There we go! A concept plus a location- Yes, I like that very much.
I’m in a writing class where we critique each other’s writing nearly every class. While some other people are getting tired of reading stories, and how certain writings are starting to blend together, I’m getting more and more enamored with the style of other people’s writing and the way of critiquing. Plus, I quite enjoy having my own material read and getting immediate feedback (I’m a sorry sucker for instant gratification).
Unfortunately, there seems to be a few common pitfalls in critiquing.
1) Confusing a mistake on your part with an author’s bad writing: So basically, what happens in class is that a student asks for the author to change something or another because they couldn’t understand it. This will be great, especially for realistic writers, when they aren’t trying to befuddle the reader. And there are plot holes and incongruity with certain themes and characters that the author wasn’t aware of and wouldn’t care for. However, more often than not, the reader has misread something or wasn’t reading closely enough. I am perhaps equating ‘make this clearer’ with ‘dumb this down’. I tend to like to be held from the truth, a little bit of mystery, or the author pointing a vague path that I will have to tread on my own- I feel it says something of my intelligence and is bred from respect. Once you get rid of that, I feel as if someone is holding my hand.
2) Trying to make a piece perfect: I can’t count the number of times someone has said “I really like this part, but I think it can be better”. Of course, writing can always be better, but giving this sort of advice so the author can attempt some sort of ideal, especially one that is the product of your own mind, is feeding a OCD part of the mind that can really, really, truly mess a writer up. Note that this isn’t merely ‘don’t correct them’; it’s ‘overcorrecting them’. What if your grandmother baked a cake; you loved it; she asks your opinion and you say, “Oh! It was delicious!” and then “It could be sweeter, though.” For me, it’s like you’re on the edge of perfection. At the same time, very much near too sweet. With writing, readers would find it obvious you are ‘trying too hard’.
3)Trying to get the author to write like you: I’ve done this. I’m a pretty open-minded writer (this isn’t just me tootin’; people have told me), but there are borderline pieces that I’m just not interested in and so I say something that I recognize later- that isn’t what that author was going for! How terrible of me! In these cases, the reader fails to put him or herself in the author’s shoes and doesn’t try to peel apart the psychology not only of the piece, but of the author as well. That is the great magic of reading and writing, I think, to spread such ideas. (Of course, you probably already know this).
I once had a teacher who said that it doesn’t matter what the author intended, but it is what you finally feel. I disagree. I can’t trust a reader who doesn’t have me in mind. In that class, he was talking particularly about William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. He said not to reference them in our essays because, quite frankly, they’re dead and they wouldn’t care. But I can’t fathom how we can have a so-called accurate reading, or even a wrong reading, if we don’t see the writing in the frame of the author’s mind?
But that’s exactly what happens in writing class: students (including myself) try to fit a story into our own frame of mind. With a critique, a criticism is thinly veiling “I don’t really like this. Can you change what you meant and your effects or affections and your opinions and your style so that I can like it better?” How would you feel if we took this further- “Hey, Shakespeare’s writing is awesome. would be great if he wrote a detective novel sometime!” Yea, because that’s Shakespeare.
4) Failing to realize character: This is where the title of this post comes from and will lead to the second part of this post. When there happens to be a lot of dialogue in a text, or when a piece is particularly character-driven, this critique is ripe for the picking. Something about a character seems off. Sure, there may something strange about a character that the author did not intend, but, especially in my class, when there is a teenager, this person has to be the perfect teenager (but throw in something special, but nothing too special- perfection comes in here too), if there is a male adult, have him be the perfect male (but not cliche!), if there is a doctor, we have to recognize every detail of them to be a doctor (but don’t hit us over the head with it). See where I’m going with this?
This actually happens quite often in all critiques of characters. Nobody wants a cookie-cutter stereotype or someone boring- but at the same time, numerous times, numberless times, people reference these cookie-cutters to justify a critique, not realizing that people and characters come in all shape and sizes. For example, in class, there’s a piece a writing that starts off with two freshmen high-schoolers talking about girls. One guy teases the other guy about how he’s never even spoken to a girl, and then they go on to talk about how kissing someone might be gross. Later on, they argue and get angry with one another, and they start cursing a lot.
Most of the class complained how they weren’t acting like high schoolers, more like middle schoolers. At most I would grant these two guys are fourteen years old, so I was like… What? These guys are in their second year of adolescence and you think they are too immature on those criteria?
It baffled me more when my fellow peers, most of then no older than eighteen, kept referring to the two characters as kids. Constantly. This is my fourth year in college, so a lot of my friends call these freshmen ‘kids’, and my friends, as well, believe that some of the freshmen are ‘too immature’. What I’m trying to piece out is, how can you have such a fixation on the age of a person, refer to them based on their age, and have some absurd expectations based on their age that goes beyond your fixation. I’m having trouble thinking of an example… Ah, Fright Fest at Six Flags. We call it Fright Fest, constantly. Then we finally hear about Fright Fest from a person’s mouth and then we respond reprovingly, “You made it sound too scary.” How can you call something “Fright Fest” or someone “a kid” and then frown at how they fit your description of them?
But mainly, in the particular example of the two high schoolers, I don’t think my peers remember much about ninth grade. At least two of them remarked how they ‘didn’t act like that’ when they were fourteen, and there were multiple nods of agreement. Here, it is also blatant how they are ignoring character. The people in a story aren’t you or any of the people you know.
The pitfalls above are just a few of many. However, ascertaining these characteristics of critiques has me trying to work around them without changing too much of myself.
I’m writing another chapter for Malé, and Kaaliya is supposed to be enjoying himself in the most physically sensual sense with his new lover Thana. All of a sudden a dilemma arises, a dilemma that I had never dreamed of and, quite frankly, I want to ignore it for the time being, because I want to write something more physical. Kaaliya refuses, and I ended up having to work around it.
That’s what happens when a story is already in your head and you start writing the details. I can tell I’m at a writer’s block when my character stops thinking for itself and I have to think of things for it to do instead writing of the things it does.
Sometimes a character that has nothing to do with the story I’m writing appears in my mind and starts shouting about what they want and how they are going to do it and how I have to write about it that very instant. This happens a lot when I’m doing homework or studying- “Oh, you’re working? How about you write about this adventure I had down by the river? No? Are you sure? Come on, take a break. I’m a hermaphrodite with a spanking fetish! I just met a guy who was going to fulfill all my needs. He was bathing in the water- yea, I got your attention now, don’t I? How about how I’m pregnant from another man, who isn’t giving me what I want? Yep, you’re sold, aren’t you? Alright, here’s how it went-”