This past week I was paid a very high compliment by a fellow writer. She offered to do a “cold read” of the opening five pages of my current manuscript. I let her.
The compliment? She went through those five pages with a scalpel.
By the end, my five pages bore the scars of a literary knife-fight. There was hardly a line in those 1400 words that didn’t have some kind of deletion, highlight or other detritus of relentless trimming.
And to tell the truth – her handling of my manuscript made my day.
Her knife-fight with my opening pages was itself a high compliment. She cared enough to not only read what I had to share, but the gumption to show me what stood in my way of getting published.
We all know what it is to be criticized. It’s that awkward moment at work or the family get-together, when someone pulls you aside and says: “You might not want to hear this, but do you realize…?” Then they tell you something about yourself (or spouse/child/final project) that you really don’t want to hear.
But consider: What doesn’t kill us really does make us stronger. In that sense, for writers to take constructive criticism on their work-in-progress is tantamount to taking literary vitamins. It strengthens your bones. Clarifies your skin. Flushes out impurities. Bolsters your immune system. If you’re a serious writer, you want this – even if it hurts. More often than not, criticism does hurt. But as the poster suggests – if you avoid criticism entirely, then why should anyone note what you’re saying or doing? Are you doing anything of note, if you cannot endure criticism?
My friend’s critique was a litmus test for me. Though it was initially a shock to see “my darling” all marked up, it was not a crippling event. The exercise showed me several things, all of which were encouraging in their own way.
* It showed me criticism is temporary. After a momentary “Oh!” and the eyes-round-with-shock moment, I found myself rolling up my sleeves and readying for the next round of work. I quickly went from the oh-my-what?? moment to the “I can do this” moment; and once I crossed that line the discomfort was behind me.
* It showed me issues I would never have seen myself. I knew I had a problem with passive voice, and had even cleaned up those five pages tremendously, with that error in mind. But my friend, who has a much more grammar-ish mind than I do, saw other incidents of passive voice (and run-on sentences, and other embarassing faux pas) that I had entirely missed.
* It showed me how a reader coming “cold turkey” to my book would respond to the introduction of my world. Once I narrowed my attention on her individual comments, I realized I had not done a thorough job of establishing my world from the outset. She showed me how a new reader would interpret the opening scene, and in so doing showed that the opening five pages still needs a LOT of work.
* It proved my tale was battle-worthy. In spite of all the slicing and dicing, my opening premise seems to have weathered the storm quite nicely. This was the most encouraging thing for me: the realization that I likely have the right beginning point, even if I did word it rather shabbily.
Brutal compliments are part of the Writing Life. Sometimes the compliment is in the actual words; sometimes in how your tale holds up to the beatings it receives. Sometimes the compliment is knowing someone cares enough to tell you when you’re capable of more.
We are all capable of more. The question is whether we will endure the criticism needed to get there.