In August of last year, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon 74) in Kansas City, Mo. It was my first SF convention and a bucket list check off. As a world convention, there were thousands of attendees, a huge conference center, and a lot going on – almost 24-hours a day for the entire week. I learned ahead of time about the writers’ workshop program that was part of the conference. I submitted a SF novella before the convention started and it was accepted. At the convention, I received face-to-face reviews by two successful SF writers, as well as two aspiring writers. Our small group met for over two hours to discuss our reviews of the three submitted stories.
Afterwards, I felt I received good critiques from each participant in the group. However, the real issue in getting the most out of writing critiques is knowing how to deal with them. For me this knowledge came mostly from experience. Specifically, I’d attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) in Dayton, Ohio the prior three summers. At the AWW I had worked on fiction writing, more specifically science fiction writing. Several years of receiving and assimilating criticism taught me to separate the helpful comments from the pedestrian ones. I consider each participant’s written and verbal feedback, and I work through all of the items in a slow, thoughtful pace. I know most style and all grammar problems can be fixed by a good editor, so I give them minimal attention. What I’m most interested in are any surprising or unexpected big-picture inputs. For example, the two key criticisms the professional writers at Worldcon gave me were: 1) my story lacked suspense, and 2) my story was partly predictable. The first was a surprise since I knew that my story contained a Big Mystery. Through discussions I came to understand that the problem was not the big mystery, but the need to inject little mysteries along the way to egg on the reader. This provides the chapter to chapter suspense that was missing from my draft.
As for the predictability of the story, that is something I’m still working on. I was concerned about it when revising the second draft so when I got the criticism I knew the point was valid. The trick seems to be to do better at concealing upcoming milestone events without shifting the story arc. I’m still exploring the best ways to do this.
Perhaps what was most interesting was that I sort of stumbled into conducting an experiment. It turns out I had the same SF novella reviewed in a fiction writing class at the annual AWW summer session a month before the Worldcon conference workshop. Thus, I had received critiques on the same draft from both workshops and could compare and contrast the feedback. What I learned was more than can be addressed in this post, but I can summarize three observations that I felt were telling. They are described in the following three paragraphs.
The first observation is that new or aspiring writers’ critiques often need some interpretation. As an example, one young writer commented that a particular section of my narrative – one having to do with a meeting among councilmen – slowed down my story. When I later looked at the draft and the feedback from the professionals I understood what was being said. The subject narrative was: 1) in the wrong place in the story, and 2) more importantly, it did not serve the purpose I had in mind when I initially wrote it. I ended up putting it in the scrap pile where it remains today.
My second observation was about a common critique I received in both workshops. Everyone seemed to agree that I needed to inject more detail into the story. We all understand why detail is important in fiction – it helps make the narrative more believable i.e. like it actually happened. I concluded that there were really several parts to this criticism. One is that, while I was doing a fairly good job at world-building, too much had been left out. This gap in information did not shroud the story in mystery (as I had hoped for) but rather it came across as not-well-thought-out. The criticism was spot on. Another part of this critique was clearly linked to the need to flesh out the major characters. I needed to get more emotion into them by having them reflect on past events and let the reader understand (via internal dialog and other techniques) why they were interpreting things the way they were.
The third observation was mildly surprising but worth some thought. Simply put, critiques provided by writers (both professionals as well as aspiring authors) who write in the same genre as the aspiring writer (i.e. me) generally provide more insight, especially in plotting and originality. As an example, I am one of those aspiring SF writers who prefers hard SF and has little interest in the neighboring genre of fantasy. As a consequence, I know my critiques of fantasy stories are not as good as they otherwise could be. I’m simply not well read on the tropes and trends of the genre. As another example, one time I received a review of my SF novella from an aspiring writer who had mentioned beforehand that she had no interest in SF stories. While she truly made a concerted effort in reading my story, her critiques showed a lack of even the most basic technical or scientific depth. This caused her to misconstrue what was meant in several important passages.
In closing, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard fiction writers talk much about the interpreter aspects of creative writing, but it occurs to me that perhaps this is what fiction writers have in common – a healthy interest in, or dare I say, a need to try to interpret the human condition.