Shannon Stacey

Critique partner or enabler?

Who watches American Idol? (Don’t leave. This is about writing, not reality TV, so stick with me.) The auditions are the best part, but they’re an emotional rollercoaster for me. Not for my husband, who gleefully laughs his way through the dreadful, but he’s then he’s not creative. His artistic release is modeling HO-scale railroad—a logical, math-based pursuit. He doesn’t know what it feels like to pour your heart and soul into something and have it rejected. I cry for them. Even if I laughed at the dreadfulness, I cry during their dismissal.

It’s the same for So You Think You Can Dance. Even when the performers suck, I feel their pain because it’s their passion—it’s what they believe they were meant to do. But the hard fact is not every singer, dancer or writer is going to make it. No matter how hard they work and no matter how much they want it, they’re simply not good enough.

Which brings me to critiquing. I have confessed in the past that I don’t critique—other than the occasional read-through for a friend—because I’m a voice-killer. I have this compulsion to rewrite the manuscript until it’s the way I would have written it. It’s wrong, I can’t help it, and therefore I’ll only read for writers I know are strong enough to ignore that aspect of my critique. Beware of authors like me. We are out there and not all of us recognize this tendency in ourselves.

Where the hell was I? Oh, critiquing. The thing that kills me about American Idol is the fact a really horrible singer will come out of the room and her loved ones will be there waiting. WHY, for the love of Bruins hockey, didn’t you tell her she sucks? There was one girl so terrible my dog whined and when the girl broke into spontaneous song in the lobby, her mom closed her eyes and swayed with the music in orgasmic delight. I wanted to punch her in the face.

If you critique for a friend or fellow writer and you can’t bring yourself to tell her she’s not ready yet, you’re that mom in the lobby. It’s not easy telling somebody you care about they’re not as good at something as they hope they are. But if, instead of being honest with her privately, you let her believe she’s good enough, she’ll step out onto that big stage. And when she comes off that stage devasted and humiliated and broken, part of that’s on you.

10 comments to “Critique partner or enabler?”

  1. Jill Sorenson
      · June 9th, 2009 at 11:22 am · Link

    It’s hard to recognize flaws in other people’s writing if you can’t recognize them in your own. As far as those parents on American Idol, you know how they say love is blind? Maybe love is tone deaf, too.

    I’m totally with you about giving honest critiques, but doing so is a kindness, not an obligation, IMO. I’ve come across some really bad writing and kept mum. Sometimes I don’t feel like speaking up. Honing your craft is an author’s responsibility–when you fail, you have to own it.

  2. Heather Rae Scott
      · June 9th, 2009 at 12:18 pm · Link

    This is about me, isn’t it? :groucho: Everything is about me. Okay, so now you know I’m teasing, right? Because I am…unless it IS about me. I knew it, I suck!

    Anyhow, you can ignore that. Just letting out some frustration that is my bored children. I used to keep mum. No longer. Of course, I used to critique for a lot of people until I decided that it had to be a little more about me and a little less about helping everyone. And I’ve also had critique partners who I thought were doing me a favor by changing my work to suit their voices, after all, they were the ones getting the requests while I floundered.

    HUGE mistake. Cost me a contract with Harlequin. The editor said, “I was reading along and really was enjoying the story when all of the sudden I was like, her voice changed!” Yup, it’s a killer. Shannon knows of what she speaks.

    That being said, if something I wrote sucks, I want/expect someone to tell me. I’d rather hear it from my friend/colleague than an editor or worse a reviewer.

  3. Shannon
      · June 9th, 2009 at 12:59 pm · Link

    No, it’s not about you. :neener:

    And I think you get away with being mum if it’s a critiquing group. You just don’t have time to read that week’s offerings or whatever. But if you’re talking a partnership or trio, a lot harder.

    Honing your craft is an author’s responsibility–when you fail, you have to own it.

    To my way of thinking, that’s why an author’s submitting to a critique. She’s trying to hone her craft. So the owning it comes when the critique isn’t what she wants to hear and buckles down to improve.

  4. Melani Blazer
      · June 9th, 2009 at 1:46 pm · Link

    I just like that emoticon.

    I’m so get what you’re saying Shan. I can only speak from my own experience, but when I offer something up for critique, I expect the person reading to find bad things and point them out. I want them to. I don’t want someone to pat me on the back and proclaim it the next NYT bestseller. I can create my own pile of BS without their help, thanks.

    I don’t think we should do critiques if we don’t intend to be honest. And no one should ask for one unless they’re ready for the truth. If they’re ready for honesty, they’re sure as hell not ready to submit to a publisher.

  5. Jill Sorenson
      · June 9th, 2009 at 1:52 pm · Link

    I should clarify this. I actually meant that I don’t always comment on submissions I see posted online, like at Dear Author. In a critique group, I would contribute. But I still feel as though the onus to improve is on the author. If she gets great feedback, followed by a tough rejection, should she blame the group?

  6. Victoria
      · June 9th, 2009 at 10:17 pm · Link

    You know what this made me think of? “Sex” on So You Think You Can Dance. His mom has been at every audition and says he’s the best and all this other BS. If someone in my family danced like that I wouldn’t tell them they were good. Families are supposed to be the people you can trust to always tell you the truth, even if it hurts. I know my family and friends always tell me when my writing sucks.

  7. Shannon
      · June 10th, 2009 at 10:15 am · Link

    I rarely comment on the Dear Author posts, as well. One, because usually somebody’s already said it and, two, because it’s no secret I don’t feel that’s the best venue for an aspiring writer to seek criticism. But if it’s good and I see something nobody’s mentioned, I might point it out.

    And I don’t believe the blame rests on the critiquers professionally (although if you agree to critique somebody’s work, there’s the assumption you’re helping them prepare the manuscript for submission so that’s what you should be doing), but if you enable an author who’s not ready, then some of the emotional fall-out is on you.

    (And yes, Sex on SYTYCD is a great example!)

    I absolutely agree that presenting a professional submission is solely the responsibility of the author. BUT—and I think this is where you and I are going to agree to disagree—she’s trying to fulfill that obligation by coming to you for critique. If you read her crappy manuscript and tell her it’s good and she should go for it, you’re hurting her and some of the fall-out from that is on you.

    (You in the general sense, not in the YOU, JILL! sense.)

    If she gets great feedback, followed by a tough rejection, should she blame the group?

    If she got smoke blown up her ass by her critique group and then gets a rejection outlining things they told her were good, she should consider getting a new critique group. But the reality is, she’s not really going to know why she got rejected (probably) and it’s never just one thing, so no, there’s no concrete blame for the critique group. Having a good critique group isn’t going to keep you from being rejected, either.

    I’m just saying that blowing smoke not only does that writer no good, but it can actually do damage.

  8. Karen Templeton
      · June 10th, 2009 at 10:24 am · Link

    But I think Jill has a very valid point, that very often the people around you don’t know your work is flawed. I honestly think Sex’s mom thinks he IS great, and that no one has the right to trample his dream. IOW, she’s just as delusional as he is. :beam:

    The artist has to be willing to put him/herself into a situation where the critiques will be entirely impartial. Serious dancers will generally study with a number of teachers, for instance, to hone their craft and not get stuck studying with one teacher whose technique might not be the greatest to begin with (a bad teacher is almost worse than no teacher). And while new some writers have a stronger handle on the craft than others, entering contests and putting your work in front of a number of judges is a good way to gauge whether you’re headed in the right direction. If you’re getting consistently low scores, then it’s time for professional help. But finding the right critique group or partner can be tricky — if everyone in the group is at the same level as you, you’re not going to grow.

    Added to that, of course, is the writer’s willingness to admit she HAS weaknesses — and unfortunately some writers don’t need rah-rahing from friends and family to bolster their misplaced confidence in their skills. There are numerous hallmarks of the beginning writer — for some reason, almost all newbies make the same mistakes. The good news is, most of which are fairly easy fixes. The bad news is how many of those writers, when those weaknesses are pointed out, trot out the “that’s my voice!” excuse. :gaah:

    No, cookie, it’s not your voice — it’s sloppy/weak/banal/overwrought/blatantly bad writing. ‘Kay?

    So. Yeah, I agree that people who DO know better are doing the writer a disservice by telling her she’s great when she’s not. But not everyone telling her that DOES know the difference, and if the writer’s not willing to accept her stuff needs work, then the criticism falls on deaf ears, anyway.

    Just as it has on Sex’s for four years running. :crazy:

  9. Jill Sorenson
      · June 10th, 2009 at 11:56 am · Link

    I can’t believe a real person calls himself “Sex”! I hope his mother doesn’t use that name. : )

    I hope I haven’t encouraged critiquers to stay nice or keep quiet. That is not my intention at all. Thanks for the great discussion. YOU (Stacy) are awesome.

  10. Jill Sorenson
      · June 10th, 2009 at 12:06 pm · Link

    Er, Shannon, I mean. Shannon Stacey. You. :doh:

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