Wednesday, January 30, 2013

6 WOW Wednesday: Laura Ellen on Using Criticism

When I started getting critiques and rejections from editors and agents, I wasn’t sure how to take their feedback. It intimidated me. It confused me. I wasn’t sure who to listen to or what I should change – sometimes what I heard varied so drastically I wanted to bang my head against the wall. Often I came away from a critique wondering if I was the writing equivalent of an American Idol contestant – the one who REALLY thinks she can sing and CLEARLY cannot. It made me unsure, defensive, and yes, depressed. I had to teach myself how to incorporate criticism into my writing to make it work for me. Once I had it figured out, I started getting 'good' rejections and manuscript requests. Here are a few things I learned on my journey that helped me get there:

1. Get criticism from the right people.
I taught a workshop this past weekend and during the Q&A a teen asked how to tell her friend that the story she was writing was seriously lacking a plot. She didn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings and knew her friend would take it the wrong way – especially since their other friends all kept gushing about how great the story was.

What she describes is a common problem when an author shares with friends and family. Your friends and family will tell you what you have written is great – and if they don’t, you will inevitably take it very personally. The only way to get good, constructive criticism is to have your work read by others in the profession. Join a critique group. Go to conferences and sign up to have your work critiqued by another author, an editor, or and agent. Hearing how great your writing is from family and friends is an awesome feeling, but it won’t help you learn to listen when you get that professional criticism you’ll need to get your work published.

2. Separate yourself from your work.
Writing is extremely personal. Often we see it as an extension of ourselves and so anything said against it seems like a personal attack. It’s hard to do, but try to take ‘you’ out of the book. Think of your book as a product that is not finished yet and you need feedback to complete it. Think of it like a math problem you almost got right, but you messed up in the calculation. You wouldn’t get defensive and tell your math teacher that you just wanted 12 X 4 to equal 50 – that would be absurd. In the same light, you have to see that if you are being told something is not working, you’ve gone wrong somewhere. This is your work, not you. You are trying to improve your work and these professionals want to help you do that. The sooner you can see it as something separate from yourself, the easier it will be to cut and change and switch things around.

3. Filter out the negative.
No matter how gentle someone gives criticism, we are bound to hear the negative over the positive. It’s just how most of us are wired. Train yourself to filter that part out. Instead of focusing on that first statement that sounds negative, jump past and listen for the reasons the editor feels this way. For example, if the editor/agent says: I had trouble getting into the story, instead of hearing He hates my story and then going into a depressed funk, push that aside and LISTEN. He will follow up his statement with reasons he felt this way. Maybe you started in the wrong spot. Maybe your first paragraph does not grab the reader. Maybe your character is lacking likeability. These things are fixable, but if you get stuck on the negative and stop listening, you’ll never hear what will help you make it better.

4. Not all criticism is created equal.
The most difficult part about criticism is knowing what is valid. Writing is subjective. One person may love something, while another can’t get past the first paragraph. For this reason, you can’t take every piece of criticism at face value. On the flip side, if you never listen to anything, always telling yourself “he doesn’t like fantasy” or “she doesn’t get my writing”, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. How do you strike that balance?

A) Look at who is giving you the advice. Is most of this agent/editor’s work in a genre very different from yours? Most editors and agents work on many types of novels, but some are limited. Some absolutely hate a certain type of story – knowing this ahead of time will save you a lot of wondering, and depression, after the fact.
B) Look at what is being said. Have several people pointed out the same thing? Or have several people said opposite opinions about the same aspect? If so, these are red flags. Sometimes the person critiquing sees a problem but can’t quite put his finger on it. This is why you may get differing opinions on the same aspect. One person may think your pacing is too slow, while another may say it is too fast – either way, it sounds like you may need to examine it.

5. You are your best problem solver.
When you are getting feedback from an author, editor or agent, the suggestions on how you might fix something are invaluable. Listen to their recommendations. Think hard on those ideas. Try them out. Play with them. Think about how using a suggestion will change the rest of your story. Can it make it better? Or will it change your vision? If it does change that vision, is there another way you can fix it while staying true to what you wanted? Remember though, the suggestions people give you are only that: suggestions. YOU are your best problem solver because you know your vision for that story the best. If you have been listening to them about what the problem is, how you solve it will inevitably be ten times better than the solutions you were given. Believe in your ability to problem solve.

6. Sometimes Revision Means Re-Vision
Many times we have a particular concept, format, scene, or character . . . some ‘thing’ we become attached to in the novel. As the story takes shape and the revision process begins, however, these items sometimes lose their validity and purpose, and they either need re-visioning or letting go. You’ve heard the expression “kill your darlings” – well this is what that means. Too often an author gets so attached, he can’t let go, at the detriment of what could’ve been a good novel. If you keep it, make sure it works with the rest of the novel, otherwise, cut it out.

Hope this helps some of you take that next step. Happy writing!

About the Author

Laura Ellen is a full-time writer and mother of 3. She has a MA in Children's Literature and is a former Language Arts teacher. Diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration as a teen, she drew upon her own experiences with vision loss to write her debut YA thriller Blind Spot, an emotional and suspenseful page-turner. Born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, she now resides in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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About the Book

Winter stops hiding Tricia Farni on Good Friday.

When a truck plunges through the thinning ice of Alaska’s Birch River, Tricia’s body floats to the surface– dead since the night she disappeared six months earlier.

The night Roswell Hart fought with her.

The night Roz can’t remember.

Missing things is nothing new to sixteen-year-old Roz. She has macular degeneration, an eye disease that robs her central vision. She’s constantly piecing together what she sees– or thinks she sees–but this time her memory needs piecing together. How can Roz be sure of the truth if her own memory has betrayed her? Can she clear her name of a murder that she believes she didn’t commit?

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  1. Great tips Laura. You've raised so many good points about dealing with criticism. I've felt a lot of the frustration you describe. It is good to realize that criticism is subjective. But also you need to step back and see if it makes sense. Because sometimes it can make your story so much better.

  2. I love the analogy about messing up a math equation. I'm always nervous of critting someone's work when I know I'm going to get an email back justifying everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. If you don't like what someone says, just ignore it--once you've truly given it some thought. Don't just disregard it because you don't agree with it. Often the person's comment has more merit than you realize.

  3. All things I've found to be true, especially solve your own problems (to oversimplify) and re-vision. Often we get revision advice, but this is a list with which I actually agree. :) (Also, That is all.)

  4. Really terrific advice! And Blind Spot sounds amazing!

  5. Just what I needed to read right now. Thanks Laura! Excellent advice!


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