Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ketchup & Critiques

I stared in horror at the red ketchup stain. It was centered on the white pants of the woman's bottom like a bulls eye. There I sat, frozen, with the incriminating ketchup packet clutched in my hands, in the middle of a crowded McDonald's. All eyes were on me.

It was unintentional. Bored, I'd been fiddling with the ketchup packet, as I waited for the rest of my family to finish their meal. The Laws of Physics was not my concern as I tried to squeeze a small hole in this tiny unopened package. Who knew it could fly across a crowded room? It nearly clipped my grandfather in the ear as he leaned over to pick up a napkin.

I was 13, and I still remember the abject humiliation of everyone staring. My mother made sure I apologized. I don't even remember the words, but I do remember the stuttering. The woman laughed, said she had kids my age and made her son stand behind her.

The woman forgave me, but to this day- I do not fiddle with ketchup packets and I bet she doesn't wear white pants.

We all have those extreme moments of humiliation. Things we wish we had not said or done. Words, that many of us would pay good money to never have uttered--or in some cases written.

I find I've had more than a few as I started writing. One of them is critiquing another person's manuscript, especially someone you do not know very well. I have been blessed with a very honest, frank, and challenging critique partner who lives a continent away. I've known her for 20 yrs and she is the only one I allow to tear apart my manuscript. She does this, because I trust her and she knows how to push me. The key word here...she knows me.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to read and critique a new friend's writing. I'd just recently met her and I was quite honored that someone would let me-a nobody- read a story and then critique it! So I jumped in with two feet. I loved the story, but like a bull in a china shop, I added my comments, suggestions, and opinions.

Can you see the train wreck approaching?

Like that moment when I squirted that damned ketchup, unable to bring back the red liquid that would forevermore stain that woman's pants, I unthinkingly critiqued that manuscript. In a matter of minutes I offended a new friend, with words I could not take back.

My new friend was so very gracious about it, but let me know I had over stepped my bounds. I apologized profusely, horrified I'd done that. It was never my intention to hurt or in anyway offend someone. Still, I could not change what I had done.

I still squirm about that moment and it has affected how I critique from now on. I am much more careful about what I say, and I am learning what works for some, does not work for others. I really wish I could go back and slap my "younger" self up side the head, but I cannot. I just have to move on. It takes trust to let someone critique your manuscript and I broke that trust. I work very hard not to do that again. Worse, I know many writers who have stopped writing for a time because of a horrid critique..to think I was the cause of someone's block makes my skin crawl. (As a side note--my terrible critique did not cripple the writer...thank goodness!)

Writing wise, what kind of humilation have you encountered? Have you ever unintentionally hurt someone? What did you do to rectify it? Did it change how you do things?


Christine said...

I don't know if I ever unintentionally hurt someone with my critiques. I'm not a line editor, and am more of a logic flow person. I tend to ask questions in my comments or make notes of when the writing is spot on for me. When it flows it flows and I want my CPs to know that I am into the book.

My humiliations are usually private--like yucky contest results with occasional yucky comments (those I pitch away). But being delusional, I usually punt them out of my brainwaves fairly quickly.

Great post--it reminds us to be careful with our fellow novelists' babies.

M.V.Freeman said...

That's true Christine,
I think its easy to forget that the manuscript you hold in your hands is something someone has worked hard on. It's a fine line between truth and destruction.

Still, I like how you deal with the negativity. You realize its there than "punt" it out of your brain! :) That's one way of getting rid of it!

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I've been on both ends of that. Got the critique that stopped me cold for months on end. And probably given it in return. I didn't mean to do it, and the person who critiqued me probably didn't mean to either. It's part of being a newbie, I think.

These days, I've learned that when I do critique, it's for story. Line edits don't matter much. If the error is glaring, I'd point it out. But all that crap about trying to make someone rephrase a sentence because you don't think they should use "was" is for the birds. Doesn't matter, I tell you. Story matters.

Mary, you did what any enthusiastic and new writer would do -- and you learned how to be better in the future, which is exactly what you are supposed to learn. You're on the right track. :)

M.V.Freeman said...

I agree Lynn, that as a newbie, we all stumble-its all a part of the process. Granted, I'd rather skip the discomfort....but that also develops us.

And you hit it spot on--its the story that counts! Although, I do miss my semi-colons...

And thank you for the encouragement! :) You always know the right thing to say!

Jean said...

Mary--this is the first time I have read anything you've written. You are wonderful! I could see that scene in McDonalds!

Louisa Cornell said...

I have to agree, Mary. You really painted a terrific scene with your story of the McDonald's Ketchup Debacle. Too funny!

I have a brutally honest critique partner and wouldn't have it any other way. She is tough, but she is GOOD.

As an opera singer I developed a very thick skin, especially when I was auditioning. I sang for opera directors who made Simon Cowell look like Mother Teresa!

However, I try VERY hard to remember that not everyone has had my experience. I agree with Lynn. What I do is ask questions and critique the things that tripped me up or pulled me from the story. The story is the thing. When I critique I try to make myself the reader who bought the book. What would bother me as a reader. It helps.

My one faux pas in the area of writing was at the GH / Rita Awards last year when I was talking with some friends and said that the person who had won a certain Rita, won it with their worse book ever and I felt any of the other nominees should have won. I didn't say it loudly. I thought it was a private conversation. Guess who was standing behind me? The author in question and her entourage of fans. OOOPS!!

M.V.Freeman said...

Jean, Thank you!
LOL, every time I do something embarrassing, I think of that moment and decide if it was worse than that!

M.V.Freeman said...

Thank you Louisa :)

I'm with you, I like my brutally honest critique partner--but I can't even begin to imagine the opera directors you sung for!

As for your moment at the GH and Rita--eek! Its that "Oh fudge" moment.... but honestly, I had to laugh a bit (sorry), because of the Murphy's Law of it, but I feel your pain.

The hardest part for me, is to not climb into a small place and hide! My introverted self wants to do that,way too often. I have learned to pick myself off, brush myself off, and try not to show how much I'm cringing. :) Well, that's hard. I blush terribly easily.

Misty Wright said...

I have to say I'm sure we are all guilty of this in some shape, form, or fashion. It is part of the business and most of us know this. It does hurt at times, but I've learned to not take it personally. They are only trying to help and sometimes when you really look, you can use some of what they are saying. :) I take what helps and don't sweat the rest.

I want someone to be honest with me and my writing and I do the same for them. I tell them up front that I'm not doing it to hurt feelings just help in their writing. It normally works out well. :) I love helping people when I can.

Loved this post, Mary!

M.V.Freeman said...

Thanks Misty!

Honesty is the best policy. I have just learned a bit more diplomacy...LOL!

I hope you are getting writing in! :)

Karen Beeching said...

Great story. We all have 'em, unfortunately.

I generally critique on story alone, unless something about the writing actually pulls me away from the escape.

I can't imagine critics worse than Simon. Makes me wonder if there's a point to being that harsh.

M.V.Freeman said...

I agree Karen, I focus on story as well. (truthfully I really suck at grammer). :)
I just wish the learning was not so harsh....
As for Simon-can you imagine pitching publically to some one like him?

Sherry Werth said...

Great post Mary. I feel your pain with the ketchup misfortune. I have at times, said things that came out totally wrong and wished with all my heart I could snatch back those words and make it better. But, I couldn't and I have to live with the mistake. It has taught me to think a little more before I speak. (I hope!)

Critiques? That may take awhile for me to feel confident and knowledgeable enough to participate in.

M.V.Freeman said...

You are one of the kindest people I know, it is hard for me to even imagine you saying anything that would hurt another!

As for critiques...baby steps. (That movie "What about Bob", just sticks in my head) :)