Sunday, March 9, 2014

Writing craft: Tear it down, build it up

All writers have asked the question: "Well, what do you think?"

It's a question that doesn't get much easier to ask over time. We hope that it will. We may even have a hunch what the answer will be. We want it to be a positive answer, but must accept that it may not be.

The first time I asked that question (asked it of someone who wasn't my Mom and therefore obligated to say nice things about my writing) is seared into my memory. The time: my college days. The place: University of Missouri at Columbia. The occasion: a creative writing course, and I had just finished reading a selection from a very, very early version of my debut novel, The Day After Yesterday. What did the instructor and my classmates think?

They tore it to shreds. They were right to do so.

Because it wasn't good. It was the only serious writing I'd done, and I'd had no critique whatsoever on it. I was full of myself in the way that only a college student can be; I recall thinking that I was sure to wow everyone, not least because I was writing a novel (one of many stupid ideas I had in those days was that short stories were somehow inferior to novels). 

I can't imagine what the look on my face must have been as the criticisms piled up. Too many adjectives, too much melodrama, characters didn't behave realistically, and so on. I don't know if it went on for a very long time or if it just felt that way. By the time it was over, my ego had deflated considerably.

And yet, the instructor and my fellow students had just enough positive things to say to make me think that the story wasn't a complete loss. The critiques were harsh, but after I stopped crying I realized that they were accurate. The final project for the course was to revise the work based on the critique. I was astounded that I got an A. At first I didn't understand, as I was pretty sure that I had a long way to go to make the book truly good. But the instructor explained that what determined the grade was our ability to not give up, and to do our best to improve the work based on the feedback we'd received. This didn't mean slavishly making every change suggested. But it also didn't mean sticking our fingers in our ears and singing, "La la la la, I don't hear your criticisms of my book!"

It took a lot more writing, a lot more reading, a lot more learning about the writing craft, and writing the book twice before I got it right. But that first critique was when I learned the most valuable lesson any writer can: no one starts out good, and only by listening to others and using their feedback to improve your manuscript can you be a better writer.

So let me give a much-belated and long-overdue thank you to instructor Speer Morgan, and to all the fellow writers in that creative writing course. Thank you for getting me out of my bubble, and for your critiques.

No comments:

Post a Comment