Do you remember Aesop’s fable about the man and his son taking their donkey to market? Poor guys, they’re just tromping along happily enough, but keep encountering groups of critics. The first group mocks father and son for walking alongside the donkey when they should be riding it. Like, hello, what are donkeys for?
So Dad puts the boy on the donkey, only to be criticized by another group for the son’s lack of respect in making poor, old Dad walk. The two switch places, but are now chided by yet another group for making the boy walk. So up climbs the boy behind his father.
Wouldn’t you know it, they meet a group of animal rights fanatics, who shake their fists at the two riders. Yeah, the man and the boy—they should be the ones bearing the donkey! Ever compliant, Dad and son tie the poor beast upside down on a pole and carry him the last quarter mile to the marketplace.
On the bridge into town, a crowd gathers, laughing, shouting, snorting at the spectacle. The frightened donkey kicks free of the ropes and tumbles, alas, into the raging river below. The moral of the story? If you try to please all, you please none.
Now, does that not describe a dilemma we writers face?
Sigh. Those who do not know enough to appreciate the sterling quality of our work.
Okay, okay, so some of them have good points to make. But do we have to comply with every nit-picking one of them? Might we, in our eagerness to please, end up losing who we are? Isn’t there a line in the sand we should draw and stand behind, arms folded, face scowling?
I’ve discovered some answers for those donkey-do, donkey-don’t encounters.
Number one, get educated. At my first writers conference I was handed a silver dollar critique, but I had a copper penny understanding of what in the world my critiquer was talking about. I couldn’t benefit because my knowledge base was inadequate. Learn the language, learn the concepts, grow ears that can hear.
But don’t stop there. Go beyond workshops and blogs and books. Trouble is, they leave you standing there all by you widdle self. There’s no interaction with the teacher, no evaluation of your attempt to translate knowledge into skill. When I started taking online writing classes and submitting assignments, I not only received instant feedback (and second and third chances) but I also profited from the instructor’s comments on my classmates’ assignments. The cost of online classes varies from $15 to $40, a mere pittance, really. I’m here to tell you, those classes will put arms and legs on those ears you’re growing.
Number two, be intentional. Sniff out good critiquers. At conferences, pay for critiques from authors. Their feet have landed where you want yours to tread, and their experience and knowledge will be worth more than the money you paid. But don’t just pick any old author. Be selective. Check out the different authors’ books from the library or survey them on amazon.com. Do you like a particular author’s writing style? How he tells his story? The kind of story he tells? Pick him! Then, when you meet, be ready with questions specific to your needs. If you choose well, you’ve set up a critic encounter that will reap gain, not pain.
The same goes for critique partners. Be intentional. Find partners who offer what you want. I have four CPs in three different partnerships. Two write romance, one writes women’s fiction, and one writes mysteries. None of these are my genre, but each partner provides different plusses for my writing, and critiquing their genres stretches me in beneficial ways, as well. Commitment to CPs is a huge investment, so enter those relationships with careful consideration. Choose well, and the sharing and caring will bring muscle—and maybe some extra heart—to your writing.
As for that line in the sand, well, yes, eventually it should be drawn. It’s called “voice.” Ideally, your critics will help you gain confidence in who you are as a writer—your style, your message, your approach to story. You’ll know the “rules” and be comfortable with where you’ve decided to settle down amidst all the possibilities. You’ll know when to comply and when to fold your arms and stand firm.
Skip the scowling face, though. Along the road you might encounter a critic called an editor. Yeah, you’ll definitely want a smile on your face.Steph Prichard