With apologies to the vegetarians who may or may not read my blog, we're gonna talk about steak today.
My husband is an expert on the proper preparation of steak. So much so that he's rather insulted if you ask for steak sauce. Why would you need to cover up the flavor? He has strong opinions on how steak should be prepared, from the moment it stops walking around to the moment it hits your plate. He'll tell you about it whenever you want to ask. (Or whenever you just happen to mention the word steak, trying to make polite conversation.) I don't even think about cooking the meat in our house.
My husband's perfect steak, of course, is RARE. Most experts agree: steak is meant to be red in the middle, nice and tender. Barely warm. Still mooing. Rare steak is not tough to eat and you can often cut it with a dinner knife. It leaks red juice all over your plate. Yummm.
I'm more a fan of happy-MEDIUM. Pink on the inside, still fully cooked, little messy blood. It doesn't melt in your mouth, but it doesn't take an hour to chew, either. Plus, I think steak knives are cool. Why wouldn't I want to use one?
There is a small minority of steak eaters who foolishly insist on the WELL-DONE steak. Burned. Black. Fully dead. Brown all the way through. Chefs in restaurants (so I hear) set aside the worst cuts for these folks, since they'll never notice once the meat has come off the heat. Steak knives are required, and you might have to rest your jaw halfway through.
Honestly, I care not one little bit which one you prefer. Take your steak however you like. Let's talk about critiques.
There are those who like their critiques as soft as a rare steak. Easy to chew. Minimal cooking time. Tons of "wow, this was great!" and very little "dude, I did NOT get this part at ALL." Like the rare steak lovers, if their crit is slightly overdone, they're apt to throw a fit, challenge the competency of the chef, and regale anyone nearby with an account of the proper way to prepare a well-written story. Like theirs. If only everyone could appreciate their genius. Every once in a while, one of these types publishes a book and soon wages a public war against any who dare call it less-than-perfect. This war is entertaining to all, but less than helpful to the writer's career.
I do NOT like these types of crits. I refuse to give them, and if that makes me a bad critiquer-- well, it doesn't make me a bad critiquer. Just an insensitive one. I can deal.
Then there are those who recognize that, if they want to actually improve their writing and their stories, they will need to face the flaws head-on. Only, they're insecure and they know it. Criticism hurts, no matter how well-intended or how well they prepare themselves to hear it. Like the medium steak lover, they want the tough balanced by an equal measure of tender. If it is too tough, they won't be able to swallow it at all. If they don't hear "loved this part" almost as often as "eek, this doesn't really work, does it?" they might despair, throw the whole novel in the trunk, and take up cross-stitching. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
These crits I can handle. I actually strive to give this type in every crit I give. Even if I have to go back and add in the good comments later. :) I would never want someone to come away from one of my critiques thinking they or their story has zero chance of success. Any writer can improve. Any story can rise from the muck of mediocrity to become extraordinary (if only by stripping it down to its barest bones, finding the one good thing about it, and rebuilding from there). Happy-medium is good.
But it's not my favorite crit.
My favorite crit to receive is like the well-done steak. Burned. Black. Dead. No weak plot point left unpoked, no flat character left unchallenged, and no useless scene left unskewered. Mockery should abound. My ideal beta reader will mock the heck outa my book, whenever they can. They will leave comments in the margins to the effect of "Again? Really? When will you stop doing this? This is driving me crazy!!!" They will protest loudly and often when I let my characters wander into a scene without knowing what they want--and communicating it somehow to the reader. They will circle my -ly verbs and, just to be sure I'm aware of it, will recite the rule that says we should use them sparingly. They will unapologetically point out when my tense shifts, when they can't tell whose head they're in, or when my tricky turn of phrase turns them off. They will mercilessly apply heat, they will ignore all sounds of suffering, and they won't let up until it's impossible to tell just how bad the cut of meat I handed them really was. They will praise on occasion, when driven to do so, and will offer the token positive points when writing their crit, but they will focus on the flaws.
Why? Because, someday, I want to be published. If I succeed, my little darling will be slid onto a plate, decorated with some garnish, and served to people who don't know me. Who don't care about me. Whose addresses I do not know. These people will not care if I think that this little cut of my soul is perfect in all aspects. They will not care if my entire sense of self-worth is tied to whether they like it. They only care about what THEY like, and what their hard-earned dollars have purchased. And they will say, loudly and frequently, exactly which parts they hated about it. They will mock my limp voice, my flat characters, my uninteresting vocabulary choices, and my yawn-inducing scenes. UNLESS I've already identified such things and fixed them. UNLESS I have friends wonderful enough to mock me before the general public has a go. Unless my crits are well-done.
Now, I'm not saying that brutal beta-crits will completely save me. Some people won't like my book no matter how perfect it really, really is. I'm just trying to limit the number of post-publication "ouch! he's right!" moments. I want them all up front. I can take it. I have my jaw all warmed up and my steak knife ready.
What about you?