All of us who write (and maybe all of us who’ve lived thirty or more years) know that all critics have something of value to tell us. But they aren’t all equal. There are the kind who tell you only what you want to hear (useless), the kind who tell you the truth some of the time (useful) and those who tell all the truth all the time (watch out!). Finally, there are those who pitch their relentlessly honest criticism into that range where you can hear it best. I call them Heart Critics, for they do not confine themselves to speaking their minds only; consequently, their words can deeply resonate within your own heart, letting you know when they’re right (quite often).
In thirty-five years of serious writing, I’ve found that those in the last category are as good as dark Italian roast coffee. I just received the much-anticipated first critique of the novel I’ve been working on for the last two years from Rex (not his real name), who’s a Heart Critic par excellence.
Tougher Than Tissue, Harder than Aluminum Foil
We all struggle to be the kind of writer (and person) who benefits from criticism. I’d like to think I’m becoming such a writer as I continue my lengthy apprenticeship, but I don’t know. I think my skin’s gotten tougher—God knows it needed to—but an occasional critic’s comment can still sting. However, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing quite a few writers who win my total admiration for the way they sit impassively, pens in motion as they receive incoming “friendly” fire about their latest masterpiece.
I’m talking about the workshop, of course, which can be likened to a literary gauntlet, or even perhaps lynching, if not conducted as a respectful sharing rather than a brutal free-for-all. Thankfully, I attended a conference early in my creative writing teaching career, where I received excellent “Guidelines for Critique” on how to conduct a workshop). But the face-to-face oral round robin isn’t the only way to get criticism. Several of my friends who eschew the workshop prefer to simply circulate their manuscript among often far-flung readers, then receive back detailed commentary and marginalia, when, after several weeks or months, the critics have time to respond. My latest experience with Rex shows how well the long-distance process can work, if head and heart are synchronous.
It’s so easy to waste this priceless opportunity by submitting a manuscript too soon. I implore you to make sure the draft is as good as you can possibly make it on your own before troubling someone else to read it. Novel-writing’s a long, lonely business. It’s tempting to get in a hurry, find a contest you want to enter or publisher you want to submit to and—bingo—before you know it, you’ve e-mailed your poor critic your gestating baby that doesn’t even have eyes and ears yet. Maybe you just want someone to tell you what the hell it is you’re doing. But it’s best if you know—or think you know—what you’re doing before you put someone else in the awkward, even impossible, position of figuring it out for you.
I can hear writers protesting, “It’s only a rough draft—I know it needs a lot of work.” But if it’s the kind of work you can do yourself, especially the mechanical smoothing that will make reading so much easier, then I say do it. Although I realize I may be prettifying and spell-checking passages, even pages, that will eventually be cut (what novelist Lawrence Block calls “washing garbage”), I’d rather my story read well so my critic can concentrate on characterization, setting, plot and theme, not commas and wordiness.
The Shrinking, Sinking Heart
The last time Rex stuck his neck out for me was several years ago for my novel Running from Mercy: The Psalms of Israel Jones, which won the 2010 Hackney Award. As with my latest novel, I’d re-written Mercy over the course of several years, then submitted it to a well-published MFA friend for criticism. After rewriting based on his remarks, I submitted it to my writing group, who collectively gave me hell, resulting in yet another rewrite. After that, I was ready for Rex—in, fact, more than ready (or so I thought).
The day Rex returned my book, I opened the package abstractly, thinking I’d just survey the territory. (By the way, such a moment is a really good time to pray, meditate or perform whatever spiritual practice prepares you for a trial.) Glancing randomly through the manuscript, I was shocked to see so much of Rex’s writing all over it. Though distracted, I nonetheless sat down and started turning pages. Incredible, I thought, temperature rising. There was writing on almost every page…sometimes a lot of writing. Oh. My. God.
Snapping the book shut, I replaced it in the envelope. Still rationalizing, I decided there was no reason to panic, get angry or feel hurt. Rex was simply imposing his style on me. Yes, that was it! Lots of quibbling about word choice and sentence structure, grammar stuff I could ignore if I chose to. (Okay, I was a tad mad that he thought he had to nit-pick like this with me, an English teacher just like him.)
You’ve no doubt intuited what I found when I finally sat down and studied Rex’s careful, clear responses to my years of hard work. Oh, there were nit-picks, all right: embarrassing errors my closest proofreading hadn’t found. But the vast majority of his comments concerned faulty motives; character contradictions; plot lapses; inconsistent details, i.e., substantive failures to satisfy the reader’s expectations and enforce the rules of my own story. He’d let me know I simply hadn’t yet delivered the goods.
It hit me what I’d done: I’d fantasized that the manuscript I’d sent him was nearly ready to submit to agents or publishers. (How we writers delude ourselves.) At this point I laid down the gauntlet; I wanted to hug him for not letting me deliver the child prematurely; it was clear it would not have thrived in the hard, cruel world of demanding readers, prospective publishers and agents.
But it was the way that Rex did it—his bedside manner, if you will—as, in several pages of summary, he first highlighted the manuscript’s strengths, then proceeded to couch his criticism in positive, encouraging language, letting me know he was sympathetic to my noble vision (which, however, I’d fallen far short of achieving). And he even recommended strategies for my next revision, humbly suggesting while never insisting.
It’s the process I try to duplicate with every manuscript my fellow writers entrust me with. And I fall short; I’m pretty sure I’ve unintentionally stepped on a few toes as recently as within the past few months. I’m just trying to be honest, I rationalize. Well, honesty isn’t enough, when you’re dealing with someone else’s baby. I can do better. I can build up, ennoble, and even honor anyone trying to do this hard, nearly impossible thing—and I can still tell the truth about shortcomings. From my heart I thank you, Rex, for the double gift of how to give and take literary criticism, one of many I’ve received from my fellow writers.
Life and Lit
There are even Heart Critics who can successfully critique our lives as well as our manuscripts; I’m blessed with a handful of friends who will give me some of the truth some of the time; and at least one, a friend of long standing—road-tested, rugged and a tad irascible—who, over the years, has mostly given me all the truth, all the time, about my character and my life (whether I asked or not). It sometimes hurt, but, as with a manuscript, I improved myself (my Self) slowly as a result. There’s always another rewrite, thank God.