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 a fiction writer and a fiction content editor—only two types of criticism exist. Sooner or later, we writers (all of us) will find ourselves confronting either constructive criticism or counterproductive criticism. And knowing the difference—accepting/incorporating what may work, dismissing/ignoring what will not work—could quite literally determine our book’s success. If our intention is publication, sooner or later we’ll face a beta reader (non-professional editor) or a professional editor’s dreaded red pen. The secret, dear writer, is in learning to accept (cope, handle, survive) constructive criticism and treat such feedback as another essential tool in your essential toolbox.
How important is constructive criticism? Time for a new rule. Rule #99: As writers, we must allow ourselves sufficient head space to consider—meaning accept or dismiss—advice 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.
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 difference 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.
Part 1: The Casual Critique.
(Part 2: The Professional Critique will be forthcoming.)
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 aware 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 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.
For example, the feedback: “Your protagonist does stupid things” isn’t remotely helpful to a writer. However, a thoughtful critique such as; “Your protagonist seems to get by on lucky or coincidental solutions, 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 either gets the axe or that remains resolutely in place 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’ writers group—until, on the advice of a writing friend, I joined one. For several years 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 beneficial writing suggestions and solutions.
A writer’s group can also train you to not only receive, but to offer, constructive criticism; 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 dealt with critical voices before are far more immune to the prattle of strangers.
Whenever somebody tells me that they couldn’t get through a 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 doggie 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 pages into a feasible segue that blended seamlessly (one could argue) 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 storage 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—see if 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. Keep it short, keep it sharp.)
With the advent of online forums, writer chats and aggregate communities (such as Reddit’s s/Writers) 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. Wield tremendous influence. Even provide a soothing sense 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 safe place 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, in 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. Me? 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. Sooner or later, 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.
Literary Political Correctness.
Before I go, a brief note regarding soliciting and or giving 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 worthless, a waste of time for both you and the reader. Expecting an honest, accurate reception is unrealistic. You’re essentially asking someone to test-drive a new car without wheels or an engine.
• If you’re lost in the middle of a story 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—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. Still trying to get to first base. Or, 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 like the outcome, congrats! If you find yourself with more to say on the matter—even better. Keep writing. You may find yourself with a viable first chapter. Rinse and repeat.
By the way, whether you’re writing a novel, non-fiction, a short story, even a cover letter to an editor, here’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 whoever might listen, I’ve asked, 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), don’t push ahead, trying to polish a final draft that ‘doesn’t feel right.’ When in doubt, do solve those basic issues (alone or with feedback) before you continue with subsequent drafts.
• 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 mind reading the first 20 or 25 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 25 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.
• If you’re seeking professional editorial services….well, that part’s coming soon.
*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 flicks, 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.