Listening to Critiques

(What? A non-political post?

Why, yes. Because despite the chaos surrounding us all, writing is still my job, and I still love doing it, and today I’m going to write about it.)

Like most writers, I’ve got an uneasy relationship with critiques.

As a writer, you understand, when you’re writing with publication in mind, that other people are going to read it. (That’s the point, after all.) And you know they’ll have thoughts about it. And in this day and age, when it’s easy for them to share those thoughts, you know that people are going to say stuff publicly about your work. Back when I thought I’d self-publish the book that later became THE COLD BETWEEN, I sent it off to betas and said “Be as honest as you can, because people are going to eviscerate me on Amazon either way.”

Oh, naive me.

Critiques are a different thing than reviews. Reviews are written by readers for readers; even negative reviews can be informative. (I’ve bought a lot of books based on the content of negative reviews.) Critiques, on the other hand, are a way for you, the writer, to discover potential weak points in your manuscript, allowing you to correct them before letting your baby bird fly.

A lot of us get critiques not from professional critics (such as editors), but from family, friends, or fellow writers. For those critiques, there tends to be a common denominator: most readers want to identify a problem by telling you how to fix it. Which sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s the way any reader thinks about a part of a story that’s not working for them: tell it to me this way instead. (Writers in particular are fond of doing this.)

The trouble is, for the very reason any book with a critical mass of readers will get some negative reviews, you’re likely to get contradictory advice from your critics. And if you try to make every change suggested, you’re going to end up with a Frankenbook made up of a germ of your original story and a bunch of unfamiliar things that other people wrote.

The only way to get anything useful out of a critique is to figure out the underlying issue.

This isn’t always easy. If someone writes you a critique and says “You need to make a joke here,” it’s not clear if they’ve been disturbed by pacing, tone, or lack of character development.

And this is the hard bit. Because you, as an artist, must sit down with this piece of your work and allow for the possibility that there is actually something wrong there.

It’s easy to say “That’s silly. This isn’t the time for a joke. [Critic] doesn’t know what they’re talking about” and dismiss the whole thing. But every reader’s experience is a true one. Your critic may not have articulated their issue in a helpful way, but they have given you valuable feedback on their reading of your story. And it’s worth your time to take seriously the very real possibility that they’ve pinpointed something that needs improvement.

This is something that takes a lot of practice–or at least it did for me. I was probably in my mid-20s before I could hear a critique of a piece I loved and not have the knee-jerk response of “Hmph. What do they know?” I gave a short to a friend of mine once, and after a few paragraphs he said the beginning was slow. I told him to trust me, and he finished the piece, and said that he loved it–but his initial response was just as valid as his final one. Moreover, he was right: the beginning of the story was filler, and my ego got in the way of my seeing that. My reader may have loved it in the end, but he properly identified a major flaw.

fixable flaw. That’s the other thing to remember: your non-professional critics are not taking random potshots at your baby bird (unless they are jerks, in which case: new critics). Unless they’re pointing out something systemic about the plot, they’re showing you something you can change to make your work better and stronger. They’re doing you a favor.

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

I have, on occasion, chosen not to make corrections based on critiques. I think a long, long time before I do this. I can only think of four major bits of feedback where I chose to hold my ground, and I’ve had a lot of critiques at this point. But all four times, I spent a lot of time working to understand what the reader was saying, what they might have been responding to, what the cost to the story would be to make a correction that would work for that particular reader. I chose with my eyes open. I still don’t think, in any of those situations, that I was wrong–or at least, I don’t think the story would have been better told with those changes.

This is the thing about critiques: you have to be receptive, and you have to recognize that your readers’ experiences are valid. But you need to have enough of a sense of your own story, of the way you’re using prose, of the precise response you’re going for, to decide when to listen and when to ignore. And if you’re going to ignore, you’ve got to have enough self-awareness to know why you’re doing it. If you’re ignoring because you get where they’re coming from and you’ve decided it’s okay with you that they’re uncomfortable–even if it means you’ve lost them as a reader–you’re probably coming from the right place. But if you’re inclined to ignore feedback because your feelings are hurt and you want to shrug off everything that critic has said, you probably owe it to your story to take a break, step back, and consider the possibility that your critic has hit on something important.

Past a certain point, quality of writing is a subjective assessment. Not every story is going to work for every reader. With critiques, you’ve got to learn how to be both objective and subjective: objective enough to really listen to what your critics are telling you, and subjective enough to know when to ignore them.

It’s very possible no writer has ever hit the balance quite right.

Same As It Ever Was

I’ve lived in New England all my life, and at this point I’ll probably never live anywhere else. This is curious, in a way, given how much I dislike being cold; but places become habits, familiar and comfortable, and they can soothe us on a subconscious level. Drive two hours to the coast and everything begins to look strange and exotic: still beautiful, still welcoming, but not quite right. Drive south, and the flora changes slowly but inexorably until it’s full of alien trees and flowers, fascinating and mesmerizing, another universe. Nice places to visit, but I wouldn’t choose to live there.

Humans are adaptable, of course. If I ever moved, for any reason, it wouldn’t take long for the alien landscape to feel familiar. But I suspect there would always be something when I came back here, something in the percentage of pines or the types of bushes or the density of foliage along the highways that would resonate with the most fundamental, oldest part of me in a way that nothing else does. The harmonics of home.

On Friday, temperatures dropped below zero. Yesterday, we had about eight inches of snow. Today it’s nearly 50F (10C for you metric folks) and raining, and it’s a tossup whether the rain will get rid of all the snow or just add a beautiful and dangerous veneer of ice to everything. It’s a short drive from here to state highways, which are usually well cleared; the most hazardous part of any expedition is between my front door and the main road.

The climate is changing. Hiccups like -13F to 50F in two days don’t lead to that conclusion in a straight line; bobbles have always happened. But the climate is changing, and that’s the fact of it, and sometimes I recognize that the icy, hazardous driving that comes with living on a mountain isn’t such a bad thing to deal with, given the future of sea levels. I’ve sometimes, in service of fiction, googled maps of likely sea level rise, depending on the severity of the damage we’ve done and are still doing. I write the future; I want to know what land masses are most likely to stay habitable.

Humans are adaptable, but one of our biggest flaws is inertia. We may see change coming, but we’re slow to shift. We almost never shift in anticipation. We wait for the wave to hit before scrambling for higher ground, and by then it’s too late for most of us. We have faith in some larger System that has Rules that will somehow kick in and save us from disaster. Where the climate is concerned, this takes the form of the Technology Fairy: Someone will figure out how to fix it, so we don’t actually have to change. Someday, Someone will present us with the perfect type of renewable energy/solar-powered car/efficient replacement for fossil fuels, and we’ll all be saved.

Someone is always Someone Else.

Yesterday, when it snowed, I took some time to look around. (It was warmer than the previous day’s -13F, so this was a relatively pleasant exercise.) Around here, the snowy landscape looks almost like a black-and-white photograph, untouched white against the black and gray of bare branches. When the sun comes out, it all turns crystal, and it looks unreal, like one of those old department store winter displays. And it’s quiet, in a way it’s never quiet in the summer and fall: no rustling of leaves and grass, the snow absorbing the sounds of small animals moving through the woods. It feels still and quiet and strangely safe, despite the cold.

I’ve read some speculation that the reason the whole world seems to be falling into fascism – again – is in part because those who were adults during World War II – fighting it, and surviving it – are nearly all gone. There may be a grain of truth to that. Certainly as a species we have terrible institutional memory. I remember the Vietnam War, and being terrified at what I saw on television; now, as an adult, I can think about how much more terrifying it was for the actual people there: the civilians who, like me, like most of us, just wanted to get through an ordinary day, and had that taken from them for reasons that must have seemed astonishingly disconnected from their own lives; the soldiers sent into a fuzzy-edged and ill-considered war by men with little of their own skin in the game.

History rhymes, but we so rarely notice.

The United States is not this. The United States has always been this. Both of these things are true. To paraphrase an overused meme: today, we are feeding the wrong wolf. We have always, as a nation, said the right things, and some of us have meant them, and others have said “We mean this, but only for people like us.” As a species, we are deeply vulnerable to fear, and despair, and the promise of Someone Else fixing it all.

We are Someone Else. We have always been Someone Else.

I’ve probably already mentioned that I hate the telephone. I joke about it, but it’s on the level of a genuine phobia, and it’s debilitating sometimes. It’s also my first hurdle in the fight against inertia. We still have elections, and we still have representatives, and I can pick up the damn phone and thank them when I agree and suggest an alternative course of action for them when I don’t. It’s a teeny, tiny thing, and it may be useless.

But it may not. And it beats the hell out of inertia.

Pandora’s Box had it right: hope is the strongest thing of all. If it weren’t, the despots of the world wouldn’t be working so hard to take it away from us.

Here Be Dragons

I had an ultra-stereotypical suburban Mom day yesterday. The Kid had a dance recital, so I spent the morning googling how to put long hair in a bun. (Conclusion: Without hair spray you need roughly 8,000 hairpins.) On the way to the recital location, Spouse and I chatted about, among other things, future college costs and strategies. Then we sat in a hot, cramped room and watched kids dance to Christmas songs for two hours before heading home, The Kid in the back seat under her iPod.

It seemed so normal. But nothing is normal.

When we were talking about college and scholarships and loans, I wondered aloud if such things would even be around by the time she would be going. (Yes, given everything, that will likely be the least of our problems; but money is a quantifiable thing and is sometimes the easiest way to put worries into words.) And then we went back to the financial discussion, because life goes on and you still have to plan and as yet I have no idea how to plan for the sorts of contingencies that look more and more like they’re going to come true.

That’s what I struggle with the most, day after day, as the news keeps getting worse. Generally if I can see the road ahead I can strategize. But this is becoming a mish-mash of the worst possible imaginable scenario, and things I never thought could happen in this country. Without a clear path, paralysis begins to feel normal.

That’s the thing to guard against. Routine is good, and can be helpful. Continuing to make plans for the future can be helpful. And heaven knows it’s impossible to stay constantly engaged in the news. We have to take breaks, in the spirit of putting on our own oxygen masks first, if nothing else. If we don’t stay strong, we really will be paralyzed.

But allowing it all to fade into the background? That’s how normalization happens.

And right now, it’s a really rough balance.

Politicians know how to play this game: propose something hideous, take one smidge of hideousness out of it, and a relieved electorate accepts something that would otherwise have been unworkable. (Wait for the “modification” of the Social Security proposal, probably along the lines of exempting a percentage of the older population from the changes.) This is how the entire country has been hauled further and further to the right.

But that’s politics as usual. I know what that looks like. I know how to react to that (although not, apparently, how to stop it). What’s happening now isn’t politics as usual. Some politicians will be taking advantage of the same old methods, but there is nothing usual about any of this.

When life gets difficult, I turn to writing. This is a thing I’ve done my whole life. It’s reflexive. It allows me to survive. And I’m doing it now, although I’m finding some of the work I’ve been planning is changing. I had some thoughts on near-future stuff, and it seems both insufficiently post-apocalyptic and too depressing to think about. Among other things, I write to escape, and near-future isn’t looking escape-worthy. I’m toying with bumping the timeline out a few hundred years and working with a similar story. Anything that shows humans surviving that long is optimistic, after all.

Writing isn’t going to be enough. This isn’t going to be the kind of thing where we can put our heads down and have earnest discussions until the next election. The hardest thing to fight against is going to be the normalization, the complacency. The acceptance of the “merely” horrible.

Some time ago, I lived with an alcoholic. It was creeping cohabitation that started with me spending a few weeks at his place after I broke my foot and couldn’t drive. He was drunk every night. He was awful. And then he’d sober up and apologize and that apology felt so good, so soothing, and I got hooked, like any drug addict. I stayed with the source of the pain because I liked how it felt when that same source made the pain go away.

This is how it happens. The day-to-dayness of our lives stays more or less the same, because objects in motion stay in motion. We hang on to routine because we need to breathe, we need to regroup, we need strength to strategize. And routine becomes an opiate, and the worse things get the more we cling and the less capable we are of making necessary changes.

It’s doubly hard when we can’t see what those changes are going to be.

I always thought voting was the answer. Research your candidates. Support them. Vote. In this case, it didn’t matter. It’s possible it never would have mattered. This was a perfect storm of civic ignorance and foreign interference. If it was just the election, that would be one thing, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s the politicians themselves. Our government is not our own. This has probably been true for a while, but there have been enough people to hold the line. Now there’s no one, and it’s unclear how many of the usual tools will continue to be available to the rest of us.

So what do we do?

The only thing I’ve concluded is that compromise is exactly the wrong way to go. Most people–even those who identify as Republican–agree with the bulk of the policies championed by progressives. Now is not the time to view this as an election defeat requiring a change in strategy, because that’s not what it was. This was not an ordinary election defeat, and it’s not going to be an ordinary administration. Human compassion and civil rights have just become decentralized in this country, and we must each become a center of compassion.

Does that sound amorphous? It is. I live in a bluer-than-blue state, and it’s very easy here to get lost in the inertia of routine. And we’re still in the anticipatory stages. We’ve seen enough by now to know that it’s impossible to underestimate the perfidious nature of the next administration, but even so, we keep being shocked by the realities. We try to imagine the worst, and we find out the next day we had it wrong.

So for now? Maybe we do focus on routine, on self-care, on hugging our people and our animals and remembering why all of this matters. Maybe all we can do right now is make ourselves as strong as we can. And remember that we are not alone. We are not even few in number. We are the majority, and that matters.