Maggie Stiefvater posted on tumblr a while back about her search for critique partners and how she knew she found her writing soulmates. Basically, Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff critiqued Maggie’s work in a way that would most benefit the work itself as opposed to critiquing it to the way THEY wanted it written. The difference is subtle and I remember nodding my head and going yeah, I get that. But I didn’t REALLY get it until fairly recently when I received a critique on a chapter of my novel.
I’ve received all manner of critiques from the hardly useful to the did I just kill your puppy? nasty and I’ve learned (very early on) not to get defensive, especially when the latter end of the scale starts snarling for the sake of cutting you down. There’s just no point. Pull what you can from the critique that’s actually useful and just toss the rest. Someone tearing you down to make themselves feel superior is not worth carrying on beyond that critique. They’re not worth the 01s they’re created on. But this critique was my first truly condescending one. And I minored in creative writing and have never gotten anything like this before. It affected me to the point where I almost called the guy out on it. Almost. I ended up just giving him a shitty grade and deleting the message before I closed it out. It wasn’t worth it for me to look like a butthurt writer who can’t take criticism even though I explain until I’m blue in the face that I’m not.
So I’m passive-aggressively writing a blog post about it.
In fairness to the critiquer it wasn’t the beginning of the story so there were plot elements that you’d question at chapter 5 if you haven’t read chapter 1. Totally understandable. This was so far beyond that. This was line editing combined with being schooled. I got halfway through the critique (its word could was almost double that of my chapter submission) before I got too disgusted with it and just gave up. He made some valid points but they ended up so mired in pedantic finger-waving that I couldn’t keep reading.
Instead of pointing something out, saying what didn’t work, maybe give an example on a better structure to use, he’d point out what didn’t work, spelled it out again, asked me if I saw what was wrong with it (Do you see this? <–A lot of this), gave me a pile of examples that were incorrect, asked me if I saw it again, gave me examples that he deemed correct, and then rambled on more about why my writing was wrong and what he often saw in new writers et al. This was coupled with questioning whether I knew definitions of words, complete with definitions, just in case I was using words I didn’t know, and a tone that came off as I’m going to impart my endless fount of wisdom on you out of the kindness of my heart and I know you’re trying.
Enter gnashing of teeth.
What really just blew the critique out of the water, and to loop back to Maggie’s comment about finding people to really get what it is they’re critiquing, was when he got 100% literal when I mentioned blood bubbling. It led back to feeling blood boil and the little bubbles and he was like no. A bubble in the blood causes an aneurysm. This isn’t what you mean. I frowned mightily at my screen and just proceeded to scroll the rest of the way through the critique. I did catch some telling me I was trying too hard to be literary and it wasn’t working and then I got to the end and ignored all of it.
That’s what really hit it home. This critique wasn’t about my writing; it was about this guy imparting his knowledge on me, exerting his obvious superiority over me. Whether he intended to be a dick or whether he thought he was doing this great, wondrous thing, I don’t know. I’m leaning toward the latter and he just sucks at communication. Which is ironic considering he’s also a self-proclaimed writer and offers editing services. How someone can be a writer and an editor and yet be so incredibly obtuse about how their message is being picked up I have no idea. But it’s almost laughable.
This was my moment of REALLY getting what Maggie was saying, like my writing was just waiting for a perfect example of someone critiquing a story in a way THEY wanted it done, not what’s best for the story. I wanted to be like, dude. This is a YA fantasy novel. I don’t want to write it the way YOU want it written because you obviously don’t know the market and while you claim to have my best interests in mind, based on your critique you really don’t. You would sink your fist into my story and tear out its heart if I were to let you edit it. And that’s worse than a shitty critique. Because what if I were a new writer and I didn’t know the difference?
That’s another thing that chapped my ass, this guy assuming I was a newbie. You know what happens when you ass/u/me. It’s pretty obvious he went into it thinking he was better than the writing he was critiquing. You could tell from his tone (at least the tone I was picking up). It wouldn’t surprise me if he thinks he’s one of few people with any real experience on that site and he goes in assuming that the writer he’s critiquing knows nothing. That’s always a good place to start.
But what if I was new? What if I didn’t have 20 years of writing and editing behind me to know a good critique from a bad critique? What if I took everything he said to heart? I just want to tell people like that to just stick to being a copyeditor. Go teach a grammar class or something. That’s obviously what you’re good at. But when it comes to higher level editing of a novel, sweet baby Jesus they’d suck the soul right out of it. They’d suck the soul right out of it and think they’re doing you a favor. That’s terrifying.
I’d love to find a writing soulmate. Not only someone who really gets my writing but who can help me shape it to be the best goddamn story it can possibly be. It’s a goal. I’m still getting mostly good advice how I’m doing it now. For the most part I can’t really complain. But I’d like to really click with one or two people the way Maggie, Tessa, and Brenna do. Sigh. Until then, carry on.