OOF! A big foam bat whacks my left side—hard. “Great job defending your right!” my partner shouts encouragingly. Then she shoves me to the floor. I roll over and spring to my feet just in time to block another THWACK! from her big foam bat. “Great arm block!” she yells. “Now use your feet,” as she scores a direct hit on my knee. If that were a real weapon, I’d be on my way to the hospital for knee surgery—if she didn’t kill me first.
My partner is just doing her job. This is a self-defense exercise in our taekwondo class. Before we began, our taekwondo master explained what to do: Beat each other up—nicely, of course. “But don’t worry about hurting your partner’s feelings,” he advised. “You are not doing her any favors by going easy on her. If she gets attacked out there, her life depends on knowing how to defend herself. Your job is to help her see her own weaknesses, so she can become stronger. At the same time, you need to help your partner see her strengths, so she keeps doing the things she’s already good at.”
As I block, kick, and punch, it occurs to me that you’re not doing your critique partners any favors by going easy on them, either. Your job is to help them see the weaknesses in their own writing, so they can become stronger—strong enough to catch the attention of agents and editors. At the same time, you have to point out what your critique partners are doing well, so they know to keep doing it.
I wonder, what would critique sound like as a taekwondo exercise? OOF! “The characters’ voices don’t come through in this dialogue.” THWACK! “But the dialogue is really funny!” SLAM! “I can’t tell exactly what the character does, at the end of this paragraph.” Dodge a blow and get up. “And I really want to know, because you’ve made me really care about what happens to this character.”
Our taekwondo master stops the class to give more advice: “Word your suggestions in the positive, not the negative. If you say, ‘Don’t put your hands down!’ then your partner will get discouraged. Instead, say ‘Great job kicking! Now keep your hands up!’ ”
BOP! “Great job setting the scene! Now pick up the pace.” BAM! “Fantastic story arc. Now reduce the word count to picture-book range.”
“Does your partner look tired?” the master asks. “If you say, ‘Don’t quit!’ that’s what she’ll want to do. Instead, say ‘Keep going! I know you can do it! Dig deeper! You have it in you!’ ”
“Another rejection? Send it out again! I know your story will find a home.” “It’s too bad you have so much else going on in your life right now. Keep reading children’s books, even if there isn’t time to write. Come to critique group, and stay in touch. I know you’ll jump right back into your stories as soon as you can!”
Time to switch places with my partner. Following taekwondo tradition, we bow respectfully to each other as she hands me the big foam bat. I grasp the weapon and start beating her up—nicely, of course—while I return the favor of pointing out her strengths and weaknesses.
At the end of her post on writing and yoga, Carol Ekster asked if anyone else has a passion that relates to writing. My answer, at least for the critique process, is taekwondo. What’s yours?