Wed
Jun 9 2010 9:43am
On Taking Advice

I’m currently working on a suggested revision that’s pretty big and kind of daunting, but it’s an excellent set of ideas. It’s gotten me thinking about the way writers deal with and use criticism, from the good ways to the bad ones. That, and it seems like everyone on my Twitterfeed lately has been death-marching a draft of a book.

Some people refute all criticism of their work or refuse to acknowledge it. They’re very sure that they’re right and that their work is perfect. The thing is—that’s a crap way to ever improve your craft. That theory of criticism (“I’m so awesome, you’re so dumb”) seems to lurk around the outskirts of the writing community, on blogs that revolve around spewing vitriol about rejections and critiques, or some of the more tricksy arguments for self-publishing.

Alternately, look at the acknowledgments page of any given book. There are a lot of people to thank: partners, kids, and friends, but also the writer’s editor, their agent, their critique groups and their beta readers. I’d say there’s a good reason for that. Stories don’t grow in a void. One of the most important things I’ve learned in my writing career is that other people can see things I can’t in my work. The value of a fresh pair of eyes on a text is immeasurable, especially when those eyes belong to someone who makes their living finding good stories and making them better.

Why waste that help, that awesome resource?

I suspect that part of the initial negative reaction to criticism stems from the same sort of place, mentally, that makes a person hate things in other people that they hate most in themselves. It’s a balancing act between the part of you that knows deep down that Character A is written all over the place and the part of you that wants to love your work and think it’s perfect. When somebody else points out (sometimes with the force of a sledgehammer) that Character A is badly written, it’s a kick in the gut, because suddenly the balance between what you know is wrong and what you want to be right shifts and you have to acknowledge your mistakes. For most people, me included, saying “I was wrong” is kind of difficult, even in an offhand argument, let alone a book that you spent a year or more of your life on. Add to that the embarrassment of having shown a flawed piece of work to someone you likely respect or want to work with, and I can almost see why some writers never move past the initial flinch-reaction and stay there, wallowing in their anger and frustration without admitting that they need to fix the problems in their work. (But that sucks, and it’s not good for you emotionally or creatively.)

Admittedly, I haven’t ever gotten angry about any criticism that made sense to me. I’ve gotten angry about commentary that has been downright offensive regarding things that I’ve written, but that’s not the same thing as constructive criticism. (It’s not even in the same ballpark.) I rarely even get the twinge of “oh, man, why didn’t I see that before I submitted the damn story?” anymore—a mistake is a mistake, and if you get some helpful commentary, it was a worthwhile one.

I recently read Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer, which deals with some of the negative emotions associated with criticism and rejection. One of the most helpful and striking parts of the book is a section about being allowed to fail. That makes perfect sense to me. It’s better to set your sights high, write a harder scene or deal with a trickier theme, and fail… Than to have never tried at all, and never had the chance to succeed. Even the failure to achieve the pinnacle of what you imagined might make a pretty good story on its own. Aiming for, proverbially speaking, an A+ and getting a B+ is still pretty good. It’s definitely better than aiming for (and getting) a D. The absolute best part about criticism is that sometimes it can take that B+ and turn it into an A, by pointing out what exactly you missed or did wrong that threw off your perfect vision.

Which doesn’t mean that rejection isn’t painful or that sometimes, on the inside, you really don’t feel okay with failure—I appreciated that, in the same book, Vandermeer deals with depression and anxiety in authors. (Which is a post for another day.) Sometimes it takes years of distance from a failed project to be able to look at it and not feel upset. I wrote my first novel when I was in high school. Looking at it now, I see why it went nowhere and I’m frankly glad it went nowhere, but at the time it was agonizing to get so many requests for the manuscript and have them all turn into nothing. However—the criticism in all those rejections taught me a lot about writing a novel, and how I write, and what I like to write about. For example, it taught me that I have a tendency to let subplots devour my actual plot and I have to keep them pruned with sharp editing shears. That’s pretty important to know. That book is safely and blessedly dead now, but the experience of failing was in and of itself deeply important to my development as a writer and an artist.

That’s where I think the negative, angry bloggers and bitterness are off the mark—everybody’s first attempt at a novel is bad. Clinging to it and refusing to see what you did wrong is worse. Failure is an organic part of the process. Failure, and learning from it, is how artists of any stripe improve.

So when I received this revision letter, I sat down with some tea and read it over. I made notes on what I thought I could do to fix certain things, clarified others, and figured out which things I thought were right on the money. I messed some things up in the original draft, sure—but thanks to the kindness and generosity of people willing to work with me, I’ve gotten a fresh take on those mistakes and how they can be fixed. If I had put my nose in the air and said “No! This book is a masterpiece!” the story wouldn’t be as good. It would be a C story, but with this help and the outside eyes to help me put things in place that I had never noticed before, it might end up an A story. I don’t know—but I hope so. And if I fail, I will still have learned new methods for my process and ended up with a better book than I started the year with.

I can’t be anything other than grateful for criticism, from websites like the OWW and friends and associates. Especially when it comes to issues like “how clear is this theme in the overall book” or “is this scene tense enough to you,” an outside reader is so necessary it’s not even funny. Reader perception can only be judged and reported back on by readers. Learning and growing as a writer is much more important to me than maintaining some bizarre ego-trip. After all, no one is perfect, but with a little help we can all become better. I’m probably preaching to the choir, but when the criticism comes down the pipe from your first readers or someone else, don’t freak out. Just listen. Learn. And if you failed—try again, because it’s worth it.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

5 comments
Jer Brown
1. designguybrown
These notions make me think of my own semi-formed profession: architecture. A huge portion in one's development is in the critiques and ongoing developmental 'observations'. These criticisms, comments, and spontaneous heads-ups from a wide range of individuals can be disconcerting. Some are from seasoned colleagues who know your work, some are from random individuals who have not had but a quick glance, some are from overly positive 'cheerleader' friends, some are even from recognized 'guest' professionals. How do we find value in their comments? Which provide both the constructive, objective commentary that will push you forward while still asking you to look back and revise? Which are allowing you to grow into your own direction and which are coloured by a predisposition to their own taste? Which encourage your starting intentions, allowing you a baseline for which to revisit, determining how much of a complete overhaul is 'advisable'? Anyway... these are the notions that have circulated within my own head when i go through the developmental process. I realize i have reiterated much of the above.

So - my small patched of gained wisdom? I found that these things above are less important than the process one chooses to make decisions and develop their work. With me, a sketchbook showing all my decisions, my sketches, my trains of thought, my reasoning for discarding one branch of development for another, is crucial, especially where i have maintained some type of logical continuity of thought and process (which usually means going back and editing how my thoughts are presented as they developed) - one sketchbook per project. Another is to encourage an attitude where one is not creating a 'precious' object so much as furthering and discovering an idea, refining it, backtracking, investigating options --- AND receiving input at all these stages (may be annoying to colleagues if every week you want to describe your recent week's work). But this can be casual and informal, part of a socializing process between one or more friends, etc. Of course, if one has the personality where one likes to segregate themselves into a country cabin and emerge with a finished product... well. So, this suggests perhaps that writing should be a more social activity rather than a lonesome quest... perhaps. Useful to many? Not likely. Maybe even creates a work schedule where not much can be done. But i think that one would be simultaneously creating a network and getting constant feedback/inspiration -- and this could lead to one not necessarily being the most prolific writer of all time - but somehow one that is more worldly and developed, i suppose (for lack of better words). So, now authors need book-mates? - those valued individuals who will give regular and ongoing advice over the months of development, not concerned with being subject to endless loose ends, etc. - my unedited, stream-of-consciousness 2 cents.
Alex Brown
2. AlexBrown
The only thing that keeps me sane is re-reading "Adventures In The Screen Trade" by William Goldman. Though it's mostly about screenwriting (a profession I started then gave up because I wasn't willing to write for Two And A Half Men or supervise on Nickelodeon shows) it still has a lot of merit for fiction writing. And it shows how one man slogged through it and made his mark. He's why I still call myself a writer, a novelist, despite not actually having been published, because he says that if you make that your job title then that becomes who you present yourself to the world. You take on that role. It's like continuously cheering yourself on.

And, Brit, if you need another pair of eyes, I'd be happy to go through your manuscript. I'm the default editor/story editor for my family and friends, and did a little businesses on the side down in LA going over and fixing student scripts (I worked in a film school in Hollywood for a while). I am ruthless but the critiques are never meaningless or unnecessary. Once I get my stuff up and running (or focus long enough on any one novel that I get enough foundation down before getting distracted on a shiny new idea...) I hope to start attending a crit group. The harsher the better ;)

designguybrown @ 1: I also do the notebook thing (1 black hardback ruled Moleskine per story). I write in that until I've got the story idea fleshed out enough (and subplots, character sketches, historical background, etc.), then I pop everything in to a few Excel tables (a character list, country/state/city list, humans/non humans list...because I'm completely OCD insane), and then do the real draft in Word so a specific playlist that best describes/fits the scene. And, one of the screenwriting holdovers, I still write by scene. Each document is a scene. If I have to write more than just that scene, frak it, it's a new document. I push the scenes together into the appropriate act so I can see it as a whole, but I still think in terms of scenes and shots. (I also do my first draft in screenwriting format and then flesh it out later.) Handwriting out your ideas is really the best recommendation I can give. If I can't figure something out I'll go sit outside with my notebook and, lo and behold, an hour later the plot hole will be fixed. There's something magical about pen and paper I think :)
Brit Mandelo
3. BritMandelo
@designguybrown

I write exclusively on a keyboard, but all of my notes are longhand, and I separate them by project, too--it's a way to stay kind of organically hooked into the process of development and structural work while still telling a story, for me. And it helps to have notes when you're developing a murder mystery of sorts to keep straight who's dead and who's not, ahem. *g*

@Milo1313

When it's back in one piece (you will know because it will be all over my Twitter) and makes sense again, that would be cool.
Alex Brown
4. AlexBrown
I love keeping up with your progress on Twitter. When I get to that stage I intend to bombard Twitter as well :)
Brit Mandelo
5. BritMandelo
@Milo1313

It honestly helps a lot with stress level to yell about revising on Twitter. I don't know how, but it does.

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