I’ve written before about how I always surprised just how awesome the SF/F community is. Despite the contentious arguments about the direction the genre is going, the direction publishing is going, the pros and cons of the various awards, the people in this community are almost always friendly, accepting, and exceedingly helpful. I think it is in part a desire to pay it forward. I was thinking about this helpfulness this morning because I received two critiques from writers on a story I asked them to look at, and their comments were so spot-on and so helpful that it is really amazing that I didn’t see some of this myself. But really, they were both perfectly happy to read the story and give their feedback. What’s really notable is that their feedback is exactly the kind of feedback that–as a writer–I wish editors could give more often. There is something about getting critiques from your peers that makes all of the difference, when you consider all of the different people from whom you could receive critiques:
- Family and friends. Almost no one in my family is a genre reader, which is important when getting a critique for a genre story. You need someone who has some familiarity with the ins-and-outs of the genre. This would be like a scientific paper on chemistry being peer reviewed by a psychologist. They might have some insights, but they are generally not targeted or specific. And really, family wants to be encouraging, and often doesn’t understand that, as a writer, you need constructive criticism to survive. So what you get from family is often filtered through rose-colored glasses.
- Writers group members. Members of my writers group are great and really do a good job to try and find problems in stories. But again, many of them are not genre readers and where people are in their writing careers varies widely throughout the group. You sometimes get the sense that newer writers are out to prove their mettle by giving the harshest reviews and so you really have to filter what comes out of those critiques, which means you need to know the group pretty well.
But in my experience, getting a story critiqued by a member of the SF/F community is a very different experience. First, most of these people are far more publishing experience than I have. They’ve sold many stories and have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t work. So there is some authority to their opinions. Second, while they are all encouraging, my SF/F peers know from experience that you can’t pull punches if you are going to improve. They don’t try to sugarcoat their critiques. If something doesn’t work, they say it doesn’t work. If a story starts off too slowly, they say it starts off too slowly. Period. Third, they do this all in a professional tone, unlike anything you get from the groups I mentioned above. In some ways, it’s what I imagine it must be like for a minor league ball player to come up to the majors and be sitting on the bench with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. After you strike out and come back to the bench, you might ask one of your teammates, “Any advice for what I did wrong there?” And they’ll smiling knowingly and say, “You’re anticipating the fastball too much, so you’re missing the offspeed stuff. Hang back a little longer next time.”
And that’s just what my “teammates” in SF/F do when they give their critiques.
I’ve said many times before how awesome it is to be a science fiction writer, if a minor one of very little consequence. It’s nice to see your stories in the magazines and hear a kind word or two from people who’ve liked what you’ve written. But the truly awesome part of being a science fiction writer is learning from people who do it better than you, knowing that, with enough hard work, those lessons might make you a better writer in the end.