I belong to a wonderful group of writers1 who meet monthly to give feedback on our fiction writing, with the occasional poem and non-fiction piece thrown in for variety. We’ve been together for years and have become very good friends.
We generally like each others’ writing. Sure, we have plenty of suggestions and ideas for how to improve each piece, and the discussions can get pretty lively with lots of points of view. But, overall, we like each others’ work.
Most of the time.
Sometimes one of us will dislike2 the odd story or chapter. The discussion always starts out slowly, but once we get warmed up, the inhibition goes down and we can be pretty ruthless. It’s all in the interest of constructive criticism, but when you’re on the receiving end of negative commentary, even seemingly benign stuff can feel like an quick jab to the solar plexus.3
To deal with these awkward, organ-crunching instances, we’ve created the “You’re not my target audience” defence mechanism. When you’re on the verge of crying or punching a good friend’s critical lights out, a “You’re not my target audience” through a clenched-teeth smile is our safety tap. Our “Back off, motherfucker, or you’re going to have my hari-kari on your conscience.”
I think it takes incredible balls to send your work out for critique. Even to people you trust and like. Even when you know the critiquers4 have your best interests at heart.
Sending your work out to complete strangers? Now, that’s just nuts.
Several months ago I sent out my sort-of-finished novel to the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia’s Atlantic Writing Competition. The contest is unique in that every entrant receives feedback from the judges, win or lose.5
I was confident sending in my novel. I knew I would never win, but I was happy to finally have something semi-worthwhile to submit. As we came closer to receiving the judges’ comments, however, I got more and more nervous and embarrassed. What was I thinking putting my piece in this competition? The comp skews heavily in favour of literary works, and my piece is about as non-literary as one can get. Despite my terror, I did eventually open the envelope when it arrived.
First judge’s comments:
“I totally enjoyed this story and read it in one day. I love the relationship between the women—reminiscent of Candace Bushnell does the Maritimes. However, lose all the extra e-mails, forwarded jokes, etc. It bogged down a great piece of work. With some work this could be a great take on chick lit. Don’t give up on this one!”
Well, colour me stunned. That was worth the $30 entry fee alone.
Second judge’s comments:
“Fiction is an art form.6 It transforms and heightens reality to make a particular author’s perceptions and view of life interesting to others. What you present here seems like a direct copy of text messages between people we don’t know. In fact, some of the “forwarded messages” I’ve received myself. If you use a format such as this, it would be advisable to condense and refine it, to avoid the endless repetitions and useless markings and spacing. Also the profusion of typos and misspellings,7 even though they do appear in many text messages, become quite annoying in a written work. The Prologue and Epilogue are intended to give this some structure, but the characters are not sufficiently developed or described to give them any individual identity, and unless these people become real to the reader, their lives do not evoke much sympathy or concern.”8
Knowing what an oversensitive stress-bag I am, you must be wondering why this one didn’t elicit the afore-mentioned ritual self-disembowelment.
Well, it’s mostly because I read the other judge’s comments first.9 Not only did the first judge’s comments make me all warm and glowy inside and out, but the juxtaposition with these comments also highlighted in storey-high neon letters that, Judge #2? NOT MY TARGET AUDIENCE.
I mean, it’s like they didn’t even read the same book. And that’s perfectly OK. I know my book won’t appeal to A LOT of people. But those who like it, seem to like it a lot. This poor soul clearly did not get what I was trying to do or say and I feel for him/her—it would be torture to have to trudge through an entire book you hated or didn’t “get.” I know, because that’s how I feel about a lot of literary fiction. Luckily, I am not contractually obligated to finish a book I don’t like. These judges—volunteers who make a huge commitment of time and energy to help aspiring writers like me—have to read whatever they get handed. This judge must have been ready to rip his/her eyeballs out after the first chapter.
Point #1: Not everyone will love everything you do. When you’re feeling battered and bruised by rejection, repeat this saying in your head or aloud (as the situation permits) to your rejector: “I fart in your general direction.”
No, no no. That’s not it.10 Rather, say, “YOU ARE NOT MY TARGET AUDIENCE.” Say it whether you believe it's true or not. Trust me. Just say it.
Point #2: Congratulations and respect to the winners of the Atlantic Writing Competition.11 But, really, all of the entrants are winners. Not because we all get desperately coveted feedback, but because we had the courage to send our babies out there into the cruel, merciless world of the Judgey MacJudgersons.
I know I’m proud.14 I hope all of my co-entrants are, too. We did it! Well done! We rock! We write! We rebound!
And the-e-en, we write again...16
1. I call us “The Fictionaries.” Admittedly a little poofty, but, damn, don't I think I’m clever sometimes.
3. Like this. With the bad hair. And the people laughing at you as your writhe on the floor. Yep, making you stronger.
4. Is “critiquer” a word? Critic seems too Roger Ebert-y.
5. It may not sound like much, but in an industry where feedback is practically non-existent (unless your book/story/article is picked up/signed by a journal/publisher/agent), this can be gold.
6. Uh oh. This ain’t gonna be good.
7. The typos and misspellings are on purpose. Seriously.
8. This critique was typed, by the way. And I left in the two spaces the critic used between the sentences. Just sayin’.
9. Props to WFNS for ordering the judges’ comments appropriately. Methinks they’ve talked more than one destroyed writer down from a ledge and thus know what they’re doing!
10. But, after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
11. I hate you. I fart in your general direction. With a French accent.12
12. Just kidding!13
13. Except about the French accent.
14. And eternally grateful to the judges. ALL of them.15
15. But especially to my Judge #1. XO!
16. Caper inside joke. :-)