I read this writer's post in a loop last Friday, and it stuck with me all weekend while I worked.
KRISTINE KATHRYN RUSCH - JUN• 27•12
At every craft workshop I teach, I make at least one writer cry. This week, I’m teaching a short story workshop for professional writers. These are workshop-hardened folk, people who have been eviscerated by the best of them, people who come to my workshops having heard that I make writers cry, expecting me to be the most vicious critiquer of all.
How do I bring writers to tears? Usually by saying this:
I loved this story. It’s wonderful. Mail it.
That’s my entire critique.
Is the story perfect? Of course not. No story is. Not a one. No matter how many times it’s “polished” and “fixed” and “improved.” No one can write a perfect story.
If such a thing existed, then we would all read the same books and enjoy them equally. We would watch the same movies and need reviewers to tell us only which movie is perfect and which one isn’t. We would buy the same comics, again, going only for the comic that is perfect, and ignoring all the others.
Am I telling people to write crap? No. Because the choice isn’t between crap and perfection. Those are false choices.
I learned this lesson long ago. Dean Wesley Smith and I were visitors at a writing workshop taught by science fiction writer and editor Algis Budrys. One of the early volumes of Writers of the Future, which he had edited, had just appeared, and he asked the students to read one of the stories in the volume.
Then, without telling Dean and I what he was doing, he asked us to comment on the story.
Here’s what I remember of the piece: It was 2,000 words long. I think we spoke more than 2,000 words in our elegant, impressive critiques.
Algis looked at both of us sadly. Then he said, “Ignore them. The story is wonderful—or at least it is to this editor.”
He had expected us to praise the story, thinking we all had the same taste. Instead, Dean and I both had gone after the story in critique mode. When a reader critiques something, he goes after it by searching for what is wrong.
And he will find something. Something is always wrong. From an infelicitous turn of phrase to a plot point that could have been stronger, something about the story does not work.
As I’m teaching this concept to my workshop-experienced students, I always begin by asking them this, “What’s wrong with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
Well, we’re all raised to believe that Shakespeare is a god who never could do anything wrong. Had he done anything wrong, had his stories been less-than-perfect, we wouldn’t be reading them? Right?
If William Shakespeare—professional writer—had turned A Midsummer Night’s Dream in at a workshop I taught, I would have told him this:
“Bill, lose at least two of your endings. The main story of the play ends in Act IV, Scene 2—and then you go on for two more scenes. All of these endings would work. Pick one.”
Bill Shakespeare, dutiful workshopper that he is, would nod sadly, go back to his room, and delete one of the most favorite and quoted scenes in all of English literature. Puck turns to the audience and says,
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
I would have said to Bill, “Lovely. Thematically significant. Beautifully written. Lose it. You can do the same thing elsewhere.”
Yeah, right. My harsh words, spoken with authority, and Workshopper Bill’s insecurity would have stolen 400 years of enjoyment from audiences all over the world.
Anything can be critiqued. Criticizing something is easy. It makes the critiquer feel smart, and just a little bit superior to the writer.
But that kind of critique serves no real purpose, because that kind of critique is wrong from the moment the critiquer picks up the story or the manuscript or the 400-year-old play.
Readers read for enjoyment. They vote for what they like with their hard cold cash. Traditional publishers who recently ventured into the world of free online e-book promotions were stunned to realize that people who receive a book for free are more apt to write a vicious, nasty review of that book than people who paid money for the same book.
There are a few reasons for that. One is that people see no value in something they get for free. Dean’s discussing that bit on his blog right now.
But the one reason that’s relevant to this essay is this: If people have paid a little for a book, they have a vested interest in it. They take a small bit of the blame if the reading experience didn’t turn out exactly like they hoped. They should have looked at the cover more closely, perhaps, or read a snippet of the opening. But they didn’t. So they got a book they didn’t like. It was an accident. They’ll do better next time.
Readers are more realistic than writers. Readers understand that many, many, many books out there in the universe won’t be to their taste. All sorts of marketing tools have sprung up over the centuries to help readers find works that will be to their taste. From cover art to genre categories to back cover blurbs, all these things exist to help a reader choose the right book for them—a book they won’t regret purchasing. A book they will enjoy.
When a reader samples an e-book, she gets a small portion of the novel. If it’s to her taste, she will then decide whether or not to purchase. But if the book is really, really good, the reader will punch that “buy” button just to see what happens next regardless of price. (That’s how a lot of e-books priced over $10 sell to people who swear they’ll never pay more than $9.99 for an e-book. The reader samples, gets hooked, and buys, without checking price at all.)
What does that have to do with critique? Simple. Critiquers get the manuscript for free and they’re asked to criticize it. Of course, they will find something wrong with it. In that circumstance, we all will.
So I change my students’ mindset to a reader/editor mindset. How do I do it? By giving them only three valid responses to something they’ve read:
1. I liked what I read.
2. I quit on page [insert number here].
3. I liked what I read and I would have bought this.