“Critique” or “What Doesn’t Kill You Might Make Your Work Stronger”

That’s right. The dreaded “C” word. …Um, no, not whatever other “C” word you’re thinking of. Critique, people, critique! “A critical review or commentary, especially one dealing with works of art or literature”! The artist’s best friend slash worst enemy.

Some people wholeheartedly enjoy having their work torn to shreds by others for the sake of personal and professional betterment. (Looking at you, Tirzah.) The rest of us (I’d say “the sane ones”, but, well, then I wouldn’t qualify) would really rather have a perfect world in which no one has anything but complimentary things to say about what we’ve done because, hip-huzzah, we’ve earned that and more! Erm, don’t look now, though, but… the world isn’t perfect. Neither are we. And neither are our books, our poems, our fill-in-the-blank. And sometimes – dare I say, oftentimes – in the interest of taking ourselves closer to perfect, we need someone else to help us see where we’ve stepped off of the creative straight and narrow.

Now, to restate for the sake of clarity: I do not like receiving critiques. At all. But too bad for me, because there are times when I’ve got to deal with them. And to help me through those times, I try to keep in mind a certain incident from not so very long ago…

            * * * FLASHBACK! * * *

Fire Elemental, one-point-oh

I’d just finished a picture of a character of mine, and being really pleased with how it had turned out, I showed it to my mom.

Me: Behold, Mother – my fire elemental!

Dearest Mumsy: Pretty cool, honey. But he doesn’t look so much an elemental as some guy with a fiery background.

Me: But… but… b-but… *mopes*

Fortunately, some of my best revisions are done while moping. I went back to the drawing board (or, more accurately, back to my drawing pad ‘n’ stylus) to make some modifications. And however long it was later…

Fire Elemental, two-point-WHOA!

Me: Betterness?

Mother o’ Mine: And how!

The changes weren’t huge, but the difference totally was. And I don’t think I ever would have thought to add the needed touches if my mom had simply said, “Pretty cool, honey,” and left it at that.

There are bound to have been other examples since then, but this is the one that always comes back to me, that moment when I first truly understood: Critique can be some nasty medicine to swallow, but it can be totally worth it.

There are tons of blog posts, articles, and self-help chapters that deal with different views on this topic (such as this piece on Emerald Barnes’ blog, which first put the notion of eventually writing this post in my head, or these tips I gleaned from the Gotham Writers’ newsletter). Clearly, then, my thoughts are not the end-all, but they’re what I have to give and what you hang around here to read, so here they are, in summary:

1. Gather some reasonably trusted opinions. (Not just anybody knows what they’re talking about or wants you to succeed. Use your judgment.)

2. Keep your defenses down as low as they’ll go, and honestly reflect on the feedback. (And, um, try not to bite your critics’ heads off…like I sometimes do… Yeah, having people all up in your stuff can nettle, but if you followed Step 1, they’re probably just trying to help you.)

3. If a suggestion is way off base, happily ignore it. (Feel free to whistle and strut while fixing a celebratory sandwich.)

4. If what you’re hearing has some merit, take it and improve. (The fire elementals in your life will thank you.)

Floor’s open: What’s your standout experience with critique?

“Modify” or “When Word(smith)s Fail”

So, I was chatting on the phone with my bestie-forever-and-always (the one and only Tirzah “Ink Caster” Duncan, of course), and one of us (I forget which, now) found herself groping for a word meaning “to change in form or character; alter”. We eventually settled on “modify” as the verb that would most neatly suit, but it was a long, awkward road to get there. And henceforth, it has been a running gag of my character Bruno’s to suggest “modify” as the word we’re searching for, never mind how close or way off base the suggestion may be.

            One might think that one who does a lot of reading and writing would, more often than not, have the perfect word on hand for any situation. Well, one would be wrong. Teasingly on the tips of our tongues, sure. On hand, not nearly always. An extensive vocabulary can prove itself a curse as well as a blessing.

(Logo property of NBC)

            …The worse you feel when the one word you want is hiding behind a jumble of inappropriate others. It’s not so terrible when I’m writing, because I can always take a timeout to turn to the dictionary or thesaurus for aid – a habit of mine that’s best used in moderation during a literary sprint like NaNoWriMo, but otherwise quite helpful. Verbal conversation, however, is a different story. With next to zero time to edit, I’m left scrambling for words that will even quasi-accurately convey what’s going on in my head. (Of course, half of what’s going on in my head is gobbledygook anyway, but it makes no difference: I want that gobbledygook expressed just so.)

            So, what do you do when you’re caught in the headlights of a conversation with the perfect word nowhere in sight?

            Um, uh, y’know, like… shoot, hold on a sec… *elevator music plays* Leave your audience hanging. It’s not like they have anything better to do than wait for you to get yourself together; life’s long enough. And you just know this pointless anecdote will be well worth the ten-minute intermission. Everything you say is gold, because you take the time, however painfully long, to ensure that it is so.

            Fake it ‘til you make it. Just use made-up words to hold your place or distract from how inept your mouth is being today. Necessity was the mother of the invention of words such as “whatchamacallit”, “doohickey”, and “thingummy”. Rather than accept defeat, turn this oral failure into an opportunity to coin the slang of tomorrow!

            Settle. Maybe the word you meant will reveal itself in the next minute, or pop up out of nowhere half-an-hour after it’s lost all relevance. Maybe the word that kept slipping just out of your grasp never meant what you’d thought it did anyway. Maybe it just doesn’t matter as much as you feel it does and you should simply allow some lesser synonym to take The Great Granddaddy of All Words’ place because, for pity’s sake, your audience is aging! Talk around it. Make do with what your brain’s willing to provide. Let go your impossible ideals and adjust your speech to fit your current limitations.

            Because sometimes, even we wordsmiths (or especially we wordsmiths) just need to know when to cut our losses and modify.

PerGoSeeMo Psalm 28

Psalm 28. Isaiah 26:3-5, 7-9

            You will keep in perfect peace

All those who trust in you –

Those whose thoughts are fixed on you,

And whose hearts are turned to you.

            Take my trust

And renew it day by day;

Let me know from head to soul that I believe.

Be my rock

That I’ll cling to, come what may.

And give unto me your perfect peace.

            Take my thoughts;

Hold them captive in your hand,

Lest they wander down a road that leads to grief.

Go before

To make smooth for me my path.

And give unto me your perfect peace.

            Take my heart

And become its first desire;

Day and night, be what I most sincerely seek.

May my love

Be all you, my Lord, require.

And give unto me your perfect peace.

            You will keep in perfect peace

All those who trust in you –

Those whose thoughts are fixed on you,

And whose hearts are turned to you.