Saturday, January 06, 2007

Thanks to Catherine Spangler

It happened again.

I belong to a number of writers' groups. Periodically, newbie writers post excerpts of their work or their query letters and request a critique from the general membership.

I try to do at least one critique a week. It's a delicate balance when you critique someone you don't know online. You need to be kind while at the same time pointing out the problems. Most of the time, I do it offline rather than in the group. Recently, however, I did several online critiques--just because we had a bunch of newbie writers whom I thought might be helped by reading the comments.

Usually, I get an email online or offline from the writer thanking me for my time and trouble. Occasionally a writer will say "thank you" and then ask a question. Every once in a while, I encounter the odd duck: a writer who thought my comments were an invitation to send her entire manuscript for critique, another writer who sent a second chapter to be critiqued without bothering to say "thank you" first, and a writer who became enraged because I pointed out problems with his manuscript.

Last night, it happened again. A writer whom I recently critiqued sent a revised query letter and (without bothering to say thank you) asked for more feedback.

The letter was a mess: rambling, filled with grammatical errors, cliches and incomplete sentences. After a couple of tries at fixing it, I decided the writer would be better helped by honesty. In the kindest possible way, I told him I thought he was not yet ready to query. I pointed out the issues and suggested that his manuscript probably had the same problems his query letter had. I suggested he consider joining a critique group or taking a workshop to help address the issues. I said I thought his plot was promising and that he didn't want to burn his chances with agents or editors by sending a poorly edited novel.

In less than an hour, I got back what I can only describe as a very snotty email, telling me he was not going to spend "ten years" doing what I suggested. Included was ANOTHER revision, which he apparently had run through some computer editing program. The results were not substantially better.

Reading his email, I decided there was nothing left for me to say. I sent a final email that basically said: "I don't have a dog in this fight. I was only trying to be helpful. Good luck in your endeavors."

Of course, the incident left a bad taste. No one likes having her outstretched hand bitten. Then, as I was getting ready for bed, I remembered the first time a more experienced writer read MY beginning manuscript.

I've explained before on this blog that one of the errors I made when starting out was to not seek a critique group until after I'd finished that first manuscript. My reasoning was I needed to know I could actually finish a full-length manuscript. However, that mistake ended up costing me time. I could have been learning at the same time I was writing the manuscript. These days, I recommend that writers find critique partners (CPs) early on in their writing process. Good CPs will help you identify your bad writing habits--before they become too deeply ingrained.

I was fortunate. Before I found CPs, three different published writers gave generously of their time to read and critique my earliest novel. They were kind, but blunt. Published writer Catherine Spangler was the first. She read my opening chapter and cut it to shreds (in the kindest possible way).

I can still remember walking away from our Saturday morning meeting. My head was reeling. I'd been so sure she would tell me my chapter was fabulous, ready to be published. Instead I had pages bleeding red ink.

In my social work training, I learned the stages of grief: disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I walked out of our meeting in complete disbelief. The anger started on the drive home ("the nerve of her"). Bargaining ("If I write more words every day, I won't need her lousy critique"). By that night, I was so depressed I couldn't even write. It took nearly a week for me to go back and read her red-lined comments. But I did. And she was right. With the benefit of hindsight, I could see all the backstory. And my opening WAS flat. I'd finally arrived at acceptance.

I wrote Catherine a "thank you" note, and I made the changes she suggested. It was a painful lesson, but an important one. Looking back, she'd given me several gifts:
  • She helped me identify serious problems in my novel
  • She helped me develop a tougher hide (needed when querying)
  • She taught me generosity (she offered her time and wisdom for free)
  • She gave me a role model for being an author in the future

I don't know whether my young friend has the maturity to step outside himself and be objective. I hope so. If not, I predict he'll rack up a dozen rejections before deciding to self-publish. He'll buy 50 or 100 copies of his novel, which will end up mouldering in his attic or garage along with his dreams of being a writer.

If he truly has the fire to write, perhaps when he gets over his anger, he'll think about what I said and go through his own version of the stages of grief.

I hope so.


tongfengdemao said...

I'm glad I read this. I sense your kindness and generosity about doing these critiques. I'm not a kid and I'm 99% confident of my grammar and punctuation and 90% about spelling. I'm not as confident about the caliber of my writing. I know I'm good for an amateur. I don't know if I'm good enough to go the next level.

I have a good friend who is very good at this for me, but she is at the same writing level as I am, more or less, though much better at critiquing than I. My in-person writing group asked questions that I could not relate to the writing.(!)(Except one, which was very good -- as is her own writing.)

Anyway, this helps put things in perspective. Seeing your reaction will help keep me balanced when I get a serious critique on my work.

Maya Reynolds said...

Tongfengdemao: I'm glad you think this post was useful.

The most important thing to remember is that a good critique is not personal; it's about your writing, not you as a person.

I believe it's easier in other parts of our professional lives to be objective. But writing is like giving birth. Think of how you'd feel if someone said your child was ugly.

That first critique was an invaluable lesson for me. Even though I'd been a manager for years and had been completely professional at my work life, I personalized that first critique. I suspect it was because I had spent nearly eight months giving birth to my novel in a vacuum--with feedback only from my loved ones who told me it was the Great American Novel.

Once my good sense kicked in again, I could see that--if I wanted to be a professional writer--I was going to have to act professionally.

Good luck to you.

Sherrill Quinn said...

Maya, you're a good person. :) And it's too bad when someone asks for a critique (aka constructive criticism) and then can't take it. AND THEN without even (1) a request to submit more and (2) a thank you for at the very least the time you spent, they send you more stuff.

From experience, I can say you tell it like it is, but with the true desire to make the manuscript the best it can be. I did a bit of grumbling, but could see almost immediately (*G*) that you were absolutely on the mark with your comments. In case you didn't get it the first dozen times I said it... THANK YOU!!!!

lainey bancroft said...

If you recall, you kindly offered your opinion on a random blurb of mine, and if I didn't say it then,(but I'm sure I would have, mama raised me right) I'll say it now...T'ANKS.
I am ALWAYS open to the input of other writers, pubbed or unpubbed. Even if I do not necessarily agree with the opinion, per se, delving in to the reason it is offered helps fill in holes I might not otherwise have been aware of.
So, like..ya wanna...Kidding. But I am getting ready to query agents and I'm going to (shakin' in my yoga pants here) post the hook on my blog sometime in the near future. I'll give you a heads up, and if time permits, I'd be grateful for any feedback.
Sounds like you're doing an excellent job of following your role model.

Maya Reynolds said...

Sherrill: You ALWAYS say thank you, and it's a pleasure to critique your work. You are always professional in your approach, and I've enjoy reading your novels before they are published.

Lainey: Of course, you said thank you. And I'd be happy to take a look at your query.

Best regards,


Marie Tuhart said...

While I'm coming late into the conversation. I'm sorry that this happened to you Maya - the person being snooty about your trying to help.

I too will always be grateful for all my critique partners, and a published writer who pointed out where I was going wrong in my writing.

Sometimes you have to be honest with the person you're critiquing when they don't seem to get it.