Friday, May 11, 2018

When a Critique Partner Gives You No Credit

Sometimes I talk about the worst criticism I have ever received, and it’s a little shocking to me that it’s not the “most recent one.” It has remained fairly consistent over the years, and I keep coming back to it despite most of the things from my early days have been long eclipsed by recent conflicts, stress of rent, and the future, and my current need to pee.

The reason this criticism was so staunchly painful strangely has to do with the ambiguity. She was a friendly woman, but somewhat of a snob in various ways—the sort of person who asked you what kind of bands you liked and you’d say, “Exit Sign,” because simply because you were standing before the doors at that point. Couldn’t say anything real because she’d probably judge you for it. She had an opinion on everything and very little flexibility.

Some of her critiques were dead on, insightful, and relieving. Some of them were just not. I mean, really not. Like incredibly stupid. But, the most, by far, were vague and simplistic, literally, “Simplify everything!”

She had pointed out some good lines to shorten, so I asked, “How do I know where?”

“Just everything!”

Well, I could do that… but I don’t think the results will be what you intended.

Dealing with someone who I both liked and yet conflicted with on certain, we’ll say, philosophical ideas, someone who made comments that were brilliant and those that were outright dumb, while trying to figure out what the others meant, was incredibly painful for me. She was an awesome writer, but didn’t write anything I liked to read too, which threw in a whole slew of considerations.

She was also rude. She wrote in all caps, asked rhetorical questions—“Why did you do that? Just do this!”—last but not least, gave me no credit. To this day, I’ll read lines in a manuscript that I antagonized over and flash back to her comment. As I get into the final edits of it before I submit it off to agents, today I came across one line of interest.

The protagonist, in the very beginning, runs up to his girlfriend’s house. I describe the architecture, the garden, the foggy glass, and the drapes against her window. Did I say expensive? Did I say luxurious? I don’t remember. But today it reads, “Over the distance, he watched through the house’s fine, transparent drapes for movement.”

“How does he know they’re fine?” she said.

“Well, he’s been there before.”

“So it’s a point of contention?”

“Well, he certainly thinks they are wasteful.”

She seemed to accept that, but it didn’t satisfy me.

What people say about not being able to explain things to your readers is true, and it begged the question of how others would respond.

Would other readers think, “How does he know how fine they are?” losing me credibility?

Was she saying the “fineness” of the drapes was an odd thing to point out?

Or, entirely possible, was it that she, holding a draft in her hand by an unknown author, assumed that I was making a mistake that an actual reader would accept and understand with trust?

In other words, did the choice lose me credibility, or did the lack of faith in me bring issue to the choice?

I tell the story about the time a friend of mine accused me of making up the word “chagrin,” only laughing when I point out that his favorite book, which he’d read several times, had been accused for overusing it. He never noticed it once while it was being done by someone he trusted.

I understand the faith in experts and don’t condemn it entirely. We try to tell people not to prematurely judge books for… pretty much everything they’ve been prematurely judged for, but the honest truth is you can’t judge a book until you’ve read it, and blindly devoting your faith into something because it happened to be in front of you and it’s “only fair to give that book a chance,” is foolish. It ends badly. We have to invest emotionally into our reading, and so we should look for signs that it is going to be enjoyable. Expertise just makes sense.


The attitude that you have to earn the right to experiment, that you should explain yourself every time a reader worries that maybe you made a mistake, is silly, restrictive, and homogenizing.

Mostly though, believing a contextual response to be indicative of a broader, non-contextual response goes against the purpose of the interaction. In essence, if you’re seeing the reaction of someone who thinks you’re some hack writer with no ability to track the continuity from paragraph to paragraph, the “problems” they’ll see aren’t going to be what someone who is picking up a published novel to enjoy.

Of course, the bigger fear is where does an agent fall under, being that she will know you first as the unpublished hack who may or may not know a colon from an asshole. Hopefully, you’d get someone who does feel like you know your stuff, but there has to be some slack to get them to that point.

The worst critique in my life featured a great deal of those kinds of comments, constantly questioning each included detail. Why did I include this? Why did I include that? Sad thing was, if she answered the rhetorical questions she gave, she’d find the reason why I, at least, thought the choice I had made was possibly a good idea. It wasn’t obscure.

Sometimes people will ask why I didn’t just make the changes. If I didn’t know how I felt, wasn’t sure whether or not she had a point, wouldn’t it just be simpler to do what you’re told?

Besides the point that fixing a problem when you don’t really understand it (Do I turn my book into a Dick and Jane companion?), a bigger issue is that I haven’t found the criticism of those who don’t give me credit, well, credible.

My first experience with this was in high school, back in the good ole days of all my shits going to anime and cats, and I would write weird and risky essays for… pretty much any time I actually made myself write an essay. My parents, the most loving people in the world, but also the ones who remember when I was struggling with the concept of a toilet, didn’t have faith that my rendition of the Bill of Rights coming to life and arguing with me over the thesis of my history paper would actually suit as a history paper. I got an A.

When I started to apply for scholarships, many of which required essay writing, I did the same old, same old. I never knew how to “play the game” then, for better and for worse, and I would not be convinced that doing anything but telling the complete truth and in the way that I wanted would be acceptable. I also started applying for colleges at around the same time.

Well, my parents read one, and, being parents, told me I really should rethink saying something. I did not rethink it, at least not before sending it out, but then rethought and rethought and rethought it until anxiety tried to emulate an ulcer and burrow out throw my stomach. After that, I refused to show them anything I wrote, knowing that the fear their criticism put in me forced me to seize up any creative muscles.

I won, by the way. And I will say that my college essay received an excited, handwritten personal note back from one of the schools.

Back then I realized how damaging getting responses from people who didn’t have faith in me—even when they cared about me—could be. I vowed to never give my work to my mother if it was important, which led to some tears and hurt feelings, but I stuck by it for a long time.

It would be nice to say that if people think you’re an idiot they don’t have a point, but that’s not necessarily true either, as we all know.

So what do you do when you realize that someone is trying to prove your incompetence? How seriously do you take their criticism?

And the problem with line edits, as they always are, is that this may never come up again. Even if someone else does feel the same exact way, they’ll solve it in a different manner. So I will be left here, confused, cringing every time I look at it.

Does that in itself mean I should remove it?

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