Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Confirmation or Critique

Not long ago I did a school visit that involved small group sessions with five or six dedicated writing students to field their in-depth questions. It was great, they gave me flowers, and there were cupcakes (mindful of my weight I managed to say no) and juice – my throat needed that. I brought books and wristbands to give away to the small group attendees.

The questions were great, including the ever present “how much of PULL is real.” I always get that, and it always comes from a guy. And several of the people in the small groups brought writing samples they wanted me to look over.

I am part of an online critique group, my RWA chapter does critiques so I have given and received the things, I judge contests and do beta reads for other writers. I thought I could handle reading the first chapter and giving a little encouraging feedback to an eager student.

First of all, I loved her voice, it was really fresh and interesting. I like the character she created. It was a dystopian novel following an invasion of Earth, and she filled the first three pages with a huge backstory dump about how this happened and what our relationship with our new masters was like. Although it was well told, there was so much information I had to read the pages twice to begin to understand all that past history. When I finished I told her there was a lot of information there and she should look into spreading it out in several chapters.

She told me her friends thought the first chapter was wonderful.

I agreed, but mentioned that so much information about the past on three pages was confusing.

She reminded me she wanted to use a documentary style.

I’m a slow learner, so I tried again to explain that I loved he writing but it was difficult to untangle so much information delivered so quickly.

But her friends thought it was exactly right.

Finally the light bulb came on. There is a time in our writing careers when all we really want is validation. She wanted to hear this author confirm her friends statement that this was good, not hear suggestions on how it could be improved. I remember that feeling myself, in the days BC (before computer – swear to God, I wrote my first novel on a typewriter and used carbon paper to make copies and white out for corrections.) I handed my opus over to a reader expecting heartfelt praise. Needless to say she and I were never as close again. After gathering a few dozen rejection slips I put my child away. Like a time capsule, I uncovered it a few years ago, started reading and realized just how kind my friend had been. At that point in my career I only thought I wanted a critique. Hearing the truth put me off writing for decades, years when I could have been honing my skill. And it cost me a friend.

I subtly changed my comments and agreed that her story worked well exactly as written, that the documentary style of telling was appropriate and that I saw her talent. And I did. I hope I handled it right at the end, because she does have talent and a future, and I really loved her writer’s voice.

But my next contract with a school will include a stipulation that I not read any student manuscripts for fear I forget that I’m not in my critique group, and that beginning writers need confirmation first.

1 comment:

mystwood said...

That is a great point, Barbara. I agree with you that teenagers need to hear confirmation of their talent more than a critique. When I was a teenager I remember showing the first chapter of a fantasy I was writing to someone very close to me, and the questions about my premise just crushed me. I never wrote a second chapter nor did I write any more fantasy novels (until now, decades later!). I too was looking for affirmation - a reason to keep going. The critique could have come later at a time when - hopefully - I would have been ready to hear it.

Good for the girl, though, for standing by her writing! :0) Hopefully she'll continue to write and improve, and one day she'll also be ready for critiques.

Great post!

Laurie P.