One of the most important, yet least discussed, skills about attending conferences and workshops is that of evaluating the feedback you receive. “Take the stuff you can use and discard the rest,” is the usual caution. But which is which?
There’s the tendency to use some kind of tally system. if you find six comments on the protagonist’s weak character, you may conclude you have to strengthen him/her. However, what if that weakness is your point? Or if there’s a strength there that everyone missed? Artists, not committees, create these works. There may be a flaw in the text, but there also may be flaw in the readers if you’re trying something that goes contrary to what your well-educated literary colleagues are trained to expect.
So ignore the vote? Not necessarily, but the final artibiter (not misspelled) is your gut. Take a close look, then consult your intentions and your instincts.
Part of the problem is the way we approach the manuscripts. Despite admonitions to the contrary (Squaw suggests that workshop participants imagine themselves a board of editors who has already accepted the manuscript for publication and are making suggestions to the author for improvements.) it seems to be our nature to sharpen our critical knives as we approach the task. Though we may intellectually see ourselves as analysts rather than butchers, we’re hardwired somehow to search for flaws rather than merits (Somehow it wasn’t like this at Tin Hat, and hooray.) Barry Hannah called destructive criticism a third-rate skill, but even constructive criticism is often meant (if unintentionally) to demonstrate the acuity of the commentator more than to help the writer.
We all recognize some of the types–the ones who focus on sentence structure, the ones who want more character or description development, the others who delight in finding plot or descriptive contradictions, et al. (You can add your own classifications.) I’m not saying what category I belong in, partly because it changes according to what I’m working on in my own writing at the time I’m commenting. One of the most useful remarks I’ve heard from a workshop leader was Karen Joy Fowler’s that those who find themselves repeating a particular kind of comment on others’ writing had best look to their own texts and get to work on that flaw.
At any rate, no matter how we attempt to be positive, the word “criticism” most often remains a negative to both sender and receiver. Is the alternative abject praise of everything? Of course not. What a boring and dishonest enterprise that would be. But we also don’t have to do the kind of thing we did in one workshop of my experience when we kicked around a story as if it were a soccer ball, returned it to its author bloody and bruised, only to find out the tale had won first prize in its state in a nationwide contest. The alternative is to delineate the work’s virtues as strongly as its flaws.
Don’t rush past them by saying something like “Well, the dialogue and characters are really strong and clear, but . . .” Be as detailed about what made the dialogue and characters work as you are regarding the shortcomings of the plot or setting or whatever. That will give the writer something to keep as well as something to modify or throw aside. Both are equally valuable.
At one conference, I recall leaving convinced that my story had failed, but not because of what everyone said. It was because I was working contrary to my own voice and I needed to reimagine my protagonist. No one in the group picked that up. They couldn’t have because they knew nothing else about me except what was on those twenty pages. I had to infer it from their comments, my conversation with the leader, and my own gut. Not only that, the reason I went contrary to my voice was that I took too much to heart some feedback I got in earlier workshops Will it never end? Probably not. But in the meantime, it’s both maddening and fun.