The writer’s comment filtration system

I haven’t spent quality time in a writing workshop in years, and I was disappointed to find that the LGBT writing group in Seattle doesn’t really have a workshop per se. After college and graduate school studying American literature I don’t really have any more pep for talking about books, especially if I have to pay $100 a month to do it.

I went online to find some critique groups and I came up with three: two for speculative fiction and one for long format work. After underestimating Emerald City traffic congestion, I turned around and came back home from my first foray, now much better educated about where exactly Bellingham is, and which is the best on ramp to I-5 from my house. I will always marvel at how places so close together can take so long to reach in something as technologically advanced as a car.

Second critique group and I made it, early, no less. There were two others there, and the deal was to bring copies of one’s work, sit down, and get reading. I poured through each excerpt three times, thinking about all of the kinds of critique I could provide in a short time: overall feedback, copy and line edits, dialogue believability (a pet peeve of mine), and character voice/consistency.

We went around and gave our comments to each other, and I was struck that of the two writers who’d just spent 10 minutes reading my opening to my novel, I got almost diametrically opposed advice.

“I love the point of view shifts,” said one writer who’d brought in a spec fic short story.

“Really? I didn’t like them at all,” said the other writer. His contribution was classic, heavy sci fi, full of sexy ladies, strong male leads, and intricate control rooms. I saw him as further from my style of writing than the first writer.

Without even realizing it, I’d gone back to some advice I’d heard from a workshop teacher in 1987.

“You have to take your work to other writers and get feedback,” he’d said, “and then you have to throw half of the feedback away because it’s wrong.”

We probably looked at him rather dumbfounded. Why elicit comments if we’re just going to disregard them?

His point, and this was an instructor from Interlochen Arts Academy—so presumably he knew what he was talking about—was that we know our stories better than reviewers, or at least, we should know them better. While he wasn’t suggesting writers should be flippant or ignore comments wholesale, we do have to think about comments in context.

In my example, I couldn’t both work up and also eliminate the POV shifts, so I’d have to disregard one, if not both of those comments. And because the novel in question is trying to play with the idea that everything in the universe has an opinion about its existence (down to the unhappy chair supporting one’s ass), I couldn’t lose the POV shifts entirely without completely changing the novel’s tone and approach. I’ll also recognize, just for this discussion’s sake, that screwing around with POV is like using wet TNT for building material and I could explode my prose at any moment.

I went back to my opening and checked out the POV moments. I could make transitions stronger. I could map out more clearly why we’re hearing from things like tea cups and wrinkles. I can be okay with a reader getting through a few pages and saying, “this isn’t for me,” but I can not live with confusion. So I filtered their comments, gave them credence but looked at what about that comment would work for me, rather than its direct instruction. If this gets me on the wrong path, I’m betting future critique sessions will let me know that, but on the other hand, sometimes writers aren’t good matches for each others’ work. That’s okay—it just means that there’s value in spending energy to find the right group.

I also think my old teacher’s concept of “throwing half away” is good for keeping the filtration process easy. I don’t have to stew over whether this is one of the 5 percent of comments I can ignore. If half of them won’t ultimately work for me, then I have a lot of latitude for letting things go that I think will entail too much work or not keep my project on track.

Also, even if it’s not a comment I’ll abide, I still value hearing it. It lets me know up front that there are readers who probably would be drawn to the SuperQueers concept but not prefer my execution. Better for me to hear that now than be crushed later on. I want to have a very good idea of my audience for each project, beyond the obvious “don’t seek Christian markets” statement.

I’m also aware that I have a writing conscience that speaks up when I start ignoring things I probably should be incorporating into the text. Someone can’t see who the antagonist really is? I could put off drawing him up more fully, but that’s got a potential for drawing other things off-kilter in the text. I may not want to spend energy on him at this juncture, but I can’t avoid giving him quality time for long, either. Good comments have a way of pinching writers just hard enough to make us understand they’re serious.

I will get back to that Bellevue group, and I will give them the same section and see what feedback I receive. That’s another good point—lots of comments are better than few comments, because they start to show patterns of reader reactions, and that’s helpful for me, at least in determining where the sweet spot 50 percent are. But I won’t give up on the outliers, either. Sometimes it’s the left field suggestion that takes me in a whole new direction, identifies another layer to build in, or creates a new idea for another story.

No, I’m not going to start writing TEACUPS ON A RAMPAGE anytime soon.

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Categories: ponderings


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5 Comments on “The writer’s comment filtration system”

  1. September 11, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    I tend to pay more attention to my critics than my champions. In most cases the critics are far more honest. A writer who disregards detractors does so at their own peril.

  2. evmaroon
    September 11, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Agreed, Snarky! I have cheerleaders to keep me going when I question every word I write, and critics to keep me honest and make my work better.


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