It’s mid-July in Florida which means hot and humid. Last week I talked about rejections and how much they sting, but a bad critique burns. Shoot, even the good critiques can be tough. The first time I had something critiqued was back in Texas in February 2009, right before Valentine’s Day. My group promised these would be the “sweetheart” critiques, not so scorching to terrify us newbies into tucking tail and hiding in the bushes where we and our writing would never be heard from again. It didn’t matter how sweet they promised to be, I was still nervous. When it was time for my piece to be read and critiqued, my heart rate tripled. My leg bounced anxiously. I’d never been that wired for a job interview! I touched my forehead. Yes, I was sitting in a chair and sweating. All of this before anyone uttered a critical word. Trust me, you don’t want me keeping national secrets. I’d crack before I could be strapped to the interrogation chair.
Then the critique began. And it wasn’t that bad. My group kept their promise to be sweet and I had more positive than negative comments. But I still remember those minutes of terror when my work was being read aloud and my characters seemed more…real.
I’ve since grown a thicker skin and had harsher critiques (usually in the form of contest feedback), but I still get nervous every time my work is read aloud by someone else. I’m more terrified of a critique than I am of a rejection. Perhaps it’s because rejections are preceded by hope and critiques are preceded by worry and fear. Once you get a rejection, you move on to the next agent or editor. It’s like a band-aid being ripped off. It’s painful, but over quickly. Nothing more to do. However, the critique is a build up of worry and when you get the feedback, that’s when the real work begins. Cut this, change that, fix character viewpoint, and why on earth is your protagonist on a roof? And this is the stuff you agree with!
But how about those critiques where someone just doesn’t get it? I’m not talking about harsh, but spot-on critiques. I mean the ones where you smile through gritted teeth and say, “I’ll take that under advisement,” being polite like your mama taught you to do even though you’re ready to spontaneously combust. My suggestion? Consider the source. In my Texas writing group, I learned my fellow writers’ critique strengths and weaknesses, but newcomers often joined the group. They were like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get. I write contemporary YA and my blood pressure always approached boiling whenever I got asked, “Can teens curse/talk about sex/drink alcohol in a YA?” Not that I’m going for shock value, but if real teens deal with it, then it’s fair game for my novel. And while teens can do stupid things, don’t assume teens are stupid. Once, I was reading the feedback on a chapter where my hero/heroine are in a car, driving down I-10 which runs across the entire southern US from Jacksonville,Florida to Los Angeles. I had already furrowed my brow at a few of the comments of this one critiquer (not a regular) when I got to the one that put it all in perspective. “Would teens know about interstates? Only Texans know about I-10.” Seriously? And they questioned the intelligence of my teens! What’s ironic is that same day, I had just gotten back from visiting family in Florida. I’d driven 1100 miles of I-10. I’m pretty darned sure that Texans aren’t the only ones who know about I-10.
Like I said before, when it comes to critiques, consider the source. Oh, and have a stiff, cold drink to counter the burn. Works for me!