On July 16th, 2011, Ella wrote, So I've finished my novel and I've to shown it to some people and let them critique me. However, I've never been very good at taking criticism, and I'm having a hard time using their comments. It just sort of makes me queasy when someone says there's something I should change about my precious book, and I get so worried about what they say that I want to give up, or at best, overcorrect. I guess all I'm really asking is if you or the bloggers have any advice on accepting criticism and using it to your advantage. Thanks!
Criticism is hard. Tomorrow I’m going to meet with my critique buddy, the wonderful kids' book, YA, and science writer Karen Romano Young, to discuss my work-in-progress and hers, and I will be scared. I’m scared already, even though we’re friends and she’s a really nice person and her criticisms have been very helpful. I’ll be so scared I’ll want to talk about her book first and then ease into mine.
Although it’s hard and sometimes torture, criticism is essential. Few writers (but definitely some) can revise entirely on their own and turn in prose that needs only a light editorial dusting. The early chapters of Beloved Elodie have big boring patches. I’m hoping the pages I gave Wren (Karen) this time are tighter, but they may not be, and I have to know. She may see other problems, too, that I’m not aware of, which will be especially useful to learn about.
You don’t have to process criticism right on the spot, and you probably can't. It may be impossible. A great line when you’re getting criticism is, “Thank you. I’ll think about that.”
Later, in the privacy of your room or office, you can go through the five stages of grief (classically applied to the response to a diagnosis of terminal illness, but no hyperbole is too extreme when applied to writing criticism!):
∙ Denial — The manuscript is fine exactly as it is!
∙ Anger — My writing pal is just jealous!
∙ Bargaining — I can change this paragraph on page 75 and the second sentence on page 112, even though I spent seven hours on each one, but if I revise them, I won’t have to rewrite the entire middle section.
∙ Depression — My story never was any good, never will be, and I might as well trash it. (Some of you, I suspect, skip the first three stages and go right here. If you must, you must, but try not to inhabit this step for long.)
∙ Acceptance — Hmm, hmm, hmm. If I make my villain more likeable, as my writing buddy suggests, then the conflict with the hero will have more tension. Oh, this is cool! I see how I can make everything better.
The best strategy for getting comfortable with a dose of criticism is to sit with it for a while. Let your readers’ suggestions percolate in your brain without making judgments. Take a walk, pet the dog, play with the cat, bake muffins. Let a few hours go by. If you find self-hatred settling in - if you think the criticism also means you’re a terrible person - remind yourself of your virtues and the people who love you.
I’m talking here about constructive criticism. My advice is different if what you’ve been told is global and non-specific, as in “Sorry, I just didn’t like it.” Or, “I hate it when you give me something to read. I always hope it will better but it never is.” Or, “I think you should take up another hobby.” When you get this kind of thing, ignore it and show your story as quick as you can to someone else and never to this frenemy again.
Constructive criticism is criticism you can use. I’ve mentioned on the blog that editors have responded to my manuscripts in the past with criticism that my heroines aren’t likeable. These editors have meant well, but that statement isn’t helpful all by itself. I haven’t intentionally made my heroines unsympathetic. What I need are specifics. What did my character do or say or think or fail to do or say or think at which moment in the manuscript to convey that she isn’t likeable? Show me the places: which action, which line of dialogue, which paragraph of thought. Then I can fix.
Your critics may not be gifted at helpful criticism. They’re probably not professional editors, so they may be vaguer in their ideas than you’d like. In this case, after your period of silent absorption of the criticism, you can ask your readers questions, the questions that have come to you while you contemplated.
When you get specifics, when you know the problem is that the action drags in the second chapter, for example, then you may stop feeling overwhelmed. You start to think that you can cut half a page of dialogue and you don’t have to name every book in your main character’s bookcase. And instead of thinking your manuscript is bad, you can start thinking how great it can be.
I’ve written about this before, but when I started out as a writer, I used to take all criticism. After my first writing course ever I formed a writing group. We were all beginners making our best guesses about what would improve our pals’ stories. I tried whatever was offered, figuring I would learn and I could always go back if the suggestion didn’t work (I saved my old versions even them). This strategy helped, because I did learn. Plus, it desensitized me by taking me out of the realm of hurt feelings. I didn’t have to decide in a vacuum about the validity of a comment. I could try it out and see if it held water.
Of course this goes back to the need for specific criticism. It’s hard to try out a broad suggestion like, "Make it more exciting."
You can show your revisions to your readers and ask if you’ve addressed their concerns and if new things are bothering them. If you’re in a critique group, you can come back and back with the same pages until you’re satisfied.
I no longer take all the criticism that comes my way, but when I ignore a suggestion I always have a reason. My character wouldn’t do this. Or, this idea doesn’t jibe with the tone of my story. Or, this is factually incorrect. If I’m not sure, I usually try the suggestion.
It may help with your criticism aversion to know that every writer gets criticism. Nobody writes a perfect book. And everybody has to take her share of hurtful criticism, criticism that isn’t well-intentioned. It comes from friends or reviewers in the media or on Amazon.com. We take it, and sometimes we stew for a week or a decade - there was one miserable review of The Two Princesses of Bamarre that I can still quote word for word - but we keep writing.
Finishing a first draft is an achievement worthy of whooping and dancing and shouting from the rooftops. So is finishing a revision. Make the good, useful criticism your friend. Make it a reason for gratitude and celebration. You’re getting help with what you love. Hooray!
Here are three prompts:
∙ Snow White cooks and cleans for the seven dwarves while they’re digging in the mines, but they’re never satisfied with the results. Write about how she deals with their constant criticism. Write several versions for several different Snow Whites, if you like.
∙ Through magical intervention, your main character, Marcia Masters, who yesterday was a ninth grader, is now a teacher and her students are her former teachers reduced to children. Write how her teaching goes over the course of a class or a few days.
∙ Your main character, Michael Monroe, is working on a project with his father. Michael is eager for this, but nothing he does pleases Mr. Monroe. Write the scene.
Have fun, and save what you write!