One favorite line I use when teaching writing classes is from the poet John Masefield: "Great art does not proceed from great criticism but from great encouragement." I do believe that encouragement is essential. My best feature as a dissertation adviser, in my view, was my ability to make my graduate students believe in themselves and just keep on writing. Get it down on paper, and we can fix it up later. We can't fix up something that exists only in someone's head - or doesn't yet exist at all.
But I might be ready to change my mind about Masefield's edict. On Wednesday night, I received great criticism on my novel-in-progress from a new writing group I've joined, as my old, dear, most beloved writing group is currently transitioning to a format based more on mutual support (that is to say, encouragement) rather than the biweekly critique sessions that structured our encounters for the past 22 years. So I joined a new group to seek out the critique I continue to need on my work. For how can a writer know if she's succeeded in connecting with her readers if she doesn't actually find some readers and ask them what they think?
On Wednesday night I had a powerful reminder of how great criticism can be. I received brilliant comments both large and small and left not only with a sense of what the book lacked but a plan for exactly how to address each problem noted.
I don't want to give away details of the plot at this point, but here are the kinds of comments I received.
There are inconsistencies between how I set up certain relationships at the beginning of the book and what I delivered as the story unfolded, a result, of course, of my learning more about the characters after living with them during the writing of the book. Now I need to go back to those first chapters and make them comport with the later ones.
The big reveal of the book is powerful and a surprise for the reader: "I didn't see that coming." Good! Nonetheless, I need to do more to prepare the reader for it, so that the reader reacts with seeing how totally RIGHT this moment is, rather than being puzzled by it. I'm going for "Yes!" rather than "Huh?"
The time frame needs more clarity: when exactly does Hunter start to change? Can there be more red herrings that Autumn and her family entertain in their wonderment about why he now acts as he does?
The particular way that I chose to heighten the significance of Autumn's key choice at the end of the novel requires the reader to swallow an enormous coincidence: can I achieve the same effect in some less contrived way? (I hope so!)
If the book opens with Autumn on her way to an appointment with her orthodontist dad, should we have additional mention of her braces throughout the book? (Yes! And what if she has food stuck in them during the crucial dance scene?)
I use the word "that" far too often. "She noticed that he had changed" could just be "She noticed he had changed." (I spent a solid hour yesterday eliminating dozens of "that"s - in one case, four in a single sentence. I always like to start with low-hanging fruit, easy cosmetic changes, as I let the big deep ones simmer).
So: thank you, thank you, thank you ,to Jen, Jenn, Vanessa, Laura, Michelle, and Tracy. May we all be grateful to those who give us the gift of truly beautiful critique.