Sunday, May 30, 2010

In Praise of Criticism

Spend some time in authors’ circles and you’ll hear it. It may be one of the most common pieces of advice dished out to “newbies,” and with good reason. Find a critique group. Sound suggestion. Without a critique group an author is fated to personal bias, repeated mistakes, and a long future full of rejections that leave them asking, “but why?”

Unfortunately, the burgeoning author will not often get advice on how to take the criticism—even, heaven forbid, how to enjoy it. I mean really enjoy it, not just smile tightly, grit your teeth and pretend to be grateful. Seriously.

While I’m not particularly fond of torture, I have developed a fancy for critique. I even like the one’s that sting a little. Maybe I’m a bit nuts, but I think it’s possible to get there. Enjoying a good thrashing can make the author’s journey a lot less painful. Let’s face it, even if you ignore the fantastic advice, avoid critique groups entirely and still manage to get your work published, guess what’s next? Editors, reviewers and readers all of whom will be more than happy to dish out that criticism. It’s their job, really.

So how do you get through it? Do you grit your teeth and get used to it? Do you take up some decadent habit to ease the pain. (okay, chocolate is good in small doses. I admit it.) Or can you really get to a point where the sting is a good thing? I definitely think it’s possible. I also think it takes a hard look at your priorities, and a little shift in perspective.

I like to look at priorities first. What is your intention as an author? If the answer is to stroke your ego (or some much friendlier worded version of that) than you’re probably in the wrong business. If you want to write the best story you can possibly write, you’re golden. (I suspect this is the most common answer.) So, with that priority firmly in mind, we have the end goal. Critique is the road to get you there. I promise.

All it takes is a little tweak to your perspective, and a few special exceptions that I’ll get to below.

So, perspective shift number one: Criticism is not aimed at you as an author. This one goes hand in hand with: Your book is not your baby. Okay, you can say it is for social purposes. But, it’s not. Really. I think separating what we’ve written from who we are is one of the biggest obstacles to really embracing criticism. If you can find a way to not make it about you personally, the reception will be a lot more pleasant as well.

Critique is also not meant to destroy, diminish, harm or in any way damage your story. Okay, here is one of the exceptions. GOOD critique is not meant to damage your writing. I’m not going to say there was never a critique-er with an issue or chip on their shoulder that might have nasty intentions. But I will say that is a very rare exception. Most crits are honestly intended to help the author improve the work. Also, if a critter has an agenda, you can almost always tell.

Which brings us to: You don’t have to follow any advice in a critique. You don’t. Phew, right? I think this may be the biggest obstacle to enjoying the critiquing process. A lot of new authors think that if they get suggestions for change, then they have to follow them. Forget it. You’re still the author and you are welcome to disagree with any advice—even mine.

So, if six out of ten critiques say the same thing, you seriously might need to consider it. But you don’t ever have to make the changes. That thought takes a lot of the pressure away. Still, the things that prickle the most, that you are most resistant to, are often the things you really need to address. Just something to keep that in mind. ;-)

As authors, criticism is our friend. It really is. Okay, maybe it’s not your friend, but it’s definitely your book’s friend. Your book needs it, my books need it, all stories need it. And that’s really what counts, right?

Happy shredding,


Jaleta Clegg said...

I think you've got some great advice. Criticism hurts, yes, but in a good way. Like pruning a tree, it hurts but is necessary. I cope by curling up and crying for a while, then thinking seriously about the merits of the criticism, then get busy making the changes to improve my story.

And chocolate definitely helps ease the pain.

M Pax said...

This business certainly requires a thick skin. Might as well get that armor on early. :D

Feedback is essential, I agree. I'm happy to get it from editors and my group.

Chocolate is good. So does reminding myself that not every story and every writer is everybody's cup of tea. We all have different tastes and preferences. In the end, we have to remain true to ourselves.

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