Criticism . . . and How to Accept It (sort of)

There’s an imp that lives under my desk. He’s an ugly little spud who loves to stare at me and cackle gleefully (he does not, however, slime me, for which I suppose I should be grateful!). And his name is Ihatecriticism. (Not to be confused with Ihatedoctors and Ihatetrump and Ihatewinter, obviously.)

I’ve lived with Ihatecriticism for a long time. Most of my life, really. You might have one of these little things, too. Sometimes they’re strong enough to keep us from even starting something new (What on earth do you think you’re doing? You don’t know what you’re doing! You suck! You will suck!) And sometimes, if we’re able to exorcise them, they mostly go away . . .

But I don’t know that they ever, truly, disappear.

Ihatecriticism is a parasite. Black, spidery, sucking the joy and life out of everything. Just when I’m starting to feel good about my writing, or the way my novel is going – BOOM! Out he jumps to remind me that I Suck, and I Will Never Be Any Good, and oh yeah, I Suck.

I’ve been wrestling with him again this week, as my beta readers have been working on one of my manuscripts. Let’s be honest:  for a writer, the hardest thing in the world is to sit quietly and let people rip your work apart. Even when you know it’s for the best, even when you know they have your interest at heart, even when you know  you actually asked for it . . . when it comes time to actually sit down across from them, with your baby manuscript in front of you, and listen to their criticisms . . . you really would rather have a root canal without the numbing agent.

I’ve been there several times. It’s one reason why I’m driven to being a perfectionist – because I hate, absolutely hate, to be criticized. If I leave no room for it, then no one can do it. Sounds plausible, right?

The problem, of course, is that nothing can be perfect.

Several years ago, I taught a creative writing class at my local college. For the most part, I had very talented students who wanted to be better. The class was structured as a workshop; students submitted written assignments, then we all critiqued them during the next week and discussed them in class the next week. We had rules about critiquing. They  had to learn what made a critique constructive. They learned how to look for the good and the bad, and give time to both.

But there was one student who simply could not take the criticism. She couldn’t write. At all. She could have gotten better, but she refused to admit the problems. Sentences were unreadable. Spelling and grammatical errors filled the pages. We offered her several solutions for the first half of the semester – the most important being simply running spellcheck and reading her work aloud. No dice. Finally, students started to avoid her works. Those that continued to try to offer help were met with open hostility. We didn’t understand her vision. We didn’t get it. We were hacks, not artists. 

Don’t be that student.

It’s hard. I’ve been gearing myself up for a month for these critiques, and part of me is still not sure I’m ready. Even coming from friends who want to see me succeed, it’s going to be hard. Even though I ASKED them to do this, it’s going to be hard! But here’s the sad fact:  I’m too close to the novel. I can’t see all the flaws. I know what I meant to say – but I have no idea if I actually said it. I know what I meant to do with the story – but can others see that?

And that, precisely, is why you need constructive criticism.

One of the things that can help both you and your beta readers is to settle ahead of time what you specifically want feedback on. Are you looking for line edits? Character? Continuity? Overall story cohesion? Chapter transitions? All of the above? Spell it out for them (maybe even in email so they remember). Then, you’ve asked for it, and they feel comfortable providing it. Win-win.

Another thing you can do is set up rules ahead of time. One writing group I belonged to had a rule:  while receiving feedback, writers had to enter the ‘Cone of Silence.’ As long as we were discussing a work, that author could not speak. Couldn’t argue. That gave the betas time and space to deliver their feedback, and the writer time and space to accept and digest it. Once the feedback was delivered, the writer could then offer explanations, or ask further questions. It worked really well.

You can also require everyone to give constructive criticism, which simply means this:  readers must tell you the good with the bad. We all like to know what we did well! In fact, really good feedback begins withe the positive. “I liked X – she’s sassy and funny and believable!” Or, “I love the way you handle dialogue – it really pops and every character has a distinct voice.” Then, and only then, should you go to the criticisms.

As for actually hearing and accepting it . . . well. Suck it up, buttercup.

It’s not just hard to hear the feedback:  it’s bloody hard. You want to defend things. You will have a small voice in your head screaming that your betas didn’t read carefully enough because they missed X and Y, and how could they not understand that joke, or they’re all man-haters, so of course they hate your main character . . . and the fact is, those are probably the things you need to work on the most. The general rule of thumb is this:  if you give your work to five people, and one of them dislikes something, it’s probably them. If all five dislike something, it’s probably you.

But you do have to suck it up, if you want to get better. Your betas will catch things that you just can’t. You want to fix those things before an agent ever sees that manuscript. And even then, your agent will have criticisms. So will your editor. And . . . so will your readers. Don’t you want the chance to fix things before those mistakes get plastered all over Goodreads.com? Because if you think Ihatecriticism is bad now, just wait until all those vicious people get their hands on your book!

If you want to write, and then stick your manuscripts in the drawer, then you probably don’t need feedback. You probably also don’t have that little demon hiding under your desk. But if you do want published . . . then at some point, you need to get some holy water and exorcise that little imp back where it belongs.

 

 

https://www.bustle.com/p/12-tips-for-getting-feedback-on-your-writing-43119 – some great tips on how to accept feedback and criticism!

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/give-constructive-criticism/ – Good tips on how to provide other writers with good constructive feedback.

https://hobbylark.com/writing/Giving-and-Receiving-Feedback-in-Writers-Groups – More tips on how to give good feedback.

http://lisapoisso.com/2016/11/23/handle-editing-feedback/ – Although this deals more with editorial feedback, it’s still got some good information for how to handle feedback from your betas, too.

 

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Betas in Action: My Critique Session

FINALLY!!!!

I met with my beta readers, Deb and Cynthia, today to go over the revised first book of my series. And let me tell you, they were spot-on perfect.

First:  they talked about the good. My initial version of this novel was in third person, and they both loved the change to first. They loved my MC’s voice and her sarcasm, they liked being in her mind and knowing her thoughts, and they liked seeing the growth and change she undergoes. They liked some of my secondary characters a lot, especially my comic relief team. 🙂

Second:  they got down to the nitty-gritty. And what was amazing was that they both had pretty much the same things to say, and that we were able to brainstorm ways to solve the problems they saw.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene (if you don’t know Latin, that means “note this well!”):  if your betas agree on the same thing, that’s something you need to fix.

Those Blasted Secondary Characters:  One thing they both agreed on, which was something that had already been in the back of my mind, is that two of the secondary characters do not play a huge role in the story. They will play BIG roles later in the series, so I had to introduce them now. But Deb and Cynthia felt they were too peripheral, and that I had two choices. A.) Make them more important and put them in scenes where we get to know and like them better, or B.) Eliminate them. I will have to do some thinking on that, especially since I’ve never seen myself working in waste management. But. Secondary characters have to play a role:  they can’t be window dressing. So we brainstormed ways to give them solid roles in the story.

See? Betas are good! 🙂

“Oy! You’ve said this already!”:  They also picked up on some key phrases that I overuse. And if you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, at least I don’t have that problem,” HA!!!! We all have “go-to” phrases that we revert to when we’re writing, even subconsciously. You need to train yourself to look for them. Sometimes they’re scattered throughout the manuscript, and it takes a fresh set of eyes to find them all. And sometimes, just some time away will let you see that you’ve used that same phrase four times in two pages. Ahem. Not that I did that or anything.

A Different Perspective:  Betas are also good because they have different knowledge and backgrounds than you do (or they should, if you’ve chosen properly). Deb teaches psychology, and she had some great suggestions for the massive conflict that forces my MC to break up with her boyfriend. Things I hadn’t even thought about, because I’m a historian, not a psychologist.

That inevitable “What the fruitbat?” moment:  One thing that did catch me off-guard was the sudden emphasis both Deb and Cynthia had on my MC’s family. They appear in just one tiny scene at the end, but they both felt that my MC’s entire family couldn’t hate her. (My inner writer is still saying, “Hmm. I remain unconvinced. I must think upon this.”) But Deb made a very good point:  she said, in effect, “When I read this, it made me stop reading and wonder why her entire family were jerks.” And one thing you never want to do is take your reader out of the story. Therefore, Deb’s reasoning was absolutely valid. As a beta, remember, one of your key tasks is to help the author make the story better. In the end, I think we all agreed on the fix.

I’m not saying it was always easy to hear the criticisms. There were certainly instances where I felt my inner writer rise up and say BUT I LOVE THAT AND IT’S NOT COMING OUT I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY YOU MEAN, MEAN PERSON!  Wait. That was my inner drama queen, sorry. It was my inner writer that made me sit back in my chair, carefully consider everything they said, and admit that they were right. Or at least, that their opinions had validity. 🙂

And the clearest example of this was the vehemence with which Cynthia hated my ending.

I love my ending. It took days to craft into perfection. It’s bold. It’s full of intrigue and danger, and sorrow and sacrifice. According to Cynthia, it’s also full of crap.

For one very good reason, though, which she explained (and with which Deb agreed):  because there’s no real resolution to the largest problem. Yeah. I know. It hurt to even write those words. I was trying to blame the fact that Cynthia just got married on her insistence on a happy ending. But damn it, she made a good point:  we never really solve the mystery of who killed Someone Very Important, and we need at least one bloody thing resolved in this book. Not everything gets to wait until Book #381 to be explained or solved. 

So we spent quite some time going over Who Really Killed This Very Important Person, and why, and how to impart that information. As Cynthia put it, “Erin (my MC) is throwing everything away, including her academic career, to help this girl. It has to be for something.” So now my job as the writer is to incorporate those changes in a way that makes sense, is true to the story, and yet enables us to still have a bit of a mystery. Yay!

All told, this was such a great session. This wasn’t about them telling me what was wrong; this was about us working as a team to make the book better. When you, the writer, come into a critique session with an open mind and a willingness to admit your betas have a point (because if you don’t, then why did they just waste their time reading your manuscript?), magical things happen. And when your betas come to the session with both the good and the bad, and the confidence to state both equally and give their reasons for their opionions, magical things happen. Magical things = Your Book Gets Better.

I know mine will. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

Giving Critiques: A Few Hints

It’s that familiar, sick feeling. You want to run and hide, even if the only available place is in the sewer drain.

“Would you mind reading this and telling me what you think?”

Does anything strike fear in the hearts of people more than this? Well, except for police sirens. And being asked to speak in public. Job interviews. Spiders. I digress. Your friend/co-worker/acquaintance/fellow writer/family member has just asked you to read their work, and comment on it.

What do you do?

You could accidentally burn the manuscript in the fireplace. Or flush it down the toilet.

Or you could learn how to give constructive criticism.

I’ve been a beta-reader for a good friend for a few years now; I’ve taught creative writing, and I’ve edited others’ works. I’ve had my own manuscripts critiqued by betas. I’m also a peer reviewer with Quality Matters, which is a comprehensive program that reviews online courses for instructors and colleges, and makes recommendations on how to improve them based on eight standards. One of the things reviewers learn to do is provide quality, constructive feedback on each standard. And as I was doing a review this past week, it struck me that these skills are the same skills beta readers need in order to give quality, constructive feedback on manuscripts. So here’s a few hints on how to make your next beta reading experience better — for you, and the writer.

1.) Read thoroughly. I know it sounds like a cliche, but the fact is, not everyone does read things thoroughly. However, you can’t properly critique what you haven’t properly read.

2.) Be balanced. Just as the universe has yin and yang, just as you can’t have a mocha latte without whipped cream, your review needs to have both good and bad comments. A good way to do it is this:

“I really like this paragraph — it’s tight, has a lot of tension, and we really see Bobbie Joe getting into the action. But I’m a little lost on where we are. Could you include more setting here — maybe Bobbie Joe could interact with something in the environment, or see someone moving in the trees, or whatever? This would ground it and make it more alive to readers.”

By starting with the good, you offer encouragement. By offering a suggestion, you cushion the blow. By saying this will do x for the readers, you let the writer know you’re on their side, and that you’re only offering this criticism in order to make their work better.

3.) Be constructive. I know you’ve heard this since fifth grade, and no one’s ever told you exactly what it means. What it means (to me) is this:  pick up only the most glaring things, and then offer solutions as to how to fix them. They may take your suggestions, they may not. That’s up to them. And in the end, it’s only your opinion, after all. Maybe they have this same MS to three other people, and none of them thought that one thing was wrong. Or maybe they ALL did! Either way, be true to yourself and your gut feeling. Someone has asked you to help them. Help them to the best of your ability.

4.) Don’t deconstruct — or demolish! If you called in an interior decorator to come paint your living room and put up new drapes, and you came home to find that they’d knocked down half a wall, put in French doors, changed the hardwood floors to shag carpeting, and installed a water fountain where the fireplace used to be, you’d be pretty darn pissed off. (I hope!) Same thing with this manuscript you’ve been entrusted with.

This is someone’s baby. Sure, maybe the MC’s name changes five times in the first three chapters, and maybe the plot has holes so big you can drive a coach-and-four through them, and maybe the setting is supposed to be Kansas, but there are palm trees and white sand beaches. Fall back on your positive. “Your description of the beach is fantastic — I really felt like I was there! But I thought this was set in Kansas — did you change the setting to Hawaii? If not, you might want to double-check that Kansas has beaches and palm trees.”

It’s possible that the entire thing might be so bad that you need to call the writer and say, “Look, I think you should put this away for a month or two, and then revisit it. I’m not sure it’s ready for anyone to see right now. ” Give them the chance to fix their own mistakes first. But. Be aware that they may not take this well. At all. Been there. Done that. Sometimes, writers get so blind to their own faults that they simply believe they don’t have any faults. If they get too belligerent, it’s time to take a step back and tell them this isn’t going to work at this time.

5.) Don’t make it about the grammar. If you see things, mark them. Especially if you see that the person makes the same mistake over and over, or — as happened to me this year — you see that the writer has made a tiny spelling error that would totally change the plot of the book! 🙂 Now, if the writer specifically asks you to do copy editing or line editing, then by all means, if that’s your gig, go ahead. But for the rest of us, the writer is probably wanting the big-ticket items.

What are the big-ticket items? For me, they’re plot, characterization, continuity, and overall satisfaction. As my beta readers are working on my latest manuscript right now, these are the things I’ve asked them to focus on. Does the plot hang together? Are there holes in it? Do the characters act consistently? Do they ever do anything you didn’t understand? Is the story easy to follow, or are there places where I’ve skipped something, or not explained something clearly? Did you ever not understand how we got from Point A to Point N? And the big one:  did you feel satisfied at the end? Were all the questions answered, all the loose ends tied up? Did the ending meet expectations? Why or why not?

I’m always grateful when people mark the grammatical errors, but I need my betas to focus on the big-ticket items — what Becky Levine calls “big, overall issues” in her book The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide. This is one of the best books by far I’ve found for not only learning how to do a critique, but also for improving and critiquing your own writing. Get it. Seriously. 🙂

If your writer is serious about improving, they’ll receive your comments graciously. They may not agree with them, and that’s their right, as it’s ultimately their work and their choice. However, if you make the comments positive and balanced, offer suggestions that don’t step on toes, and prove that you’re solidly in their corner, then the sting of the criticisms will be greatly diminished.

Hopefully.

 

Here’s a link to the book:  http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Critique-Group-Survival-Guide/dp/1582976066/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410714031&sr=1-1&keywords=the+writing+critique+group+survival+guide It really is fantastic!