• Ian Kirkpatrick

How to Be in a Critique Group (Part 2)

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

At the tail end of the last writing group meeting i was in, there was an interesting conversation. One of the authors who presented his work made the statement, “If you don’t understand my work, don’t read it.”

I wasn’t the only person taken aback by this statement. Following it were sentiments that, “If you don’t enjoy what you’re reading, then just don’t read it and don’t contribute.” In what felt like an attempt to make it less personally related to his work, he brought up, “How many times in this group have we looked at the submissions and said, ‘ugh, not another YA submission…’ and my recommendation is if you don’t like it or you don’t get the content, then don’t bother reading it. Don’t bother responding to it.”

It’s an interesting resolution from a man who, at the previous meeting, argued how difficult critiquing actually is, how he’s trying hard to become a better critiquer, and yet, it seems to me he’s not entirely sure how to receive critiques of his own work. When you don’t hear what you want to hear, when your story doesn’t make it across to the readers — or maybe it makes it across to some readers, but not all of them, I don’t believe it’s helpful to try and ward off the people who didn’t pick up what you were putting down.

This statement he made came off as defensive and ungrateful, honestly. We know writers put their hearts and souls and very beings into the stuff they create. The words on the page have some kind of value, even if they need work or the story should be kept as more of an exercise than a piece of commercial entertainment or thought. Every reader (sometimes more unconsciously) knows that time was spent to craft the thing they’re about to pick up. Authors need to also remember that when someone spends time reading your story, that individual is putting value in your story. They are paying you with time and often currency; they see something of value in your work or in you and they want to know what you have to say.

This is often why I’m so critical when you read my book reviews. I not only spent hours reading these people, but I spent money on them all. I spent time talking to the authors when possible; that’s why I was particularly hard on Clown Tear Junkie; because there are times when you can tell the author is disrespecting the reader, be it by illogical, lazy, or condescending writing. Whether with plot holes, unchecked spelling and grammar, or a very loud presence that says, “I don’t care about the quality of the work. Someone will read this. Especially if it’s .99 on Kindle.”

Something this statement tells me is that the author doesn’t really respect readers and if he does… well, that’s not the impression he gives off. Authors can easily dismiss people who are out of their target audience without flipping them the bird.

When I read his piece I said it was missing something in a not as graceful a manner as I could. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say until after it’d been my turn to talk; his story didn’t have a payoff. It needed development to give it a payoff so the reader felt somehow satisfied at the end. I said I didn’t get a certain aspect of his story and a couple of other people said the same things; many of us had different interpretations.

It’s funny because this is the same man who didn’t understand the story I submitted last time, but half of the group (or more got it). You need to be able to pick out who is an intended audience and who isn’t and how the critique helps. If someone gives information on where they got confused, that could help your story. Like I was saying in last week’s post, you need to be specific when giving feedback in critique groups — and then the author can make the call on whether what you offered helped or not.

But authors, just be aware, if you flip off readers because they didn’t have the takeaway you wanted them to have, you’re not doing yourselves any favors.

We are learning to read by reading a variety of work.

Anyone who reads will tell you, you have to read often and read variably in order to understand a lot of work. No one can start reading hard text by just picking up the book and going. Constant exposure to the voice, style, and content will make us better and smarter readers.

Literally every teacher will tell you to read more to understand. They’ll give you harder books to read to help you expand your intelligence and comprehensive reading. Worst advice to become a better reader is to stop reading things you don’t understand.

One of the things I said to this gentleman was that it was clear to me that our brains are in different places — because he didn’t understand my work and I missed the nuances in his. That tells me I need to get to know who he is much better. Because when you understand someone’s character, you understand their story and vice versa. Reading gives us a door right into someone else’s head, beliefs, POV, whether it’s good, bad, or neutral and I honestly look forward to reading more of this guy’s work to understand where he’s coming from more and to learn how to read closer the type of work he’s doing.

We’re making art.

When writing, it seems like a lot of people forget that we’re actually making art because writing is both technical and creative and the two processes are done separately (and the technical part is usually done second). You can go into a story with a clear idea of imagery, thought, the themes you’re wanting to cover, but with art, your intention isn’t always the interpretation.

When you create art, you create a portal for different approaches and POVs to enter and interpret. I loved when my work was reviewed two weeks ago and there were so many interpretations of it. I always find it interesting the different ideas people pick up on or see in my work that I never thought about. The beautiful thing about art is creating a world and inspiring others or finding a bridge where you and that person can connect.

If you’re an author (or an artist of any kind), I’d recommend against getting defensive or irritated if someone doesn’t see the art how you originally created it because… well, that’s the nature of the beast.

Albeit, you should worry when the general consensus is heavily against what you intended. That more so means you’re probably sending mixed messages. So, weigh responses, see what you hear back, and learn how to differentiate a person with a different interpretation and your message getting kind fubbed up from presentation.

No story will be interpreted as intended by the author 100% of the time.

If you want to be read, the worst response you can have is “JUST DON’T.”

We’re putting our hearts, souls, work, experience, everything out on the line when we share our work with people. One of the organizers for the critique group I’m in said she’s had emails from people who submitted who said they’d rather show up naked than have their work critiqued. It can be nerve-wracking, hurtful, seem aggressive or create a defensive nature… So many emotions can come out of presenting art.

And it can take courage to expose yourself like that.

But remember, when you do, especially if you submit to a crit group where you’re looking to become better at the craft, the worst possible response to critiques you can have is “Just don’t read it. Just don’t respond.”

If that’s your response, then maybe you’re not ready for this kind of attention yet, eh?

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© 2019 by Ian Kirkpatrick