Critique ~ Outside the Margins with Edmond Manning

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Edmond Manning OTM


In 2009, I attended a week-long Iowa Writer’s Program summer retreat, my very first “half-considering professional writing” experience. I discovered they loaned the prestigious name to the summer program, but not the quality.

One reviewer said my work was hard to read, considering I write porn. (In the chapters I distributed—the first two chapters of King Perry—two men flirt.) Another man’s criticism was that as a straight, Christian man, there wasn’t a lot there for him. I made him feel rejected. Someone complimented my use of punctuation. (It’s true. I am gifted. I frequently use periods when ending declarative sentences.)

A retired Canadian magistrate approached me after class. He want to tell me—in confidence—that when he served on the bench, he oversaw a lot of child pornography cases. A lot. He nodded in a meaningful way—which, if he were Dick Van Dyke, would have implied a magical adventure. But he was not—so I felt like a pedophile who writes porn.

I said, “This is about two gay men. No children are involved.”

He said, “Oh, I know, I know. I was just offering my expertise. In one case, we got 60 gig of child porn off one computer.” He assured me he didn’t know how much a gig was, but he was told it was a lot.

I said, “Gay men don’t molest children. Child molesters molest children.”

He said, “I know, I know.”

He gave me the Dick Van Dyke wink before he sauntered away.

The next time I was critiqued, I was more selective. I worked with three other gay men, each of whom had written a novel. We each wanted a full-length manuscript critique. We discussed our six rules to keep the feedback safe. We followed these rules for the first two critiques with great success. When it was my turn, someone said, “Hey, we’re doing great at this. Let’s try it without following rules.”

The experience was awful.

At one point, two of my critiquers (yes, I know it’s not a word) laughed about a plot point they thought absurd, too ridiculous to include in a novel: the kidnapping of a baby duck. Yes, it was ridiculous, but I wrote to honor the beauty of surrealism and its relationship to San Francisco, so, they were laughing openly about something I nurtured deeply in my soft and fuzzy heart.

Without rules, their advice slashed without conscience, making fun of my attempts at a unique narrator voice, and how I had failed. I took notes and tried not to cry.

When we debriefed, I told how excruciating the experience was, their meanness, their laughter.

With shock in their eyes, they said, “Yes. We were over the line.”

To their credit, each man apologized.

Good people, enthusiastic about words, can be dicks when it’s time to discuss “what works.”

Last week, I attended the Lambda Literary Writing Retreat, a 2016 fellow in fiction.

I was critiqued.

This is what I learned.

A powerful critique group is Christmas dinner with intense family, distant cousins related through words. Related, yes, yet distant enough to write differently from each other. Some cousins we love better than others, though, yeah, yeah, yeah, we love the whole goddamn family. As we sit around the drunken Christmas table each day for workshop, the manuscript submitted is always metaphorically titled: “How about religion?” And you all go at it, offering what is beautiful and what is not, and then everyone starts having strong opinions about HOW BEAUTIFUL and HOW MUCH TO FIX. It sometimes gets messy in pursuit of the best honesty available to each of us. Feelings get bruised.

This is family, after all.

The pages I submitted were from a new piece I’m researching and writing, titled Zacchaeus. It’s about the short tax collector from the Bible. I guess it’s a genre piece–historical novel–but I blush admitting this. In the past few years of publishing novels, I have experienced intense snobbery from those who believe genre fiction can’t boast thick, strong sentences or introduce life-pondering moments. The book ends happily? Oh. Have you considered guiding it somewhere else?

The night before my Lambda critique, I wondered, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I thought, maybe, I had already experienced the worst thing, being cornered by an octogenarian winking at me about child pornography, but things can always be worse, so I decided, “I could burst into tears.”

Yup. Worst thing.

My critique was midweek, which meant I had witnessed beautiful writing and doubted my own. I think I have confidence in myself as a writer. I really do. Still, I get afraid. At this stage in my life, I identify myself at the core as “words guy,” so they’re not only discussing the black ink on the page, but they’re in my bed, under the covers, in terms of intimacy. Critiquing my style, if you will.

Non-writers suppose critique groups are Victorian word lovers, sipping chamomile tea, making suggestions like, “My dear, mightn’t one consider an em dash for emphasis?” Fuck that. It’s ice hockey. The puck is the current speaker, and we all want to talk next, want that puck right now, and we use long curved sticks to snatch speakership, saying things like, “If I can just piggyback on Fredrick’s point, because, this is super relevant.” Away the puck goes.

It’s terrifying.

When Andrew Holleran, our Lambda fiction facilitator, said, “Okay, first person. Give feedback to Edmond,” I felt that sinking goalie feeling, standing awkwardly with bent knees, padded everywhere with insecurities, metal bars protecting my practiced calm face. They good with words. Me try good with words, but not always good with words…me.

I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I do want to tell you about how my life changed.

The second person to offer feedback said, “I want you to ask yourself about this novel, what is the central question being asked, what is the unanswerable question this book poses? Do you know it?”

It hurt when she asked this, because, yes, of course, I have considered this question. (Well, a variation of the question.) This was a literary snob asking a genre writer, “Have you thought about pondering something bigger than plot?” And it hurt. The speaker wore sparkly eye shadow every day, and when she spoke, her arms danced in the air, like a butterfly’s wings. I had considered her a friend. As she continued her feedback, elaborating on this question and suggesting other breathy insights, I realized something.

She cared for me. She valued my work.

All the shit I brought to this critique, all the previous baggage was mine. All mine. I could carry it with me and let my heart harden, not hearing her excellent advice, or I could listen. Let it the puck in.

As she finished speaking, I mentally replayed her feedback and realized there was not one drip of condescension in her voice. The opposite, in fact. She wanted my work to sparkle, and she was inquiring, have you considered the gorgeousness of which you are capable?

She was doing her best to love me and love my words.

I thought my heart would burst open.

I was home.

But there wasn’t much time to reflect because the hockey puck skidded over to the next person.

I told myself to let go, to welcome whatever they had to say. Trust this crazy Christmas family.

Some people’s feedback rang true, others did not. I typed furiously so I could capture every word and then sort it all out later. Some people didn’t understand what I was attempting, and some of those same individuals offered the best possible insight because they were dead-on, in a way. Careful readers point to problems even if they offer the wrong solutions. One new friend, whose grin still delights me in memory, said in his bright, jovial manner, “You’re missing the beautiful sentences. I suspect you add those later, don’t you? You’re nodding. Yes? I thought that might be the case.”

I do add beautiful sentences later. He knew me.

Family can be the very best thing in the world.

When the critique ended, I had a few comments I wanted to share with the group, including addressing the sparkling angel’s question. I felt joy because I answered her—not defensively, but with gratitude for her insights.

The novel’s central question is this: What would you risk? Would you climb a tree if you were a short tax collector in the Roman empire’s pocket? ZacchaeusWould you risk everything in your life—even death—to show all of your love? To understand love? Would you risk being critiqued by a crazy Christmas family because your love of words is such that you need this, you need professionals to point out your shit?

What would you risk?

After sharing my take on the novel’s central question, I tried to explain what this meant to me, to be critiqued so well. To be raked over the Christmas coals by queer professionals who invited me to become a better writer. I belonged to this family. I found I could not put together the sentences I wanted.

Tears leaked out when I spoke in a squeaky voice. “Thank you.”

An hour later, I realized my worst fear had come true. I’d cried in front of professional writers, the very people I wanted to impress. But in the moment, I hadn’t noticed.

I was too busy experiencing grace.


~Edmond Manning

About Edmond Manning

Edmond Manning is the author of King Perry, King Mai, The Butterfly King andFilthy Acquisitions. He spends a great deal of time standing in front of the fridge with the door open, wondering why it’s not stocked with more luncheon meats and cheese.

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20 thoughts on “Critique ~ Outside the Margins with Edmond Manning

  1. Please never doubt your skill as a writer. Unless that’s what motivates you to write the way you do. I think you are one of the most gifted writers I’ve ever ‘known’. You are one of those rare authors whose books I can’t wait to get my paws on, yet, when I do, I put off reading them because I can only experience that first read-thru once – and I don’t want it to be over. Kind of like dessert.

  2. Dammit, Edmond. *fans face* It’s dusty in here. Maybe this is pedestrian, but this reminded me of my favorite line (of many) in Steel Magnolias: Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.

    It’s so hard to open up to criticism, especially when we writers bleed on the page. For someone not to like or understand our work, it’s like they don’t understand or like our blood, our very essence, what makes us tick. To critique carefully is absolutely essential, but to listen carefully is too.

    It’s like baring a bad bruise and asking someone to prod it, trusting them to do so gently enough it doesn’t injure further while at the same time giving them an understanding of the bruise itself and how it came to be. Only at that point, can they say, “Hey, maybe you could move the coffee table over here instead, and you won’t bark your shin on it, or more importantly, your readers won’t bark shins on it.” In that moment, if they say it with love and we hear it with love, the bruise begins to heal a little.

    I love this post. Better yet, I love that you got to experience the intensity of so many people who did you proud around such a Christmas family feast. You’re a brave, beautiful man to even sit down at that table. I usually pick the kid’s table in the other room. It’s more fun and less painful, and sometimes, the kids share their mashed potatoes to get out of eating them. I love mashed potatoes.

  3. First of all, who doesn’t love mashed potatoes? I fully support the kids table. Conversation is always fascinating there.

    Also, thank you for your fabulosity. I love the phrase, “…it’s like someone doesn’t like our blood.” Yes! Yes! I witnessed so many great writers that week and I felt like I was reading their blood.

    Thank you for your love. I feel it.

  4. I wonder, deep inside, if some of them were just jealous and only lashed out in anger. Pity.

    Putting your words and ideas out there is courageous and life affirming. How they can question something they haven’t lived or imagined is sad and small minded. Hopefully they’ll grow if they take the time to reflect.

    • Crazy post-script. In one of the critique sessions mentioned above (the one with three other gay men), one of the men admitted to me YEARS LATER that he had a huge crush on me at the time, and he felt like a schoolboy on the playground who didn’t know how to express his interest in a way other than to “be mean” to the object of his affection. (The equivalent of pulling my hair and stomping on my foot.) That night, he was the one who suggested we “not follow the rules we established.” I was shocked by this explanation, I never quite knew what to do with that. Flattered? Horrified? LOL.

  5. Loved this post! I was thrilled to see your updates during the retreat and to see so much joy gleaned from it.

    At the risk of sounding a wee bit too fangirly, I love reading all of your words… Whether in a book, a story from your office shenanigans, or blog posts. Even silly anecdotes seem to have a hidden, greater message.

    Nearly two weeks after finishing King John, I still find myself in a boom hangover, unable to find another book that I’m able to invest more than a few pages. I’m not much of a reviewer, but that’s about the best (or worst depending how you view it bc now I’m not reading much!) reaction I can have after reading a book.

    I try to always think of feedback as positive. As the receiver of feedback, it’s up to us to determine how to take it. Whether the critiquer means for it to be positive or negative is irrelevant… We decide. It can be heady to understand that but can also change the entire editing process.

    Anyway, I think I just rambled a bunch but I wanted to thank you for the gift of your words and pass along that they always make me reflect. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hey Shell!

      Thanks for reading King John – I’m glad you’re in book hangover mode. Wow, that’s kind of a shitty thing to say, isn’t it? LOL. I hope you go on to many more happy reading experiences, but I’m glad King John had an impact. I loved writing that book. So, thank you.

      I love what you said about how, ultimately, it’s our decision how to process feedback. Feedback can be delivered so poorly it’s hard to take much from the message but pain. Or, one can get lost in the feedback, too, worshipping it too much as truth. It’s just feedback. That’s a hard lesson for me to learn in life, but especially in writing, where I sometimes doubt myself, making myself more vulnerable to the impact of feedback.

      Anyway, it’s a curious conversation to have–the role we let feedback play in our lives. Thank you for continuing that conversation!

  6. It’s funny because I was nodding through nearly all of what you posted here. I get it, but from a completely different experience. Being critiqued for your art – in my case performance on the stage – taught me how much weight to give criticism. There is a line in the sand however that needs to be addressed. Whenever art is in play, there is a part that is sacred in the creation itself. So while I have performed in theatre for nearly all of my life, dealt with reviews and critics, and am only just now diving into writing my own stories, there is a part of me that is in it solely for the expression of voice – a bit more punk than Shakespearean. Expression of voice for the sake of voice, almost to the point of not caring one jot for how its received. I am all for honing your craft (whatever that is) and this sort of retreat seemed to be so beneficial because it is amongst our own – authors and queer content creators that actually care about the works because our voices are so important.

    Yet there is my go-to saying when I am in full-on creation mode. As Gore Vidal said – “Style means saying what you want and not giving a damn.” That’s the punk(ish) guitar I like to wail on because the insular creation – the long lonely nights of hashing it out – is what’s exciting to me. The editing, cover art, the creation and typesetting and publishing is the drudgery of it (for me).

    Yet, I get the whole pondering how others receive the work – whatever the medium. I know of facing that. I am so happy that it worked out so well for you. You should come onto the WROTE podcast and talk about the experience at length. And just cause Vance and I love yappin’ with ya and this is such a great topic of conversation for our fellow authors to grasp what you went through. Think about it, my friend.

    And can I just say: Andrew Holleran?*SWOON*

    • Baz, I love this thoughtful reply!

      I wholeheartedly agree. In some ways, the artist can be a slave to feedback, and then you end up like Sally Field on a stage, crying out, “You like me! You really like me!” Eeeesh.

      I think every artist needs some of that punk you described, a bit of “fuck you, this is my art!” I need it! I got some terrible critique feedback those two times described above and did not respond by dropping my metaphorical pen and saying, “Well, I quit.” Fuck that.

      But good feedback can help an artist transcend personal limitations. Artistic limitations. There’s a real art to knowing how much to let in and how much to say, “Nah, I got this.” That might be the subject of another post.

      I love this conversation!

      Which means, yes, it’s time to come back to the podcast. I’d love to participate again. I had so much fun doing it the last time.

  7. I am sorry to hear about your experiences but glad that you did not let them stifle your voice. It truly is important to find those with the ability to give CONSTRUCTIVE criticism that enhances the work without trying to change your style or message. Kudos to you for continuing to be brave enough to search for the right kind of colleagues and thank you for sharing your painful journey.

    • Thank you so much for a great reply. Yeah, sometimes it’s painful. And I get scared to risk. But there are also moments littered along the way of joy.

      in the blog, I mentioned the critique group with the three other gay men. When I shared how awful it was and the hurtful things they said, they apologized. They were genuinely sorry and they didn’t try to argue my perspective, they validated my perceptions and agreed that I didn’t deserve to be hurt that way. That was another healing moment–I got angry appropriately and dared to show sadness at the same time. And the result was that they were open and honest. Healing happens in a lot of surprising ways. Even in the terrible moments in life.

  8. Running several days behind, as real life has dared to interfere with my reading and digital world. But wanted to say how truly moving I found this post to be. I am in awe of all authors–you possess a level of bravery that is admirable. Putting your thoughts, ideas, perceptions, dreams and visions out there for all the world to see takes “stones”.

    I suspect that sharing a new book you’ve put so much effort and energy into is a bit frightening–like showing a beloved child to people for the first time. Will they think it’s ugly? Will they react positively? Will they want to hold the child, and if so, will the child smile at them or spit up all over their shirt?

    I can only imagine the catharsis you experienced when giving vent to your emotions with the group/family. Constructive criticism can be such a good thing, and even harsh criticism can have a positive effect. But the thing that really matters is how *you* perceive and utilize other’s input, and sometimes that means not changing a thing.

    Seems this was an experience that was both wondrous and terrifying for you, and must admit I cried a bit as I read this post. Best wishes and lots of love for you, and I’m looking forward to all the wonderful new ideas and stories you will surely share with the world.

    • Are you sure you’re not an author, because you really seem to GET IT. Thank you for that deep level of empathy. Regardless of being a writer, deep empathy is one of the best gifts people give each other. I really felt heard by you, and that I will treasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply.

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