I am very fortunate to have two excellent supervisors for my PhD. My primary supervisor oversees my theoretical and critical work, my secondary supervisor acts in the spirit of a critical friend. She reads the work I’m producing for the creative part of the PhD, and gives me very good, very deep critiques.
I thought I’d pass on our process, because I think it is a very creative relationship. I’m pretty sure the institution is not paying her enough money for the time and thought and focus she puts in to reviewing the creative writing efforts of her students. This is something that money can’t buy. The friendship, which one is taught to prize above money, is not with the writer, but with the work.
A Room With A View
To begin with, after she reads the piece, she gives me her ‘reading of it.’ This is an excellent humanities-based version of a checksum. A ‘do you see what I see’ process in which she, as a reader, tells me what she believes the story means and what my intentions as a writer were. This is a very fertile way to start the criticism process because:
- You know if you’ve really missed the mark in what you were aiming for (boo); or
- You’ve created a very layered work that can have a number of interpretations (yay).
Discerning the difference is a matter of honesty and an understanding that every reader brings their own life-experience to the work they read, and this will always colour the interpretation. However, honesty on the part of both reader and writer are necessary and, being, for instance, of Caribbean descent, she lets me know when something in my story brings up strong cultural resonances or divergences. This is critically important. You need to know how someone from another culture will read your work. That doesn’t mean you have to tailor it to their culture – only be aware of it. On the part of the writer, you need to be honest about what your writerly intentions are.
So, if you end up with opposite understandings of the text, then you have a problem. The writing is not good enough. If, on the other hand, the critics reading agrees broadly with yours, but their interpretation adds another dimension, then you’ve got a good thing happening. Every reader is going to ‘see’ the story through differently tinted lenses, but if what they’re seeing is something completely different, you haven’t succeeded in your aim.
The Importance of Being Ernest
Next, she examines her reactions to the characters. She does this by asking questions about them. When I answer those questions, she will either say something like: “Yes, this is also how I see him/her” or “Really? I read him/her differently.” Very often the issue is what is motivating the characters. And this will depend greatly on whether or not this character attracts reader ‘investment’ and how. ‘Investment’ doesn’t mean a reader has to like a character, but they do have to care about what happens to them. It’s good to know if you have reader investment or not. If you don’t, you haven’t succeeded in creating an interesting enough character. I have to say, I see this a lot in erotic fiction. If all I’m offered is a character who just wants sex, they’re disposable. Most of the world wants sex; It doesn’t make them special.
Then she looks at the language, line by line. She will catch almost every moment where I’ve lowered my guard and lapsed into laziness: where my metaphors or similes are cliche or stale and unevocative, hyperbolic or just uninteresting. Where I’ve used an adverb because I couldn’t be fucked to find a better verb. Similarly, she calls me out on dialogue that doesn’t ring true. Places where, for instance, I’ve let the necessities of the plot eclipse the truth of my character’s personalities. Sometimes she’ll point out a sentence and, without giving me any suggestions, simply say, “Make better.” I know what she means. I appreciate that she isn’t trying to re-write the work herself and that she trusts my judgement to know when I’ve been lax. I just needed it pointed out to me. Given the head’s up, I can indeed “Make better.”
The Time Machine
Finally, she is very honest about the pacing of the story. She notes exactly where her attention starts to wander. She’ll say – paragraph five, take out a sentence. The pace is lagging there. This is a very hard to take but critical part of the process. Writers have a tendency to think that everything they’ve written is necessary to the whole, but boring your reader is probably the worst thing you can do. Of course, there will be readers who simply aren’t interested in the subject of the story at all. That’s different. If they ARE interested, but you lose their attention, you haven’t written tight enough.
This isn’t an easy process, but its value is immeasurable. You now know what you’ve got on your hands and what you need to do to make your piece stronger. The proviso in all of this is that you both care more about the work than your own egos or opinions.
Setting up critical friendships is hard. You want someone who can be a stranger to your work, and you can be the same to theirs. You want to be able to come at the work without preconceptions of conventions or modes. A reader outside your immediate genre, but with eclectic reading tastes is best. Remember, this isn’t about making your work more salable, but simply making it a better piece of writing. You’ve got to be prepared to say: “I don’t understand.” This isn’t about who’s clever. There are different levels of dedication to writing. Some people do it as a hobby. Some write simply for masturbatory reasons. Some write because it feeds their ego to get praise for it. I am not a good critical friend for that person. I will expect more willingness to work, to rethink, to rewrite than they are willing to give. Pick someone whose level of commitment to their craft is similar to yours and who you respect. That way, every piece of feedback you give or get is going to be appreciated and considered and, if it is discarded, you will know that it is done for good reason and not out of pique.
As a writer, you have to be proud of what you write. You have to be happy to associate your name with the piece. Ultimately, the decision to act upon or ignore a good piece of criticism is yours alone. As it should be.