Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
January 2011

How to Take Criticism (and How Not to)

I had a recent bad experience with a critique I had been paid to do. The writer felt that I had done a bad job because I hadn't seen his brilliance and told him where he had a few misplaced commas, the correction of which would lead to immediate publication. Or perhaps told him the secret word that he had to write on his envelope to make every editor open it and read it immediately. Or something like that. I actually thought he was a fine writer who just needed to look at the marketplace and focus the story a bit. I thought he had a good chance at being published, perhaps even with the manuscript I read. I tried to communicate this, along with my criticism. But soon after, he sent me a series of emails, each one designed to lead me into a trap to prove I hadn't actually read his manuscript, that I had given it to some junior member of my "staff" to read. Eventually, I offered him his money back, and he accepted it and then proceeded to write my friends emails telling them what a terrible critique I had given him.

This led me to reconsider the whole idea of offering critiques for sale to beginning writers. Really, who wants to pay to be told what he is doing wrong? In great detail, point by point? Who wants to know that the manuscript she has spent the last four years working on will never sell because of fatal design flaws and that its only use is as a practice piece? Who wants to be told that the character he loves and has modeled on himself is sexist, racist, or just plain annoying? Who wants to be told that the jokes on the page are not funny at all? Who wants to hear that the laws of physics make certain events impossible? Who wants to be told that the shape of the book is confusing and unworkable?

We all have to deal with criticism, whether we work as writers or not, but no one likes it. Would you save up your money and instead of going on a mini-vacation, get a critique of your appearance? Or a critique of your cooking skills? Or a critique of your parenting skills? (Though as a society, Americans do marriage counseling fairly often, which is a critique of our marital skills -- and we pay for that!) It doesn't sound very fun, does it? I suspect this is why there are actually very few people who do critiques. They don't get a lot of grateful feedback for their work. And yet, beginning writers are always complaining to editors and agents that they just want a few more words than "I'm not interested." Just a hint as to where they are going wrong. Just a scribbled line to show where the editor stopped reading would be something, wouldn't it?

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I think the idea of taking criticism on your writing goes wrong in elementary school, where a teacher corrects students' papers with a red pen, underlining misspelled words and adding a comment here or there about the main sentence of the paragraph. The student then goes home, corrects these few mistakes and gets an "A" on revision. But in the real publishing world, revision isn't like that at all. I take one of my "copyedited" manuscripts with me occasionally to show students the level of revision that is going on late in the process, two years after I have signed a contact and been paid money for a book that is to be published. There are still large sections of text being cut and paragraphs being added in. And that's after all the really hard work has been done. When an editor tells me that a character isn't likeable, or that an ending isn't working, or that I need to work out the rules of magic more clearly, that is just par for the course.

But I do understand finding it difficult to deal with criticism. I'm naturally rather sensitive and though I have been publishing for ten years now, I still struggle with stinging reviews, friends who don't bother to read my books at all, family members who tell me what they think I "should" be writing instead, and my editor or agent's letters on what is wrong with a book. You'd think I'd develop a thicker skin. I'm not sure that I really have. Mostly, I have learned how to deal with the criticism without making it utterly useless. If you are like me, find it excruciatingly painful to read your manuscripts out loud at a writing group, to even send them off to an editor you've never heard of for fear of the rejection letter you will inevitably receive, I understand.

Let me tell you a story. When I was in graduate school at Princeton, I remember the first semester I took four classes. Most grad students only took three, but I had a masochistic streak. I was also engaged to be married the following spring, but ended up sort of eloping over the Christmas break because we were both so miserable several thousand miles apart. So I wrote my papers in a rather distracted mindset on my honeymoon, new to grad school, unsure what a paper was or wasn't, and so on. There was no other basis for a grade in any of these four classes. Sometimes the professors liked to pretend that they cared if you attended their lectures. I look back and don't believe it. The paper was all. And I had been at Brigham Young University for my B.A. and M.A. I was, to be honest, only two years out of high school. I had been a prodigy, but a prodigy doesn't get you that far in the real world. No one cares how young you are if you aren't doing the job of an adult.

I turned in the four papers when they were due. It turned out not everyone did that. About half the class asked for extensions and took an "Incomplete" in the meantime. I hadn't realized that was even an option. Maybe it was best I didn't. About three weeks after I turned the papers in, I received them back, in manila, inter-departmental envelopes, tied neatly at the top. I was terrified of seeing my professor's comments. I got my grades shortly afterward, and I opened them. I had mostly gotten B's, which was acceptable. Not the A's I was used to, but good enough to stay in school and keep my scholarship. I admit, I did not want to know exactly what I had done wrong. I knew I hadn't done a good job, and I figured I would do better next time, when my personal life had settled down. I was conscious of my inferiority and didn't need to hear it described in detail. So I kept those four papers, still in the unopened envelopes, for four months. Until my new husband and I moved to a new apartment at the end of the second semester. That was when my curious husband said, "Hey, what's in these envelopes and why haven't they been opened yet?"

I rushed forward, snatched the envelopes away and explained that those were my papers from last semester, and I was saving them to read at some later date, when I was ready to hear the comments from my professors. My husband stared at me in astonishment. "You wrote your second semester papers without reading the comments from the first semester papers?" I nodded. When he put it like that, it didn't sound like such a good idea, did it? Most of the professors weren't the same, but they probably all had some similar ideas about how to write a good paper. I could have learned something from the old papers. But I still didn't have the courage to read them. I shook my head, told my husband I was going to keep them for later, maybe during the summer. He flat out refused to accept this. He started opening the envelopes. I ran away. Literally. I ran into the next room, closed the door and put my fingers over my ears. For the next thirty minutes, he read through my professor's comments and made notes of them. When he was finished, he knocked on the door and I opened it.

"They weren't that bad," he said. And he gave me a short, kind synopsis of each professor's comments. "But I really think you should read them yourself. It could be helpful in the future." I looked at him, snatched back the papers, thrust them into the envelopes, retied them, and then went to the trash incinerator. I threw the papers all in at once, and walked away, my heart still pounding, my hands still shaking. I never did read my professor's comments on those papers. I have no recollection of anything my husband told me they said. In fact, I don't remember any professor's comments on any papers during the whole of my grad school career. That might be part of the reason I didn't end up teaching German Literature. Or it might not. Nonetheless, I think I learned a lot, about writing and about other things that helped me on my way to the path I am on now.

But I tell the story to describe how bad I was at taking criticism. You'd think that the best advice to give to someone like this might be simply not to become a writer. Or not to try to become a published writer. But the truth is that many artistic people are like this. We care so much about our art that it is extremely painful for us to hear criticism about it. I have heard other authors tell stories about how difficult it is for them when they receive an editorial letter. Professional, NYT bestselling authors. They know they need to have criticism to be better. And they also hate it. It feels like having your heart ripped out and stomped on. It doesn't get much better than the beginning. I think that whatever novel I am working on now still needs almost as much work as my first fantasy novel published in 2004 did. I am a little better at figuring out what is marketable, but not much. I am a little better at writing a first draft, but not much. I have to accept criticism, but I still hate it. I still want to run away and burn it.

So, a few tips on how to take criticism from someone who is still working on the process:

1. Don't bother with people who don't matter.

By this, I mean, don't have your manuscript read by someone who doesn't like your genre. If you are in a writing group and some of the people simply hate genre fiction, I would take their comments with a lot of salt. You won't be able to please them because the best of your kind of fiction wouldn't please them. Don't give a horror novel to a literature professor. Don't ask your mother if she will read your manuscript unless she happens to be an industry professional, and even so I am a skeptic about her objectivity. Good or bad, the comments you get back from a huge number of people simply will not help you. So why waste your time and theirs?

2. Look at the big picture.

When I get an editorial letter or a phone call about a manuscript, I take everything in at once, but then I pick it apart into larger action items and smaller action items. Smaller action items are things that can be dealt with in a single chapter. Larger action items are things that run throughout the manuscript. Other large action items include additions of more than ten pages or cuts of more than ten pages. If you look at the big picture first, and don't focus on all the smaller revisions to be made, it frees your mind to accept these larger changes. Accepting them is the first important step in being able to make the changes. Put the smaller action item list aside for the first little while, and stay focused.

3. Balance.

Some editors and agents are really good at starting every critical discussion with a few sentences of what you have done well. Not all of them are, however. These assume that if they don't say they like it, you know that they love it. As a writer, I find it difficult to assume that and will sometimes revise everything, turning in a manuscript that has no actual words that are the same as the first one. So people who work with me learn fairly quickly that it's not just complimenting me to tell me what I did well. It's a necessity if they want to see those parts again in the next draft. But sometimes I have to make a list of what I did well for myself, or I will ask questions about what my agent or editor liked, and I write them down so that I can keep a balance sheet of good and bad. They don't have to be equal, but there has to be some important things that are good if I'm going to keep working on a manuscript, so I will sometimes keep a list of those.

4. Take some time (possibly vent).

When I get an editorial letter, I read through it quickly, put it down, and try not to think about it consciously for a few days. I let my subconscious work on it, and when I go back to it, I make a few comments in the margins and then I don't work on the manuscript. I wait at least a week before I go back to it. I know the process by now. I know that when I first read through an editorial letter, I will think that my editor is crazy. I will think that at least five of the revisions requested are impossible. I will think that I should call my agent and tell him how crazy the editor is. I will think about the real possibility that my book will be canceled. I will think that I am not up to this. I have called my agent about this sort of thing, and there can be something valuable about venting. My poor agent has to deal with a lot of crazy writers who vent to him. Sometimes I try to vent to other authors instead.

Then some time passes, and I start to see that I can do a few of the changes. So I open the file up again and start fiddling. Just a little, not seriously. I lie to myself and say that I'm just going to read the manuscript through. And lo, every time, I find that the manuscript I am reading is not the manuscript I think I sent to my editor. I do not know how this happens. Some evil genie gets into my computer and changes things so that my perfect manuscript never got to my editor. And it turns out that my editor's ideas are a lot closer to the perfect manuscript than the words that got sent to them. So I make the manuscript a little closer to the perfect one in my mind and hope the genie stays away this time. (It doesn't.)

5. Accept imperfection.

I don't like accepting imperfection. And I'm not saying that you should send out a manuscript that is less than your absolute best at the time that you send it out. You should have gone through it several times to make sure that there are no errors in it. You should have a checklist of common mistakes you make that you will fix. But don't hold onto the manuscript forever. It is never going to be perfect. One of the bittersweet realities of becoming a professional writer for me has been rereading books I thought were perfect when I read them in the past, or reading new books by authors I idolize, and realizing that they are not perfect. It's not just arrogance. It's that I've learned a lot of things, and I'm not looking up anymore. I'm looking across. The book that is published is never going to be the perfect book you want it to be. It will only be as good as you can get it. That has to be good enough, for you and for the world.

6. Don't give yourself grief.

I don't read a lot of reviews of my books. I used to. I used to have a "google alerts" set for the titles of all my books and my full name. I thought it would be good for me to see what people were saying about my book. Maybe I would learn something that would help me to write my next book better. I don't believe this is true anymore. If I learn what I should have done better in a book (dubious), it tends to actually mess up the writing of a second book because each book is completely different. At least, even in my series, the stories are about new challenges and new characters, only loosely related. A criticism of one book that says that my hero is "milktoast" tends to make me overreact in the other direction for another book. And that is not a good thing. A writer needs creative space to work in, not harsh criticism. Reviews are for readers, not for writers. Leave them that way. Don't go seeking out your reviews on goodreads or other websites. That is my advice for people who are sensitive like I am. You will only make yourself insane. You will not change anyone's mind. And if you do hear good stuff about yourself, it will be exactly as useless as the bad stuff you hear.

There are times when we are not ready to take criticism. I think this is one of the big reasons that editors and agents simply do not give feedback to writers who submit to them, even if they think a manuscript shows promise. They have been burned, as I have been, and have decided that people do not want to accept criticism. They just aren't ready to move to the next step, and they may never be. An editor or an agent does not want to work with this kind of an author. They want to work with authors who, however much trouble it is, can take criticism and incorporate changes without rancor. Or at least without spilling rancor onto them. I remember at a recent conference I went to, an author said that she was frustrated by beginning writer's conferences. She said that everyone wanted her to tell them if the one piece she had read proved they could be a professional writer or not. But one piece, even a brilliant piece, does not show how a beginning writer is going to deal with criticism. And that is the most important part, this author argued, in becoming a professional. You have to take it. You have to accept it. You have to use it.

You do not have to like it, however.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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