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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Naked in the Mud Puddle: on the Vulnerability of Critique by Amber Belldene

I confess that I’ve never taken a mud bath.  The closest I’ve ever come was being buried under some very hot enzymatic saw dust.  The cedar flakes went everywhere, and I can only imagine mud gets even more up-close and personal when you bathe in it.  Maybe that’s okay.

I like mud.  It’s rich, it’s fertile, it reminds me of primordial soup.  Mud is the kind of fecund mess that life comes from.  

And so is criticism.  

I’m one of the list parents for FFnP’s online critique group, the Mud Puddle.  It’s an amazing community of talented writers, many of whom are published.  We are all willing to trade constructive critiques.  That’s no small thing, considering few of us have have ever met face to face.  Critique is hard, vulnerable work—balancing positive feedback and honesty, accounting for subjective taste, and trying not to mess with a writer’s voice—the exchange of critiques can be like an embrace, a kiss, or a slap in the face.  

A writer friend of mine named Laurie Brock said to me the other day, “The wisest, most secure people I know are perfectly able to hear criticism without becoming angry.  They’ve seen their own shadows, so someone else pointing it out isn’t a, ‘Hey, your panties are showing,’ moment.”    

Of course, she’s right.  And I am not one of those people.

Once upon a time, before I took up the crazy dream of writing, I was content and centered.  When someone at work gave me a piece of feedback, I could take it calmly, without feeling defensive.  Why, oh why, is writing so much more vulnerable?  I live to have people read my books and tell me what they really think, but receiving a full-blown critique is a bit like being submerged in mud—it’s kind of warm and cozy, and it’s kind of suffocating.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am grateful to every single person who has ever pored over words I wrote and taken time to point out missed commas, over-used words, and parts of my story they hated.  And, like most writers, I have a very thick skin.  I don’t get mad.  I rarely get defensive.  Sometimes I do feel confused about what to do, or whose opinion to trust, or how to fix a problem. But, all that fecund mud seeps into me, and I always find my way out of the mire with a new idea.

Buy me a couple of drinks, and I’ll gladly show you my panties.  But I’m more shy about showing my story, naked and streaked with mud.  From punctuation to story arc, baring oneself to critique is intense.  I won’t promise you that the Mud Puddle is a utopia, where your feelings will never get hurt, and the coal dust of your WIP will be quickly transformed into diamonds.  But it is a fabulous, safe place to show your underwear and make long-lasting writing friends.  The Mud Puddle has made me a better writer, more sure of my own voice and more aware of my weaknesses.  And honestly, because helpful critiquing requires mindfulness and sensitivity, it has made me a better person too.  

I wish for every writer that kind of fertile community.

And so I invite you to come play in the mud.  If you are a member of FFnP, you can join the puddle by emailing critique (at) romance-ffp (dot) com.  

To wrap up, I asked some members of the Mud Puddle to share their philosophy of critique, or  lessons they’ve learned there:  

“The greatest gift I've learned from the Mud Puddle is how to write active characters, in motion with their setting. The MP helped me realize how to eliminate passive voice.”- Paula Millhouse

I’ve learned writing is a balancing act, too much of one thing, no matter how beautiful or fun, can become a distraction….[sometimes] I’ve written a particularly magical/funny/interesting phrase or paragraph and no one else cares for it.  I’m not saying a writer shouldn’t follow her/his heart, but when several people you trust all agree, it’s a good idea to ponder and perhaps reconsider, no matter how painful.” - Coleen Burright

“When I critique, I always try to find something good to say.  Saying something 'less comfortable' is sometimes necessary, but I always try to find a positive way to say it.  That said, I think it's important to learn how to receive a critique as well as give one.  We all have something to learn.” - Rhenna Morgan

“I am always honest. I try never to be brutal about it, but I won't lie and say something is great just because I can't find anything good to say about it. That's not helpful. It is probably one of the worst things you can do to a writer who is trying to learn their craft.” - Samantha MacDouglas

Photo of muddy feet is courtesy of Jonathan Isaac.


Amber Belldene grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when she could pull herself away from a book.  As a child, she hid her Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read mysteries during sermons—an irony that is not lost on her when she preaches these days. 
Amber is an Episcopal priest and student of religion.  She believes stories are the best way to explore human truths.  Some people think it is strange for a minister to write romance, but it is perfectly natural to her, because the human desire for love is at the heart of every romance novel and God made people with that longing.  She lives with her husband and two children in San Francisco.   

Connect with Amber: website | facebook | twitter

Blood Vine, released January 2013, from Omnific Publishing

Bites are an inconvenient bliss, exiled vampires are wasting away, and the fate of their kind depends on the perfect PR campaign. 

When public relations pro Zoey Porter arrives at an enchanting California winery, she discovers her sexy new client is the almost one-night stand she can’t forget. After her husband’s suicide, Zoey has vowed never to risk her heart again. But can she walk away from the intriguing winemaker a second time?

Driven from Croatia by his ancient foes, vampire Andre Maras has finally made a blood-like wine to cure his fellow refugees. Now he needs Zoey’s PR expertise to reach them. After his wife’s death, Andre has a vow of his own—never to risk another painful blood bond. And one taste of the tempting Zoey would bind him to her eternally. 


Samantha MacDouglas said...

Hi Amber! The Mud Puddle is such a great place. Being able to get feedback from multiple sources, people struggling on the same journey you are is invaluable. I've also found that giving feedback is just as illuminating.

I am very grateful for everyone who makes it such a supportive, wonderful place!

Sarah Shade said...

Great post, Amber. I adore the Puddle. It has taught me so much and has made a significant impact on my work. I've been in several other critique groups and none has ever worked as smoothly and consistently. Though I have no idea where the name originated, it's a great analogy. Critique, like mud, is a fantastic exfoliator yet easily washed away if its too dirty, although it might take a while to get it out of your ear...

A. J. Larrieu said...

Great post, Amber! I like your analogy. It's such a risk to expose ourselves to critique, but so necessary. And I Iove the comments at the end. Finding people who will give kind-but-honest feedback is worth more than gold!

Carla Richards said...

I could totally relate to this :)

Amber Belldene said...

Hi everyone--thanks for coming along today and letting me know I'm not the only one with my panties hanging out!

Lisa Kessler said...

Thanks for helping keep our Mudpuddle such a vibrant and supportive arena for people to share their work!

You rock!

Lisa :)