Last night at the second of my of my mystery writing classes an incident occurred that reminded me how painful the writing process can be. This class on writing mysteries is a small one for which I enrolled on a whim. Why not a mystery writing class? The fiction writing class was full, and I like meeting fellow writers. We writers tend to be a solitary lot, trapped inside our heads a good bit of the time. It’s good to get out into the world and mingle with people who are fighting the same battles as you.
But with writing comes critique. Our first assignment was to write the opening chapter for a mystery, and one of our little group, a newer writer, had some difficulty grasping the concept of how modern mysteries work. She started with a prologue then a first chapter that was slow, and this caused one of the more aggressive members of the class to jump on her verbally. Hostility ensued.
She was still upset when class ended and stormed out. Everyone else walked away a bit stunned.
It is hard to explain to someone who is new to critique groups, whether they occur in a classroom setting or some other place, that at some point, no matter how good a writer you are (or think you are), you are going to get walloped, and it hurts. It feels personal, and sometimes it is. Most criticism, however, comes from people sincerely trying to help you improve your book. The trick is learning to filter out what works for you from what doesn’t. You can’t improve unless people read what you have written; just getting positive comments from your friends and family won’t do you much good when you start sending your book out to literary agencies where the agents are deluged by hundreds of queries every day.
But to the people handing out criticism, it’s not just about pointing out the flaws in a person’s writing. It’s about finding the things that work as well. I try never to criticize anyone without offering something positive to my fellow group members. If you’re too harsh, the writer might turn off everything you say and miss something valuable. When you criticize, you walk a fine line, it’s not about showing how much you know, but trying to help your fellow writers take a step forward.
I’d call that a win for everyone.
Besides you never know when the subject of your criticism will take revenge on you in print and have the book become the next NY Times’ bestseller. Thank you kindly, but I’d just as soon not be turned into the person in the corner who is a closet pervert and is shoved into a wood chipper in chapter nine.