Tuesday, April 29, 2008

When a Good Critique Goes Bad

So I'm new to the whole blogosphere (as you can tell since this is my first post) and it occurred to me that starting out I wanted to talk about some of the tough stuff--stuff some writers don't like to talk about. I'm the eternal optimist, and I believe if you deal with the bad stuff, you can clear it out to make room for the good.

Yesterday, one of my books got a bad review. I say this not so you'll feel sorry for me, because I'm honest when I say I try to take reviews in stride. Bad reviews are never fun, but they're a part of this business. They suck, they make you feel like dirt--even make you doubt you should be writing at all and instead maybe you should get a job asking the age old question, "You want fries with that?"--but you allow yourself a one hour pity party, shake yourself off, and write some more. In the back of my mind, I'm able to rationalize that it's my book that's being reviewed, not me. Sometimes a certain character just doesn't resonate with the reviewer, or maybe the plot isn't something he/she is interested in. I can handle a bad review because even though it feels personal, I know it's just part and parcel of being a writer. This post isn't really about reviews, but it was the review that got me thinking: what happens when it is personal? What happens when it's a friend or a critique partner and his or her assessment of your work goes from an unbiased review of the manuscript to something deeper: something potentially harmful? That happened to me a few years ago, and that's what I want to talk about. Heavy stuff for a first blog post, but there you have it.

What can I say? I'm deep.

I started out as a Net writer, posting some of my stuff for free to get the feedback I felt I needed to launch my career. I'm an Internet junkie, and I think it's one of the greatest things to happen to writers since quill and ink were first put to parchment. Through the Net I've gathered an amazing readership and have been able to work with top notch publishers. One of the greatest things about the Web and writers is accessibility. Post your email address and you're never more than click away from the people who read your stories. It's always a thrill to me to get an email from a reader. Even if they're writing to tell me the story sucks, at least I've provoked a reader response. But that accessibility can be a double edged sword, and for a newbie writer just getting into the game, it can be especially devastating if you get hold of a critique partner (or beta reader, or writer-pal) who has a hidden agenda. Before I tell you what happened to me, I'd like to say that I don't have a critique partner, but I do have a group of beta readers, and they're absolutely amazing. They don't hesitate to tell me if something I wrote stinks, but they do it in a constructive way that never makes me feel as if I'm under attack. They make me a better writer, and to them I'm grateful. Okay, on to the nitty-gritty.

I posted my first novel, The Magic in Your Touch, to a free story site back in January of 2003, while it was still a work in progress. From the day I posted it, the feedback came flooding in. Some liked it and some didn't, but from almost every email I was able to take away something that I could use toward honing my craft. I was excited to get to the keyboard every day, and totally in love with being a writer. The manuscript was raw and full of typos, but I was proud of what I was accomplishing.

And then came an offer too good to refuse (cue music from The Godfather).

I got an email from a man I'll call Fred. He told me how much he was enjoying my story, how good he thought the plot was and how well-drawn he found my characters. The kind words were exactly what I needed to hear. I think most of us have certain insecurities about our work, and Fred made me feel so good about what I was doing. Each time I posted a chapter, he'd write to let me know his thoughts and feelings on it. I was beyond grateful for his input and advice, and felt honored that Fred (who was also a writer on that same site) would take time out of his busy schedule to grace me with his opinions.

Self-esteem issues, anyone?

About five chapters into my manuscript, Fred said, "I noticed some typos and misused words in your manuscript. If you'd like, I can proof each chapter for you before you post it?" Would I like? Was he kidding? I couldn't say yes fast enough.

It started out as a great relationship. He infused all his comments with praise, and any negative comments were tendered with respect and what seemed a genuine desire to help me grow as a writer. I offered to critique some of his work, but he said he wasn't interested in that, that he already had critique partners of his own. That probably should've been my first clue that everything wasn't A-okay in Writerland, but I continued on in blissful ignorance. I couldn't help but feel like he wasn't getting as much out of the relationship as I was, and I felt guilty for it, but he assured me he was happy with the status quo.

When I finished my first novel, the owner of another site offered to let me post my stuff on there, as well. It meant a wider audience, and I was thrilled with the chance. I'd just started novel number two and was going to preview it at the new site. Fred said he was glad for me and agreed to keep beta-reading my chapters. I was one happy girl. And then it came. The catch, I guess you could say.

I'd written a chapter that was especially difficult, but it was one I was really happy with. I sent it off to Fred, and as usual, his comments were dead on. There was just one suggestion he made that I disagreed with. I honestly can't even remember what it was now, but I think it was something about a change to one of the scenes. I was happy with the scene as written, so I left it the way it was, sent it off to the website, and started to work on the next chapter.

To say that Fred was less than pleased would be a gross understatement.

He sent me a three page email demanding to know why I hadn't changed the piece as he'd "recommended." He went on to tell me that it was hard work, reading my chapters each week, that he had to take time away from his own stuff, and if I was ungrateful and selfish enough not to use his "suggestions" then he should go help someone who deserved it.

I felt like a complete jerk. Here I was, wasting this poor man's time. He'd gone out of his way to help me, and I'd been inconsiderate to the extreme. After all, he was a "real" writer, and here I was some newbie upstart with half his experience and possibly half the talent. I sent him an apology, which he so graciously accepted (God, was I naive or what?) and the relationship continued. Looking back, I can see his manipulation for what it was, but at the time I was green and gullible as all get out.

His comments on my work soon became harsher and more detailed. Nothing overtly abusive, but I was beginning to sense a change in the relationship. Then I started work on my first fantasy novel, and that's when the blinders came off.

By then, I had several betas who'd volunteered to read my stuff. They got free books, I got feedback, and all was well in Saraville. Then came Fred's response to the first chapter of my fantasy piece. It was a doozy.

He hated everything about it, from the names of the characters, to their eye color, even their clothes. He said though some second-rate publisher would probably pick it up, it wasn't good by anyone's standards and he could hardly believe I'd written such drivel. As I read through the entire critique--all the comments and side notes--I realized something: somewhere along the way, Fred had stopped critiquing my work and was now critiquing me. Thankfully, my confidence as a writer had grown enough that I could separate the two. After a long talk with my best friend (who also happens to be my hot, hunky husband, lucky girl that I am) I sent Fred an email, thanking him for all he'd done, but telling him in the politest way possible that, since he didn't enjoy the current story, it would probably be better if I didn't send him any more chapters. I understood how busy he was, I told him, and I didn't want to keep monopolizing his time.

All hell broke loose is an apt phrase in this case.

Fred sent me an email so hot flames were rolling off my inbox. He said was a "real" writer and I never would be. He told me he'd forgotten more about writing than I'd ever know, and I didn't have enough talent to write for a school paper, much less a bona fide publisher. He said he'd only told me my work was good to begin with because he felt sorry for me. He said most of the readers were laughing behind my back because I was so pathetic, and I was totally delusional if I ever hoped to make a living as a writer. He ended the email with the equivalent of "bite me."

It hurt. I'd be lying if I said it didn't, but I was fortunate enough to have had enough valid critiques at that point to be able to separate the meat from the sour grapes. I was able to push past it and keep writing. I still don't know why Fred turned on me like he did, or why he decided to go for the jugular, but here are two things I do know: nobody can make me stop writing but me, and a real critique--even when it's largely negative--is meant to help you become a better writer, not tear down your confidence.

So whether you're just starting out or have fifty books under your belt, if you're thinking about taking on a critique partner it's not a bad idea to be wary. If it sounds like your crit partner is trying to be deliberately hurtful, or if he/she is beginning to veer off the novel and has started treading into personal territory, it might be time to move on. Making a valid point about your work is one thing, but trying to devalue you as a both a person and a writer is a whole different, ugly animal.

One final note about Fred: he sent me a long letter after my first novel made it into print. Told me he'd known all along I would be published one day, and he hoped we could put all that ugliness behind us. Hitting the delete button on that one was one of the most satisfying experiences I've ever had.