There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you for ages: how did you and Peter learn to write and share concrit together without it resulting in divorce or at least a lot of shouting?
Re the art of critique: I need to be general about this first and then come down to particulars, as this is something that’s been an issue for both Peter and me literally since we first met.
In a perfect world, there would be no such term as “concrit”. All critique would be constructive. But the simple fact of the word’s existence implies how much of the other kind there is around. This is so troubling. Any critique that’s not constructive should be (in my opinion) immediately kicked to the curb, because it’s simply not helpful, and gratifies nothing but the critiquer’s baser urges.
(Not that even the purest-intentioned critiquer or workshop-runner doesn’t occasionally get these urges. Somebody writes something that punches some personal button or otherwise drives you straight around the bend, and it would be soooooo satisfying to let them have it with all available barrels. But in the long run this serves no one.)
Ideally, any good critique must (a) be couched so that the critique recipient is able to receive the data with the least possible pain, and (b) it must include or imply a method of repair for whatever parts of the fiction seem not to be working correctly. If the critiquer doesn’t know how to fix what’s wrong, he or she should say so as kindly as possible, and then back away to let someone past who can.
A lot of us have at one point or another come in contact with the kind of critiquer who has been through what Peter and I locally refer to as the “Rite of Spring” style of group critique / workshopping. This is where the participants turn on one of their number en masse and rip that person’s work and/or ego to shreds, in the mistaken belief that someone who’s been through this process will somehow be stronger afterwards for the experience. (And a better writer, too… somehow. No one seems able to pin down quite how.)
When I started to be asked to run workshops, I went out and audited a few of them to see what kind of thing was going on. And I kept running into this Rite of Spring business. It troubled me. Sure, there’s a lot of awful and dysfunctional writing out there that needs to be fixed. And sure, writers can have fairly expansive egos, and it’s not as if a lot of us also don’t have periods where we firmly believe that Our Every Word Is Golden, and have to be disabused of the idea. But surely there’s no reason to be nasty about it.
And boy, were some people at some of the workshops I audited nasty! They would take somebody’s short story, or chapter of a novel, and look at it and (as in one memorable case, but sometimes at way greater length) say little besides “This sucks,” and then pass the work along to the next person in the circle for further flagellation. The people who did this, when questioned about it, almost without exception said “Well, that’s what they did to me and it didn’t do me any harm…” And they seemed bound and determined to inflict this literary hazing on the next generation, because by God it had been done to them and they were going to see that the New Kids got it just as bad as they had. There was routinely way too much relish apparent in the administration of this “tough love” workshopping style, and I for one kept being reminded of why the abused so often grow up to abuse in their turn.
Anyway: The first time I was auditing and came across this, I thought “Maybe they’re just having a bad day” and said nothing. The second time I ran into it, though, I started thinking thoughts about the differences between accident, coincidence and enemy action. But the third time, when someone at one of these workshops inflicted this behavior on someone else, I snapped. I said, “Look, you can’t just say that about a story and not say how to fix it!” The workshopper was absolutely incredulous. “Why not?”
I explained why, at length, and though everyone took the point, a lot of them nonetheless looked at me as if I’d just arrived from Mars with this outlandish new concept. Only the fact of back-to-back Campbell nominations kept them from showing me the door as a nut case.
So when I did my first workshop, I had this incident very much in mind, and had sworn a mighty oath never to behave that way. Instead I immediately began to apply a technique I learned in psych nursing, which is called (colloquially) the Criticism Sandwich.
It’s dead simple. First you find a good thing that you can say about the work in question: but it must be indubitably true. No empty compliments allowed. And don’t be stingy about it. Take some time over this.
Then you get down to the meat of whatever the story’s or chapter’s problem may be, and deal with the thing that you think needs to be fixed — always offering a specific intervention or general method of approach that you think would work to fix it.
Then you finish up with another good and true thing about the work. This slice of the “sandwich” should be at least as thick as the first one was.
And then you wait for a response. —As I said: simple. I ran a good number of workshops this way, teaching the participants this technique, and using it on them myself, and had nothing but happy times with my workshoppers (once some of them had had the old bad Rite of Spring habits shaken out of them.)
So. Fast forward to London in 1985, at a little convention in a place called East Sheen. Peter was there. And one of the very first really long conversations he and I had was about a book he was then writing. (And writing, and writing.) He had made the fatal error of what we would now think of as paying too much attention to his betas. And remember, this being 1985, he was doing this on a typewriter, with paper, and had so far done six “clean drafts” while following up on their suggestions — none of which really dealt with the problems that my reading suggested he needed to fix.
This really needed to stop before he went insane. So first I spent about an hour explaining to Peter that a writer was not intended to be a democracy: that the proper care of a working universe meant you mostly had to be a despot. You could be a benevolent despot if you wanted to, but at some point (especially if all the beta readers are saying different things, which they were) you have to put your foot down and say, “Fine, thank you for your input, and now it’s going to be like this.” And so it is written / so it is done. Having settled that, I got on with constructing the Sandwich, and dealing with the things in his book that worked / didn’t work / definitely did.
And after that we spent the rest of the evening telling each other Russian folktales — actually, the same folktale two different ways — and making or reacting to airplane noises. (Peter does a very superior Spitfire.) And within a matter of months we were engaged, and within nine months we were married (not on Valentine’s Day, alas, but the day after, because on February 14th I was running a writers’ workshop…). And twenty-six years later, we’re still married, even though this kind of critique goes on in the household nearly every week on something or other that one or the other of us is working on. And when we teach workshops together, this is the methodology we show our participants how to use.
This result (and our many satisfied customers) would seem to suggest that there’s something to this approach. And that approach is the main part of the answer to your question. Shouting never happens because the way through to the tough part of the critique is always paved by the good and happy part: the reaffirmation of the things that work. And after the ouchy part comes more affirmation. The construction of the critique itself makes it harder to reject the painful bits, because then (in fairness) you would have to consider rejecting the nice bits too. And that’s a big ask. 🙂 (Also, we trust each other to genuinely have one another’s best literary interests at heart. But that’s also part of the happily-married-couple stuff.)
…The rest of the answer is over here in this discussion on the art of collaboration as practiced locally.
Hope that helps! 🙂