Friday, August 7, 2009

A Confidence of Vision

This post by Rick Daley got me thinking about critique, and in particular about an article I published about it awhile ago. Thought I'd toss it up here, since the rights have reverted to me now. At least I think they have. If I get sued I'll know I was wrong. I'm the Evel Knievel of internet daring.

Anyway, here it is...

A Confidence of Vision

A young writer sits at her desk, typing at the keys, her fingers connected as if by invisible strings to a dream, a vision that lurks in her head. Keys rattle and tap, and she hopes only that they might keep up with the dream, the flicker and flutter of images upon some inner screen. Lost to the world, she writes a story. When she is finished, she takes a break, breathing a little hard, exhilarated with what she has before her. A story, and it's so wonderful…

Life intrudes. Bills have to be paid, work done, friends seen, parents reassured. Days later she comes back to her wonderful story, and when she reads it she finds it is not quite so wonderful as she had thought. It needs revision. She tinkers. She's not so lost to the world, now, as she writes. She frets, and Starbucks cups gather around her desk, the detritus of anxiety. She flips a word, and then flips it back again. She is undecided. What should she do? It's good, the story, but is it good enough? Things nag her, but she is not sure what they are. The story is not right, but she can't see what's wrong.

She decides to send it to a critique group, and wonders what they will say. She sends the virgin story off, and she waits.

(More Starbucks cups appear, forming an odd mocha-scented maze through which she wanders…)

And then the critiques come, all twelve of them. And each says an entirely different thing, each wounding her in an entirely new way.

She stares at the critiques for some time, and her story blurs before her and becomes unreal, as if it had come from some other person's mind, had passed through some other person's fingers.

What now?

* * *

Criticism is an important step, though a difficult one, in the writing process. It is often necessary, yet despite that necessity it is also dangerous, and often misleading. Nothing is more likely to wound a writer, or derail a story. And yet we, as writers, keep coming back to it Necessity dictates this to us: our need for an objective view of what has become immensely personal, immensely close to us. That very closeness, which allowed us to see and create our story in the first place, has now become our enemy. It prevents us from clearly seeing our work, and from clearly seeing the viewpoints of others in regards to it.

It is this last idea I want to talk about. That is, what is the writer's response to criticism? There is a strange duality, usually, in a writer's acceptance of criticism, and their closeness to their work plays a role in both. The story is part of you, has come from you, is you. It's your child. And then somebody slaps it. Let's be real, for most writers critique of any sort will always invoke a reaction. Appreciation for time spent on our behalf? That would be nice. Due consideration for the important insights offered? We can hope. But that is not usually the first reaction, which goes more like this: "That is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said. This person is an idiot. I don't like them, and I have the feeling that nobody else likes them either. And if they do, they won't for long. This person has the morals and personal habits of a leech. Except the leech is better looking."

Hopefully, though, we can all get over this, and feel some of that "due consideration for time spent" slowly seeping in to balance the angst. Slowly we will settle ourselves, and appreciate that, yes, these people really are trying to help us (most of the time – but that's another topic entirely). But what then? We still face a difficult task. We have twelve honest critiques, and each says something different, and each sees the story in an entirely different way. We hope for those eureka moments, where a suggestion flashes in the mind as so right, so perfect, that we can't do anything but accept it, and use it. But this is more rare than we might wish, and paralysis can so easily set in. We are too close to the story, and these views are too foreign, too alien to what we ourselves see in the words.

This is a danger, and a gift. A danger because we cannot always assimilate them, and a gift because these are the very objective views we are looking for. The danger is pervasive: we risk paralysis, or we risk being controlled by the critiques. Whether sent in goodwill or not, this is always a real danger. Many writers feel compelled to answer every charge brought by every critique. And yet each will have different, and sometimes contradictory, views. And such contradictions can lead to writerly paralysis, or to the abandonment of the story. "Everything is wrong. Nothing worked. Better to scrap it."

Yet such different views are at the heart of the reading experience. There are no perfect books, no stories which perfectly please all readers. One could look at the overwhelming popularity and success of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and question this theory. And yet, for all its beloved success, there are many intelligent readers of fantasy who truly dislike the story. We would soon run out of fingers, toes, and even hairs on our head if we were to try and count each one. So why should our own rough draft meet universal acclaim?

It won't. But that is what criticism is for, to provide an opportunity for us to see our work in a new way, and to improve it. This is the beauty of those myriad views: each will allow you a new glimpse of your story, one untainted by your own closeness.

Yet we still have our dilemma. What do we do with these alien glimpses, these strange sightings and interpretations of our word-formed child? We cannot satisfy every charge against it, or take every suggestion. Nor should we. We cannot cede control to a dissenting voice merely because it dissents. We must remember that it is our story, and no matter how insightful a critique might be this person will never know the story as well as we do, because the story is ours. It lives first and foremost inside us. A critique can only comment on this outward skin, this reflection in words we have cast out onto page and screen.

And this is the key. It is this inner vision, this purest form of the story that unscrolls before our eyes (momentarily blind to the world around us), which must guide us. It is important to receive critiques, and hopefully they will be good critiques. But we must remember that it is not the critiques, be they good or bad, which are truly important, but what we do with them. The most important part of the critique is the writer's analysis of it. We must break down each critique, and try to understand it, and understand it in light of what we are trying to do. We don't have to look at it just in regards to the story the reader sees, the story on the page, but rather we should look to interpret it in regards to the story only we can see. In so doing we can see the disparity between them. Our goal is to realize, as best we can, that story inside us, and to recreate it for the reader, to make the two versions match as closely as possible. We want to shape our words until they offer a story to match the dream-like vision that haunts us, so that the reader can see what we see, and feel what we feel.

Even this perfectly recreated version will not please everyone, but we can finally rest, at least, assured that this is a matter of taste rather than a failure of craft. It is a difficult thing, and yet we can do it. It is that inner vision that must guide us, our own unique view of the story we want to tell. We cannot let ourselves be derailed. Do not let someone switch tracks, and drive our story toward a destination we do not wish to reach. It is our story, and our vision, and we must have confidence in it. We must hold to it.

We can let critiques shape our story, but we can't let them shake it loose from those bright tracks we see running before us. The destination is ours, and only we know the way.


Deb Salisbury said...

A brilliant post! The differences between taste and craft are essential, but so hard to tell apart.

I love to get crits on stories that I *know* have problems. Those crits help me improve. But when I get crits back on work I thought was perfect - ouch!!!

Ink said...


And I hear you on the "ouch". The trick with those, I find, is that sometimes they're right, and you realize the perfect story is not quite so perfect as you think... and sometimes they're wrong. Discerning the difference is usually the difficult part.

Rick Daley said...

Great post, and thanks for the links!

WORD VERIFICATION: thwerb. Derogatory term for a short weak person, spoken by someone with a cold and a lisp.

Mira said...

First, I think the rights have reverted to me, as is appropriate.

Nonetheless, you can post it; I am a kind rights owner.

This is great, Bryan. I really like that you are setting up the author, and the author's vision, as the final authority. That's truly important.

I ruined a piece once due to following various critiques. Critique is useful, but you have to be careful! You are the only one that really represents your vision.

Very cool post - thanks.

jbchicoine said...

I just had a big thought…It occurs to me that if a writer does a manuscript SWAP, it should be easier to evaluate the feedback based on the strengths and weaknesses in the critiquer’s work.

Does that make any sense?

Ink said...

Yup, that makes sense. I mean, it's not infallible, but if someone, say, is fantastic with description it makes more sense to listen to them closely (particularly if that weren't one of your strengths). And if someone butchers POV all the time... how much weight do you put on their comments regarding POV? The one danger is that sometimes people might be better critters than writers, or at least they might be right in pointing out something in others work while missing it in their own. That does happen. It's why, in the end, I think you really have to evaluate everything closely and see how it fits with your artistic vision, with what you want from the story.

Ink said...


You can have the rights if, you know, I can have the royalties...

Ms Kitty said...

Ah yes, the balance between the needed opinion and the 'eh?' moment.

It is hard to know what to use and what to set aside. Still - it is better to have an honest critique than for someone to just 'love it.'

A writer can't publish on love alone - not even a romance writer.

Ink said...

I think a few have tried, though...

QuiteLight said...

I'm more of a visual artist, but this article really resonated with me. I had a terrible sculpture teacher (minimal instruction, no direction during production, who's own art was mediocre at best) in university. But he was an EXCELLENT critic, and I learned more from the 3-4 critiques he did of my work than in the rest of the year combined.

I'm grateful. And I mostly no longer think of him as a smoke-infused leech.

Ink said...

Are smoke-infused leeches bad? Damn. My plan is shot.