It’s been a while since I’ve had a story critiqued by peers for the purpose of readying the story for submission. I get critiques through Codex contests, but that’s about as far as it’s gone. It’s been a whole lot longer still since I received a genuine, thoughtful critique.
I do non-standard stuff with my writing. I massage the rules of punctuation, drop words that might be dropped in true dialogue, used biased narration, manipulate sentence lengths to build tension (often through repetition of short lengths), slip out of a consistent PoV, and who knows what else. I know I do these things.
What I want from a critique is to know how well these techniques worked. Some of them may be unintentional, but most are deliberate manipulations of the laws of good writing.
Consider if you will, my recent Escape Pod story “Leech Run”. I received a lot of critiques on that story before I finally found a home for it at Zero Gravity. (It was critted to death even before it became my first WotF honorable mention, then more afterward.) One of the comments received from 80% of the critiques regarded the scene where Reif first discovers Titan’s tattoo. “You break out of Titan’s PoV,” they all said. And indeed I did. The rest of the story is from Titan’s point of view (admittedly a limited sampling of his PoV to avoid spoiling the end, but more on that later), so they were indeed right to notice and mention it. But that’s where the comments stopped. I don’t recall a single one of these critiques postulating as to WHY I broke PoV for that moment.
I tried writing the scene from just Titan’s point of view; it just didn’t work. First of all, Titan couldn’t see the tattoo, so that’s one strike. But the bigger part was the emotional impact, the intimate intensity that passes between the two, Reif being on the receiving end of most of it. They reached an understanding at that point, one best illustrated by putting the reader into Reif’s head. It was a poetic device more than anything. It just worked. But the assumption made by the critiquers was that I didn’t do this on purpose and it was wrong.
Fine, maybe it’s “wrong”. I can live with that. But did it work?
“Leech Run” has received a lot of comments and a few reviews since its release on Escape Pod (and a couple from Zero Gravity as well). Not one of those reviews mentions the tattoo scene. As readers (and/or listeners), the brief PoV shift was not apparently an issue; it was only an issue to those reading for purposes of critique. The reviews did cite some issues, particularly some infohiding that led to an ending that was a little deus ex machina. FWIW, that was also mentioned in the critiques.
This is just one example of critiquers assuming the worst of my writing skills. There are dozens more. So I plead to those of you that offer critiques to fellow writers, when something strikes you as off about the execution of a story, wonder why. Does the deviation add something to the story? Can you see why the writer thought it might work? The writer will appreciate the effort you put into understanding their process and might even take more of your other comments to heart. And that’s why we critique in the first place, right?