Critiques and How to Use Them

I’ve just finished reworking my story, “The Clockworks of Hanyang.” (Yay!) It’s one of those stories where it explodes in your mind in one form, gets reworked in another form, and neither of the two are really appropriate to the final form of the story. Some stories are like that — like bread dough, the demand to be kneaded and kneaded and bloody well kneaded.

I’m pretty happy with how it’s come out at the moment, though I’ll need to set it aside for a day or two (no more than that) to see what I think of the changes I’ve made. One of the great challenges for this story was the diversity of the feedback I got. Changes I made to certain characters (between the first draft and later drafts, or even during the first draft, when I realized a character could be X instead of Y) got absolutely opposite reactions from different readers.

The difficulty for me in this case was that both readers — the ones who liked the character being X, and the ones who said, “No, this character needs to be Y!” — pointed to real and pertinent problems in the story. The positive readings pointed to problems, and the criticisms also pointed to real and important problems.

For me, this dilemma brings to mind the complexities of talking about Korean (or Western) culture in a Korean classroom. You will hear students say things that really essentialize Western culture, or Korean culture, in ways that reveal a misled understanding about both cultures. You will hear students who ask questions that betray specific anxieties, or curiosities built upon those anxieties and essentialisms. And you will hear people who’ve been there and know better, who point out the essentialisms, and have different opinions on the same thing.

What you’re doing, when you talk about culture within this kind of a framework, is you’re dowsing for ideas. You’re figuring out where the anxieties lie, and then addressing those anxieties. You’re pointing out how different viewpoints on the same phenomenon might look. The anxieties themselves are the significant things, though, and ity’s tough to get students to recognize that — to recognize how their own preconceptions, and their own enculturated anxieties, shape their perceptions of otherness. (And of course, to perceive how your own enculturated anxieties, and your own preconceptions, shape your perceptions of otherness.)

Which is to say: when people give you feedback on your (creative) writing, two things are going on:

  1. People are giving voice to problems they have perceived in your work, anxieties or discomforts they felt reading it, and apparent problems they see in it.
  2. People often are prescribing solutions to those problems which may or may not be valid, as well as attributing reasons to those anxieties which may not be ultimately correct.

In other words, when someone gives you feedback saying, “I think this character should be Y, not X,” it might well be advice that is absolutely right for your story. But at the same time, sometimes people will say, “I think this character should be Y, not X” because of problem Q… a problem that could be resolved in a number of ways other than making the character X instead of Y.

The trick here, basically, is to start with what people are expressing, which underlies what they are saying. They’re mentioning problem issues, problem spots, problematic solutions to the set of problems you are working out in your story. (For there is a useful level on which all stories can be considered problem-imposition and problem-solving exercises inflicted on characters.)

This reminds me of the comments people give on someone’s homebrewed beer: no matter what, you are bound t end up with some people who want it to be hoppier, some how want sweeter, some who want it more carbonated, and so on. Readers, and beer-lovers, are full of preconceptions. The thing you need to figure out is — do I want a sweeter beer? Would higher carbonation get this beer to where I want it?

Ultimately, great writing is about how you figure out interesting, engaging, and wonderful solutions to the problems that your stories are full of. Sometimes, those solutions will be things your readers have not thought up. Sometimes, people providing you with critiques will confuse you because they’re wonderfully great at picking out the problems, but then go on to provide suggested solutions which don’t work as they imagine.

It’s a hell of a balancing act, but I think I’ve managed it with “The Clockworks of Hanyang,” finally. the hard part, of course, will be implementing it in my own critiques of friends’ writing. The way I try to do so is to suggest diametrically opposed solutions to the problems. If only it was easier to enunciate the problems themselves.

It’s funny how I felt odd using the word “wonderful” above:

Ultimately, great writing is about how you figure out interesting, engaging, and wonderful solutions to the problems that your stories are full of.

Beers and stories alike ought to be wonderful. That’s the point, isn’t it? And the wonderful doesn’t come from outside yourself. The wonderful comes from the friction of the interface between you, and the problems in the story.

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