A few years ago, I sat at the table amongst twenty or more people. I was so nervous, I had red blotches down my neck and chest. I’m sure had it not been for my clothing, I would have seen those splotches go all the way to my toes. Thank goodness for clothing as I was vulnerable enough. That didn’t stop me from feeling NEKKID, however.
I had put in hours upon hours writing, re-writing and writing some more on that first chapter. I was so sure it was awesome. I loved it. How could anyone not like it? Of course, that was just a small (very small) part of me. The other major part wondered what the heck I was doing. I hated public speaking. I hated being the center of attention. And that part of me just knew I was fooling myself. I could never be a writer. Where did I get off thinking I could even compete with the talent in that room?
Yet when they called my name to read, I picked up those pages with shaking hands. The temperature in the room probably dropped about ten degrees just from the wind I generated from the vacillating papers growing wet from my moist finger tips. I was cold and hot at the same time with the feeling that I might hurl at any moment. I almost asked someone to call for an ambulance; my heart was beating so fast and hard, I thought for sure I was about to have a heart attack.
But, I didn’t have time for that. The moderator nodded to me and clicked the button on his stop watch to begin the countdown of my allotted time. And I began to read. My voice shook and was way higher than normal. I’m sure I heard dogs howling outside from the pitch. There were times I couldn’t draw in a deep enough breath. But finally, just before I hyperventilated, I finished.
The people around the room broke into applause. I was ecstatic for two seconds until I remembered that they ALWAYS clapped for someone’s first read.
real hell critique began.
I was told that I had written a great scene. It was a courtroom setting, with lots of motion and description, dialogue and action. Someone said they felt as if they were in that room. But…. Yeah. There’s always a “but”. It wasn’t where the story needed to start. There wasn’t enough action. It didn’t put them in the middle of the drama. Great scene. But it needed to go.
Also… Yeah. There are always “also’s” too. Also, I needed to get rid of the -ing words, the -ly words and all the “was words”. What??? How can you write without -ing, and -ly words and “to be” verbs?
The rule for that particular workshop was that you couldn’t talk while being critiqued. In order to keep knife fights to a minimum in the parking lot, the only thing I (or anyone), as the reader, was allowed to do was to say “Thank you” when everyone was through cutting my baby up and burning the pieces to a crisp. Okay. Maybe I exaggerated. A little. But it sure felt that way at the time. They said I had talent and knew how to tell a good story. But those words didn’t register at first. All I heard was “you suck” and the snipping of scissors.
And then of course my defenses kicked in. On my way home and for the next day and a half I vented to my friend. She’d read as well for the first time and was in the same boat of sinking dreams. So we ranted about the people who critiqued us and who obviously didn’t know talent when they heard it. We lifted each other up. Told each other how wonderful our manuscripts were and reminded each other of the positive things we were told during critique. Ummm…yeah. They were right about the good, not the bad. Go figure.
After I had time for all of that to wash through my system, I started looking at what they really said. That I had talent. I could tell a story and set a scene. I just needed to work on the mechanics and learn to tighten. I could do that. And as much as it hurt, I cut that courtroom scene. I started from scratch — multiple times — and I finally found where my book begins. It’s so much better than the original. Amazing how right they were, isn’t it?
Since that night, I’ve gown thicker skin — much thicker skin. I’ve learned to take critique with grace or I hope so anyway. It hasn’t felt like a personal assault since that first time. I know that people (the vast majority anyway) are really trying to help make my work stronger. Writers are by far some of the most generous people I have ever met. And they want to help others with their craft. There may be some, but I don’t know of any other profession where people put away the competition and help support each other as much as in the writing community.
So I want to say thank you to all of you who have ever read, proofread, edited and critiqued my work. It’s better and I’m a better writer because of you.
Oh! And that courtroom scene? I think it’s found a home in another manuscript. Time will tell if it stays. But in the meantime, thank goodness for cut and paste and the foresight to keep a “cut” file.
What was your first time like?