This week I brought in the first three chapters of my novel. Being my first novel attempt I certainly was under no illusions that it would be flawless. I actually was pretty certain I would get responses along the lines of, "Wow, your short stories were so much better, what happened?"
Instead two people complained that my epic fantasy novel seemed like a science fiction work. I was told my beginning description was too long (a page and a half). People also said that the world didn't feel foreign enough.
I... was... devastated. Particularly that first critique. I completely missed the genre?! What the hell am I doing writing if my world isn't at least clearly a work of fantasy? I love fantasy and if I was doing it a disservice I strongly wondered if I should continue writing. That has to have been the hardest critique I ever had.
But now that I have had some time to let it sink in, I sat down and read through some of the feedback that was written. There were a number of places in the manuscript where people wrote "Ha!" or "Great description here." There was actually positive notes in my work. It wasn't an utter failure and waste of paper! It think I forgot somewhere along the way that most of the verbalized feedback will sound more harsh than it is on paper.
The person who said they felt the genre was wrong had highlighted a number of passages where they said "this feels like fantasy" and "this now feels like science fiction." Every instance of the text that felt like science fiction was where I described the buildings of a fairly modern city. But the setting of the forest and the description of nature were all pointed out as fantasy feeling.
So I took somethings away from that, 1) I do in fact know how to write fantasy (at least I hope I do), 2) some people may not be able to see the bigger picture, especially when they only had 3 chapters to read, and 3) Some people may have very hard lines in the sand of what they consider to be fantasy.
My message to aspiring authors who read this: Critique groups are vital, and they are meant to offer critiques. But sit down with their written feedback and really look at what they say. The most efficient use of a writing group's time is usually best used to help tell the author what isn't working, but the written feedback will almost always tell you what you did right.
Be strong and keep writing!