Critiques: they hurt so good

One of my (few) superpowers is taking criticism of my work in stride.  I think this is a byproduct of my years in graduate school and, later, academia.  In those worlds, receiving regular and blisteringly cruel assessments of your writing, ideas, and general existence is sort of par for the course.  If you can’t take in the crushing and often mean-spirited negativity, parse it for the useful stuff, and then roll up your sleeves and eviscerate your writing to accommodate the demanded changes…well, you won’t last long (heck, even if you CAN do that, you might not last long.  Academia is a blood sport).

Coming from this background, I found dealing with the stress of critiques relatively easy.  After all, most people (assuming you’ve found a good writing group) are actually rooting for you rather than delighting in your failure.  Their critiques, therefore, are meant to be helpful and are rarely mean-spirited.  So right there we’ve got a big improvement.  Also, as noted above, I’ve been preconditioned to expect my work will need improvement and that readers I ask to provide feedback will be critical.

But still…

Still, it can hurt.  Even someone with Supergirl Teflon feelings is going to feel the pain of a harsh critique now and again.

How to deal with it?  We all have our own processes.  When I get a critique that’s tougher than I expected, I find I go through several clearly defined stages:

First: 2-4 hours of disappointment.  Man, I loved this story.  I thought this was the ONE that everyone was going to think was great.  I really thought I wasn’t going to have to make very many revisions.  Sigh.  *eats chocolate*

Second: 1-2 hours of indignation.  *addresses the cat* Why am I letting this bum me out so much?  Reader X obviously didn’t see what I was trying to do.  *shakes fist at the heavens*  What do they know, anyway?

Third: 3-4 hours to accept harsh reality.  Yup.  Reader X was right – at least about some things.  Especially THIS.  This IS a big problem.  Why didn’t I see it when I was writing?  After all, I was trying to fix that very problem in this draft and I obviously failed.  Will I never get any better at this???

Fourth: 12-14 hours of rumination.  Okay.  This isn’t THAT big of a problem.  Actually, I can fix it pretty easily by doing X, Y, and Z.  Plus, this will make the characterizations stronger and the narrative less clunky.  *tosses and turns all night while rewriting things in her head*

At this point I usually achieve clarity about what to do, regain my enthusiasm, and start revising.  This process varies in its intensity (and sometimes the duration of the stages) depending on how polished the story was (or I perceived it to be) and how dear to my heart it is.  Sometimes I know the piece is flawed (and in what ways) and so do not experience the first or second stages at all.

Even though receiving critiques can hurt and the process of dealing with them makes you feel like a crazy person who spends all her time having conversations in her head (or worse, with her cat), I almost always learn something valuable.  In most cases, it doesn’t just improve the particular piece I’ve had critiqued, but carries over to future projects – I become more aware of my strengths and weaknesses, as well as how to accent the former and improve upon the latter.

So, that’s my process for dealing with critique.  What’s yours?

Overwriting: the curse of academia

Overwriting is in my blood.  If I can use six words rather that two, I’ll do it.  When revising, I sometimes realize entire paragraphs could probably be reduced to a single sentence.  Being an overwriter is burdensome.  I’ve given rather a lot of thought to where the problem came from, and I think I’ve zeroed in on the culprit:  academia.

My background is as an archaeologist.  By and large, this has enriched my writing, especially with respect to world-building.  But overwriting is the dark side to the marriage between academia and fiction.

Drilled into you again and again in academic writing is this:  don’t write for the general case, be specific.  Academia is a little like a shark tank, in which the sharks have been deprived of food for months.  When you throw a new paper in the water, it’s like the most delicious chum ever.  So, as an academic writer, you have to armor your paper with clauses and footnotes and awkward words and phrases that make it SUPER CLEAR that you’re talking about one, tiny, specific thing, and that thing only.

An example from a paper I wrote a few year ago, in which I define the term “ritual”: “I focus on the role of ritual in identity constitution.  Rituals are repetitive practices that, under certain circumstances and in particular contexts, have the power to generate the sentiments of affiliation underlying specific identities.  Rituals are also highly material, and thus archaeologically observable, in that they rely on the bodily movements of a performer, the physical space in which the ritual is conducted, and the objects through which the rituals themselves are enacted.”

Setting aside the special joy of the incredibly long sentences, my personal favorite bit here is “under certain circumstances and in particular contexts”…but, in the end, I include this snippet to illustrate just how much academic writers have to lay out every possible nuance of what they’re talking about.  That may be a necessary evil in academia, but it goes down like malt balls covered with lead in fiction writing.

When writing fiction, less is generally more.  You want to leave the reader room to let their imagination pick up what you’ve written and breathe their own life into it.  If you overwrite and didactically spell out every detail, you take the magic out of your writing (not to mention making the story twice as long and boring).

Of course, overwriting is more than just over-specificity.  There’s all those adverbs and adjectives, redundancy, info-dumping, and plenty more besides.  Not all of these are evils carried over from academic writing, but when you heap the curse of academia on top off the big pile of overwriting no-nos, well…it can become a pretty big mountain to climb.

Of course, knowing you have a problem is half the battle.  Curing yourself is another matter entirely, requiring practice, mindfulness, and the patience of your writing group.  So, while I’m very grateful to my academic background (after all, it gave me incredible experiences, a fabulous husband, a bunch of great friends, and tons of fodder for writing interesting stories), I do sometimes feel it’s set me a nasty handicap.  Guess it’s time to go out and buy the 10% Solution.

What about you?  Do you suffer from the malady of overwriting?  If so, where did yours come from and what methods do you use to eradicate it?