Growing Pains–Meet “Critique Jerk”

dibboss 

Critique has been a popular topic this month and has generated a lot of feedback and questions. Today I am going to debunk some myths about critique.

When I posted “Critique—If You Can’t Stand the Heat, then Get Out of the Kitchen,” some interesting commentary surfaced, but a lion’s share seemed to revolve around the nefarious breed of critic who apparently is so powerful, he or she has the power to crush a writer’s dreams. Like other creatures of the night, it was alleged that the Malus Critiqueus not only could give bad advice, but also apparently had the power to drain ambition and creative power like a succubus, leaving a hollowed out husk of what used to be an aspiring author who now cannot even bear to open Word.

Give me a break.

I will still stand by my assertion, All critique is useful. Just not all of it is valuable.

***A Note of Importance for All, but Especially New Authors

Before continuing, I would like to point out that good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.

A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.

Think of your time in critique like going to the gym. The goal is the happy medium. If after exercising you need ice and prompt medical attention? That is bad. If you don’t so much as break a sweat? You are wasting your time. A good critique is like a good workout. You want to walk away sore. It means you are pushing your limits, and therefore growing and getting stronger.

With that clarified, on to myth-busting…

Myth #1 Malus Critiqueus exists.

Um…no. No such thing. There is no Malus Critiqueus…but there are some people who happen to just be jerks. They were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps. And here is a dose of reality….fully expect to find at least one of these folk in a writing group. Why wouldn’t you? Come on! Think about it. Most of us work or have worked day jobs. Didn’t there seem to be some sort of a hidden @$$hole quota? Like HR was tucked away in their offices watching a panel of hidden cameras?

Hmmm. All the folk over in accounting seem to be getting along. How about hiring that guy with that special talent for making people feel like an idiot? You know, the one who we can count on to make everyone dread coming into work. That guy.

Now Critique Jerk can take the fun out of a meeting, but always remember….he has the right to be wrong. But, better still, you have the right to be RIGHT.

Myth #2—Critique Jerks should be avoided.

Jerks are everywhere. And they are like an allergen. They get under our skin and make us puff up and wheeze and wish we were dead. But, the best way to get over this kind of severe reaction? Small exposures. Build an immunity. This person’s comments may make us want to scream and shout and carry an automatic weapon, but it isn’t going to get any easier. Also, since a lot of critique groups/writing groups are open to the public, it will be next to impossible to keep the Critique Jerk out—and you can count on this guy to have perfect attendance. So what can you do? You cannot control Critique Jerk, but you can refuse to add fuel to his fires. Just refuse to engage him and focus on the only thing within your control—your reaction.

Myth #3 Critique Jerks will eventually go away.

No, they just change form. Mean people do not disappear simply because we get published. If anything, they multiply in number and escalate in intensity. This is what Critique Jerks prepare us for.

There are actually people out there with nothing better to do than write hateful notes to authors. Bob could tell you some stories. Writers are also in a profession that is very public and open to the world for evisceration. Book reviewers can be brutal enough, but now with the wide-open world of the Internet, any twerp’s opinion can be up for public display….permanently.

A couple of months ago, I went to a friend’s book signing, and she was nearly in tears after some random person left a hateful review on Amazon. It didn’t matter that there were 42 other positive reviews. This one nasty human being managed to suck all the joy out of what should have been a really wonderful day. But, to give credit, my friend did hold it together very well. She exhibited true grace under fire…the sort of composure that, for most of us, does not come naturally. It is developed.

 Myth#4—Critique Jerks can derail a career.

So you may think the jerk in your writing group serves no purpose, but he does. He is there to rub and rub and rub and rub on you….until you build a callous. Publishing is brutal, and the thicker our skin, the better the chances we survive and thrive.

Critics (critiquers), in my opinion, only have the power we give them. As authors, there is a certain amount of responsibility we shoulder, and it is unwise to hand the keys to the kingdom to others. Professionals understand that knowledge is power. They actively read and educate themselves every day in order to arm and prepare against the onslaught of negativity and bad advice.

And not to be a smart-aleck, but how far can anyone’s bad advice really lead us astray without our own consent?

All writers should have a basic command of the English language. Don’t laugh. There are some great story-tellers who wouldn’t know a dangling participle if it bit them on the leg. That said, if punctuation and grammar are weaknesses, then it would be wise to read more books on these subjects. Eats, Shoot & Leaves (Lynne Truss), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar & Style (Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D. D. Rozakis), The Elements of Style (Strunk & White).

If you are a grammar Nazi, but story structure is a weakness, then look for books on the craft of writing. The Novel Writers Toolkit (Bob Mayer), The Writer’s Journey (Christopher Vogler),On Writing (Stephen King), Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), Hooked (Les Edgerton), etc.

Go to writing conferences and instead of hitting every class on landing an agent, go to some of the classes that teach about the craft. Listen to experts.

Again, knowledge is power. Knowledge will help refine one’s ability to discern good advice from bad advice. The more education one has, the harder it is to be misled. To rely solely on the feedback of one critic or even a critique group is, at best, foolishness. And if we are too lazy to read books, and blogs, and articles, and do all the things professionals do…then we deserve what we get.

Myth #5 Critique Jerks can steal our dreams.

Malus Critiqueus is the Boogeyman of the writing world, an urban legend. No person should have the power to take away your passion. Bob Mayer tells this story in his workshops, but it is a perfect illustration. 

A young man received a violin when he was a boy, and started to play. He practiced and practiced and actually got quite good.

One day, he heard a great violin master was coming to his town, so the young man decided to play for the master and get his feedback.

The master agreed to see him and the young man played his violin as hard and as well as he could. When he was finished, he asked the master how he did and the master replied, “Not enough passion.” And turned and left.

The young man was crushed. He put his violin away and never played it again.

A few years later, the same master returned to the town, and the young man saw him at a party. The young man approached him and said, “Master, the last time you were here, I played for you. You said I did not have enough passion.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, I stopped playing the violin.”

The master replied, “I say that to everyone. In your case, I guess I was right.”

There are all sorts of ways to find a good critique group—fellow writers, the Internet, the public library, local chapters of RWA. But, in my opinion, the worst sort of critique group (or critique partner) is one that holds our hand and does not challenge us to grow. In fact, the only thing worse is the group or person who charges us money to have our hands held. Again, think of the gym analogy. We want a good personal trainer. The pill that promises us instant weight-loss and a six-pack abs with no sweat, no effort, and no discomfort is probably a scam.

Critique groups or editors who promise a pain-free experience aren’t doing us any favors. NY is not going to baby our feelings. There are too many other talented authors out there who have the skin of a rhinoceros, who can take the truth on the chin and keep on chugging. With this said, though, critique should also be productive. If you feel like throwing yourself off something very high after every critique…it is probably time to look for another group.  

The best critique partner or group challenges you, but also helps keep the fires of your passion burning bright.

But the person who succeeds will sometimes get there with luck. Most of the time, though, she gets there because she never, ever, ever, ever, ever gives up…no matter what anyone says.

Happy writing! Until next time…

 

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  1. #1 by jasonamyers on August 27, 2009 - 8:00 pm

    Hey Kristen,
    Good topic again. I was met with something very similar to this last night. It’s up to the writer to decide what he or she is going to do, not anyone else. When the rubber meets the road, it’s your baby. You are your biggest road block. By letting other people dictate to you, not only what you can or cannot write, but in all facets of your life. So often people allow other to send them on guilt trips and to feel miserable, but guess what!? You have to allow those others to make you feel that way. Take that power away from them, and then only you decide on how happy you will be and how far you will go.

  2. #2 by Bob Mayer on August 27, 2009 - 10:39 pm

    I used to get upset at some Amazon reviews. I don’t even look now. First, you have to understand only a certain percentage of people post reviews and sometimes their motives aren’t pure. Second, there’s nothing you can do about it.
    Anger is an indicator. I really focus on when I get angry. I’ve learned it means something has touched a defense in me. This is one of the lessons of Warrior Writer.
    Letting other people stop is actually you stopping yourself.

  3. #3 by Jenni Holbrook on August 28, 2009 - 3:03 am

    I had a very wise grandfather growing up. One of the things he always told me was to always consider the source. He would go on to explain that consider didn’t mean if you don’t like it, then don’t listen to it, but consider why the source is getting under your skin or making you feel a certain way.

    I’ve been involved in many critique groups. Some good. Some not so good. When i consider critiquing now, I consider what I bring to the table, and what the other person brings to the table. If those things fit, then we can have a working relationship. Key point, a “working” relationship. I am an author. This is my profession. I take it very seriously. It’s a job to me, not a hobby.

    With that said, I’m lucky, my cp, while brutal at times, is also a friend. Me a happy camper!

  4. #4 by Anasazi Stories by Jeff Posey on August 28, 2009 - 5:11 pm

    I love Bob’s lesson — if something makes you angry, examine why. There’s a reason. There’s value in figuring out that reason. You don’t have control over what made you angry, but you have control over what you choose to do with that anger.

    I experienced that directly in Bob’s class. Kristen and Bob said my use of words such as “planet” and “comet” took them out of the historical context of my novel, and my hackles went up. But through the hackles I heard Kristen make a suggestion that ticked me off at the time — to look up the entymological roots of the word and build alternative way to say it. Sure enough, the root of “comet,” the descriptive source for Aristotle to coin the word to begin with, is “kometes,” which means “wearing long hair.” Hence now my use of “long-haired star” in my historical fiction to mean “comet.”

    That’s interesting and all and I love it, but why did it tick me off? Because I’d already thought about and addressed the language thing in my book (so I thought). And because I often check the roots of words like Kristen suggested. I just hadn’t checked that word. I hadn’t taken my own initiative far enough. My anger was really self-anger. I’d started down the right road, I just hadn’t completed the journey. I’d gotten sloppy. They called me on it. Took me days to realize the reason for my anger. And I appreciate the hell out of what they did.

    I seek more.

    –Jeff Posey

    • #5 by warriorwriters on August 28, 2009 - 5:44 pm

      Awww…make me tear up. I am so glad my suggestion was so helpful. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here. it is really, really appreciated.

    • #6 by Jason Myers on August 31, 2009 - 1:13 pm

      HA! Yes, Kristen can make your hackles rise up. Well, they did mine, originally, but now…NOW…I want her to feedback. If you had her help writing a story, your story would be significantly better than if you did it alone. She’s given me so many good ideas, and 99% of them have made their way into my stories. She has a knack for turning pedestrian prose into something amazing.

  5. #7 by ruthsims on August 28, 2009 - 8:44 pm

    Very astute observations, which at first blush I thought were very insensitive. On reflection, I realized I was wrong.

    I’ve never been subjected to the SuperJerk type of “critique,” but a dear friend was, and she was so devastated she gave up writing. She was new, had never read anything to a group before, and made the mistake of shyly mentioning before she started that she hadn’t been to college. That particular group was made up of college graduates of the educational/intellectual snob variety (i.e. if you don’t have letters after your name you’re garbage.) She was scared to death to read, but she managed to do it. It needed work, of course. She knew it did, and had explained that it was a draft. (Probably another mistake, with that group of barraducas).

    The comments were hateful, completely unhelpful, and mean-spirited. One of them literally threw his copy across the table toward her and snapped, “Who’d ever want to read this sh*t?” And as I said, she has never written another word that I know of.

    Incidentally, that particular copy-throwing genius read Chapter 30-something of his novel…and when he finally stopped, one of his friends gushed, “Wonderful! Your characters are really starting to develop!”

    Sheesh.

    And to add insult to injury, it was a group that received grant money from the state’s Arts budget, meaning my friend as a taxpayer was helping to fund them!

    • #8 by warriorwriters on August 28, 2009 - 8:58 pm

      Well, my heart breaks that your friend had to go through that. But, it isn’t over until you’re dead. Maybe send her by this blog. Sadly, there are groups like that. I know the first time I was ever critiqued, one woman (a published author) snapped, “This is crap!” and tossed my pages over her shoulder. I sat in the car and cried…and then I got angry. I went back to the drawing board, and worked harder than ever. Looking back? She was correct. It was crap. Worse still, I had an inflated ego and was unteachable (at the time). She punctured that and tore down my bravado….and in the end I am a better writer than I ever imagined. The best revenge is success…. :)

  6. #9 by ruthsims on August 29, 2009 - 5:56 am

    >>She was correct. It was crap. Worse still, I had an inflated ego and was unteachable (at the time). She punctured that and tore down my bravado….and in the end I am a better writer than I ever imagined. The best revenge is success…<<.

    I'm so glad it has worked out for you. And I think every piece of writing can be improved. Lord knows I revise to the point of madness!

    Your first effort might very well have been as bad as she (and you) thought. And my friend's writing needed improvement. She was an admitted beginner. But there just is no justification for cruelty and feelings of superiority disguised as criticism, is there. No good teacher ever taught anything through meanness and sheer cussedness.

    • #10 by warriorwriters on August 30, 2009 - 5:20 pm

      True…but the plain fact is that there are mean people everywhere. We have to work on ourselves to limit the power they have over our dreams. If you read Bob Mayer’s book “Who Dares Wins,” he talks about how those steeped in mediocrity will actually attack those with talent with the most voracity. When we made a decision to be elite, we have to expect resistance, sometimes NASTY resistance. Anyone who even finishes a book (even a crappy one) is way ahead of the curve and already among a rare percentage.

      Those who like the status quo will often react and sabotage.

      The purpose of this blog is to point out the pink elephant in the room and empower people. By saying, “Yeah, jerks are everywherre,” we deflate the power they hold by reminding ourselves that, ultimately, we are in charge of our future. And, truthfully, if you aren’t being criticised, then you aren’t attempting anything worthwhile, :D.

      And they do teach by being mean and horrible….just not writing, LOL. They teach us to have the courage to move beyond a toxic situation. We are part of the human condition, and sadly…jerks are a part of it.

  7. #11 by ruthsims on August 30, 2009 - 6:43 pm

    >>>And they do teach by being mean and horrible….just not writing, LOL. They teach us to have the courage to move beyond a toxic situation.<<<

    I yield! — lol You are so right. If it had happened to me I would have been furious, hurt, cried in my car, then turned the air blue by referring in private to their entire matriarchal and patriarchal heritage, intelligence, species, and the unnatural things they could do to themselves on a city street at high noon. And then I would have forgot about it;I don't bruise easily. But what made it so unforgettable and vicious was that they caused such lasting pain to someone I care about, even though they knew she was a novice, and anyone with an IQ over 10 could see that it had taken all the courage she possessed to read her effort.

    But you are right. Jerks are part of us. That still doesn't keep me from imagining them on a city street at high noon…. (g)

    I'm new to this blog, but I must say I have enjoyed being able to vent about the jerks.

  8. #12 by Anasazi Stories by Jeff Posey on August 30, 2009 - 6:44 pm

    This conversation reminds me of a story I dumped into my “Quotes” file twenty-five years ago (From “How Would Confucius Ask for a Raise?: One Hundred Enlightened Solutions For Tough Business Problems” by Carol Orsborn, William Morrow and Company Inc., © 1994.:

    In Australia there is a certain type of crab used for fish bait. Once caught, they are kept in open buckets on the pier.

    These crabs are excellent climbers. Any one of these crabs could easily crawl up the side of the bucket and over the edge to freedom. But the fishermen don’t need to worry about this.

    Why?

    That the crabs don’t escape is not for lack of trying. One crab or another is always on his way up, scrambling toward the light.

    However, as soon as the crab separates himself from the pile and makes a run for it, the other crabs reach out for him and pull him back down. No crab has ever been known to escape.

    Yet.

  9. #13 by ruthsims on August 30, 2009 - 7:09 pm

    That story about says it all, doesn’t it. Maybe evolution hasn’t taken us as far away from the animal kingdom as we like to think it has.

    Come to think about it, those crabs sound like our (US)political party candidates at primary election time.

  10. #14 by Bob Mayer on August 31, 2009 - 3:18 pm

    I actually had a friend take the opening chapter of one of my published books to a workshop run by a ‘Visiting Writer’ at the local university. She read it in his class and he told her it was complete crap.
    Of course he’s had two books published in 35 years, but he was an expert. One book as a collection of 5 short stories published, you got it, 35 years ago, and the other was his AA journal.
    I just got invited to teach at an MFA program in January. I was amazed that the Director told me their goal was to produce students who could get PUBLISHED. Not just get a piece of paper. So things are changing in some places.

  11. #15 by Jenni Holbrook on August 31, 2009 - 3:58 pm

    When I first started writing I had an old friend offer to “critique” my work. He had one book published non-fiction book about 20 years ago and since then he has been trying to sell his fiction work (still unpublished to this day). I had never read his un published fiction, though we had many conversations about writing, so I figured why not. No one had ever read my work before. A few days later I got an email back that stated the following “Jen. I don’t know how to tell you this, but no editor or agent would get past the first sentence before sending this manuscript to the paper shredder.” There was more, but it just gets worse. Now, I have a tough skin, just ask Kristen, or even Bob, as they both have “ripped” my work a part. Brutal. Kidding, sort of. I want to know what is wrong, so I can fix it. However, I read that, closed my laptop, and cried for two weeks. I didn’t write. I couldn’t. I sucked. I figured, why bother. Then I got pissed. How dare he? I mean, that was just plain mean. There are nicer ways to say, um, seriously sweetheart, this needs a major overhaul. I went back to the email, read the entire email (which I hadn’t before) and opened up the actual manscript with he’s very few comments. I then, tried to figure out what made sense, and what didn’t. I realized something, I didn’t suck, though in all fairness, it wasn’t very good, but there was something there. I knew. Either that, or my own judgment could not be trusted. The comments had nothing to do with the book, the characters, the ideas, or how I presented it. The comments were hurtful, nothing more, nothing less. This is when I decided to learn from the real experts. Not that you can’t learn from other writers who are not published, or newly published, you can, however, in order to gain the confidence to be able to decipher what is good honest feedback, and what isn’t you need to learn about craft, study it, study successful authors, their books, what works, what doesn’t, etc. There is always someone out there that just wants to tear someone down. That manuscript, while I have revised, has finaled in 4 RWA writing contests, won two (The Beacon and The Molly) and will be published by The Wild Rose Press in November.

  12. #16 by online stock trading guru on January 11, 2010 - 12:11 am

    what a great site and informative posts, I will add a backlink and bookmark your site. Keep up the good work!

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