Tuesday, April 17, 2012

29 Writing and the Art of Taking Criticism

I've had a few friends with great news lately, and a few with some disappointments. Also a few with steps toward success. Celebrating, listening to chatter, and mopping up some tears, I know it seems as if a lot of getting published depends on luck. And it does. Luck and timing are all big parts of publication.

But even with the best luck, we have to be ready to take advantage of opportunity when it comes. We have to be smart enough to see opportunities present themselves, and saavy enough to handle the opportunities gracefully enough to turn them into success.

The funny thing about the publishing process--and I can't put enough emphasis on the word process--is that there are many other steps we have to take before we are ready to write a publishable work, to go through the process of publication, and to prepare ourselves for what happens when the book is out in the world.

Part of that process is learning to disassociate from the work enough to understand that everyone who reads our manuscript is going to be bringing their own set of biases and experiences with them. Agents and editors have to look at work through a variety of different lenses, only a few of them related to the actual writing in the manuscript. That may feel frustrating. But in reality, no reader is coming to a novel without their own agenda.

When it comes to our books, we have to remember that we are just the writers. We create only part of the reader's experience. Our job is to tell our story clearly enough that it has integrity regardless of the reader's baggage, and further, to leave room enough for the reader's baggage to enhance the book instead of taking away from it. 

How do we do that? We solicit a lot of opinions before the book goes out into the world. Before we query. Before we submit. We ask and we thank heaven for every critique that we receive. And we value every critique equally, regardless of whether the critiquer loves the work or hates it. We give every question, every comment, every suggestion equal weight, and no matter how much the critique may hurt, we set it aside until we can evaluate it objectively and in context of our overall goals for the story.

Face it, we are going to get opinions one way or the other, before we query or after. Before we publish or after. We can catch ambiguities and inconsistencies before people pay good money to buy our work, or we can let them catch the weaknesses, cliches, plot holes, and pacing issues after they've paid and expose them in bad reviews that will keep others from buying the book or future books.

Fiction is art. There is no right or wrong. But there is a canvas we have to paint on, and we have to make sure that when readers look at that canvas, they see what we want them to see. That means we have to look at it ourselves from as many different perspectives as possible.

I've seen so many writers ignore criticism because it doesn't mesh with what they want to hear. Heck, I've done it myself. Sometimes it's because something is too hard to fix. Sometimes I would rather believe the positive feedback. Sometimes I honestly don't believe that a piece of feedback will work for me or for the story.

I'm not saying we have to accept every suggestion or take every criticism to heart.

I am saying that we need to seek as many opinions as possible and consider every single piece of input that our readers give us.

Our critique partners, our beta readers, the people and other writers who give us the gift of their time considering our manuscripts are our training wheels on the road to publication. Not just for the first book. For every book.

We never stop learning to write better. We must never stop seeking input for our work, reading the manuscripts of other writers, and most of all, reading every great book we can find time to devour.
Today, I just want to say thank you. Thanks to every beta reader, critiquer, cheerleader, and tough critic out there. Thanks to everyone who reads and loves the written word.

Reading rocks! Right?

Happy Tuesday!

Martina

29 comments:

  1. Thanks, ladies. :D And thanks for stopping by! Hope you have a lovely week.

    Martina

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  2. I honestly have no idea what I would do without my amazing beta readers. They are what push me to make the book better.

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    1. I don't know how anyone can revise without beta reads. But it is a huge time commitment, so isn't it awesome when someone does it for us? :)

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  3. We all can use a good "push" to be better.

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  4. I so agree with you Martina. It's important to listen to the critiques and listen. I've had to learn not to be stubborn about that. And then step back and decide what will make your manuscript better.

    And it's really important to remember during the process of critiquing agents and publishers that their decision will in part be based on their own subjective likes & dislikes, just like the rest of us when we chose books to reads. And the rejections don't necessarily mean that our book isn't good enough. Just that it's not right for this person.

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    1. Such a great point about agents and editors, Natalie! Thanks for that reminder.

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  5. *We never stop learning to write better*

    Love this sentence!

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    1. That's one of the best things about writing and reading, too. There's always some magical breakthrough waiting for us. Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. Fabulous post. It is a process - and we need to enjoy all the steps along the way. And to understand that there will be lots of ups and downs. :)

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    1. So true about the ups and downs! Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by. Great to see you!

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  7. Yes, the writing is the journey and good thing I love learning, over and over again.
    I've actually had some difficulty finding Beta Readers, SCBWI gave me contacts, unfortunately scheduling was tough.
    What is best way to find more Beta Readers for upper MG? Thanks--always love your posts.

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    1. I know what you mean about finding betas. I'm going to give some thought to doing another beta-connect post to let people hook up together. One thing you could try is to participate in the 1st 5 pages workshops we do. Offer up your comments so that people can see how you critique, and then maybe offer to exchangee betas with someone whose writing you like.

      Martina

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  8. Very well said -- taking criticism is a tough, but necessary, step on our road to becoming better writers.

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  9. Excellent article! There is definitely an art to taking criticism.

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    1. The nice thing is that it's an art we all can learn. Thanks for visiting, Joanne!

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  10. Ah, this is so true. Publishing is a process. A process that might be a little easier if we, as writer's, could learn to step away from our emotions regarding our work. Because others will react to our work based, at least somewhat, on their own experiences and biases--which is a good thing.

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    1. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But if we didn't have strong emotions about what we are writing, the writing itself wouldn't be as good. So, bit of a catch-22. We're all works in progress :D

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  11. GREAT thoughts. I can completely relate to the part about criticism and not wanting to change stuff because it's too hard to fix. I find it REALLY fascinating, though, that readers bring themselves to the experience of reading our mansucripts/books. It's a great joint experience!

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    1. You're so right, Carol. I love, love, love hearing what people find in my work. Half the time, I didn't even know it was there :D. Hugs!

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  12. You know, I had a beta reader (hi Martina!) tell me over the phone some things about my book and I tried to change them, but I didn't make drastic changes that maybe I should have. I couldn't see through what I had already written to change it enough. But I did change it somewhat, just not enough.

    Then I got a request from an agent. Then she requested the entire thing and then she sent me an R&R. Her notes mostly jibed with what you said but she gave me a little more to go on--not much but enough to convince me to cut the last third of the book and move on from a different place. It's tough to cut out that much of your book, but what I'm writing now is so much more than what was there before and has taken me to a place I'd never imagined before. If that makes sense.

    So,I guess what I'm saying is thank-you, Martina. Even though I didn't make the big cuts the first or second time around, you were there on the road helping me out.

    Hopefully this draft will be the charm :)

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    1. Congrats on the R & R, Margie! WOOT! I'm so glad. Your voice and your characters and the situation were so compelling. You had great raw material. I hate saying things that I know someone won't want to hear, and sometimes it's tempting to cop out and not make the hard calls. But especially when a ms has great potential, it's completely unfair not to speak up when we see something going on. I'm so, so glad that the agent is working with you and that the ms is getting the attention it deserves!!!! Let me know what happens, okay? I can't wait to see the book pubbed and selling like crazy :D

      Hugs,

      Martina

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  13. I liken the writing process to the design process in theatre. The designer has a vision, but it has to bend and adapt to the director's vision as well as mesh with the other designers to form the final product.

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    1. That is such a great simile, Leslie! I love that. And this is a great example of why I love similes so much. You just summed up in two sentences what I took a whole post to write :D. Must be the teacher in you!

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