For Writers: Three Observations After Months of Critiquing

In January of 2014 I began working on a MFA in creative writing with the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, majoring in fiction writing.  I love the program, which is academically demanding but not academically snobby.  All good writing is appreciated and respected, whether “literary” or “commercial”—and often it is a matter of “both/and” rather than “either/or.”   So in my fiction workshop class, in which I was reading the work of other students, it was interesting—and also a good exercise in flexibility—to be moving whidbey viewconstantly between experimental writing, science fiction, mystery, historical fiction, women’s fiction, and stories that resisted classification.  I learned a lot from the experience of reading my classmates’ work and having them read mine.  But as I look back on the semester, there are three things that stand out to me:

1.  Don’t judge a story by its first draft.  In workshop I was submitting chapters that had been heavily revised at least twice, sometimes three or four times.  Some of my gutsy classmates, putting their pride on the line, submitted stories that were brand new.  Naturally those manuscripts contained a lot of problems; that’s the way first drafts are.  But they also contained initial elements of beauty and strength.  The class and the teacher (Bruce Holland Rogers) gave recommendations for improvement, and when the authors revised the stories it was exciting to see what developed.  A first draft guesses at things.  Revision makes things clear.  Anyway, it should, because . . .

2.  Clarity isn’t everything, but the lack of it sure frustrates the reader.  As we were reading and commenting on each other’s work, I was surprised by how often the comments centered on confusion.  Some of this came from inconsistency.  (“Here your character is saying A, but a few pages back he said B.  Was he lying then?  Is he lying now?  Did something change?”)  Very often it came from lack of details that would help orient the reader.  (“The scene changed—I think—but I can’t tell where this is taking place now.  How about some clues?”)  Or sometimes necessary are details left out.  (“You say Charles had been watching Martin, but I didn’t even know Martin was around.”)  Having read and made these kinds of comments all semester, I now find myself watching for such mistakes in my own work when I read back over a scene I have written.  These are relatively easy to correct once we have spotted them.  The problem is that we tend to read right over them in our work because we already see the scene as we have imagined it.  The reader doesn’t.  But the reader WANTS to.  Clear up the confusion, and the reader has a much better chance of following and seeing.

3.  Reviewers can make all the comments and recommendations they want, but final decisions rest with the author.    Bruce emphasized this several times over the course of the semester, and of course it’s true.  But until this class (which, as I said, involved a lot of fiction types), I had never seen so clearly how different readers will come to a work of fiction with different expectations.  Because of their own background, they may read a piece with deep empathy for the characters and their situation . . . or they may not relate to the issues at all.  One person may be put off by something in the story, while another reader says, “That’s where it felt very real to me.”  In critiquing sessions where people are in agreement over the problems in a story, at least the author has a sense for how to proceed with revision.  Dealing with disparate or even conflicting advice is more confusing.  That is when the author really has to go back to his or her vision for the story and ask, “What do I believe the story needs?”

From personal experience I know it is possible to over-revise.  Maybe it comes from a misplaced “perfectionism,” a fear of making mistakes.  We get so used to making changes that whenever a reader questions something, well, we change the manuscript again.  But that’s a good way to create a story that’s only half ours.  And when it’s only half ours, chances are it’s inconsistent and only half alive.  When a reader suggests a change, does something within us say, “Yes, that’s what I want for the story”?  That’s the deciding factor.

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