Thoughts on critique.
I am well-aware that this weekly blog has atrophied into something of a bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly (?) sort of deal, but if you recall one of my recent (?) posts, it’s my blog, so I’m going to write when I damn well feel like it.
That much being said, it’s about time I wrote something.
Several things have been occupying my time these past several weeks, and they include moving halfway across the world, exploring my new murder attic, and being chosen as a candidate for the #WriteMentor competition this September.
As exciting as the two former are, I can only speculate that you, newbie author, are perking your ears at the latter. What is Write Mentor? Well, I hardly knew until I saw the application on Twitter days before it was due. Basically, unpublished authors fill out this big, long application about what they’re doing and why they need help (Think of it as a literary scholarship application.). Published authors then peruse these applicants and decide who they think they can help and who they will work best with, then choose mentees to help polish a manuscript to submit before a panel of agents at the end of the summer.
On a whim, I went ahead and submitted my Was-Going-To-Be-Published-But-Now-Isn’t middle grade fantasy-adventure, Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key.
Like I said, this was a whim. I didn’t expect to be chosen. And I certainly didn’t expect to be writing young adult fiction.
But Fate never seems to care about what we want or imagine. I was announced to be paired with the fabulous Marisa Noelle, YA/MG author-extraordinaire who has been through two literary agents and has five publishing deals sitting on her desk.
She’s a pretty big deal. Check out her website.
As gobsmacked as I was, joy soon wrenched into indigestion at her first suggestion: Your manuscript is too long. 75k needs to go to 50k. Or you need to up the age group. Take your main character from 12 to 17.
As much as you must kill your darlings, there are certain things that just can’t be done. Chopping off one third of the book, for instance. Now, I technically could have gutted the story and given Patel a good dose of hormones, but I really didn’t want to. I felt that would make it an entirely different story—something it just wasn’t meant to be.
But I did have another story. A prequel. A prequel in which Patel’s Eccentric Aunt Gilly must team up with an undead guitarist to take down a murderous cult. Beta readers were telling me it read like YA. Why not throw it in the ring?
That’s how I ended up rewriting my MG horror as a YA gothic comedy. Go ahead and laugh at me. I sure am.
Huge honor, right? Feeling super fly and extra writer-licious, losing myself in dreams of instant agent deals and signing for a three-book series.
Until I submit the story to Marisa and start getting feedback.
The prologue has to go, she says. (For the record, I’m paraphrasing all of this. She’s much more well-spoken and British than I’m writing her to be.) YA’s focus on the protagonist. You need to begin in real time, and not in the perspective of two fruit bats.
I gasped. I reeled. I tried unsuccessfully to do a handstand and shook my fist at the sky. “No fruit bats? Why, the fruit bats are the crème de la crème of this story—the metaphysical glue that holds this tale together! Does this lady have no respect for my dreams? My artistic vision? My lifelong personal goal to narrate a double-murder through tiny, fuzz-rimmed eyes?
I proceeded to write a long, wheedling email about why the prologue worked and why the fruit bats needed to stay. Marisa then proceeded to answer my email with a curt, kind explanation of why I was wrong.
I was floored. Disheartened. Disillusioned and lost in a literary vortex. No fruit bats? How would I ever do this without fruit bats?
Instead of replying and arguing back, I sat on it. Drove on it. Moved into an apartment on it. Drank too much bourbon on it. I had an idea. Then I started writing. Then, lo and behold…
The book got better.
I wrote Marisa an apology. She was right. I had asked her for help, then shoved that effort back in her face. I was feeling very icky about all of this, trying to sift through my feelings on the matter, when I had a great discussion with a group of writing friends in Jacksonville. One of them, a highly prolific and astute short story craftsman, recalled going through the same thing with one of her mentors. “You have to decide,” she said. “Are you looking for help or affirmation?”
What a question. What a horribly hard, truth-seeking question. This was a question I had to ask my honest self—a question I now ask myself every day.
Am I writing to get better, or am I writing for everyone to tell me I’m good at writing?
When I first submitted to Marisa, I was bent on impressing her. I was cocky, still pooping rainbows from the selection, and frankly a little starstruck. When things didn’t go as I planned, I immediately went defensive, as if trying to assure her that, “Yes, I am super good at writing, and you meant to give me praise, but you just didn’t realize you should have.”
I had to take a step back. Here I am, an unpublished author who has only been professionally contracted for a middle grade book. I’ve been at this for about three years. Marisa, who has been doing this for twice as long as I have, has written nineteen books in both MG and YA and now holds five publishing contracts. I’m sitting here trying to argue with my mentor, the woman who has volunteered her time to guide me, about a genre I’ve never written before. I really did have to stop and question myself.
Why am I doing this?
Critique can be hard to take, especially if you’re like me and foster extreme Gryffindor tendencies and/or an undiscovered genius complex. This experience has been extremely humbling for me, and I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my own journey and the state of my attitude. I know I’ve written about taking critique before, but this subject has touched me so personally, I wanted to write about it again.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Process feedback before you take the time to respond to it.
Seriously. Don’t do what I did. DON’T REPLY TO THAT EMAIL.
Back up. Go do something else. Come back and reread the critique. Muse on it. Brainstorm. Try to incorporate what the critic suggests, and then and only then may you come back to argue.
Have you ever tried to reason with a toddler? It’s a funny thing to do. Toddlers don’t really employ reason, nor do they consider the reasonability of the other person’s argument. Look, Jimmy, I know you want ice cream from the stand, but if you’ll only wait thirty minutes, I’ll go get ice cream at the store, and you can have ice cream for an entire week instead of just one day.
But all Little Jimmy hears is, I don’t love you and you’ll never get ice cream. I’m not going to give you what you want because I HATE YOU and you smell bad.
Don’t be a toddler. Consider other people’s opinions before you respond to them. Why are they giving you this critique? Is it truly because they hate you and think you smell bad? Or is it because they want to help you?
Critique arouses emotions, and that’s ok…
…so long as you don’t let those emotions control you. Someone just commented on how you’re raising your child. The gall—the nerve of some people! You have every right to be hurt, bamboozled, or even downright angry.
However, those are feelings, and while feelings may inform your reaction, they must never dictate it. I would suggest letting those feelings drain before you respond with angry/indignant emails.
You can (and should) take time to brainstorm.
You aren’t patching a firehose or defusing a ticking bomb. You’re writing a 90,000-word novel. With that being said, breathe. If someone brings you back a critique or a suggestion, you really don’t have to tear apart the entire cannon. Things work much better if you give yourself the time and space to explore your options and try new things.
If you don’t want your work critiqued, don’t write.
We are humans. We choose things. We form opinions. I choose what I want to wear in the morning and assess why I like peanut butter choco pops more than spinach salad. No matter what it is or what you do, someone, somewhere, is going to form an opinion about it. This is what’s called a closed loop system—an input-feedback process that governs how we process our environment and react to it. We do it naturally; we are teaching robots to do it autonomously and call it AI.
With all this in mind, you cannot logically or anatomically expect a human being (or a robot, for that matter) to read your work and not form an opinion about it. You can’t escape critique. Ever. I was walking down the street the other day when a group of men pulled up to me and decided to inform me all about what they thought about my outfit. What a world.
You will never write something perfect.
Deal with it. If that’s what you’re looking for—the perfect manuscript with perfect ratings and no criticism whatsoever—don’t publish. Write the story in invisible ink, fold it into a 68-pointed origami puzzle, wrap it in duct tape, lock it in a safe, attach that safe to a concrete block, then go ahead and paddle that sucker all the way out into the middle of the Atlantic and let it drop.
Then. Then your manuscript shall never be critiqued.
Your manuscript will never be finished.
Nope. Never. There will always be typos. Always something you missed or could have done better. Someone, somewhere will ALWAYS be able to come up with a way your manuscript could be improved.
Does every one of Stephen King’s books have a five-star rating? Heck, I’m a newbie author and I have an opinion on what he could have done better. (IT is too meandering, Joyland is too slow, and now I’m going to stop before I get too blasphemous.)
Eventually, you have to let it go. Only you know when that time comes, but it will come, and your book won’t be perfect. Even Jesus Christ had critics. How do you get more perfect than that?
No one wants to read your unedited/unpublished manuscript for fun.
Sorry. Here’s the truth: Authors are serious people. Authors are professional people. Respect their time.
I will read my friends’ books when they have been edited and released (Hooray! I’ll buy it on Amazon!), but I have a line of dedicated, hungry writers in my inbox who have submitted me work because they genuinely want to improve. That’s what being a beta/CP means.
If these are not your goals, don’t enlist betas and don’t reach out for a critique partner. I’m not going to spend hours on hours meticulously evaluating a manuscript (Ok—honest moment, here. Unedited manuscripts are NOT FUN to slog through. Sure, I enjoy them, but it’s WORK.) if you’re going to question/argue every point or listen to nothing I say.
You have no idea how infuriating it is to spend hours reading someone’s work only to receive a resubmission and find that they’ve taken no time to correct simple, blatant mistakes.
Now, I’m not right about everything, and I certainly would never canonize my opinion, but let’s break it down to this:
Don’t ask for someone’s critique unless you’re going to do something with it.
Not all feedback is valid feedback.
Really. Some people have no idea what they’re talking about or may just be wrong. However, it’s up to you to be able to discern the good feedback from the bad, and that’s a skill that can only be acquired with practice.
If you’re looking for someone to tell you how awesome you are, go find your mom.
I’m serious. Go find your mom. If you’re feeling down, hesitant, or unsure if you’re cut out for this, go call up your mom and ask her to tell you how great you are. That’s your mother’s job. Not other writers’.
Writing groups can and should be a major source of support. They should guide you, be there to catch your tears, and spur you on when you feel like quitting. However, don’t expect that group to be okay with you shoving an unedited piece before them and demanding a positive response. That’s not real. That’s a waste of time.
When you bring something to a writing group, you should bring the piece to make it better. That’s what we (hopefully) are all there to do. Improve. If your ego is bruised, maybe that’s the night you don’t bring anything. Maybe that’s the night you ask for a hug or maybe go back and reread some compliments you received in another piece of work.
Have you ever read the story of the emperor’s new clothes? Take it like that. Pillowing your ego with false praise or (worse) insisting that no one comments at all is as silly as making anything different of a naked king.
If you’re not being critiqued, you’re not improving.
What do ballerinas do in ballet studios? Get corrected. What do new recruits do at boot camp? Get corrected. What were you doing for twelve years of your life getting a high school degree? Being corrected.
How are you learning if you’re not receiving feedback? Correction? Guidance? How can you fix problems you don’t know you have? If you’re not taking critique, you’re probably stagnating, and that really is a tragedy.
If you’re overwhelmed by feedback, stop asking for it.
This is completely human, and I’d assert that it’s valid. Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed. There’s too much to correct—too much to jigger, finagle, and tinker with—and the task seems insurmountable. These are the days I have to step back. Take a break. NOT OPEN the feedback one of my betas just sent me.
You know how they say it takes five compliments to make up for every diss? You’ve got to keep a close eye on that ratio. Sometimes, it’s just too much and that’s okay. Put it down. Take a break. Write for yourself until you’re happy. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll never write your best when you’re doing so from obligation rather than joy.
Writing is a process. Books are things. Opinions are ephemeral, and “author” is simply a title.
How has this Write Mentor experience changed me? Well, I’m actually listening, for one. I’m taking the time to absorb feedback, process it, and then strategize my response instead of immediately going into damage control mode.
You want to know something else?
The book is getting better.
It may be the best thing I’ve ever written. This new writing group is stretching me to heights I’ve never reached before, and I’m both amazed and delighted with how much I’ve grown in such a short amount of time.
Is every piece of everybody’s feedback valid? Probably not. Is there oodles to be learned by dedicated, caring professionals who have already been through exactly what you’re going through now? Most certainly.