Monday, I post about critiquing outside my comfort zone, about a critique I’d done for a close friend. Here’s her side of the story.
But Mostly, I Just Remember Feeling Terror
I hadn’t felt this kind of writing terror since I quit grad school. After a lifetime of clinging to the safety of nonfiction, I’d written a fan work with traces of fiction in it, a Tarot reading of the relationship between two characters from a series. My beta reader, a fellow fan, had suggested running it past “a fresh set of eyes,” so I took Victoria Janssen to lunch and begged her to take a look.
I’d chosen carefully. Victoria has been writing fanfiction since it was stapled together and mailed in brown packages, so she’s internalized every common-sense rule (that I was probably murdering).
She’s been writing pro fiction for almost as long, so she’s become unsentimental about writing mechanics. She’s not in the fandom for which I was writing. And she’s really, really nice to me.
So my terror didn’t have to do with her. It was all about old stuff from my formative years. Oooooooold stuff.
We removed the curled wrappers from our straws and stirred our Thai iced drinks. I asked, “Have you ever gotten feedback so devastating that you stopped writing that piece?”
VJ, firmly: “Yes. Do you want some of this fried tofu?”
Me: “Sure, a little. Have you ever gotten feedback that made you feel like it wasn’t only a bad piece but it showed the world that you’re bad as a person?”
VJ, slowly and definitely: “Yes.”
Me, wide-eyed: “What did you do then?”
VJ: “I put it away for 24 hours until I got some emotional distance, then re-read their comments.”
I was awed. I mean, really. Twenty-four hours? Not, say, eight months?
Me: “Has it ever been just that the person is horrible and they’re wrong?”
VJ: “No. I don’t tend to get those people to read.”
Our green curry chicken came. I looked down at my plate and rattled off what I hoped she could do for me.
“I just want it to be all right. I just want you to check it for obvious glaring errors. The kind of thing that will give me away as someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Or that will be painfully unoriginal and make people complain that I write the same thing every time. I’m terrified to hear that the basic premise is irreparably flawed and I have to reformulate the entire piece and I’ve made twenty-five gruesome newbie mistakes and I’m the only person in the world who can’t see them while everyone else is laughing and I cannot in good conscience unleash this piece of crap on the public and…” I can’t remember the rest.
“I’m more likely to say something like ‘This sentence could be tighter,'” she commented mildly.
I exhaled, probably aloud.
“I’m worried you want this to be perfect,” she said. “Like glinting-off-the-teeth perfect.”
Huh. Is that how it sounds when I speak from my terror?
I said no, I just wanted it to be in the “okay” category. When I read fanfiction, there’s the “Brilliant! Life-changing!” category, which obviously wasn’t relevant to me. There’s the category that gives ammunition to those who deride fanfiction. And then there’s the vast middle, not always well-written but with some good or interesting quality that makes me pleased to have spent time reading the story instead of watching TV. I thought — I hoped — that this was a broad enough target for me to dare aim for it. Without people laughing at me for my presumption.
I gave examples of the kind of giveaway error I wanted to avoid.
Years ago, when Victoria and I shared an apartment, we watched figure skating tapes every day while she worked on her Master’s thesis about quilting and I made hundreds of quilts. So when we saw a sophisticated quilt block honoring figure skater Brian Boitano, we could identify the designer instantly as a casual, not serious, skating viewer: the design was a star, and the star rotated to the right.*
This example reminded Victoria of a huge publicity uproar over a paper towel commercial in which the “quilted” paper towels were shown being “quilted” by little old ladies somehow using…knitting needles.
Little old quilters from all over the country were enraged at the condescension and started a protest campaign. In large numbers. Mobs of them. The company hastily issued a new commercial with real quilting.
In both cases, the errors were committed by people who had no idea they had done anything wrong. You either know this kind of thing or you don’t. And I didn’t want to commit the fanfiction equivalent of Boitano rotating to the right or quilters using knitting needles. I wanted to show respect. And dodge ridicule.
I think that got across what kind of help I wanted. I think.
We finished eating. I paid.
I sent five e-mails that afternoon asking when she’d have comments for me. We agreed I’d call her at 9 PM. I called and she asked me how my kids were doing. Trying desperately to be polite, I answered. She asked follow-up questions about them. I gave up and yelped, “Are you tryingto be mean to me?”
So she started with some sort of introductory comment. I barked, “What do I have to do. Just tell me.” The words came out like bullets.
I think (hope) she was amused. [VJ: I was, a little, but mostly I was sorry I hadn’t realized she was that stressed.] (This was a piece for an online fan festival. Not even like I was getting paid for it. Probably no one would die if I wrote it imperfectly.)
She zeroed in on one section she described as having been written in “tight third person.” Huh? What’s that?
She carefully broke down what she was saying so I could understand. She gave examples of possible alternate wordings and what kinds of effects they might create. She explained her feelings of disappointment when she read one passage and told me what wording she’d been hoping to read. I tried to keep my defensiveness to myself. I felt like I had become an automatic nailgun with a broken catch, shooting nails of defensiveness unstoppably and just trying not to hit anybody.
This got worse when Victoria complimented some aspect of my writing. I tried to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t scream, sobbing, “Stop mocking me! Surely it is not necessary to mock me.”
She gave me her comments. We hung up. I put my kids to bed. I peeped cautiously at her suggestions and ended up implementing every single one.
*Figure skaters have a dominant direction when turning, the way almost everyone is left-handed or right-handed. Most skaters, including Brian Boitano, turn to the left. I didn’t notice this phenomenon or understand its importance until I’d watched quite a bit of figure skating. After I’d been a skating fan for a couple of years, I understood that skating observers note dominant direction for everything from identifying jump takeoffs (left toepick? That was a toe loop — if you rotate to the left, that is) to calculating difficulty in step sequences (a skater who does many turns in their non-dominant direction has just done something difficult and deserves more points). I’d had no idea about any of this when I started to watch. I’d just liked the sport because it moved me.