Criticism: tough love for the ego

An acquaintance once asked me to critique the first chapter of her work in progress.
I didn’t know her very well and I was unfamiliar with her writing history, but I figured she had only recently contracted the writing bug because her work was so raw.
So I decided to tread carefully.
I started with all the good stuff.
I piled it on.
Then, I began to point out sections that confused me.
I had barely begun when she stopped me and began to explain. She explained not because she believed her words would elicit more advice or solutions to the problems within the work. She spoke up because she decided that, like everyone else, I “just didn’t get it.”
She would have to move on.
I was stunned.
She’ll never make it.
Not with that attitude.
In college (both in undergraduate and graduate school), we were not allowed to speak while our work was critiqued. For a good 45 minutes, we’d have to sit there jotting notes and biting our lips while six or seven other people tore our work apart and analyzed it bit by little bit.
Sometimes I had to bite so hard it bled.
I doesn’t matter what we intend to say with our words.
Readers can’t stop, pick up the phone and ask authors what they meant.
The writing must convey the message all by itself and the critique I received in those workshops was invaluable.
It toughened my skin.
The rewrites that followed taught me how to sort through it all.
How to ignore some criticism and embrace that of others.
And, most important, I learned to recruit readers who would be tough on me.
I might not always agree, but I’ll take what I can get.
When people offer criticism, it’s like they’re giving away money.
Some people gives us just a penny or two.
Others give us gold.
But why would we reject the pennies? We don’t have to spend them, but it doesn’t hurt to accept them and, when we gather enough pennies, we just might find that they are more valuable when combined than we once thought.
But, then again, we need to be careful that we don’t waste too much time gathering pennies.
Don’t request critiques from people who will simply be enthralled by the fact that we can write at all. Seek out the gold, the readers who read critically and, therefore, are most likely to offer constructive feedback.
It becomes less painful when we think of the work as a joint project, one in which the person giving critique is invested. The work has been created. Now it needs fine-tuning. Sharpening. The critiquer can sometimes see the flaws that we cannot see because we are too immersed.
The critiquer, or beta reader, offers perspective.
I feel sorry for that woman whose chapter I read.
She will likely waste plenty of time seeking out readers who agree with her.
With each honest critique she rejects, her dream of publication will become less and less vivid.
It’s a waste.
But it’s also a choice.
A choice that requires strength of character, humility and confidence all rolled together.
We all have it within us.
But, if we want to be successful, we cannot let ego rule.

Sniffling gets you nowhere

To pass the time while waiting for the next round of cuts in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, many of us 500 quarterfinalists chatted on an ABNA online forum. A common topic was whether we would be upset if we made it no further.
Most of us agreed that we’d be thrilled regardless.
Our novels had been selected from a pool of up to 10,000 first-time novelists. That earned us critiques of our excerpts from two Amazon reviewers and, we would soon be receiving full manuscript reviews from editors at Publishers Weekly.
The reviews alone, we said with skin thicker than armadillos, were worth it. We couldn’t wait to read the critiques from Publishers Weekly, we wrote. And most all of us agreed that harsher was better. What good was a pat on the back? We wanted to know how to make our novels better.
Bring it on, Publishers Weekly editors.
Bring it on.
So they did, and virtual lips started quivering.
Not all of them.
Most folks took it well and vowed to move forward.
But the volume of the sniffling few hurt my ears.
One woman wanted to throw in the towel because, amid all the compliments, a reviewer wrote that her novel suffered from disorganization. Gee. A disorganized first novel? Writing takes skill and talent. Organization is simply hard work.
My advice to her?
Get working.
Disorganization is fixable.
From what I read, every criticism by the Publishers Weekly reviewers focused on an issue that could be addressed: organization, depth of characters, pace. Now I didn’t read them all, but I didn’t find any that bashed a writer for lousy writing.
A successful writer needs thick skin and an open mind. And, for that reason, I have a feeling that the loudest of those rejected and dejected contestants will never be successful. That’s a shame. They had some good stuff there.
My own review was everything I had hoped for.
Before entering the contest, I had shelved Spring Melt for further revisions. Too much back story, especially in the second chapter, I figured. I had wanted to rip those parts up and incorporate the same information more smoothly and at a faster pace throughout. But I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing.
Then I saw the announcement for the contest. Entry was free and, with each round of cuts, contestants got more reviews.
Why not?
With the first cut, I learned that my pitch (the general storyline) and my first 17 pages were good enough to attract professional attention. That was, for me, the validation I needed that my novel was worth my time and effort.
(As the rejections pile up, you start to wonder, you know?)
On April 15, I learned that I did not make the semifinals, where the field was trimmed to 100, but I did get that Publishers Weekly review last week. That single paragraph consisted mostly of a well-written synopsis.
But, in that paragraph was a one-sentence gem.
A precious one:

“At times muddied with flashbacks and digressions, this is still a solid story with believable characters and a pleasant and surprising resolution.”

Those words –“muddied with flashbacks and digressions”– were the words I was looking for. That meant that I was on the right track. That meant that If I could just resolve that issue, I would probably have a pretty good book on my hands.
I wasn’t just guessing any more.
Now I have to admit that my skin is not thick all over. I’m more like a well-frozen river. I’m super thick-skinned in most areas of criticism, but my skin gets dangerously thin in those few areas where currents run fast underneath.
I’m human, afterall.
But the folks at Publishers Weekly knew just where to skate.
My lips didn’t quiver. I didn’t start sniffling. I didn’t throw any towels.
I did, immediately and with renewed enthusiasm, started tearing my novel part.
So thank you Amazon.
Thank you Create Space.
Thank you Penguin.
And thank you friends, family and strangers who posted encouraging reviews.
I lost.
And I feel good.

Know the source

Originally posted Feb. 5, 2009

I have learned a great deal from the folks on the forums of Absolutewrite.com, but a recent thread bothered me. Someone had written an intriguing query letter and had posted it in the “Share Your Work” forum, hoping for advice on improvements.
The responses came quickly: other writers confidently tearing it to shreds.
After the first few replies, some voices of reason began to emerge, published authors or those with agent contracts who suggested that the writer simply polish a few sentences and go for it. It really was good. It just needed a little tweak here and there.
I can only hope that the original poster read beyond those first few replies.
The lesson: know your sources.
The Internet is flooded with forums, blogs and private groups for writers. Absolute Write is one of the good ones. If ever I actually sell a book, I will make a donation. Those folks saved me from doing such crazy things as paying fees to agents, sending silly query letters or signing with publishers that are nothing more than self-publishing companies in disguise.
But every forum has its less-than-credible members and it is important to take advice from their members with a healthy dose of cynicism. Helpful writers will be in tune with your needs and your goals. They will ask questions. They will give answers with confidence, but not with arrogant confidence. They will make you feel good about their replies even if they’ve just suggested that you are going down entirely the wrong path.
I belong to another online writing group that is private. I have found wonderful advice and support there from women who face similar obstacles with their writing, but one fellow writer stood out among the rest. Her advice was often loudly written and left me shaking my head. She always punctuated her harsh words with her experience as a published author.
So I bought her novel (It was out of print, so I had to buy it from a used book dealer.). Her book was awful. The publisher went out of business long ago. When I Googled them both, I found that they had worked together previously. The publisher was likely a friend.
Worse yet, the copy I purchased had been autographed, a gift to a person who had helped her with her research.
Now, when I see her responses, I skip them.
I know the source.

Readers are the best critics

Originally posted Dec. 31, 2008

When I finally completed my novel, I took the next appropriate step. I sent copies of the manuscript to nine or ten willing readers and then paid an editor to review it for style, grammar and content.
The readers were great.
The editor was a mistake.
He did an excellent job copy editing and he gave me some useful advice, but I hired him because he was a friend. That is where I went wrong. I should have done my research first.
Now, I love criticism—brutally honest, constructive criticism. Those writers who can’t take and appreciate criticism shouldn’t attempt to make a career of writing for public consumption.
And the criticism I received from the readers was excellent. It resulted in the elimination of two characters, a few changes in the minor plots and many, many smoother transitions.
The editor’s criticism led to a faster pace in the earlier chapters and the correction of several errors that had slipped past me. But his content advice, his take on the novel as a whole, was problematic.
If I had not had 11 years of journalism experience and a master’s degree worth of workshop experience, I might have done one of two things: I might have cried and given up, or I might have taken all his recommendations to heart and ended up with a novel that was a Grisham rip-off.
As it turns out, he is a huge fan of Grisham and doesn’t much like literary fiction. My novel does move rather fast, especially through the courtroom scenes. But I am not Grisham and I don’t want to be (Well, I wouldn’t mind his paycheck.).
My style is what it is. The book is an historical novel that is primarily literary fiction, but with a bit of mystery and suspense.
In my years of workshopping and in my experience as a freelance editor, I have had to work with many genres that I find somewhat unappealing. I’ve had to get past my prejudices. I have had to edit or critique the work within its genre.
He couldn’t and, in fairness to him, I never asked.
So here is my point.
I was careful when I selected my readers. I should have been careful when I selected my editor. I should have hired someone who came recommended by other fiction writers and who reviewed the work primarily for copy errors.
I should have simply let the readers do the rest.
The reality is that the readers are the market. They are the people we should be writing for, not the editors, not the fellow writers. Teaching them to critique is easy. Simply give them a few questions to ask themselves when they are done and request that they mark places in the manuscript where they have either stumbled or flown through.
So hire a copy editor. But instead of hiring a content editor or a “book doctor,” contract with a book club. Offer to pay for lunch one day if they will agree to read your manuscript and fill out a questionnaire after.
That’s what I should have done.