Crushing Critique

“Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it,” Clint Eastwood’s character says in Heartbreak Ridge.

A few weeks ago, I was flattered and honored when a writer (and editor) whose work I deeply admire and respect offered to read five pages after I commented on her blog that getting worthwhile critiques seemed impossible.

I really wanted to send her the first five pages of my work in progress. After I spend five days scrubbing the vomit into a semblance of writing I would be willing to claim, I still didn’t feel it was ready for an editor’s eyes.

Instead, I sent her a short story (previously published here) that I submitted to the literary journal at SNHU. Of course, it had been rejected, but the reviews and comments were so contradictory that I had no idea what was really wrong with it.

Aside from giving me her brutal and honest critique (for which I’m grateful), Kristen also used my story for the basis of one of her blogs. Read what she had to say here.

My reaction was comical. I was afraid to read her comments. Then I saw the blog and became defensive.

“I had to write the story in less than 1200 words. I didn’t have time to set the stage.”

We’re great at justification, aren’t we?

The truth: my writing lacks depth. Even though I feel like I have a handle on basic story structure, I’m not able to convey that same sense through my story.

The worst thing was the redundancy. I literally cringed each time she pointed out “you already said that.” I do the same thing on student papers. How did I miss this flaw in my own writing?

Seriously. This story had been written, critiqued, re-written, graded, revised and re-worked, but I still missed the redundant use of words. What do I mean? For example, “ineffectual thrashing” is a phrase I used. Her comment: “Most thrashing is ineffectual.” Duh. What was I doing? Think of the extra words I could have used to set up my basic situation if I hadn’t been wasting them repeating what I already said.

I didn’t agree with all of her commentary because some of the repetition was for effect (but it must not have been very effective, so what did I do wrong?)

I’m glad to know some weak areas to focus on (in the rewriting stages), and I happily ordered one of the books on story structure Kristen recommended. Do I wish she would have liked my writing? Sure. Would having her compliment me have truly been helpful? Not in the least.

Thanks, Kristen, for taking time to give me the constructive feedback I’ll need if I’m ever going to improve my writing to a publishable level.

Perspectives on Rejection

Image credit to mrsec.com

After trying to unsuccessfully integrate with an online writing group five years ago, I gave up on the idea that I could get unbiased feedback on my writing. When I took the writing workshops required for my creative writing minor at SNHU, I had high hopes that insightful critiques would be included in these classes.Overall, I have met four other people who view the critiquing process in a light similar to my own. Check out what Kristen Lamb said about this topic. You might notice I commented (along with 100 other people – if I get two comments I’m in Heaven – maybe someday I’ll have as many interested readers) about the lack of useful feedback from supposed “reviewers.”In my first creative writing class at SNHU, everyone said “I like this” or “you have such a way with words” and that was the sum of the feedback. I’m pretty sure that some of them didn’t like what I wrote, and I know there were things that could have been improved upon.

The only worthwhile feedback I got in my nonfiction workshop was from the instructor and that petered out. When I submitted my final story, he said it had “arrived” at the place he had been guiding me toward, but very little else. Again, disappointing remarks since they didn’t help me determine what worked and what needed work.

I didn’t get much in the way of helpful input in my fiction workshop. This is clearly evidenced by the rejection my “approved” story got from The Manatee, SNHU’s literary journal. One thing the instructor told me to change, one reviewer for the journal agreed upon (I still disagree, but I will do it without italics in the future).

Otherwise, reviewers said things like “show, don’t tell” and “too much description; I lost track of what was happening” and “needs more description.” All of this advice is incredibly helpful, don’t you agree?

What I got out of that is that they didn’t like the story. Other raters said “so much action, it was like I was in the river too” and “this was so realistic, I’m never going whitewater rafting.” How can an author reconcile these statements with the negative ones listed above? Not a single specific reference to lines that needed work or passages that nailed the intensity.

I must say that the thing that really steamed me was the response to my two poems. Both of the poems I submitted had survived several rounds of improvements and constructive criticism in my poetry workshop. They weren’t perfect (none of my writing is ever finished), but they had passed the critical inspection of several respected poets.

Should a poem get a poor review because it is about nature “and that’s been done to death”? What about being considered “preachy” when it’s advice about blogging? (Yes, you’ve seen this poem right here – an early
version and the one I submitted to the literary journal.)

I awoke at 3 a.m. the day after being summarily rejected by this student journal. I had read half of the competition and only found a few pieces that surpassed mine. I’m really trying to be objective here. Most of that stuff needed more polish. Anyone who can’t even spell check before submitting something for publishing doesn’t deserve a spot.

I woke up, questioning my writing ability. My heart and soul petitioned God for guidance. Have I been wrong about my calling? Am I kidding myself? Do I really have any hope of becoming a published author?

I wanted to quit. I started thinking about what sort of “real” jobs I could get when I finished my degree.

Words swelled. Now I’m pouring them on the page. I might only have 60 followers (I love ALL of you, by the way) and I might not have a single publishing credit, but ideas keep growing in my mind. As long as that continues, my fingers will pour them onto the page.

What is your experience with rejection letters? Do you have any critiquing nightmares or successes to share? Maybe you’re looking for some honest feedback and would like to join an online writing group. I’m interested if you can objectively review my writing and not just the subject matter.

What’s up for Winter Term?

Exhibit A - Murder by Shakespeare
Exhibit A – Murder by Shakespeare

Are you looking for a weapon? Perhaps you have a hard-headed relative that could use a good whack on the noggin. In that case, let me recommend The Complete Pelican Works of William Shakespeare.

Who knew several hundred sonnets and 38 plays could create such a monstrous tome? Bound with hard, red covers, my copy can certainly double as a weapon or a mallet for “Whac-A-Mole.

My other textbook caused the man who gave me a pedicure on Saturday to grin like a devil. Naked Playwriting: The Art, the Craft, and the Life Laid Bare is the textbook required for my other class this term. Any guesses on the names of these two courses?


The dread course descends. As an English/literature major, I shouldn’t have such an aversion to The Bard. Actually, I have enjoyed every Shakespeare play I’ve watched. Reading it is a different thumbscrew altogether.

The professor delights in his Elizabethan Era torture devices. We’ll read eight plays before the term subsides. I’m looking forward to Hamlet because of the allusions to it in Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, which I read aloud to student a few years back. In that novel, Schmidt also alluded to the only chance for laughter we’ll get this term – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Nothing will compare to the yellow tights with flowers on the butt that Schmidt’s protagonist wore, I’m sure.

In addition to all this reading and the discussion boards that accompany it (we have three different forums for this first week), we are required to write two essays. Do I even know what they are about? No. The first one is due on January 27. We will get the specifics on it one week in advance of that.

Is there any doubt that my blood pressure has sky-rocketed? I need time to write and think and write some more and rewrite. A week is hardly enough time to muster a C paper.

The last week, while reading our lone comedy, we will be expected to answer several essay questions for our final examination.

I’m happy there won’t be a huge research paper this term. Do I actually know there won’t be? Having so few details inspires me to imagine the worst.

Play Writing Workshop

“You might be SNHU’s own Shakespeare,” my academic advisor told me when I registered for these two courses together in September.

That is a scary thought. As in “laugh out loud” absurd. I have no desire, or aspiration, to resemble Shakespeare in any aspect of my writing. Okay, it might be nice to be quoted 400 years from now, but I don’t want to write with such verbose complexity to earn that distinction.

Dawn rises on my final writing workshop. I haven’t been looking forward to it.

Surprisingly, I think that has changed after reading the introduction and the first chapter of the textbook. (No, I won’t be doing any naked play writing.)

The professor is extremely engaging, so that’s a positive sign. Of course, the fact that I have very short writing assignments each week adds delight. My major project is a 10-minute one-act play and all the other assignments build toward that.

The next two months might be looking up. I should be able to stay on top of writing this blog. I might even compel my creative muse to sprinkle some magic over my fantasy novel.

I couldn’t answer this question: what’s your favorite Shakespeare play? I’d love to be convinced to make your favorite – mine.