Lean In – Dealing with Bad Critique Partners

Lean In

When I was growing up, I played hockey.

Being a true-bred Minnesotan, I played hockey when I was happy, when I was sick, when I was throwing up, when I was angry, when it was too cold, when it was too warm, when I couldn’t feel my toes, and when I was bleeding after getting a stick to the helmet.

Because that’s how hockey is played.

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going. That’s what my dad used to say. He was full of old addages like this one. Quippy puns that told simple and straightforward truths.

You gotta lean in.

Unfortunately, in hockey, sometimes you have to really lean in.

There was a guy a year older than me who was always on my hockey team every other year. The kid had it out for me. He picked on me constantly. Coaches would say something to him while I tried not to let it bother me. I didn’t talk to my parents about it or to my coaches about it, because you lean in when you play hockey, right? If I had, it just would have made me more of a target. Well eventually, the natural order of male-ness within me took over, and I lost my mind as he took slap shots at the back of my legs. Hockey players don’t have padding in the back of the leg.

So nearly ten years of bullying, being pushed around, and picked on finally culminated in a single striking blow to my left calf, and I lost it. I turned on him, skating and screaming while everyone else just stood there staring at me, a kid who never loses his temper. I broke my stick over his face mask and threw him up against the boards, my eyes locked on his, and I told him to never do that again. And then I skated off the ice, took of my pads and went home, ten minutes into a three hour practice.

My coach never said a word to me about it. And that kid never picked on me again.


A Bad Critique Partner

The lifespan of a critique partner is often times pretty similar to my hockey overload in high school.

You begin your life as a crit partner, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, with high hopes and expectations.

The average author gets enough rejection letters to create their own encyclopedia set before landing on the right agent. But in the beginning, some small part of you dreams about how quickly you’ll be collecting your first royalty check, or whether James Franco will be free to star in your movie adaptation. You’re not dilusional, just excited about the possibilities.

So you send your manuscript out for review and get some great and honest feedback. And then it’s time to return the favor.

At first it’s easy. You read your crit partners manuscript and find good issues to bring up. You’re honest but not cruel. But over time, as the months pass and you get more rejection letters and send out a second book and get more rejection letters, something begins to change. All of the sudden, the little things start to bug you. Perhaps ending a sentence in a preposition. Or non-active sentences. Or maybe opening lines that just aren’t very strong or compelling.

And the more you critique, the more queries you send out and rejections you recieve, the more your hope can sometimes turn into anger.

Until you find yourself snapping anytime you see anything that breaks “the rules” of writing.

Because the rules are important. Because you learned the rules, and the rules will save you. They are what stands between you and getting published. And you’ll be darned if you’ll let someone else break them.

And you’re part right. The rules, they are important. But they’re not constant. Not absolute.

But the next thing you know, you’re telling someone that they shouldn’t have a prologue because editors and agents hate it — only your friend happens to actually need one. Or you’re telling someone to show instead of tell, when somehow they’re managing to tell with beauty and a unique voice. But the rules are the rules, and so you snap and start turning vicious, and you become the very thing you hated.

You become a writing robot.

You become “that guy/gal.” The bitter critique partner.

The guy who’s worked in the same job for far too long. Bad attitude Barry.

A terrible fate.

Now, if you haven’t yet become that guy or gal, that’s good. But if you’re not that guy/gal, then certainly you know who I’m talking about.

And man have they lost it.


The Best of a Bad Situation

But the truth — the truth is that guy or gal was created by being bullied and rejected and frustrated over a long period of time. They didn’t just appear in their vicious state.

They were made.

I’ve got a ‘that guy’ in my critique group. He almost drove me out.

For a month and a half I’ve teetered on the edge of leaving, despite the other fantastic people who are participating in my group. I reached out to some of these fantastic people and talked to them about it, and their responses were enlightening.

They said that our terrible critique partner friend wasn’t always such a wolf. He didn’t used to tear people to shreds for using a ‘was’ instead of the active counterpart. He didn’t used to hate all prologues. He used to give good advice.

And that’s why his transformation had become so unsettling to them. Even they were frustrated by his recent tyraids.

Maybe this critique partner isn’t the problem.

Maybe I am.

Maybe I shouldn’t be taking him so seriously, or perhaps just vaporizing his emails after informing him that he shouldn’t trouble himself with reviewing further chapters of my novel.

In the internet age, it’s too easy to vaporize the enemy.

But I think it’s equally important to not villanize that guy/gal. They are probably a little more than frustrated with their situation. They probably forgot that they too were once wide-eyed and bushy tailed, and didn’t know the difference between showing and telling or when to use each. Maybe they’re trying to prove something to someone else or to themselves and they’re just not doing it in the best way.

Because in the end, I still feel bad for losing my cool on that ice rink. Sure, it may have been justified. But I’d bet money that I hit a kid in the face with a stick who was just as hurt and frustrated as I was. He just didn’t know how to show it. And my reaction probably didn’t help him. It probably reinforced the same idea he learned throughout his whole life.

So maybe I don’t know how to deal with a bad critique partner.

Maybe I’m still figuring it out as I go.

But I do know that people aren’t born in a vacuum. And I do know that the right way isn’t always the way that leads to shaming someone else — even when they deserve it.



2 thoughts on “Lean In – Dealing with Bad Critique Partners

  1. i think this is a great article. as a new writer, i find myself leaning on the “rules” pretty hard and often seek other writers’ advice if i go against them.

    the other side of the argument for me though, is that a lot of writers don’t break the rules well. they really should cut “was” and break up run-on sentences.

    i feel bad for your bad crit partner. he probably doesn’t enjoy the process anymore, but it seems like you’re handling it maturely. 🙂

    • Thank you! I like to think I’m taking it well…

      And I couldn’t agree more with your commentation on “the rules.” They are there for a reason, but occasionally we find ourselves spouting them out at the wrong time which can really lead to unimaginative writing. And you’re right, the reason they exist is because a lot of people break them in poor ways.

      But lest we forget, if the passive setnence rule were always true, we’d never have heard “It was a dark and stormy night.” We want to know the rules so that we know when we are breaking them — but that doesn’t mean we don’t break them. We just need to know exactly if its a rule, and why we’re breaking it, and wonder on if that reason is valid.

      When we do this, and undoubetly everyone chimes in with a “don’t include prologues” or a “use active instead of passive here,” we need the confidence to ignore the rule and trust our gut. 🙂

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