Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Monday, July 02, 2007

This and That

We all think we know how to talk and write. We all think we communicate clearly, get our point across, and any idiot can understand us. And yet… How many times have you said something and then had someone reply or ask you a question that is so, well, on another planet entirely from what you were saying that you just stopped, completely nonplused?

Happens to me all the time. In conversations, e-mails, and my writing, I often feel like I'm speaking a completely different language from everyone else. I read what I've written and it makes perfect sense to me. Or I mentally review what I've said and it seems reasonable and not at all anything that someone else would take issue with. And yet…they do—take issue. Or, they don't—understand. And yet it all seems so clear and just fine to me.

I'm left with the odd feeling that I must not "speak good English". Or maybe I speak some really obscure form of English.


The thing is—I'm in a lot of writers groups and so many of them trash critique partners or say "they just don't have time for a critique partner" or other rather uppity things like that. My answer is: how much time do you have to rewrite? How much time do you have to revise over and over again because you're revising the wrong things because you have no clue what is really wrong?

Sure, it's hard to find a good critique partner who won't just say: Oh, this is great! Or one that won't just focus on where the commas ought to be placed. Or one that doesn't cut you to ribbons when you don't deserve it (versus cutting you to ribbons when you do deserve it and need to pay attention).

But I really think a good critique partner is worth his or her weight in gold. Because every time she wrinkles her nose, pauses, asks a question, re-reads a line, or glances away for a moment, those are places that need fixing. Can you find those places on your own? I don't know. Can you?

Mostly, I can't. Because I know what I mean—I wrote the darn thing. If I didn't know what I meant then not even the greatest critique partner on this planet is going to be able to help me. However, the fact of the matter is: if you wrote it, you understand it. But not everyone else will. What is an English garden to you may be a plot of nameless weeds to someone else. Worse, your English garden may be a loathsome, foully diseased plot to everyone else who reads your description. That's the value of a second opinion—in a word, a critique partner.

Now, it's true. Some really lucky writers have agents and no critique partners. Because the writer's agent is actually working not only as an agent but also as a critique partner. Oh, sure. The agent isn't reading every single word the way a critique partner might, but they are providing feedback to the author such as: This scene didn't work. And what the heck were you thinking when you wrote that the hero's head looked like a peeled cabbage? So someone, somewhere is often providing feedback even for those authors who have no time for critique partners.

For beginning writers: get a critique partner. Develop a thick hide. All those things you thought you were so good at—well, make sure you're not just kidding yourself. This is particularly true if you've written a lot of manuscripts and can't seem to get anywhere. You may be making the same mistakes over and over again because you haven't been able to identify what is wrong. And you have no one to point them out to you. Find someone who is going to be hard on you and listen to what they have to say. Think about it. Think hard and don't just dismiss stuff out of hand because you think the person "just doesn't understand". Or the person "just doesn't get your style of writing". Honestly, think about it.

Everyone needs feedback in order to improve their communication skills. Some reader comments are more useful than others. Many comments are completely contradictory. It's not always easy to sift through everything and figure out what—if anything—you are doing wrong.

The bottom line, however, is that you should always be open to comments, suggestions and new ideas. You have to grow or die. It's your choice.

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