to me.

I have done some reading-for-critique so I haven’t been totally useless. I’ll have to go back over those comments when I’m fully sane just in case…I wasn’t fully sane when I made them.

Life creeps forward, and so do I.

It’s been a crazed month what with intensive reading of novels/stories for critique and intensive revising of novels/stories for moi and work going a little bit bat****. Fortunately, there were some fun reads helping me make it through.

Books finished in August:

1. Magic Bleeds by Ilona Andrews

A great entry into the series. Major changes, though, so if you haven’t started these books yet, don’t start here. In fact, start with book one. There’s a character arc, people!

2. Sea Witch by Virginia Kantra

I enjoyed this. It has an almost traditional romantic suspense plot, except for the sealies and the demons running around, but well handled and Ms. Kantra is a good writer.

3. Draft Novel by Someone

Very nice paranormal romance. I hope to see this one on the shelves some day.

4. Amazon Ink by Lori Devoti

I thoroughly enjoyed this, really fell into the story and got towed along. That doesn’t always happen for me, so I  appreciate it when it does. I found the beginning somewhat off-putting and I almost put the book down, but decided to push forward and I’m glad I did.  It’s entertaining, good character interaction, with well thought out worldbuilding that made it seem credible to me that Amazons have survived in secret all these years. I thought the characters particularly rounded, with a nice understanding of the mistakes we make and the lessons we learn from them. I also liked that Ms. Devoti resolved the mystery of this story, gave me a feeling of completion, yet didn’t tie everything up in a neat little package. There’s room for the characters to do more growing and evolving. I hope to be able to read about that in future books.


Books begun in August:

1. Crows: Encounters with Wise Guys by Candace Savage
2. Magic Bleeds by Ilona Andrews
3. Sea Witch by Virginia Kantra
4. Draft Novel by Someone
5. Amazon Ink by Lori Devoti
6. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
7. No Rest for the Wicked by Kresley Cole

Continued reading this month:

1. Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History by Owen Davies

Writing is a solitary occupation, but the truth is, we need other people if we’re going to grow as artists. We need readers, yes, but before we get readers we need first readers. Beta readers help give perspective on our work, tell us when we’ve gone astray, or when we’re being self-indulgent. But it’s a tricky thing finding them. I find it incredibly difficult to ask people to read my stuff. Makes me all squirmy inside, and acting all squirrely on the outside. Not a pretty picture.

That’s one advantage of belonging to a writing group, whether in person or online. Everyone knows what they are there for—or should. If it’s an online group, you slap it up on the site and wait until someone decides to take a look, and you get out there and start doing critiques yourself to build momentum. If nobody does take a look, it’s a pretty lonely feeling, throwing you right back on the solitary occupation thing. There’s no easy answer for that except to keep trying. Maybe you’ll get lucky and build relationships that will allow you to swap whole novels rather than parts thereof.

Swapping whole novels, though, is hard. Not just because it’s asking someone for a much larger commitment of time, but because it’s not just a question of finding anyone, anywhere who will read your stuff. These kinds of relationships are, or should be, built slowly over time. It’s an issue of extreme trust, handing over your work to someone else. Of finding people you jibe with, who are on the same page, so to speak. If you’re not both looking at critiques in the same way—for instance, wanting the full editorial treatment vs. a light overview—it can cause serious ruptures and a lot of pain. Establish that upfront, that’s my advice (for what it’s worth). Make sure you want what you say you want, and make sure you’re willing to take in the criticism and consider it rather than having a knee-jerk reaction.

“They’re all fools! They don’t understand my subtle genius!”

You’re allowed to have the knee-jerk reaction, everyone does, but you’re not allowed to act on it. You’re not allowed to actually speak out loud that first burst of emotional entrenchment when someone has nailed a problem with your manuscript. The ones that hurt the most are often the ones you suspected were wrong all along but hoped no one would notice. Since somebody did notice, it’s time to suck it up and make the changes, not spout off. Spouting is unprofessional, and even if you aren’t yet a pro, taking fair and honest criticism with the gratitude it deserves is a vital skill to cultivate if you want to improve your work. Fair and honest criticism is a gift from the gods and should never, ever be taken for granted.

These relationships also change over time as one-time partners drift away to other interests, divergent paths, changes in life circumstances. Even writing groups lose their efficacy over time as everyone gets so familiar with each others’ work that it’s hard to view with fresh eyes. The pot needs to be constantly replenished or it boils down to a sticky sludge. Finding those blessed first readers is a never-ending process. But it’s wonderful when it works. It’s a blessing when it works.