DNF & Critiques

It’s a momentous day for me: I DNFed a book for the first time since probably 2013. What is “DNF”, you may ask? If you’re not a denizen of GoodReads, you may not have seen this acronym before: it’s simply a use-able shorthand for “Did Not Finish”, which most users of the online social reading platform use to categorize their personal graveyard of abandoned books.

I’m going to be honest: it’s mainly out of a stubborn sense of obligation that I usually stick with books I start and don’t want to finish. There’s no altruistic motive; there’s just a part of me that refuses to think of myself as the kind of person so faint of heart that they would abandon a challenging read at the first sign of adversity. But that was then, and this is now.

I’ve been reading slush for On Spec Magazine for the last year and it’s brought a lot of perspective to my own writing, as well as what I like to read. I’ve also seriously enjoyed hearing Tim Clare‘s critiques on his podcast Death of 1000 Cuts, where he takes apart the first 250 words of people’s (voluntarily submitted) work. His feedback is so nuanced and specific, so focused on the work and what makes something good or bad, that it’s impossible not to learn from it.

I’ve had my own share of difficulty accepting critiques, especially when I feel like I’m not being understood the way I want to be in my writing or the amount of effort I’m putting in isn’t being acknowledged by the critique. I’ve also given critiques that were dismissed out of hand, the most recent one of note being someone telling me I rejected their story based on the sexuality of their protagonist. I wrote back with a more detailed critique that had nothing to do with any character’s orientation, but I think it took the level of detail I went into in the critique to convince this person that I wasn’t just being discriminatory.

There are some things that just aren’t for me, which doesn’t mean that they’re not for someone else. I take critiques really seriously because I want to be a better writer, but I understand their limitations. In the same way, the intention of my book reviews or story critiques is never to destroy the person I’m critiquing, but rather to challenge what I found unfulfilling or lacking in their work. Let me restate that: what I found.

Something I’ve learned from reading slush, getting and giving critiques, and studying up on writing in the past year is that a negative comment on your work is not a negative commentary on who you are as a person.

You continue to shine brightly, beyond the flaws in your work. The only real flaw as far as I can see is when you abandon any effort to get better. We can always be better, and we always have an opportunity to do so, because we make that opportunity ourselves.

Though I may not have finished Truthwitch, I have the utmost respect for Susan Dennard. She is an author who parlayed her dream of writing into a reality and became a New York Times-bestselling author. She’s able to write full time and get paid for it, something I aspire to do. She may well be (for all I know) a truly wonderful, caring person—and none of that amounts to her work, no matter how popular, being beyond criticism.

You can read my complete review of Truthwitch on GoodReads.

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