So you’ve joined a writers group, eh? Good for you! What’s that you say? You’ve been to a couple of meetings, participated in a few discussions and HOLY MOTHER MERCHANT OF VENICE your short story is up for critique next week! Uh oh. IT’S A CRITOCALYPSE!!!!!
Your first critique can feel rougher than prison yard politics. If you haven’t developed the tough, scaly outer skin of a seasoned writer yet, this will likely hurt. Don’t panic! You can come out the other side with your soul intact if you follow these simple guidelines:
BE ON TIME. There are few things more obnoxious than keeping a group waiting for you when you’re the one person who MUST be in attendance before work can begin. If you’re late, guess what the rest of the group will do? They will hork all the Krispy Kremes and talk about what a doosh you are until you arrive. No joke. Not only will you be on the shit list, but there WILL BE NO MORE DONUTS! Pull a stunt like this and you’d better be prepared to prostrate yourself with abject remorse before the Diva Goddess of WordHerders or you are likely to find yourself in the doghouse for some time to come.
KEEP YER FLAP SHUT. That’s right. Shut your pie hole. The only reason you need to speak during the critique is to acknowledge feedback and thank people for their input. If you feel the urge to defend your work or explain things, jab a steak knife into your upper thigh until the urge passes. You are not there to justify your defective writing. You are there to to let other people help you fix it. Here’s the rule: if you must talk, YOU MAY ONLY ASK QUESTIONS. You may not make any statements of any kind whatsoever about your work unless someone asks you a direct question. So if you aren’t saying, “Thank you” or”What part of this section did you find confusing?” or “Could someone call an ambulance? It seems my leg is bleeding from being repeatedly jabbed by a steak knife”, keep your mouth closed and your ears open.
RECORD THE CRITIQUE. Get a micro-recorder or use your laptop to do it. Here’s the reason why: unless you’re a professional court reporter and own one of those weird typing machines that look like a midget piano, or you have the brain of a ninja Mnemonist, don’t count on your ability to remember or write down everything that is said while the critique is in progress. For one, it’s rude not to look at the person speaking to you. Second, you may not recognize something as being important at the time it is said. Although most of the members who give you a critique will send you a copy of your material with their notes in them, you will be amazed at how many spontaneous revelations come from a group as they sit there talking. It’s okay to take notes, but do yourself a solid and record it as well. And one more thing, be sure to let others know you are recording the critique.
REMEMBER THEY ARE THERE TO HELP YOU. It’s hard to remember this when you feel like you’ve had your pants yanked down in front of everyone as you’re pelted with fruit, and not even the squishy, rotten kind. It’s pineapples! Dang those prickly bastards hurt. Believe it or not, no one is there to humiliate you. They want you to succeed. I promise. Exposing yourself to criticism for the first time can feel like an attack on your very existence, so remind yourself that you are not your work. However good or bad your writing is, it is not a direct reflection of your worth as a human being. It is a direct reflection of the stage your writing is at this brief moment in time. Learn to separate your ego from your work, get out of the way of progress and let the process work for you.
SAY THANK YOU AND WALK AWAY. Chances are you’ve left your critique feeling overwhelmed, depressed and ready to curl up in the fetal position and go into prenatal regression. It’s the same way I imagine Jessica Simpson would feel after competing in a national spelling bee. This is a natural reaction to having your work cut open and dissected like a fresh cadaver at border town med school. You watched as the guts of your work were ripped out from where you lovingly placed them, only to be flung aboutthe room with callous disregard. There are gnarly pieces of chapter three stuck in your hair. Yech. Before you chuck everything and decide to take up erotic vegetable gardening, do this: first, compile all the feedback you received and put it away for a day or two. Don’t look at it again until you have stopped feeling upset or emotional about it. Either work on something else for a little while or continue writing your piece (if it is unfinished) as normal. Second, remember this:
A. Your first critique is always the hardest.
B. Your writing will improve by light years as a result.
POWER UP YOUR BUILT-IN BULLSHIT DETECTOR. The fact is, some of the feedback you received is going to be priceless, glittering gems of wisdom and others will be fresh, steaming pellets of rhino poop. It’s your job to figure out which is which, and it ain’t always easy. Don’t have a built-in bullshit detector? Build one fast. Learn how to separate the wheat from the chaffe. See: HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN BULLSHIT DETECTOR. (coming soon)