Wait, let’s segue into how good I am at replying punctually to letters. (Hint: it is not at all.) Letters I am horrible at replying to. Stories I am slightly better at remembering to get to– by which I mean that I usually manage to read and then critique a story within six months of it being sent to me. Sometimes things get away from me and it takes seven or eight months.
I really wish I was exaggerating, but I am actually pulling the dates on the last few stories I critiqued. Oops.
Anyways, this lamentable tendency has in fact led to an interesting piece of learning.
In the last week, I critiqued something close to ten stories. Not a clarion-week’s worth, but still a respectable amount. And because I was close-reading so many stories at once, and thinking hard about how they were put together, I was also thinking about how I was thinking. (The byline for my blog used to be “I spent too much time in my own head.” It’s still flirting with being true. (My next business venture will be INTROSPECTION ‘R US. Tell your friends.)) I finally put my finger on an undercurrent in a story– the emotional through line– which I’d been trying to figure out but never quite managed it. And it’s not to say that I can do it with all stories, but there were a couple in a row where I was able to pinpoint emotional setup and payoff, and the line I was walking as the reader, and whether I got lost in the story and cool stuff.
And then I realized that I was learning something from critiquing.
It– shouldn’t take so long for me to figure this out. I did go to Clarion. I talked to people before about how it would be valuable, and to people afterwards about how it was valuable. But in much the way as the full import of ethics and what that does to a culture’s art took a full three years to impact in my head, this only fully clicked last week.
Critiquing, as an activity, is so valuable.
Just think about it; you are studying a story (in my life a story written by a friend) looking for ways it could be made better. So you are looking for strengths and weaknesses. You are looking for what makes a story work. You are looking for how to make a story work. For a writer, that seriously has to join Writing and Reading to make a holy trinity of “how to get better at your craft.”
A disclaimer should here be sounded, because I don’t know, maybe for you critique isn’t as useful. Maybe you get all you need to know by reading masterworks of the style of fiction you aspire to. Maybe critique isn’t useful at all; you learned everything in english class. But for me, the interaction with a story is intensely valuable. (I also have taken a grand total of two (2) english classes in my entire life. They were valuable, but not where i get the bulk of my knowledge about story.) So your milage may vary.
BUT DUDE LEARNING. LEARNING IS AWESOME. Because, you know, critiquing is a learned skill, just as writing is. It’s not as though you can walk in and sit down with a story and then every mark which proceedeth from your pen will be shining pure brilliance undiluted. Or okay, maybe that’s how it works for you. For me, it went like this.
I’ve had writer-friends for as long as I’ve been writing. (Yes, the two things are deeply connected. Correlation AND causation, you might say.) And when I joined in with the writing circle we would share around what we’d written, for fun and adoration. After all, what’s the fun of writing hilarious adventures if you’re the only one who gets to see them? Exactly. Not much point. Thank you for agreeing.
So we’d share around stories, and tell each other they were amazing and hilarious. And that was awesome. That was about Level 1 of sharing reading.
But along the way, and I’m not even sure where or when it happened, but we started offering critiques as well. Level 2! We’d read, and offer suggestions about what wasn’t working.
This was a rocky road, because a.) critiquing is a hard skill to learn to give, and b.) critiquing is a hard skill to learn to take. And I am a selfish and temperamental beast who doesn’t take personal criticism well. Anything directed at my story was suddenly an attack on myself. I had a track record of criticism taken so very well, indeed, that there was an intervention before I applied to Clarion from people who thought it would be bad for me and everyone around me. Once I was accepted, it was the one thing I was most terrified about. Writing six stories? No big deal. Having people tell me my stories suck? The night before my first crit session I barely slept, and the last time that happened was when I watched Blink and then went to bed in a huge empty house.
(Fortunately, I neither cried in class or attacked anyone physically.).
Clarion, my friends, was something like Level 10 of critiquing. I just skipped all the intermediate steps and went straight into a group of people who can tell you what is wrong with your story (everything) while making you feel proud of how good it is already, and excited to fix it with the suggestions they offer. Do you know how easy it is to take critique in that group? Very easy. Do you know how hard it is to critique like that?
Lamentably, being part of that circle of awesome did not mean I immediately achieved all the critiquing and critique-presenting skills. This is probably quite obvious from the part above, where I said I only just figured out how to identify the emotional paths of a story. But I am learning; slowly, surely and with great delight for each fragment of knowledge collected.