Special thanks to all those who participated in Spec Faith’s Shredding, Round Two, the critique of novel openings. If any of the volunteers who made their manuscripts available would like to own their work and make comments, please feel free. The only reason we adopt the “anonymous” tag is so that those commenting will feel free to respond without any bias ( e.g. Aw, so-and-so is such a nice person and I know they’ve been trying so hard, so I’ll limit my comments to just the positives).
Of course, those who vote in the poll (still active for one more week, if memory serves me correctly) and those who comment make this little exercise useful. But I couldn’t help but think as I read through what everyone had to say, how vital it is for writers to hear from readers, not just other writers.
True, writers have experience and can perhaps explain the why of our opinion based on writerly rules and principles — all very helpful, but at the same time, writers also tend to think in terms of our own writing style. It’s hard to divorce ourselves from “this is what I would say.” The truth is, what I would say has no bearing on what another writer should say. My style, my voice, my understanding of the writing craft are … well, mine, and our writing, like our fingerprints and our DNA, is uniquely individual. What we say, how we say it, and how we sound when we say it reflect our personality, history, worldview.
Based on this last point some might think a critique exercise is futile then. Not at all. A couple factors make them vital. First, there’s a utilitarian factor involved in writing — writers can break any “rule” (those that don’t actually exist) they want, as long as what they write works.
J. K. Rowling’s speaker attributions in the Harry Potter books serve as a good illustration. Over and over I’ve read from contemporary writing instructors, and heard from others at conferences, that writers should not fill their work with adverbs, those pesky –ly describers used to prop up weak verbs. Especially writers are warned away from adding them to the “so-and-so said” line identifying the speakers in conversation, the reasoning being that the context and dialogue should be strong enough so as to render the adverb redundant.
Along comes Ms. Rowling, though, and peppers her books with attributions like “said Aunt Petunia promptly,” “said Aunt Petunia rapturously,” “said Harry tonelessly,” and “said Uncle Vernon nastily.” (Examples taken from pp. 5-6, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
Bad writing, bad writing — she’s breaking all the rules, many writers cried. (I was one of them.) The thing is, readers obviously didn’t care. Ms. Rowling’s use of adverbs didn’t cause them to stop reading. It didn’t yank them out of the fictive dream or disrupt their enjoyment of the story. I daresay most readers did not even notice.
The point is, though Ms. Rowling’s style in this area flies in the face of conventional wisdom, it worked for her in her Harry Potter books. Therefore, who’s to say it was wrong?
But this point might seem to favor the view that critiques are meaningless. On the contrary, writers think what they put down is good writing — otherwise we wouldn’t have it there. Only readers can tell us if it actually does work. Here other writers who have been schooled in the contemporary wisdom aren’t so helpful. They will tend to think less about whether or not the phrasing works and more about whether or not it conforms to writing instruction.
There’s a second factor. Writing fiction is an art form. Not only does it convey a story, it aims to do so in a way that is creative, imaginative, original, and beautiful. Rarely can an artist fairly judge his own work in those respects. Of course what he writes feels ingenious and fresh — most writers don’t set out to write tired, hackneyed stories that put people to sleep. Where would we be without readers to hold up a mirror and steer us away from the poor application of our story’s make-up — that which does not beautify but draws attention to flaws?
One final point about critiques from readers and writers alike. Part of the reading process is writers putting down what they intend, and the other part is readers getting out of it what they understand. Unless a writer receives feedback, he doesn’t really know what it is readers are taking away from his story — perhaps more than he realized, perhaps far less. Without critiques to guide his writing, he has no way of knowing if he’s close to accomplishing what he wishes in his story.
In short, writers need readers … and fairly obviously, readers need writers.