I’ve never been a critical reader. Until recently, books fell into one of two categories: the ones I forgot, and the ones I remembered. I never examined why some books were forgettable and others weren’t. There was no time for that. Another book was always waiting to be devoured.
This practice continued well into my writing life. It wasn’t until 2009 that I truly began to turn a critical eye to fiction. Sometimes I miss the reader I used to be. I don’t get swept away by a story the way I used to, and I miss that. But I’m a better writer for it. In fact, it’s possible that giving thoughtful critiques to other writers has contributed more to my understanding of crafting fiction than anything else I’ve done in the last two years.
I was always in awe of published authors. My writing wasn’t as good as theirs, but I couldn’t pinpoint the reasons why. Like many people, I assumed that “real” writers possessed an inner talent that I did not. Joining an online critique group (Critters, if you’re curious, a great place to get started if you write SF/Fantasy/Horror) changed all that.
For me, the key was reading unfinished work. As a fledgling critic, it was easier for me to identify flaws when they were obvious and plentiful (and it probably goes without saying, easier to see in someone else’s writing than in mine). Where I struggled was in reading stories that were polished, close to submission-ready. I’m certain my first few written critiques were not particularly helpful. But I improved. And the cool thing is, the better I got at finding and addressing weaknesses in other people’s stories, the more quickly I was able to find and address them in my own.
The funny thing is I’d never considered the giving of critiques as anything more than a necessary task. In order to get feedback on my own stories, I had to give some. I had no idea how much I’d benefit from the process. And judging from some of the “cut-and-paste” generic advice I’ve gotten from some writers, I’d say I’m not the only one to underestimate the value of putting sincere thought into every critique. Seriously, if you’re in a critique group and your only focus is on getting feedback, you’re missing the point.
I’m currently on hiatus from Critters, having joined two local writing groups where we read and discuss our works in person. I prefer the face-to-face interaction; the feedback tends to be of a higher quality than in a more anonymous, online setting. I’m also learning in new ways from these groups, from the practice of reading aloud, and from witnessing the development of other writers as they revise and revise and revise.
For me, reading and critiquing works-in-progress have stripped the mystique from the act of writing fiction. It’s been a huge relief to read other people’s messy first drafts. To see other writers making the same mistakes I make. To realize there are some things I’m actually quite good at.
Now, when I read published novels, I am always aware of my writer-self in the background, analyzing structure and character and dialogue. That makes me both sad and excited. Sad, because it’s kind of like when you figure out the Tooth Fairy’s not real. The world’s a little less magical, and that’s a bummer. But excited, because my awe for author-talent has been replaced with respect for the work that goes into writing a great novel, and confidence that as long as I continue to strive, I’ll get there, too. And that kind of knowledge — well, it’s got it’s own magic, don’t you think?