Wanted: Murderers

Go ahead. Murder my draft. Slash its prose to ribbons. Get stabby with a red pen and make it bleed.

No, seriously. I know you think I’m flexing my sarcasm muscle, but I’m not. If there are weaknesses in my work-in-progress, I want—need—to know what they are. That’s why critique sessions are my friend. To sit at a table with other writers who’ve read my work and have them point out flaws is exactly my idea of a fun Saturday afternoon.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s sometimes hard to sit and listen to people rip my “baby” apart. My first instinct is to defend those words on the page, to fight tooth and nail and justify the value of their existence. “No, you don’t understand! I meant to show my antagonist in a cliched way; it’s a spoof, don’t you get it?”

Clearly not. And if the reader doesn’t “get it,” then the work doesn’t stand on its own merit. Because I won’t be there to defend the story to every other reader. (If that is even remotely possible, then I haven’t sold enough copies of the book, have I?)

I’ve heard it said, and it proves true in my own experience, that a writer cannot remain objective about their own work. Hell, I can’t even proofread my own pages beyond a certain point. Because I’ve seen it so much I can quote it by heart, I completely miss errors that leap off the page for a fresh set of eyes. And if that’s the case with typos or extraneous words, how much more so is it true for plot flaws or flat characters or—worse than that—continuity errors, where in chapter 4 the protagonist has access to a valuable resource but in chapter 20, when that resource might save her butt, she suddenly forgets all about it or can’t get to it or it no longer exists.

Beta-readers and critique sessions are an invaluable fix.

I have taken three 6-week fiction classes now, in which the participants take turns reading and critiquing each other’s work. Most of the time, I submitted short stories, works that could be reviewed from beginning to end in one session. Each time, applying the input offered by my fellow writers made the story so much better! Three of those stories have now been accepted for publication so the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. I’ve also mentioned my search for a local critique group. While I haven’t found exactly that, my Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers Group ventured into the critique arena at our last meeting, with outstanding results.

I’ve spoken about this before, here and here, but I want to point out that it isn’t just the critiques I receive on my own work that benefit my craft. Reading the work of others is every bit as valuable. I frequently see glowing examples of a technique or skill I’ve been trying to master myself (like one writer’s seemingly effortless eloquence in poetic description and turn of phrase), and can take a moment to break it down for myself and compare what they’re doing right to what I’m missing. But it’s also much easier to see clear illustrations of things we are told not to do in someone else’s writing. A flat protagonist stands out more because we don’t know the character’s quirks and flaws and strengths as well as the author does. We need those blanks filled in for us. A passive voice surfs across the page without raising any excitement in me, the reader. Wordy descriptions or awkward phrasing snag me out of the story and leave me blinking in my living room, rather than shadowing the protagonist as she works through the conflict in her world. Spotting those issues connects lessons I’ve heard to the “Aha!” recognition in my head of where, exactly, I am committing those same mistakes in my own work.

Remember that old saying from grade school? “Tell me, I forget; show me, I remember; involve me, I understand.” It’s one thing to be told “don’t do this” with your fiction. It won’t work. If I take a class and am shown examples, I remember it more completely. But as a reader who is fully participating in the creative process by experiencing the work of another writer, completing the circle as it were, I am involved. I experience the reasons flat characters or passive voice or Professor McWordy descriptions fall short. In that moment, understanding dawns.

If you have yet to participate in critique sessions with other writers, I urge you to do so. Just remember: it isn’t personal. All the other writers are there for the same reasons you are—to improve their craft. If we can help each other along the way, that’s icing on the cake.