Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dealing with criticism

As an author, one of the first things you learn is some readers will absolutely love your writing and others will react badly, making you wish you could crawl under a rock and never pick up a pen again. Maybe it’s a decade spent in advertising and newspaper publishing that’s given me a very, very thick skin, but as an author I welcome criticism.

But there’s a condition. It’s not what a person says but how he or she says it that matters.
At the papers I’ve had editors throw my work back at me telling me exactly how bad it is in colourful language I’m not going to repeat here. I’ve had people tell me I’m all manner of horrible things, including “amateur”. I’ve been reduced to tears on numerous occasions and each time I just carry on. But that’s my day-job. Thankfully over the years I’ve learnt to suck it up and get on with my work. And, trust me I don’t make the same mistake twice.

So, when it comes to the groovy world of commercial fiction, I pretty much say it like it is, sans the melodrama, of course. I conveniently forget that some people don’t want to hear that their self-editing is not up to scratch or they need to give their writing a little more oomph by avoiding passive sentence construction and cut out filter words.

I’m not going to tell an author they suck, or should give up writing, but I’m not going to lie and tell them, “Oh, this is great! You’re faboo!” when their writing needs some serious work. That being said, I also don’t give praise lightly, so if you suddenly find me clinging to your leg and declaring myself as your undying fangrrrl, I mean it.

And when I deliver criticism of someone’s writing it’s not to make them fall into a pit of despair. It’s because I can see, based on my experience in the industry, where they could improve. Hell, I wouldn’t be where I am today without my writing buddies who I can assure you, didn’t coddle me.

A few of my author friends have graciously offered to share their opinions on how to cope with criticism. Take note, and take heart!

What the authors say…

Cat Hellisen
When I get back editorial/agent/beta letters, first I have a full-blown panic attack. This is before even opening them. Then I try skim through while hyperventilating. Then I cry some more, and condemn the writer of the letter to several terrible fates, and curse their unborn children.

Luckily for me I have a very close group of writer friends who talk me down from my cliff and give me suggestions, and encourage me with soft words and cupcakes. Finally, I realise that they are making more sense than I am, and I try read through the letter again, this time making notes. Nowadays it takes me about a week to get to this point, which is way better than my original time of around three months.

Eventually, about a month later, I’m hardened by repeated reads, and I realise that what’s there is not a long list of YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK DIE DIE DIE, but advice and suggestions designed to bring out the best of my novel. Obviously, being the special snowflake that I am, I’m going to fight people on one or two points, but usually by this time on board with the majority of the suggestions, and better than that, I’m excited by them.

Lesli Richardson, who also writes as Tymber Dalton
Hmm, depends on the source and the content. If it’s constructive criticism in the writing stages, I look at whether it’s just one person pegging a certain point or several hitting the same issue. If it’s just one, it could just be that person’s opinion. If it’s several, I take another look at it. After publication, I try not to pay too much attention one way or the other to criticism. Not everyone will like what you write, that’s just part of the business. Of course I love to get positive reviews, that’s a given. But bad reviews, fortunately they’re few and I just ignore those. My feelings are if my beta readers liked it, and my editor and publisher liked it, and at least some of my readers liked it, then I’ve done my job. You cannot please every reader, and if you try, you’ll drive yourself crazy. You can’t try to write to a specific audience because then your focus isn’t on the story.

You also have to consider the source of the criticism and the spirit in which it’s given. Is it someone genuinely trying to help you improve your writing, or is it someone who might have other motives.

That’s why it’s extremely important to have good beta readers who will be honest and point things out to you that you might not see otherwise.

Carol Hone
As I read what’s been said I give it more weight if I know it’s coming from someone I know, trust and respect. Though if they seem to be saying something utterly daft I will still ignore or mark down their criticism.

So after reading what they’ve said I will take a note of the points they’ve made that seem relevant and compare them to what others have said. Then I decide which points I think are correct. This method breaks down if you only get a few critiques. And “gut feeling” does play a part.

Even if I think a point is valid I may not act on it or I may do less than what they advise—this is because people like different things.

Once I’ve rewritten a story I will preferably give it to more people to read to try to see if the problems are fixed.

The above is my logical response to criticism.
Emotionally if I get too many downer crits I get depressed. :(

And/or I call the critiquers many bad names. Sometimes I do the above then I do the logical stuff once I’ve recovered.

Manda Benson
If you mean criticism of my writing, that depends too. If people who don’t know me read something of mine, decide they don’t like it, and then either attack me personally or ridicule it, I ignore them—they’re f***tards. If someone politely says it just cannot stand something I have written, I thank that person for its time and accept that individual didn’t get it and just isn’t the right audience for it. If hundreds of people say this and none say the opposite, I consider that the intended audience may be extremely small, or nonexistent. If someone says, “I like a, b, c; but I don’t like x, y, z for these reasons,” then I carefully compare with my own opinions on x, y, and z and what other people have said of them, I leave the writing alone for a bit in order to think through what I need to change, and then I make an outline of what needs to be done and do it.
If you’re talking about reviews, in that someone buys something I wrote and hates it, and writes about this on Amazon or wherever, there’s nothing you can do about stuff like this. You just have to accept the first or second statements in the above paragraph, and take whatever comfort you are able from the fact that you now have said person’s money. :-P

I also am wary of taking people’s comments at their obvious meaning.

Often if there is high-level stuff wrong with something, people can have the right sort of idea of what to do with it, but not the complete picture. “I want to know more about what this character is thinking” doesn’t necessarily mean that. It could be that the character’s history and interpersonal relationships need to be better established (discreetly) to provide a framework for the character's motivation to be apparent from. Particular example: The original first chapter of Pilgrennon’s Beacon didn’t work (in fact, I think it was *three* chapters back in the earliest version).

With retrospect, I can now see why. I had an axe to grind regarding my own childhood. I put in way too much stuff about horrible schools, vile teachers, and being ostracised. “This is too long,” beta readers said. “Cut some stuff out.” I kept trying to cut stuff out and it wasn’t working. What I really needed was a future, wiser version of me to tell me to throw it away and start again from scratch, with a clear head, and only including such information as was absolutely necessary so as to establish the character and begin the story. Which is what I eventually realised I needed to do.

Greg Hamerton
I pay very little attention to it, because it always relates to something I wrote a long time ago. The time between finishing the story and finally releasing it to the market is measured in months, sometimes years. Even with digital releases, there are many editing and proofreading and production steps. So when you criticise my latest work, it doesn’t make me feel the need to change anything in the story. It is done. You didn’t like it? Sorry for you...there are many others who *will* like it.

But I do *listen* to criticism. It is useful feedback from my readers.

How I deal with it depends on what kind of criticism it is: bright criticism, cynical criticism, or stupid criticism. Bright criticism is the only one worth paying attention to. It is an intelligent commentary on my writing, and although it is always coloured by the critic’s own tastes and limitations, it shows which aspects of my writing worked for them and which aspects could be improved.

The problem with criticism is that you have to read the criticism first to classify it, and this is where you can be hurt if you are just starting out, over-sensitive or insecure. That’s when cynical or stupid criticism can be damaging.

Cynical reviewers are writing to flex their own snarky egos. Their “special skill” is the art of the put-down. You have to pity them because they won’t ever finish writing a decent novel...they will find too many faults with it. Authors have to combat this aspect of their own psyche and not let it out until the editing stage. Cynics *seem* intelligent because of their command of the English language and their incisive wit, but in fact they often miss the art of the storytelling entirely and focus on a few technical aspects. When they are linked to a large readership they can become confused by the attention and believe they are “guardians of the art” when in fact they are writing words that will have a lifespan of about five minutes. Some reviewers are genuinely interested in good writing, and write enlightening responses which are worth their weight in gold.

Others are cynics. Consider if the review is bright or cynical, and if it is the latter, forget you ever read it at four minutes fifty-nine seconds. That way, you win.

What I have found is that when one reader strongly dislikes an aspect of the storytelling, another will praise the book for that same quality. Reviews are entirely subjective. You will never please everyone, because some people are by nature unpleasant.

The reviews that really piss me off are people who give low-star ratings on books without having read them, those who lambaste a book they didn’t like when they admit they don’t like that genre, or the twits who make up facts to fit their opinions. It would be nice to blow them off as harmless, but negative reviews are damaging to sales.

It costs the “reviewer” nothing, but it threatens my livelihood.

However, I don’t argue or challenge these reviewers on their opinions, just as I don’t beat up the crazy man on the corner who says f*** you to everyone who passes. Hopefully my readers are intelligent enough to disregard the mutterings of orcs.

So look out for bright criticism. Pity the bitter cynics. And ignore the stupid critics...they’re the bottom-feeders. Don’t let them spoil your party. Write something for the rest of us.

DJ Cockburn
I don’t think I’ve ever thought out a set of guidelines! I think the cardinal rule has to be to take what’s useful and leave the rest, irrespective of where it comes from. It’s easy to get turned off by a critique that comes across as didactic and arrogant, but that’s not to say that there isn’t something potentially useful in there somewhere.

Conversely, there are people whose opinion I respect and seek out, but that’s not to say that I will do anything and everything they suggest.

Whether we’re talking about a specific story or my development as a writer, we are talking about something that is mine and mine alone, and no criticism can ever be more than observation and suggestion that it’s up to me to make use of or disregard.

With regard to work-shopping, I put all the comments in one place and work through them systematically. If I regard a comment as not being useful, I’ll disregard it. If it’s something that’s obviously useful and only involves a minor change, I’ll make the change there and then. If it’s something that immediately makes sense, but involves more than writing or deleting a couple of sentences, I’ll make a note of it and address it when I’ve been through all the comments. For example, if some people aren’t following something, I need to foreshadow it better, but I’ll have to work through the whole story to work out where to put the foreshadowing.

The hardest decisions are when comments come up that I’m not sure whether to act on or not. If one critiquer out of twenty said they didn’t understand something, should I change it? Was that person not paying attention? Or did several have the same misunderstanding and not bother mentioning it? In that case, I usually make a note but don’t make a decision until I’ve read all the critiques.

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