A Perspective on Cataclysmic Criticism

We’ve all been there, felt that.  We’ve finished something that we’ve poured our souls into.  Spilled enough blood on it to warrant a transfusion.  

We wait.  We toss and turn.  It’s in the hands of someone who needs to love it – an agent, an editor, a trusted friend.

Or worse, your proofreading significant other.  Who is almost always right.

And then it happens. 

It totally sucks.

That’s not what they’ll say, of course. 

No, it’ll sound more like, “we have to talk.”  There are major problems.  It’s just not working.  Tell me what you were thinking here.

What were you thinking? 

Well, that it was the best you had in you.  That it would launch your Big Career.  That it would make someone at the New York Times Review of Books want your phone number.  And that, while you are welcoming of feedback and expected to hear some stuff, you weren’t expecting a one-way ticket under the bus.

The news hits hard.  Like, an IRS audit kind of hard.  Like, maybe I’m kidding myself kind of hard.

But here’s the deal. 

It might not be that bad. 

Even if the critic is someone with more chops and credibility than Kirkus or Gene Siskel.

Really.  It happens all the time.  It’s really not that bad at all.

In my experience, critics need to justify themselves.  They need to criticize.  And, they have buttons that, if pushed, allow for no recovery.

It’s not that they’re wrong, in fact they usually aren’t.  But what happens is when something doesn’t sit well with them, especially early in the story, the rest is rendered sour.  They can’t get past it.  Like someone from Fox News reviewing a speech at the Democratic Convention.  Nothing is going to work after that first sound-bite.

A fly in the soup might validly send someone bolting from the dinner table.  But it doesn’t mean the whole meal is a travesty, or that the recipe needs an overhaul.

It’s just a fly.  Take it out and the whole nasty “it sucks” problem goes away.

I’ve lived this little literary nightmare several times. 

A character is too flat.  The setting isn’t vivid enough.  There’s too much focus on the sex or the violence or the backstory.

Not all at once, mind you… all of these story-killing flies fluttering in the soup at once would indeed merit a stinker review.  No, these were isolated little ditties of validly criticized minutia, out-of-synch moments, poor creative calls… all easily fixed.

That’s the thing to look for when someone says a story isn’t working.  Is it true, or is it something that is easily fixed?

It’s critical that you drill down beneath the psychology – which manifests as blindness after the shocking explosion of a single moment of distaste – behind the criticism.  Is the color of the house all wrong, even though the place is otherwise an architectural palace?  Is the meal perfectly scrumptious even though it’s served on cracked china?  Is the story stellar even though the main character isn’t as witty and charming as he or she could be?  Or that they swear too much?

Maybe.

Or maybe the whole thing really does suck. 

It’s your job to make that call.

Just as it was your call to create those narrative details in the first place, it’s your job to decide what to do with such input.  It should always be considered, but it should also always be broken down and evaluated.

The total shambles that you turned in might be salvaged with a twenty-minute tweak.  That’s happened to me, too, and more than once. 

Turn a few screws, tighten down a few details, slap on a new coat of paint… and miracles can happen.  You turn it back in, all buffed up and humbled before the genius input of your critic, and you just might hear raves.

Because it was the critic who saved it.  Of course it was.

In which case, you can just smile and say thank you in the knowledge that no story is perfect out of the printer.  You don’t have to reveal that it was always just a spit-shine away from being every bit as good as you thought it was all along.

As writers we live and die with such decisions. 

Fixing what isn’teally broken can sometimes be the worst one you can make.

17 Comments

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17 Responses to A Perspective on Cataclysmic Criticism

  1. Timely. I just finished reading a review that included the sentence: “If he had continued to use figures in Greek mythlogy and not decided to make a joke out of the beliefs of many people, myself included, I would have given this book a five star review instead of a two.”

    So, because the author equated a biblical deity to Zeus, three stars were stripped, even though, in the reviewers words, “[t]his book kept me entertained and had a good plot.”

    The author, to his credit, thanked the reviewer for his feedback and changed nothing.

  2. R.E. McDermott

    This is the most insightful take on the psychology of criticism I’ve ever read. I think we’ve all been through what you described, then discovered that things weren’t quite as dire as they first appeared. Another thing that baffles me on occasion is when different readers like/dislike the same scene or plot twist. I’ve since adopted the Stephen King Rule. Consider (or at least try to consider) every comment objectively. If two or more readers make the same comment independently, REALLY look at it hard. If there are an equal number of likes/dislikes on a particular point, revert to the Baseball Rule – tie goes to the writer.

  3. I only hope I get to the point someday where I will have the opportunity to worry about what a critic may say about my book. If I get to that point, I won’t worry about the critic’s opinion. Let’s not forget that a lot of competent, well-read, influential people have to think a book is very good before it even gets into a critic’s hands. (Assuming a traditional publishing route: agent, editor, publisher, etc.)

    Also a good reason to belong to an honest critique group. I’ve gotten much worse from my best critters than any ‘official critic’ could dish out in a review. 😉

  4. @Chris – the point here is how to handle input BEFORE it’s published, which means that if you writing a manuscript and intend to show it to someone, then you are indeed in a position to have to respond to this level of critique. If you are in a critique group, then you ARE in a position to receive, perceive and handle this level of “it’s broken” input. As you say, once it’s published such feedback, petty or otherwise, doesn’t affect the story, it only affects the writer. (For example, an Amazon reviewer of my new writing book deducted “one star” because, he says, he ALWAYS does that when he sees omnicient gender referenced in the female, rather that the traditional male — such as, “after the hero recovers, she must regroup and get back in the game.” That’s ridiculous, of course… but… if such input had occured from an agent or editor, or even a critique group, and if they’d dissed the entire book because of that one thing (it happens), then it would have become a decision-point for me.) As Tony and R.E. both commented, this is a very common moment for all writers. I wish you will when that moment next arrives.

  5. Golden

    After reading your wonderful post today, I was tweeted the following story, which I think ties into your article and the human beings behind the criticisms, as well as the tenacity of writers.

    http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/How+I+Got+My+Agent+Paul+Elwork.aspx

  6. Christie Rich

    I find myself wanting more criticism than what I usually get: real honest feedback. I haven’t found that yet from a critique group. I’m still in the process of searching for a good one in my area. I want first readers to give it to me straight instead of tiptoeing around my feelings. I tell them this up front, but it doesn’t really make a difference. I ended up having to pay for that level of criticism, and, to me, it was worth it. I considered it part of my continuing education, and it is tax deductible. 😉 Having people in your life that will do it for free is a blessing from where I’m sitting.

  7. Renee

    Hi, Larry. Wow. Did this ever speak to me. So here is my question. What if you’ve become a quasi-masochist when seeking criticism? Let me explain. I am a non-formulaic romantic suspense writer and have participated in many writer groups, online and face-to-face. I have regular critique partners. My goal is to become the Amazing Hulk of romance writers, I’ll even settle for the green skin and torn clothes. So I actively seek criticism. However, I’m feeding that monster too much and my husband’s talking to a Dr. Phil producer. In the past year, I’ve become addicted to entering RWA chapter contests and to say that I regularly “bomb” is an understatement. I am the Rodney Dangerfield of romance writers. Many comment on my strong narrative voice and warned that this would tend to polarize judges. I will submit an opening to a novel and get these scores: 100, 98 and a 62. So I never place as a finalist. In some cases, I’m receiving very mediocre scores. Sometimes, judge feedback is very constructive – (I look for patterns – are they making the same observations? Are they telling me that nursing could be a fallback career?). Some of the commentary rivals political mudslinging. Some of the snark landed squarely on my solar plexus, to the point that I doubt I have a grasp of the English alphabet, much less the ability to string coherent paragraphs together. I mean, I got really bad results from one contest and even my laptop started to cry.

    To give you an idea of how striking this experience has been: I wrote a query letter and for once, trusted my gut. I didn’t send it out to my network of critique partners. I chose an agent randomly and e-mailed that puppy. Lo and behold, the agent fires a reply back within minutes, says, “This is the best query I’ve ever gotten, yes, send your book.” On a whim, I entered that same exact query letter in a RWA contest and three judges rated it: 80, 60 and a 27. Yep. 27 out of a 100. That particular judge said I needed to learn writing fundamentals.

    So I’m a little numb after all this. When do I start trusting myself as a writer? I’m trying to win everyone’s approval with my stuff – and flat-out – I can’t.

    My critique partners excel at RWA contests. They are launching their careers from this platform. They felt I’d have similar path. If anything, I feel like the kid in the Dunce cap. Over the past year, I’ve ripped apart three novels to try to place in a RWA contest and refused to submit to agents, because I felt the contests were a surefire barometer to “publishable quality.” I kept rewriting, trying to guess at what judges would like or all agree was “good,” because I felt the judges knew more than me.

    Please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not condemning the contests and I know this is a highly subjective business. It’s a tough, sometimes grueling, business of opinions. William Goldman had it right – “nobody knows anything.”

    As a contrast, a friend of mine who writes award-winning YA and has a powerhouse voice, (we exchange short stories every month, so she’s a CP, too) – she told me she’d fare poorly in the contests, too. She told me it is “self-esteem shredding.” I fear I’m a contest junkie and have become self-flagellating in the process… I won’t submit to agents yet, because some of the judges say I need a lot of work. So who is right? Do I trust my own instincts and face the reality that I’ll always polarize the judges, no matter what I write? Or should I make my debut on Dr. Phil next week?

    I did buy your “Story Engineering” book, by the way. It’s fantastic! I’m a pantser and the story architecture section – incredible.

  8. Larry! Your timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I just read my review from Publisher’s Weekly on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. I made it to the quarter-finals, but got cut before the semi-finals. And the review…well, at the moment it stings. I want to find what I can learn from it so that I can thank my reviewer. Thanks for the encouragement to head that direction.

  9. This is so true. The review can cause two opposite outcomes. The determiner of which occurs is, I beleive, in direct relation to the confidence of the author.

    I find I have to work through my fear first – then I’m able to dig through what the person is saying to what they really mean – and it’s often well disguised!

    But it’s always worth the effort. At the center is a valid point, no matter how well buried.

  10. We must also consider the source of the critisism. If Joe Jake says it’s a piece of cow pie, the critique is meaningless because who is Joe Jake? If 10 Joe Jakes say essentially the same thing, it’s a maybe.

    Generalities don’t cut it and should be ignored. “I didn’t like it” is not a critique. “I loved it” is also nebulous. You might keep some general tally points on these.

    If Jason Scot Card drops you an email saying, “The middle seems a bit flat,” then you might really take it to heart.

    If the critic is a pantser and you’re a story engineer, you immediately have a mismatch in the ability to communicate.

    Some critics will do personal attacks. “Must be a Nazi, look at that invasion.” Or, “Gotta be a pervert. Only perverts allow dogs in the house.” These can be completely ignored; the critic himself is probably committing the same crimes of which he is accusing you.

    A major distinction is between critique of the Craft and critique of the Art/Creativity. You can take Craft critiques under advisement, but never, ever permit critique of your Creativity to even register. There’s some fine lines there; Concept is a Craft competency, but relies almost entirely on your Creativity. All the Six Core Competencies require Creativity to work.

    As Larry pointed out, there might be some valid points in most critiques. Access them by Craft/Art or by generalities and treat them accordingly.

    You can be critiqued to death, too. If you bounce around re-writing in response to every “honest” critique, you’ll end up with nothing and will ship nothing.

    Get your Craft right enough and whatever artistic talent you do have will come through. Without sufficient Craft, no amount of Art/Creativity will make your work worthwhile. You can be the poor, starving, misunderstood artist if you wish, but the only ones who will wade through your work is you and maybe your current lover.

    Go write something great and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

  11. Rejection sucks, but I’m always grateful when an editor or reader gives an actual reason. Sometimes, a piece isn’t a good fit for the publication – doesn’t mean the writing’s bad. But as you point out, sometimes there is a glaring flaw that you and/or your critique partner didn’t catch. I’m always happy to have it pointed out. Sometimes, after some thought, I agree, and set about a rewrite. Sometimes I disagree, and pass it around for more readers to evaluate. But I think it’s always a good thing to go back and look at your writing through someone else’s eyes.

  12. nancy

    Thanks for this. I’ve just sent a copy to my proofreading significant other. It will help both of us when he comes to that place on page one, where I have used, for example, ‘compelled’ instead of ‘coerced,’ and he moans deep in his throat, “Oh, no. Look at this. You just don’t have the vocabulary to write for adults. Why don’t you try children’s literature.”

    Well, now, marriage saved. You’ve done a good day’s work, Larry.

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  14. Thank you also for taking the time to provide constructive criticism of the survey in the margins of the page. I sympathize with your struggle to decide which response best describes your experience. Sometimes you feel torn between two options. Sometimes you feel that two or more options apply to you, and sometimes none of the options seems quite right. I understand that life is complicated, and that the breadth and nuance of human experience cannot be captured in a multiple choice survey.

  15. As always, nail on the head. I’m just now dealing with my first “Amazon” reviews, all positive, but really interesting when you see how others perceive your work. Thanks for helping me deal with it.

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