Don’t Ask the Dodo

January 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Expert

Finishing a story can be like emerging from the depths of the sea. Reality stops wavering and blurring around you, and you’re allowed to start breathing again. You drift for a while, soaked in more, as-yet-unrealised ideas and covered with clingy, slimy notions that have no real justification for existing and no discernible future, but they won’t go away.

What do you do with this newly-drafted piece of brilliance/guff? Editing is the next phase, but this is stormy waters and you’re going to need a crew to keep from foundering on the rocks of wasted genius. Who can possibly assist you with this delicate task? Who can you trust to give you good, sound advice instead of pigeon poo? The seas are empty. There’s no one in sight.

But look! There, ahead! Thank goodness. It’s a hatted, pipe-wielding dodo wearing an admiral’s coat. Just who you were hoping for.

Forward, backward, inward, outward
Come and join the chase!
Nothing could be better
Than a jolly critique-race!

This is familiar territory. The dodo’s obviously the group-leader here, and there are all your fellow writers, obviously having a blast. You join the party!

The first person to offer you a critique is a wet fish with a tight-lipped expression. He thinks there are problems with the ending of your story. This input seems to make sense, so you gamely have a go at a revision. Great progress.

But there’s a lavender-coloured starfish with a vacuous air bounding along behind you, and she’s eager to offer you some thoughts. She loved the original ending of your story. LOVED IT. Hates the new one.

A lobster with oversized pincers expresses severe doubts about the setting. A late Victorian, Steampunk scenario is okay, but have you thought about transferring the story to Mars and recasting all your characters as aliens? It would definitely have a lot more impact.

A lime-green puffin with bulging eyes is unsure about the Mars idea, but what about changing the protagonist? It could be really interesting to have the story told from the point of view of the hero’s mechanical arm, for example? Let’s try something really different.

Phew. You may feel like you’re going in circles, but this is all progress, right? It’s completely conceivable that your eventual readers may include a lobster, a green puffin, a vacuous starfish and a tight-lipped sea bass. It would be unwise to ignore the opinions of the Reader.

Draft five. It’s going well.

The pipe-wielding dodo thinks your setting and characterisation were fine, but doesn’t like either of the endings. Or your prose style. Or the structure. Or most of the characters.

Oh no. A wave…

Backward, forward, outward, inward
Bottom to the top,
Never a beginning, there can never be a stop!

Critique is really necessary, no denying. You need someone with distance to spot the flaws you can’t see for yourself. But don’t ask the dodo.

Or the starfish, lobsters, sea bass and other random flotsam floating in the sea of something-like-creativity. The flaw with many of these sorts of offerings is that they are essentially subjective.

The most important point in my experience is to try to find a critique-partner who has some experience with – and preferably a liking for – the type of writing that you’re doing – or who is open-minded enough to assess it as it is, not for not being what it isn’t.

If you give your manuscript for a thriller to someone who hates everything about thrillers, they probably won’t like your story very much. You could receive ‘constructive’ notes on your writing style, your characters, plot, structure, ending, everything. Does it really mean that all of these things were done poorly? Not necessarily.

We’ve learned that Lobsterman really likes science fiction, but does it follow that your thriller would be a lot better if you set it in space? You’re learning more about the preferences of your critiquers than you are about the flaws in your work.

I’m not saying that comments offered in good faith should be completely ignored. I am recommending taking some care over who you ask – a random forum free-for-all may or may not be useful to you – and sifting through the advice you get with some care. Anything that smacks too strongly of a subjective preference on the part of the critiquer ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.


Backward, forward, outward, inward
Bottom to the top,
Never a beginning, there can never be a stop……..


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§ 2 Responses to Don’t Ask the Dodo

  • Andy says:

    I think I am going to start picturing people in my head as cute little farm animals or animated sea creatures. In all seriousness, this was a helpful read! I’ve encountered this situation before, where different people each offer different input; it’s all nice, but where is the line between writing a story that is your own, and writing a story according to so-and-so? Anyway, I’ll make sure to avoid the dodos.

    • Charlotte says:

      Most people mean well and are honestly trying to help, but when giving ‘advice’ it can be really hard to differentiate between one’s subjective opinion and a more objective style of critique. That is especially true if you ask people who are not writers themselves.

      As for the dodos, they are usually fairly easy to spot: an air of swaggering pomposity, beneath which is a thinly veiled, self-opinionated moron. It shines through, like a beacon.

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