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 counterproductive criticism. And knowing the difference—accepting/incorporating what may work and dismissing/ignoring what probably won’t work—could determine a book’s success. If our intention is publication, sooner or later we will face a beta reader (non-professional editor) or a professional editor’s dreaded red pen. The secret is learning to accept (and potentially use) constructive criticism, treating such feedback as another essential tool in your creative toolbox.
How important is constructive criticism? Time for a new rule. Rule #99: Only two types of criticism exist: constructive and/or counterproductive criticism. Knowing the difference is crucial. As writers, we must allow ourselves sufficient head space to consider—meaning accept or dismiss—criticism that can improve the integrity of our work, and also to jettison advice which can detract or derail our story. Seeking credible criticism should not be about collecting accolades or kudos, but rather about improving our work.
When confronting criticism, one word of advice: Leave your dark and stormy writer’s ego outside the door, with your galoshes (…look it up!), mittens and wet umbrella.
It’s crucial to understand the nuance between constructive criticism and positive feedback. An easy mistake is confusing positive criticism as constructive criticism and negative criticism as counterproductive criticism because—nope—that’s not how it works. In fact, the opposite is usually true.
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 writer’s group. (More about that in a moment.) And, 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.
Do 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.
A better choice? Seek out a beta reader—a non-relational, non-professional fiction reader—someone who reads and critiques simply for the love of reading. And, yes, a well-read friend can serve as a 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.
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 seems 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.
By the way, I know more than a few writers who are loathe to accept any sort of 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 forces 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.
A word about writer’s groups and workshops.
I’m aware that some writers are skeptical (or outright afraid) to join or begin a writer’s group. For years I was one of those writers. Me? I didn’t need to join no stinkin’ writer’s 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 writer’s 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 writer’s 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 writer’s 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!)
A brief note regarding soliciting criticism:
• 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 critic 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, instead of offering a half-baked manuscript riddled with blank patches and unfinished thoughts, provide a concise summary in outline form—as comprehensive and detailed a plot-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 help in developing a fictional roadmap from A to Z. You’re still constructing the puzzle. Seeking viable ideas. So, 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! 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. 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.
By the way, whether you’re writing a novel, non-fiction, a short story, even a cover letter to an editor, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting “what now?” advice. More than once (a great deal more) I’ve run into a brick wall and, directed toward anyone within earshot, I’ve lamented, Where should I go from here? Typically, a writer will have various options (and boundaries) in mind: Should the new schoolmarm, Becky Sue, marry Sheriff Bob—or should she be skeptical of his smarmy, big-city ways? Should she marry Bob in Act I, and have them confront Black Bart together? Or should she confront the conniving Bart alone, and bring in Sheriff Bob for a daring, Act III rescue?
Two totally different stories, right? Both potentially interesting. Both viable novels. But if you’re having trouble deciphering Becky Sue’s intentions (i.e.; plot motivation and/or direction), you need not push ahead, trying to polish a final draft that ‘doesn’t feel right.’ When in doubt, it’s quite alright to ask important “what if?” questions, weigh your options and, if necessary, plot a new course.
• Conversely, don’t offer friends and/or family—even if it’s your mom!—a complete 300 or 400 page manuscript and expect an overnight perusal. Proactive reading (that is, comprehensive understanding and the resulting rational feedback) is a lengthy, intense and often laborious process.
Better yet: If you’re looking for erstwhile advice, ask a friend or family member if they’d read the first 10 or 20 pages of your manuscript. It’s a far less obtrusive and 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 the whole 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.
The Professional Critique
If a literary agent or a commercial publisher accepts you or 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.
Neither editor nor reputable publisher*** has the same visceral connection as the writer to a finished manuscript—and yet both parties have invested interests. A publisher has intrinsic knowledge about producing 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 freelance editor’s reputation depends upon delivering (to a publisher) a pristine, professional work of fiction. 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. And, sure, you can usually negotiate certain issues. But realize that you, as author, are no longer in charge. Working with a professional who’s intent on helping you publish a book can be both exasperating and blissful, but the fine art of compromise is essential. If you’re a writer loathe to cut a 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.
I can’t speak for other publishers, editors or agents, but at MHP, we’ll sign a new author only with the contractual provision that the publisher has final say in all matters of publication. Meaning that we’ll spend days, weeks and sometimes months, helping you hone your manuscript. Listening to you. Dozens or hundreds of man-hours helping you to “get it right.” But the final say belongs to MHP, and hopefully (usually!) with the writer’s full blessing.
There may come a time, however, when neither the writer nor publisher is willing to budge on an issue. In such a case, the final option is yours. Are you willing to break your contract over the issue? Are you willing to seek publication elsewhere—or even self-publication—to ostensibly maintain your precise vision?
S’up to you.
*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.
***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.’