Writing down the bones*
Involved in one online writing course as well as a local writing group, I’ve come to realize one facet to assessing criticism is to realize what stage of the process you’re at. Is this the outline and research stage? Are you freewriting the scene, strip-mining your imagination for gems? Roughing out the first draft? Wiping smudges and cowlicks down to make a second-draft presentable?
It’s tough to critique anyone’s work. It’s even tougher when you have to do it incrementally over many weeks, and you don’t have a grasp on the whole story and you aren’t aware what stage the submission is at. (or at what stage the author thinks the submission is at) It’s tough to assess critiques of your own work for the same reasons.
The vital thing is recognizing that writing is a process. I Imagine, Research, Outline, Strip Mine, Sift, Sort, Write, Revise, Polish. Each part is very distinct and separate. The image of sitting down at a desk and whipping off flawless incisive prose is a Hollywood fantasy.
A fellow writer told me early on a good book isn’t so much written as it is re-written. (Did I listen? Not really) It’s like sculpting marble. You don’t do it in one go. You slowly chip away at everything that’s not the real story, using finer and finer tools as the process comes to a conclusion. I’ve found the more I labor over or defend a particular portion in an early stage, the less likely I am to cut it later. Even if it needs it.
I value constructive criticism because I’m aiming to improve. What’s important is to keep a perspective: check my ego, sort out the reasonable from the clueless, and stay aware of which phase the manuscript is at. Then I have to implement the corrections/changes for the sake of the story, because I want the end product to be the best it can be.
I think if I wanted a pat on the head, I’d show my stories to my Mom. I want a good book, so I’ve got to endure the process.
*Props to Natalie Goldberg for a good turn of phrase.