While I was on vacation I got an email from my editor and sat back to consider it with suspicion. I was worried that it might contain good news and let’s face it, nothing is worse than good news. Allow me to explain.
It’s easy to look around and find ten people to read your work and tell you it’s wonderful, or gosh-wow great, or really, really nice but none of that is terribly useful. On the other hand, try to find ten people to give you a thoughtful critique and offer suggestions on how to improve your manuscript. The latter is the more difficult feat by far.
Good criticism is hard enough to come by that I started giving my test readers questionnaires to answer when they’d finished the book and even that was only marginally successful. The fact is that most people who read for pleasure don’t read as critically as a writer does and the result is that the feedback they give is often little more than “I loved it,” or “I can’t wait to read the next one.” That’s fine for stroking the old ego but it simply isn’t much help when I’m trying to improve my craft.
One way to find good criticism is a regular writer’s group. I try to meet with a small group of other writer’s whenever I’m home in Nashville. I’ve unofficially dubbed us The Rabbit Room Writers’ Fellowship for the sole purpose of getting the library to let us meet in their conference room. We’ve met probably half a dozen times over the last year and those few, small gatherings have been a well-spring of wisdom and learning for me. The thing that makes it work is that we know each other and respect each other enough that we don’t need to pull punches. If I write something that doesn’t work, they will tell me. That’s a valuable thing.
When I made the decision to publish The Fiddler’s Gun independently I was confronted with the reality that I wouldn’t have the benefit of a team of editors and copy-editors poring over my manuscript deep into the night to ferret out every misplaced comma, character inconsistency, and thematic indulgence. Instead, the responsibility was all mine. So I screamed in panic and hired a freelance editor.
Kate (my editor) and I had already known each other for some time and I knew something of her work and trusted her editorial eye. But once I had hired her I began to worry that I’d receive her edit and see something happy and terrible like, “It was really great! Don’t change a thing!”
And thus did I eye her email with trepidation and suspicion.
I squinted at the screen as I read it and then let out a long slow sigh of relief. She hates it! Hallelujah! She hates it! Okay, I exaggerate. There was no hate. She did however explain that she was working her way through the manuscript and offered a detailed critique of several thematic issues and plot points that she wished me to consider (or reconsider) while she continued her work.
Even though I didn’t agree with all of her points, I couldn’t have been happier with her feedback. Since then I’ve been chewing over things in my brain and working on how to solve the issues she brought up. I’ve always felt that no matter how strongly I feel about my writing that I have no business arguing with a trusted reader. The reader is the boss and if the boss isn’t happy then I need to change something. So even though my initial reactions to some of Kate’s ideas were defensive, the more I think about them, the more I feel she’s probably right on the money.
An objective critique is a valuable thing, especially when it hurts to hear. I have no doubt that I’ve learned more about the craft of writing from painful criticism than I ever have from praise and compliment. The former makes me want to do better, the latter makes me think maybe I’m good enough. It’s easy to see which of those feelings is more productive.
If you’re interested in how the book is coming along, be sure to check out the website at TheFiddlersGun.com.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.