Thursday, September 26, 2013

The First Critique

              As we begin this episode of The Zealot, it is 2007 and we are at the Indiana Writer’s Center.  As you may remember, I had signed up for a class taught by David Hassler.  (yes, the same one on this blog)  As I recall, it was a six week, one night a week course.  It really tore into the nuts and bolts of fiction writing and I loved it.  When we reached the last night, David talked about a group he belonged to that met on the first and third Wednesdays of every month.  He called it a fiction critiquing group.  He suggested that if there was anyone in the class who had a short story or a novel or was thinking about writing one to show up and check out the group.

                I couldn’t believe my luck.  This sounded exactly like what I had been looking for.  I had just spent six weeks with this guy and he was very sharp and knew his stuff.  Now he was telling me he ran this critiquing group.  If this group was as good as he was, they could help me with my novel.  I didn’t get what I needed downtown.  I owed it to myself to at least go check them out.  David suggested to me to come observe and not submit the first time out.  Duh!  Good move.

                I did go to observe at the next meeting.  I was stunned when I walked in to the meeting that first night.  I thought I had gone to testosterone heaven.  It was like The Dead Poet’s Society.  It was a room of seven guys.  Oh my God!!  We could belch and fart to our heart’s content.  We could break out cigars and die in the smoke.  Moments later my heart sank and my dreams were shattered when one woman walked through the door. (and no, this was before Heather) David had me introduce myself and explain what I was working on.  We then went around the room, each person doing the same.  David finished the introductions, telling about himself and explaining the rules of the group.  Rules?  There are rules?  How very sophisticated of you, I thought.  You are about to rip into each other, but you are going to do it in a sophisticated way with a smile on your face?  Right.  I have to see this.  Trust me, there was nothing sophisticated about it.

 I decided to submit the first two chapters of my novel to the group for the next meeting.  Don’t ask me why.  For some sadistic reason, I had a bigger need inside me to get my manuscript fixed than to worry about bloodshed.  When we got started that night, they decided my piece needed to go first.  How nice of them.  I remember them smiling.  I know now from being an experienced member of the group, they enjoyed it.  One by one, they politely ripped into my flesh.  They mentioned terms such as POV, present tense, passive voice, too many characters in a scene, too many character’s name that sounded similar, and after that my brain shut down.

My history of chronic pain was taking over at that point and my brain was telling my legs to get the hell out of there before my arms killed someone.  Anger began to surge through my body.  Didn’t these people know the time I put into this?  Didn’t they know every human who had read this up till now had loved it?  Obviously these people were morons.  No wait, it gets better.  They are using terms that I don’t know what they meant.  And then when they were  done with me, they sat and smiled at me.

Are you kidding me?  David looked at me and politely, in an Ivy League way, and asked, “Do you have any questions?”  I’m thinking, “Really?  Do I have any questions?  Yeah, I do.  Lots of them.  First one is, would you guys go off and die?”  Of course I don’t ask any because I’m an inexperienced idiot and I don’t know what to ask.  At least I’m smart enough to know that.  I just shake my head no.  Steam rolls out my ears.  Then David smiles again and says, “Well, according to the rules, you pick the next one we critique and you start the comments.”  Can this get better?  I don’t know what I’m doing.  They just proved that.  Now I’m supposed to rip someone else.  How the hell am I supposed to do this?  I can hardly wait to do another evening of this.  I haven’t had this much fun since the last time I threw up.


  1. LOL, we've all been through that harrowing first time! You forgot to mention the bourbon, though....

  2. Yeah, well, you still don't smile Mike.

  3. I wish I had been there! Keith, this made me laugh out loud, but it also makes me ask myself (again) why we go through this and why we put ourselves through this. Continually.
    It does get better? Sort of?

  4. Now, now, Heather. You know the answer to that one. Let me put on my Dr. Phil hat for a moment. We do this for several reasons, but the biggest reason is because this group makes us much better writers and this process, at least for me, gave me a PH. D. in thick skin and creative writing. My next post will be very difficult for me because I will give up the humor and talk about the group and what those first few critiques were REALLY like for me, both good and bad. Heather, we have to face the criticism head-on and learn from it. Some of it is correct and some of it is not. We are the ones who choose to act on the information or not. No one is forcing us to use it. The group is there giving their critiques as a learning experience as well and out as a form of love, both of the writer and the craft.

  5. I think it's one of those elements of the hard work we have to do if we really have that commitment to making our writing the best it can be. As you said, Keith, we have to separate the wheat from the chaff, but even what we may consider the chaff will sneak up on us weeks or months later and smack us with the insight it grants us. Does being critiqued sting sometimes? Sure, but beyond that initial sting we ideally will recognize that opening ourselves to accurate, concise, detailed criticism is one of the best ways we can improve our writing. Sort of like the pain of working out and testing your muscles and cardio, knowing it is the best--maybe the only--way to improve. So, are we serious about our writing and willing to open up and welcome the medicine, or are we simply hobbyists having a grin or two...and then retreating when the labor gets too tough?