Critiquing creative spirits


Credit: Randy Lincks photo.

Silk’s Post #36 — After all these months of sweat over our manuscripts, we now have our critiquing retreat scheduled for June. Or as I’ve been calling it, Critter Week. With our lofty goal of getting all our 5 novels published (and why aim for less?), it’s appropriate that we’ll be meeting high in the coastal mountains at Whistler, BC.

Perhaps I should re-tag it the 5 Writers Critter Summit.

We convened at Joe’s house last week for a pre-retreat planning session. I was impressed with the nutritionally-balanced sustenance Joe provided, including some kind of sugar-dusted pastry things filled with chocolate, a very upscale cheese plate, and some cucumbers sliced so artistically it would have made Martha Stewart proud. He sliced them himself. I watched him. (End of colourful backstory.)

After we sorted out what our room arrangements would be for four women, one man and a dog, the conversation naturally turned to critique etiquette. It’s one thing to subject a chapter or two to the scrutiny of critters (during our monthly critique sessions, we were submitting 30 pages at a time), but quite another to submit your whole book to be picked apart … the book you’ve just spent nine months gestating, like a baby (in the analogy shared by Helga’s and Karalee’s recent posts).

Yes, there’s a bit of critique anxiety in the air. Look, it’s hard for creative spirits to take criticism. We writers share our thin-skin DNA with visual artists, filmmakers, designers, actors, musicians, in fact all manner of creative types. Creative people take big emotional risks by exposing their innermost thoughts, insights and feelings to the world in works of art that we hope will entertain, enlighten and move our audience.

When they applaud, they validate our art and empower us. When they boo, they crush our fragile egos.

Okay, creatives, don’t get your knickers in a twist over the “fragile egos” comment. If you bristle at that, it only demonstrates that you’re not really ready for honest criticism yet. But let me clarify. In my humble opinion (and with absolutely no professional credentials in the field of psychology), all human beings have fragile egos.

The difference with creatives is that, in order to make art that aims to have an emotional effect on other people, we put our own egos on the line and subject ourselves to the judgement of others. You can’t build a fortress around your soul when you’re creating art meant for the public. There’s a reason for the “tortured artist” stereotype. There’s also a reason for the “starving artist” stereotype, and one of the objectives of our 5 Writers group is to help each other avoid any hint of either torture or starvation.

Isn’t it every writer’s goal to be recognized, appreciated and financially rewarded? Well, there’s just one little step we all need to get through to make that possible. We have to be damn good. (Sigh.) So, yes, we’re back to the subject of critiquing (and critique anxiety), remembering it has one simple purpose: to make our books damn good.


Credit: iStock licensed photo.

So, how to critique creative spirits in a manner that reveals their writing weaknesses and stimulates them write a better book, without sapping their confidence and killing their all-important creative spark?

Truthfully, this is an awesome responsibility. It requires honesty with diplomacy. We have to  be detailed enough to provide meaningful criticism without being picky or petty or prescriptive or sarcastic or dismissive. Critters need to explain why the strong parts work as thoughtfully as why the weak parts fail. We have to be forthright in our judgements about those things subject to legitimate critique (like character, plot, and pace), while withholding judgement about things that aren’t “on the table” (like choice of genre).

And, ultimately, we have to try to see the book we’re critiquing through the eyes of an agent, an editor, and a reader … a book that was written by an author who has become a friend and a confidant. This isn’t easy. But it’s necessary.

Since I have previously finished only one first draft of a full length novel and only a partial first draft in our 5 Writers challenge, I’d have to be considered the “junior” member of our group (at my age, you have to love being a “junior” anything). However, when it comes to critiquing creatives I have decades of related experience. And in the task ahead, I know I’m going to have to tap into every lesson learned.

Way back in time when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, as a junior graphic designer and copywriter, I once got fired from a great job at a design agency for being too headstrong. Speaking of fragile egos, I was devastated. Tears were shed. Souls were searched. In the end, instead of turning to something safer, like rodeo riding or nuclear physics, I went into business for myself. I vowed, Scarlett O’Hara style, never to work for anyone again.

It took what seemed like forever, working from the smallest home office in the world, to build up my own agency. In a few years I hired my first employee, and a few years later I had a dozen, including some of the best creative talent in the marketplace. Now I was a creative director, not just a designer and writer, and had to learn a whole new skill set: critiquing, coaching, and leading talented people who each had their own great ideas, their own vulnerable egos, and the chops to easily walk out the door and find a good job somewhere else. The path was not without pitfalls, but a truckload of creative awards and many continuing happy relationships with creative colleagues to this day demonstrate that I must have learned some lessons over time.

Apart from my never-ending attempt to master the discipline of “people skills” – a cosmos filled with both shining stars and black holes – one of the most important of those lessons was to recognize that the job of the creative director is to encourage originality (what’s the big idea?), while seeing the work from the point of view of the target market (does it resonate?), and presenting it in a way that will sell it (can it get past the gatekeeper, aka the client?).

In my new career as a writer (and critter), these principles still hold true. A “damn good” book has to be fresh and authentic. An original “voice” is gold. It has to have audience appeal (which also means the writer has to have a keen sense of who that audience will be). It has to move people in some way, have an effect. And it has to get past the gatekeepers – in the book world, these are agents, editors and publishers – or it simply won’t be sold.

Yes, okay, I know it isn’t the whole story. I’m leaving aside the gigantic subject of self-publishing, which will perhaps be a subject for another day.

I’m also leaving aside the suspicion, harboured by many unpublished writers and unfortunately supported by at least anecdotal evidence, that getting published is more like winning a lottery than achieving a level of excellence deserving of recognition. It’s true. Life isn’t fair. One of the other things I learned as a creative director is that you can put your heart and soul into a creative pitch, have the best idea in the universe, execute it brilliantly, seem to wow the client, and yet fail to win the account for all kinds of frivolous reasons. The fix was in beforehand, maybe over a game of golf. Or the client’s wife doesn’t like green, and you made the logo green. Or someone’s nephew works for the other agency. Or somebody didn’t like somebody’s tie/politics/joke/handshake. Or (dare I say it?) because the client just made a terrible mistake. We’ve all heard of manuscripts shot down in the first five pages for reasons that sound just as ridiculous.

But, as critters, it’s beyond our power to make life fair.

So our challenge at the 5 Writers Critter Summit is simple but not easy. Help each other write/re-write damn good books with the “right stuff” to have a fighting chance of getting published. And offer our critiques in a manner that brightens, rather than dampens, each writer’s creative spark.

Like advice about how to write, there is a great deal of useful information out there about how to critique. Yes, it can be a learned skill to a great degree. But, like writing itself, in the end it’s an art.

2 thoughts on “Critiquing creative spirits

  1. Silk, hello. After a devastating masters class review of 2 pages of my first ever submittal, all done wrong; after feeling like I would never write again; after feeling like the sharks had discovered blood ion the water, last october at a SWIC masters class, you were the one person to suggest something that might help make something work, and in empowering me with some positive comment, you earned your badge of honor for the week. I am sure that your critters summit with also be your art form. And I thank you for your kindness to a novice.

  2. Judith, I remember your piece – in fact, I still have it and just re-read it. I certainly hope you’re still writing because I do believe you have a lyrical and authentic voice and your descriptions of the setting and people in the Vittorio Emmanuelle prologue were very evocative. There are so many “rules” to writing that have been thrown at me in the past 5 years of trying to get traction on my writing that it’s a bit bewildering. And you can’t, and shouldn’t try, to follow them all. Problem is, you need to know them before you can break them. Rules like not starting with a prologue (don’t know what genius came up with that one), and not opening with slower-moving narrative and description. But there is a place for it … woven in to the action.

    I have to tell you that I went to 3 Surrey Writer’s Conferences with the same (often rewritten) first 25 pages of the book I’ve now finally finished. I was very lucky to meet my writer’s group friends there, and it was their supportive critiquing over another year and a half that helped me get my first novel finished. It still needs a lot of rewriting, but I’ll get it done, and I’m happily into my second book (even though I’m far behind the others in page count).

    I was so happy to have your comments and grateful that something I contributed may have helped give you a needed boost. I really think you need to keep at it. You have the talent … the rest will come with hard (and I do mean hard) work and study. Writing is a whole career. It took me years and years to learn my first career, just going on instinct. This will be no different.

    Good luck Judith and keep in touch!

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