Tuesday

Some Thoughts on Negative Critique Peers

Are brutal reviewers always good for you? Are they more often right than wrong just because they're brutal, or are other factors at work? 

So what spurred these questions? A friend recently said she had a "brutal critique partner" that could be relied on. It got me to thinking about brutal reviewers in my own experience who were worse than useless and actually destructive. 

We need to keep in mind that the better an ms becomes, the harder such “brutal” critics are forced to dig for critique at all costs, inevitably focusing on matters of taste, e.g, “I don’t like that character's personality...” as opposed to “I think this point could be made clearer by doing XYZ.” You could put 10 of these brutal negative types in a room and they would shred an unpublished novel to pieces in their own special way. But if the exact same novel were actually written by a commercial author favorite of theirs, they would not only praise it but compete with each other to deliver the most positive, in-depth insight into the work. Their blurbs would shower Amazon with five stars. Perhaps a "however" now and then, but nothing that would ever approach the brutality of decimating the ms they believed unpublished. 

Frankly, I’ve had experience with various coverage types in LA and fought huge battles with them over specific screenplays and manuscripts by writers known to me (two were clients) who they were attempting to annihilate, and I noticed, the more perfect the manuscript, the more vehement and extreme the critique. It was as if the good story and great prose infuriated them and made them all the more determined to find ways to chop at it. Of course, they made their living by using negativity as a substitute for authentic and insightful review, much like certain commercial book reviewers who go viciously negative in order to stand out in a crowd. 

When looking for feedback on a fantasy manuscript I wrote two years ago, I purposely sought out three writers who I knew would rip me a big one (for various reasons), and all three did, but there were no commonalities. I figured that reasonably intelligent writers straining hard to be negative would find an issue if it really existed. It was weird to watch them strive to be as negative as possible over essentially petty things. 

I once sent a very polished ms to some editors in Iowa who I trusted to put the final coat of paint on the top floor. Instead, they shredded the opening chapter of the ms in every inconceivable way. They strained to dissect sentences and nitpick “the real meaning” vs. the words actually used, and in a manner nothing short of bizarre. They even hated italics! Determined to be negative at all costs, the Iowa people didn't say one positive thing about any facet of the ms. When not provided their normal diet of necessary edits they simply picked and picked until they created a series of false negatives. The coverage people in LA, as I noted above, imitated this Iowa group. However, I couldn't help but notice the exact same editors, when courting a client for monetary reasons, fell over themselves being complimentary. Hmmmmmm... 

Conclusion. If you must use reviewers, searched for balanced personalities and look for commonalities.

Sunday

Should Mentors or Workshop Leaders Give Poor Writers False Hope For The Sake of Building Confidence?

by Michael Neff

Though the blurb below was published in The Onion, it is nonetheless a good jumping off point for discussing how creative writing instructors or mentors should approach students whose stories or prose need extra help:

"CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—In an effort to help his students develop inaccurate perceptions of their talents, University of Virginia creative writing professor Alan Erickson told reporters Monday that he takes the time to provide each and every one of them with personalized false hope. “Every student is different, and even though there may be 30 of them per class, I feel it’s important that I make enough time to sit down with them individually to let them know they have a unique voice worth pursuing,” said Erickson, explaining that he frequently extends his office hours and often stays after class to meet with students one-on-one to ensure they hear individualized, unfounded optimism about their writing and their prospects within the publishing industry. “It certainly adds a bit to my workload, but providing specific feedback and encouragement really has a huge impact on their confidence. Going that extra mile for your students is what inspires them to follow their dreams.” The professor added that his efforts have yielded some notable results, asserting that a number of his most deluded former students have gone on to humiliating, short-lived attempts at writing careers."
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I have been in the presence of professional fiction-writing workshop leaders who have either falsely praised a writer or else avoided addressing flaws in their work--often leaving said flaws to be hopefully discovered by a member of the workshop instead. In this way, the instructor avoids having to face the writer and discuss the problem directly. He or she lets the group do most of the discovery and problem-solving analysis, thus disallowing the writer in question from focusing potential ire on the workshop leader.

Having been a workshop leader, I can tell you, the above approach would be a lot easier on me. However, even groups that are decently moderated (assuming the workshop leader actually understands not only practical creative writing but the commercial and literary publishing business--which is rare) must endure a good amount of poorly considered, amateurish advice issued from the well-meaning heads of the writers present. 

Godspeed them all! 

But what is a workshop leader to do in the presence of hit-and-miss advice and analysis flowing freely around the table? Various strategies exist, but by and large, he or she (if honest and knowledgeable) must be put in the position of tactfully contradicting much of what the writer group has said to each other (much of which already contradicts itself). And how is that possible in group dynamic situations that might not be conducive to such frank reality checking? 

Answer: it isn't possible.

One can only hope for a group that is receptive. And falsely praising the work of poor writers only enables them to continue to fail. The workshop leader should note what works, and what does not, then delve into strategies for improvement.

Good writers are not born. They are made.