Sunday, March 30, 2014

Criticism and Writing

So let's say you've just spent every weekend and holiday break of the last nine months working on a novel manuscript. You've poured your heart and soul into it, the many times edited pages are covered with your sweat, tears and blood (paper cuts, anyone?) and you probably know what's going on in your characters' lives more than you do your own friends' and family's. You finally feel like it's time to transition from "closed-door" writing to "open-door" writing. You're finally ready to let an objective reader take a look at your book...

And it's terrifying. As most writers know, this is swimming next to Jaws terrifying. It's exciting yes, but there is always that horrible fear that your first reader is going to tell you that, honestly, it's crap and you should probably just burn it and go back to the drawing board. I don't think many people have actually had this happen, but that fear is always there.

So last week I let my first "outside reader" tackle the manuscript I've been working on. Though of course I wanted to hear how amazing it is when the time came to discuss the book, I wanted to know the negative first. You know, get the pain over with first. The conversation went something like this.. (very condensed version)

Reader: Well, none of your characters are very nice. They're all sort of bad guys in one way or another.
Me: I agree. In the great Raylan Givens/Boyd Crowder standoff, I'm on Team Crowder. (ahem, Justified...)
Reader: Yes, but most people probably aren't. Most people root for the good guy.
Me: Hmmm... but my main character isn't all bad.
Reader: Let me put it this way. If your book was the show Lost, your main character would be Sawyer.
Me: That's awesome! Sawyer's my favorite character!
Reader: That's not what I meant.....

At this point, I could handle the situation in one of three ways:

1) Get upset, tell my reader that they obviously don't understand me, don't understand my work and stubbornly refuse to even listen to her points about my character.

2) Become extremely anxious and immediately decided that I need to re-write my entire character so that he's no longer Sawyerish, he's Jackish.

3) Stay cool, ask questions, keep the discussion going to find out more.

A few years ago I would have definitely been choosing either option 1 or 2. Option 3 is harder. It means not being defensive and also not being vulnerable. It means being strong. Being confident.

And the result of going down that path was useful criticism. The entire point of having outside readers (for me anyway) is so that you can know whether or not the reader is getting what you want them to get from the story. It turns out that in this case, my view of the character and my reader's view of the character were different because I had edited out some key scenes and dialog that really developed said character. By the end of the discussion, I realized that those scenes needed to go back in for the reader to see the character the way I saw him. I didn't have to change the character, I just needed to reveal more to the reader. I wouldn't have known this if I had reacted impulsively to the criticism being offered.

My point is- criticism can either be debilitating or it can be constructive. It can crush you or it can make your manuscript better. It can make you weak or it can make you strong. My advice to new writers? Choose the latter.


  1. Great advice! I like it when the "bad" guys are relatable. (Of course, I'm also a fan of Boyd Crowder.) In real life, no one is all good or all bad and it should be the same in fiction. Complicated characters make for a compelling read. This new story of yours sounds like it's going to be right up my alley. :-)

  2. I'm glad you were able to get something useful out of the criticism. In screenwriting, there's a saying called "Save the cat." It means that no one's all good or all bad, but if your main character is bad, you have to make the audience able to relate to him/her by finding something redeeming about them. (i.e. a seen where they save a cat). Good advice!

    1. "Save the cat"- I LOVE this! Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. I thought I posted a comment yesterday. Guess I was interrupted or something after reading this. Your comments are dead on. It takes a thick skin to become a writer and you die each time you send something out for review. But you have to listen to the reader, and, if the points are well taken, adapt or adjust your style accordingly. Remember your purpose is to have your stuff widely read.

  4. I agree completely. And I think that part of the process of maturing as a writer is developing a healthy attitude towards criticism. I won't say that it doesn't sting at times- no one likes rejection- but I usually think there's something to be learned from every situation and it's important to look for it if you can. ;)

  5. Very insightful. There's no question that in our real word there is no black and white, heroes and villains don't come wearing appropriate attire. Good and evil are as predictable as next months weather. Most characters are most realistically shades of gray-objects in need of great scrutiny. If only we dedicated the time to evaluate and understand.

  6. This is such great advice and insight for new writers. There are many things newbies have to learn through trial and error- making stepping out on faith scary- but with guidance like this, it seems bearable!


Thanks for your comments!