A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.
Confronting criticism is an essential right of passage that every writer faces along that bumpy road toward publication. Whether you accept or dismiss critical feedback may be crucial to who you are and how you will function as a serious writer.
Okay, so let’s keep this simple. Others may disagree but, for me—as both fiction writer and content editor—only two types of criticism exist. Sooner or later, intentionally or not, most writers will confront either constructive criticism or counter-productive criticism. And knowing the difference could determine our book’s success.
If our intention is publication, sooner or later we will face a professional editor’s dreaded red pen. As writers (hoping to become authors) we must allow ourselves the opportunity to accept criticism that can improve the integrity of our work, or else jettison advice which can obfuscate or derail our story. And seeking credible criticism should not be about collecting accolades or kudos, but rather about improving our work. An easy mistake is to confuse positive criticism as constructive criticism and negative criticism as counter-productive criticism because—nope—that’s not how it works. In fact, the opposite is usually true.
Also, when confronting criticism, a word of advice: Leave your dark and stormy writer’s ego outside the door. A writer who won’t or can’t accept criticism will likely not succeed in this biz. (Yup, it’s that important.)
The Casual Critique.
(See The Professional Critique below.)
Early on, most writers are hungry for feedback. Lacking a legion of professional editors, agents and publishers hanging outside the window to help us along, a writer’s left with friends and family and, if we’re lucky, an intimate little writers group. (More about writers groups below.) Sure, there’s nothing wrong with asking the guy next door, a distant cousin who writes greeting card jingles, or our Great Aunt Isabel, for advice. If we trust their intellect and our own instincts, certainly we can enlist their support. However, I suggest treating any familial feedback with cautious optimism. Be wary of a friend or family member’s beaming critique: “Your book is positively stunning. Your writing is poetic, your voice angelic, and your plot absolutely breathtaking.” Such accolades can be the worst possible feedback a writer can receive, should they be spoken to placate or motivate (or politely ditch) you. Pleasant words to hear, sure—but ultimately, if spoken without integrity, the joke’s on the writer.
So what’s the difference between a good and bad critique? Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. Your protagonist is a disgruntled private investigator. The feedback: “Your protagonist does stupid things” isn’t remotely helpful. However, a thoughtful critique such as; “Your protagonist appears to get by on lucky or coincidental occurrences, but never through logic or cunning or self-reliant sleuthing. I think your protagonist needs to be more proactive in solving the mystery” is pretty good advice. Whether or not you’re able to accept such potentially constructive feedback depends upon your ability to free your mind, silence your ego, and consider creative alternatives to your preconceived notions. And writers must trust their own instincts in determining whether or not solicited criticism is valid and useful.
The Professional Critique.
A better choice than relying on friends and family might be an alpha or beta reader—a non- or semi-professional editor—someone who reads and critiques simply for the love of reading. And, yes, a well-read friend can serve as a alpha/beta reader but, again, seeking criticism shouldn’t be about collecting accolades or kudos. (Signing a publisher’s contract and aggressive book sales will deliver that particular message.) As writers, we’re looking for helpful criticism that identifies overlooked or illogical flaws that weaken or confuse or obscure our writing and/or our message. We’re seeking ways to improve our efforts, and that occurs through occasionally hard-hitting feedback that identifies flaws and, if we’re lucky, offers potential solutions as well.
Note: Typically an alpha reader (much like a content/developmental editor) will look at incomplete or stalled manuscripts, searching for glaring holes, insufficient character development or motivations, major inconsistencies and unrealistic coincidences in a story, and give you suggestions on possible options and paths to follow. A beta reader (or line editor) will typically accept only polished or almost-finished manuscripts, and will seek out grammatical errors, typos and garbled/unclear word choice or sentence structure.
If you decide to seek out an alpha or beta reader (or even friends and family) for feedback, here are a few guidelines worth remembering:
• Don’t offer a potential beta reader an incomplete manuscript in rough draft mode. If your novel’s in pieces, unfinished and unwieldy, you’re likely to receive feedback in the same piecemeal, uncertain, unwieldy manner. How can a beta reader give any sort of credible advice if the work is raw, unfinished and merely pending? This sort of symbiotic relationship is ultimately worthless, a waste of time for both you and the reader. If your book’s half done, you’re essentially asking someone to test-drive a new car without wheels or an engine. (Although keep reading…)
• If you’re lost in the middle of a novel and seeking advice on how to continue, look for an alpha reader. Instead of offering a half-baked manuscript riddled with blank patches and unfinished thoughts, consider providing a concise summary of your plot in outline form—as comprehensive and detailed a story-line as you’re able. You’re not looking for polishing or line-editing, you’re seeking basic story options, what might work, what might not—and, technically, not really criticism at all. You’re seeking an alpha reader to help you develop a fictional roadmap from Points A to Z. You’re still constructing the puzzle, seeking viable ideas to move forward. As my old Granny used to tell me, “Don’t worry about the wedding date if you haven’t found a girl yet.”
• If you’re lost in the beginning of a story—you’ve written 5 or 10 pages of an impending novel and get stuck—stop writing the novel. Seriously. If you like what you’ve written but don’t know how to proceed, change gears! Again, consider outlining before you continue. Or see if you can finish the work as a short story. Give yourself the opportunity to write 10-20 pages with a definitive middle and end in mind. If you find the idea of writing 300-400 pages too daunting, break it down into more manageable pieces. Think of yourself as writing a series of integrated short stories instead of chapters—and worry not about subsequent chapters you intend to write. (See Rule #16: Focus On The Now.) If you find yourself with a complete story, maybe you’re on your way to writing a collection. However, if you find yourself with more to say on the matter—keep writing, one page at a time.
• Conversely, don’t offer friends and/or family—even if it’s your well-intentioned mother!—a complete 300 or 400+ page manuscript and expect an overnight perusal. Or an impartial reading for that matter. Proactive reading (that is, comprehensive understanding and the resulting rational feedback) is a lengthy, intense and often laborious process.
So if you’re looking for erstwhile familial advice, ask for a partial read—no more than the first 10 or 20 pages of your manuscript. It’s a far less obtrusive, demanding request. Shorter excerpts will prompt more in-depth feedback. If you like the resulting comments, and your reader(s) enjoy the assistance, either ask if they’ll read another 20 (or more!) pages, or wait for them to offer. If you have a friend who’s good at editing and is willing to take on your entire novel, awesome! But consider a bottle of wine or even a cash payment ($100-$200 if you can afford it) in return, or offer a return of services if you’re both writers. You can also seek out an outline alpha or beta reader for about the same price. But definitely do some basic research. Some will be well worth the cost — others, not so much.
BTW, I know more than a few writers who are loathe to accept any sort of critical feedback. These writers (some who are struggling with their efforts) abhor suggestions and/or possible solutions to potential problems. They assume—incorrectly—that a novel must be a solitary effort, and that any outside advice somehow diminishes and/or voids the author’s ‘ownership’ of the story. My response is a resounding, “Bogus!” Even if you accept feedback that ultimately dictated that you to rewrite your entire novel—the book is unquestionable yours and yours alone. Every word that is either axed or that remains resolutely in place (and in what precise order) is ultimately your decision. That’s your call. It’s your book. Period.
Should a literary agent or commercial publisher accept your manuscript, (congrats!) your options are truncated. Both agents and publishers are risking that you (and your manuscript) will be successful and profitable, and once they sign a writer as a client, each will strive to produce the best possible book possible. With rare exception, that success will be predicated upon your level of assistance.
Do realize that an agents, editors and reputable publishers* won’t have the same visceral connection as you (the writer) to the finished manuscript—and yet each has an invested interests in producing the best version of your book possible. Both an agent and a freelance editor have reputations that depend upon assisting you with a pristine, professional work of fiction (or non-fiction). A publisher has intrinsic knowledge about designing and marketing books, and if you find yourself in that enviable position of being a contracted writer, keep in mind that their opinions count. A legit publisher’s in-house editor has a paycheck to earn. A commercial publisher will drop upwards of $10K simply producing both a printed book (and cover), and an ebook for publication. Mainstream publishers may even risk additional tens of thousands on marketing, PR and in branding you as a viable—meaning capable of producing multiple profit-making or even best-selling books—author.
Agents and publishers who see the value of your work are typically happy to work with you, if rewrites are advised. Your input can be invaluable… but don’t get cocky! As the author, are no longer in charge. Working with a legit publisher (one who does not charge writers to publisher their work) can be both an exasperating and blissful experience — but the fine art of compromise is essential. If you’re loathe to cut a single word, to rewrite a scene or take erstwhile advice…it’s time for a reality check, because usually their opinions will take precedence. So my best advice? Go with the flow.
A word about writers groups and workshops.
I’m aware that some writers are skeptical (or outright afraid) to join or begin a writers group. For years I was one of those writers. Me? I didn’t need to join no stinkin’ writers group—until, on the advice of a writing friend, I joined one. For several years thereafter, the six (sometimes 7 or 8) of us, all fledgling, earnest but unpublished wannabes, gathered weekly for three grueling hours and learned the fine art of proactive listening.** We also learned to trust one another and, week by week, traded a multitude of often beneficial writing suggestions and solutions.
A writers group can also train you to not only receive, but to offer, constructive criticism. A group/workshop can motivate you to choose words more precisely and write more consistently, and can harden that notoriously fragile, creative psyche—because sooner or later, somebody’s going to hate your book and will delight in telling you so. And when they do, my advice is this: Don’t take it personally. Collecting rejections and weathering disgruntled readers comes with the territory. Just that those of us who’ve already dealt with critical voices are far more immune to the prattle of strangers.
Whenever somebody tells me that they couldn’t get through a story or book of mine, I simply smile and offer my condolences. “I’m sorry to hear that. Hopefully my next effort will be more to your liking.” And, for the more fearless among us: “I’m sorry to hear that. I’d love to know what you found lacking. Would you care to elaborate? Hey, can I buy you a beer?” Because why not turn a close encounter into a learning experience? You’ll seldom receive a more heartfelt critique.
Learning to ignore toxic or misguided criticism—“You’re stupid! You’re ugly! Your mother dresses you funny!” Or, “Your book sucks dog balls!”—really is a valuable life lesson. If and when you eventually learn to shrug off such mindless or insincere criticism—an exquisite, clarifying, joyous occasion, by the way—you’ll find yourself a much happier writer. And certainly a happier person.
But I digress. Personally speaking, I used my experience in a local writers group to eventually attune my brain to hear every criticism about my style, my plot, my characters (good or bad) with an open mind, to evaluate —sometimes for moments, sometimes for weeks—specific bits of feedback that I considered potentially important. I once jettisoned my entire first act—118 pages—because of my group’s near unanimous advice that my story “really starts on page 119.” Seriously. I gutted one hundred and eighteen pages because my laborious introduction (and way too many secondary characters) did not directly relate to the story that would eventually emerge. I reworked Act I from the ground up and managed to fit my essential introductions into a far more dramatically paced 25 pages, then reworked another dozen or so pages into a feasible segue that blended seamlessly (one could assume) with the remainder of the story. But I spent almost three months pondering the edit before I pulled the trigger and began the rewrites. Still, I don’t regret it for an instant.
One word of advice. If you do find yourself deleting pages, keep a backup copy of your original work. I make constant back-up copies in Dropbox (cloud hosting app), because every once in a while I follow some crazy urge, change or kill a dozen pages, only to realize ‘Nope—stupid move.’ So keep multiple back ups, just in case.
If you’ve been seeking a local writers group and can’t find one, consider starting your own. If you have choices—meaning there are several existing groups in your area—perhaps you can locate other writers in your genre. It’s not necessary of course, just a little icing on the cake. Personally, I think intimate groups of 4-8 can work nicely. Fewer than four opinions and you may find yourself lacking sufficient commentary. With more than 7 or 8 active members, you may discover insufficient reading and critiquing time for each writer. (My weekly group typically ran for 3+ hours. Then tedium begins to creep in. Constructive criticism requires sharp minds and keen observations. So keep it short, keep it sharp.)
With the advent of online forums, writer chats and aggregate communities (such as Reddit’s r/writing) one can find numerous opportunities to meet fellow writers, without even getting out of your ‘jammies. If you can find a few like-minded souls, see if you can branch off into a more exclusive, reliable digital network. The internet—for better or for worse—has negated the need for face-to-face interaction. With the right connections, online interactions can prove just as valuable. Personally, however, I do recommend face-to-face interaction. Writers are hermetic enough. And, like I said, confronting constructive criticism face-to-face builds character.
Writing workshops—those all-day, weekend or weekly events, can provide powerful motivation. Can wield tremendous influence. Can provide a safe haven and a soothing sense of camaraderie. Because, no, you’re not in this alone. But, yes, you’ll pay for the experience, and a week long event (including room and board) can run a thousand bucks or more. Worth the price of admission? Established workshops aren’t for all of us, but for many writers, they can provide a perfect environment to unpack all those tucked away emotions. Because nothing can mess with one’s head more than the isolation of spending three or six or twelve months confronting a manuscript, while everyone else in the world (or so it seems) parties their nights away. Your best revenge is by adding your name to their crowded bookshelves.
I’ve found longer workshops (a week or more) to provide the motivation to keep one writing. You’re ditching reality and jumping down the rabbit hole—spending days in what I consider a sort of cerebral surreality that feels almost psychedelic in it’s intensity, and with the ability to strip the mundanity of everyday existence from your psyche. You’ll eat, sleep and live writing. You’ll bond with other writers, make some nice connections and you’ll even find a few lifelong friends. I found my wife. So, yeah, I highly recommend it.
The bottom line? Sooner or later, every writer can use a good set of alternative eyes. Stephen King had Tabitha. Leo Tolstoy had Sophia, Harper Lee had Truman Capote, and history wonders if Stephen, Leo and Harper would even be published today without the help of some pretty loyal and brilliantly opinionated company.***
Sooner or later, every published writer is expected to expose her/his work, warts and all, to public scrutiny. My suggestion is, the sooner you develop the crucial social skill of accepting criticism, the better. Don’t let your own critical fears (rational or not!) dissuade you from a second opinion. Every writer’s ultimate goal is to be seen by millions. If you can’t imagine your work being exposed to a beta reader or two, I suspect coping with the potentially soul-crushing reality of mass public scrutiny will be far more difficult to endure. (So start small and work your way up!)
Your understanding and acceptance of criticism (both good and bad) is so important, it’s worth repeating. In fact, it’s a new rule. Rule #99: Only two types of criticism exist: constructive and/or counter-productive criticism. Knowing the difference is crucial.
* What’s reputable? Agents and publishers who charge a service fee or fee-based services, reputable as they might seem (or actually be!), rely on a writer’s money to stay in business. Many such agents and indie publishers (including in-house editors) can indeed improve the quality of your work. But their professional existence (not your book’s success) is largely based on your bank account, and occasionally on your life’s savings. An unwary writer can spend tens of thousands or more, spend years rewriting based on a bevy of ‘professional opinions’—and still be no closer to selling a commercially viable book. Before signing a contract, ensure that you’re not obliged to pay any up-front fees to ‘ensure potential publication.’
** Active listening vs. Proactive listening: Active listening is the fine art of fully engaging (listening or reading) and comprehending without judgement. Proactive listening requires a full measure of active listening and subsequently offering constructive criticism as well. And what is criticism, after all, but judgement? However, constructive criticism should consist of a fair and accurate assessment—a far more complex and difficult social skill.
*** If you’re into films about writing/writers, check out The Last Station (2009, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren). A mesmerizing, dramatic late-life biography of Leo and Sophia Tolstoy.
Also, since we’re here, check out Genius (2016, Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman), a worthwhile biopic of Scribner’s book editor Max Perkins, who shredded (for the best) works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.