“I dread having to critique a bad piece of writing.” I reread the short story’s first line and shook my head.
“You and me both,” said the guy sitting behind me.
“I’m so glad I'm not the only one who thinks this is worthless.” My friend Mick walked into the writing workshop and dropped on his chair.
“I don’t know about worthless,” I said. “It just needs a lot of work. The descriptions are vivid and the main character’s jaded voice is kind of compelling.”
“But there is no story! This is just a scene.” The guy sitting behind me poked me on the shoulder and pointed at his copy of the short story. “And a really bad scene that doesn’t even…”
“A really bad scene?” The instructor walked in the room and put his bag, books, and coffee on the desk.
“The crappiest movie ever.” Mick’s eyes widen when he said the half lie.
“Yep,” I lied too. “Very crappy movie.”
We didn’t say anything else as our classroom filled up. The person who wrote the short story was the last one to walk in, and I swear the room got a bit quieter after she sat down.
“Any thoughts on today’s story?” The instructor surveyed the room.
No one made a sound.
“Anything?” He insisted.
“Well,” I said. “There is definitely potential. I enjoyed the tone and the descriptions, but I found many technical errors, which I think can be corrected with some heavy editing. There are tense and point of view disparities…”
“I know!” The instructor jabbed an index finger my way. He did this whenever he got overexcited. “I noticed the same thing. Can anyone tell me when this story took place?”
“Not at all,” I admitted. “Also, the story seems to occur in a realistic setting, but there are some violations of the laws of physics that go unexplained, and…”
“This is fiction!” someone interrupted.
I turned around to face the voice, and said, “It is indeed, but if you just make things up without offering a foundation, you’ll lose your readers. I can tell you that if this had not been an assignment, I would have stopped reading before finishing the first paragraph.”
“Some of this stuff actually happened,” the writer’s hands were shaking over her head. “I just dramatized it a little.”
“I get what you were trying to do, but your writing is not believable.” I was starting to get annoyed. “The things YOU make up have to respect the laws of the world YOU made up.”
“But it’s fiction!” She said as if that explained everything.
I faced the front of the room, shaking my head. The instructor’s red face spoke of his pain. Then a bunch of hands jumped in the air and everybody started supporting my views, and pointing out inconsistencies I hadn’t noticed.
The writer of the short story rushed out of the room as soon as the session ended.
I felt a bit guilty because she looked really upset. I thought about contacting the her. I wanted to explain that it hadn’t been personal. I discussed my troubling thoughts with the instructor and a few other writer friends, but everybody said to forget about it. That if her skin wasn’t thick enough to survive a bit of constructive criticism, then she had no business writing a word.
Writing fiction (or anything else) is so much more than having a thrilling idea and transferring its exciting goodness to the page. It is taking that rough tale and polishing it until it is good enough to allow a few others to read it, so that they can point out all the little things that totally suck about the work, and the awesome bits, of course. Some people don't know what they are talking about, but others give suggestions that breathe new life into a writer’s story. A good writer must have the patience to listen to criticism, the good judgment to use good advice and forget about the bad, the dedication to edit and reedit as many times as necessary, and the common sense to know that just because a story sounds good in her head, it doesn’t mean that it is a good story.
Oh, and yes, there is the thing about having a thick skin too.