A Harsh Critique: Learning to Survive the Experience and Interpret the Critique


By: Kyrstin Oke.

So, finally after hours of worrying and agonizing over the impending critique, you get it back, and man was it harsh! Something you’ve spent countless hours on, poured your tears, blood, and soul into – and someone has just casually ripped it to shreds. Sure, some part of you knows that your work wasn’t perfect to begin with, but you weren’t expecting it to be this bad.
It feels like someone has just died.
Your pride is cowering in a corner from the world, weeping in shame. Your prostrated ego is dramatically throwing its fists against the ground like a tyrannical child, wailing at the audacity of the person who dared critique you in this manner!



Perhaps your first inclination is to reject the critique? To say to yourself ‘They were just being mean. My writing is fine! I don’t have to listen to them anyway. They’re just some random person on the Internet that took the time to look over my writing. What do they know? They don’t understand anything!’
Or perhaps you’re telling yourself you aren’t a writer. You can’t do it. You can’t write.
We all have this little, fragile, immature creature inside of us – this artistic temperament, but how do we mature it? How do we pick up our hurt pride and broken ego from the floor – things that are still kicking and screaming, (and are frankly downright embarrassing to deal with), and begin writing again?
My word of advice is this: If you are your worst critic, then you have nothing to fear from others.
I don’t mean that you should drive yourself to agonise over every little detail in your writing, saying to yourself that it has to be perfect. It has to be perfect or I’ll die! Cut the theatrical dramatics and get down to business.
Look at the scathing critique for what it is – what you hope to be an honest critique. Sure, the critic may not be right on everything. Perhaps they didn’t understand everything in the chapter you submitted, but the greatest favour you can do for yourself is to honestly review their critique.
Here's an example on how to handle and interpret what the critic is telling you, as well as some tips on how to improve common issues they may point out.
Example:
“I hate you. I hate this chapter, I thought it was weak. The main character is stupid for doing this when they should have done that….  The plot is so boring and predictable, it had my eyes glazing over and rolling into the back of my skull. Your characters suck – they all seem like cardboard cut outs that are falling over from the lack of will to live. The flowery prose you opened with was cliché and made me want to vomit. Your grammar is revolting, you used ‘then’ when it should have been ‘than’! How dare you. You suck at writing.”


Let’s review.

Step 1: Shove your hurt pride and vengeful ego into another room and leave them there. Only let them out when they have matured. Don’t spoil them with self-constructed lies to make yourself feel better.

Step 2: Strip away the frivolous pieces in the critique. It’s like ordering a steak. You ignore the frilly green thing that’s next to it on the plate and dig into the meat. Let’s be honest, you didn’t want to eat that frilly green thing in the first place…

I hate you. I hate this chapter, I thought it was weak. The main character is stupid for doing this when they should have done that….  The plot is so boring and predictable, it had my eyes glazing over and rolling into the back of my skull. Your characters suck – they all seem like cardboard cut outs that are falling over from the lack of will to live. The flowery prose you opened with was cliché and made me want to vomit. Your grammar is revolting, you used ‘then’ when it should have been ‘than’! How dare you. You suck at writing.”

Step 3: Now review the pieces that remain. Critique the critique, but also critique yourself! Constantly ask yourself questions – you’ll see what I mean.
“I hate this chapter, I thought it was weak.” Why did they hate it? What did they think was weak? Was it the grammar, the writing style? If it’s not clear, ask the critic to clarify what needs improving and why. Then find a way to fix it.
“The main character is stupid for doing this when they should have done that….” Did I deliberately have the character do something stupid so I can later prove a point, or was I just not thinking when I wrote it? Characters can make mistakes, have them make them. No one likes a Mary Sue who is always right and perfect. Have your characters make terrible, almost irredeemable mistakes, but have a valid reason and purpose behind it! A reader can understand if a character’s mistakes are born from insecurities — an insult to their pride or ego that drives them to overreact and make a mistake — but no one will continue reading if the character (especially the main character) is really just a drooling moron.
The plot is boring and predictable,” Was I relying too heavily on old tropes and clichés that have become too familiar to readers over the years? How could I twist this cliché into something new or different and make it my own? Is that what’s making it predictable? If not, find out what is. Sometimes readers will find your writing boring. Accept this. Your writing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but make sure most people at least want to take a sip.
Your characters seem like cardboard cut outs that are falling over from the lack of will to live.” Harsh it may be, but it’s an important note. Characters are the main things that will keep the reader engaged. Ask yourself, if the dialogue between the characters is flat and boring. Do all of the characters sound the same? Are there too many characters in one scene – are a few of them redundant? If you have five characters crammed into one scene and only three of them are speaking while the other two are standing in the back of the room, drooling, cut them out! They’re dead weight.
For the characters that are in the scene, ask yourself if you give them enough movement? Enough mannerisms? (THIS IS IMPORTANT.) Could you give them little quirks to do while speaking? Certainly! Maybe they drum their fingers against the drinking glass they’re holding as they listen to another character. Maybe they slouch back in their chair because of something someone said to them. Perhaps have one character move around the room, absentmindedly touching things, picking up small objects from shelves as they speak.
Once you establish these little things, the characters won’t freeze in the reader’s mind the second they aren’t speaking. A little bit of detail breathes a lot of life into your characters.
Speaking of detail…
The flowery prose you opened with was cliché.” Did I fall into the trap of opening the beginning scene with excessive descriptions of a lilac sky existing in all perfect purpleness that was the exact same colour as a field of lavender? DID I MENTION THE SKY WAS PURPLE? Ask yourself, am I describing a Bob Ross painting, or am I supposed to be writing?
Personally, my rule of thumb is to avoid opening the FIRST chapter (or prologue) with flowery prose. Draw the reader in with the main character instead. If I do open a later chapter with flowery prose about the scenery, I only do it once the reader has gotten to know the character. Latch the prose onto the character when they are having a moment to reflect inwards or are contemplating a problem that was brought up previously.
Ex: Leaning against one of the stone columns at the edge of the veranda, he let his eyes wander over the rain battered forest. The trees were black impressions, barely distinguishable from the grey sky. Illuminated by a hash sheet of lightning, everything in his view sharpened. The gathering pools of water in the distance lit up like liquid mercury, suspended in dark patches of grass, before the moment faded, leaving him with his thoughts.
 Over the sound of the rain, his ears picked up approaching footsteps. The person stopped behind him, but he didn’t need to turn and look to know who it was.
“What are you going to do?” she asked quietly, her words barely reaching him.
Withdrawing his gaze from the trees, he looked at her, unable to abandon the feeling that he had lost something important in that moment.
Shaking his head, he answered her. “I don’t know.”

See what I mean? Don’t just say ‘Ah look the sky! Oh yeah, here’s my main character. What did the sky have to do with anything? Nothing really, I just thought it was purple and pretty.’
Ground the flowery prose around your character.

Your grammar is revolting, you used ‘then’ when it should have been ‘than’!” Now as a writer, you really do have full license to go cry in a corner. You have committed one of the ultimate sins. Bow your head in shame while you correct the grammar that you thought was perfect at 3am when you wrote it. Make a blood oath to never do it again.

Even though it can sometimes be nothing short of soul-crushing to get back a harsh critique (especially for the first time), it can be one of the most important things for you. Does being told by a random stranger over the Internet that your writing sucks make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside? Hell no, but chances are, to some degree, your writing does suck. It’s a cold hard truth we as writers all need to face up to at some point at the start of our writing careers. Give yourself permission to suck at the beginning but don’t make excuses for your continual suck-ish-ness and lack of improvement. Especially when you have people telling you where to begin. Are they right all the time? Probably not, but they will notice what needs work. Fix what needs to be fixed and continue writing.


-------------

Kyrstin Oke, 24 years of age. Very sarcastic, witty, with a hint of devilish charm. What professional experience do I have in writing, you may ask? None what so ever. I never took a class on fiction writing.  I wasn’t instructed in the art by a grand master on a secluded hill top. In all honesty, I was bored. I had an idea for a book in middle school and it stuck, like gum to a shoe…. perhaps that’s an inelegant way to put it, but nevertheless it’s true. It bothered me with every step until I began to write. My skills sucked but that was expected. You’re writing is going to suck in the beginning, but it doesn’t mean it has to suck forever. Nearly twelve years later, both the book idea, and my writing skills have improved greatly. So, keep writing. Or not... I’m not your mum.




No comments:

Post a Comment