Thursday, March 29, 2007

Writing Tip: Find Yourself a Strong Critic

Last night, I was talking with a writer friend when she asked me what I planned to do with my first piece of flash fiction (process described here).

I told her that I hoped to do a tiny bit of editing and then send it off to Zyzzyva (an elite fiction mag for west coast writers).

“Wow. That’s…ambitious,” was the response, or somewhere thereabouts.

I felt like a southern dandy walking into a Savanah dinner party after Labor Day wearing my white linen suit…

with a crusty booger in my moustache.

Not overt, I promise. But I’m good at reading between the lines.

I think, if she knew me better, if we had a long-standing relationship as friends/fellow critics, the words, “Are you crazy?” might have fallen to the floor.

So, here’s the thing:

We all need serious, hard-nosed, constructive criticism of our work. Each of us has a range of precision with which we can judge the value of what we’ve written. For some of us, the difference between a Booker Prize story and one that we wouldn’t use to line a mynah bird cage is indistinguishable. Others have a sharper eye. They can tell, perhaps, that a story perfectly fit for Juggs magazine wouldn’t make the cut at Atlantic Monthly.

The obvious question, then, is how do we find a trusted critic?

I wish there were a paint-by-numbers way to get this done, but there isn’t.

I can tell you that your mother—or any mother-like proxy—is not the person you’re looking for. At a certain point, you have no need for any more self-esteem-building feedback. Having someone say, “That’s a cute story, dear,” pat you on the head, and send you off to play with your gender-neutral doll--after, of course, reminding you to “remember to use your words” --will not help.

Strong criticism will hurt. Get over it.

The best I can do, by way of recommendation, is to say that you need to be regularly interacting with other writers, seeing their work—both the writing and the criticism—and coming to understand how to gauge what they say.

At a certain point, you will likely find someone in the group whose opinions you trust. Ask them for help, and offer to give yours in return.

If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you about your out-of-season fashion and point out that occasional dangling booger.


Tracy said...

The only good critic I have is my husband. Sometimes I think his name should be included on my work as much of it would never get that far without his input.

That's not to say he isn't wrong sometimes. We have a running joke that if he doesn't like a particular painting, it will be the first to sell. And that is usually what happens.

Trevor Hambric said...


You're lucky in that.

I'm afraid my wife and I would be hurling pots and pans at each other if she engaged herself in the exercise of critique.

For whatever reason, that's just a very bad fit.