Beware the Shrieking Eels, the Dishonest Critique, and Asking My Opinion
All my life, I’ve had this rule: don’t ask my opinion if you don’t really want the answer.
This has gotten me into trouble. A lot. Because I will tell you if an outfit’s unflattering – or if you’re being a jerk. If you ask me, I’m not going to lie.
Where writing is concerned, I’ve had to force myself to stick my code. (Parley? Wait, not that code.) Writing is an occasionally fragile, intensely personal thing. Like an unflattering nickname, something someone says might get lodged in your brain, only to rear its head during an unfortunate instance. (Tomorrow, I’ll tell you the story about my college English professor and how his opinion – painfully – stuck.)
It’s very rare that I’ll offer to read someone else’s work. There needs to be a certain level of trust. Once, I made the mistake of volunteering to read a friend of a friend’s first chapter of a novel. (It was an incomplete novel, with a very vague outline, and the writer only had the first chapter written.) Worst mistake EVER. Or, at least, since the invention of decaf coffee.
It was a very painful experience. Probably for both of us. The person didn’t like what I had to say. He became resentful. I felt like a bitch. I don’t like feeling like that, because I’m the least bitchy person in existence (unless you steal or hide the coffee).
I didn’t care for some of the story’s plot points, but I could live with that. I offered constructive, non-scathing criticism. I wasn’t mean or rude. I tried very hard to spare this guy’s feelings. He seemed genuinely interesting in learning. (I should point out that I taught English Lit for a bit.)
He wasn’t interested at all. He got angry. He questioned everything I said in a hostile manner. He eventually dropped all contact, which was probably best for the both of us.
He didn’t want the truth. He didn’t want anything resembling the Truth. He couldn’t handle the truth. It was a hard lesson, and he wasn’t the only one who learned it.
Since then, I only help my close friends. There’s a small circle of people who I go to for beta reading. These are people I trust. If they need my help, I offer.
I still get twitchy when someone I’m not close to asks for my help. Let me clarify that – I get especially twitchy if someone asks me, “Is my writing good?” or “Is the story good enough?” or “Is it good enough to publish?”
The half-lie would be: I don’t know.
I can certainly tell you if it looks like your writing has been strung together by blind apes, plunking away at a typewriter. But I can’t tell you if something is good enough, because writing is so subjective. An editor may love you. A magazine might rave about your stunning imagery. I might worry that you’re a serial killer who dresses up like a clown to stalk his victims. (Sorry, that’s probably too Stephen King.)
The honest answer: I can’t answer that. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but that’s something you have to decide for yourself. Is the story the best story that you can make it? Are you comfortable with it?
It feels like a cop out, I know. But it isn’t. Whenever I ask someone to read a story of mine, I only ask, “What doesn’t work? What do you think is missing? Is there anything that seems out of place?”
I want to know what I can do to improve what I’ve created. I’ll never really think that something I’ve written is good enough, because I’m a perfectionist. I’m neurotic. I’m the person who always thought she failed a test, or her paper – and felt slightly panicked whenever the outcome was out of my hands.
That kind of thing, if my college psychology courses are to be believed, either holds you back or motivates you. I believe it’s a motivating factor. That’s not to say I’m not assailed by doubts that rival the shrieking eels crossed with a jabberwocky – with a dash of Pennywise the Clown thrown in.
Everyone wrote writes has doubts. Don’t let them eat you up. Don’t let them live your life for you. Whatever you do, don’t feed them, or get them wet, after midnight.
Don’t ask just anyone to read your writing. Don’t critique just anyone’s writing.
And for coffee’s sake – don’t ask me a question that you don’t want me to answer honestly. (Yes, I think your boyfriend’s weird. No, your clothing doesn’t match. And NO – I don’t think decaf counts as coffee. That’s coffee flavored water. Caprice?)