You signed up to be a writer. But the fine print it says: you will occasionally be eviscerated by someone who doesn’t like or appreciate your work. It’s part of the deal.
Feedback can be a real gift. Or, it can squash you.
Part of moving forward in this game is recognizing what to let in and what to… regard carefully and perhaps take lightly. Somewhere between believing-in-yourself and I-don’t really-know-if-this-is-any-good there resides a healthy middle ground. It can years to find, and even more years to find the strength to live there.
A good writer friend of mine recently landed an agent with a speculative novel.
I’d been a sounding board for her early in the story-search process, and she’s been a staunch advocate for my story development model, which she says helped her get it right. She believed in the story, and so did I. It was a great concept.
Her critique group… not so much. They didn’t respond to it — some were actually put-off by it — at the conceptual/outlining phase. Too risky, they said. Didn’t get it, they said. Offends traditional sensibilities, some said.
She didn’t listen. Oh, she heard them, and it stung. Caused her a moment of doubt, too. But she believed in herself, and she believed me when I said not only that she should go for it, but the concept was absolutely stellar… for those same reasons the nay-sayers were laying on her.
In essence, they weren’t — and would never be — the target audience for the novel she had in mind.
So she chose what to hear and what to respond to. She didn’t let the criticism block the process or her vision for the outcome. And now… she’s on the cusp of the dream coming true.
Here are a few guidelines and truisms for weighing criticism:
The broader and more general it is — depending on the source — the more valuable it is.
Conversely, the more moment-specific it is (down to and including nit-picking of specifics and minutea), the more craft-focused it is, the more you need to filter it before you decide on it.
Consider the source of the input. Non-writers can provide very useful feedback, because usually their criticisms are at the highest level. But again, they may or may not be familiar with your genre, and if it’s a treatment or just an idea you’re pitching, that’s hard to sell to any listener because the proof is always in the execution. Which was the case with my friend’s novel.
Back in the day, my first agents told me that my idea to adapt one of my screenplays into a novel wasn’t a good one. I didn’t listen. I believed. A year later the book was on the USA Today bestseller list.
We are never in control of what’s said to us… but we are always in control of how we respond to it. The trade off between self-belief and feedback is tricky, it’s a skill-set you need to cultivate along with your writing chops.
As for other writers and especially critique groups (remember, their mission is to find something to criticize… they feel they’re failing you, or being lame, if they can’t find something to pick on), so be very careful. Their cautionary feedback could simply mean they would have made different choices about specific things.
Might be right, might be wrong. Consider the source, the context, the big picture, and trust your gut. Then move forward.
But if an agent says it’s too slow… don’t argue. It’s too slow.
Separate the moment-specific from the story-specific. If someone doesn’t like the way a character talks… okay, they don’t get it. But if they feel the story takes too long to kick into gear… that could be golden. Pay particular attention to that level of input.
When someone says, “it’s not really my thing,” say thank you and move on without a second thought.
Here’s the type of constructive feedback you should be listening for:
It didn’t hook me. Kinda slow. Found it hard to root for your hero. It was confusing, wasn’t sure what was going on. Over-written. Too many characters. Too much description. Too vanilla, I’ve read this before. Flat characters.
Even… “I dunno… the idea was okay… but it just… I dunno… it just didn’t work for me.” If that comes from an agent or editor, pay closer attention than if it comes from someone you know.
Notice how these are all big-picture, story-level issues. They’re trying to tell you the novel doesn’t work as well as it could, or should.
The higher the level of the critic, the more you should listen.
What you need to weigh carefully are little nits and opinions that really don’t affect the story at all.
When this input arrives, you can be sure it comes from one of two places, maybe a combination both: the critic is genuinely trying to help… or the critic is trying to sound like they know better. And possibly a third… the critic doesn’t know.
Nobody really knows. Every first-novel bestseller in history has a bloody trail of rejections leading from the writer’s house to the bank.
Criticism is out there. Always has been, always will be. Sometimes the stuff you hear after you publish it is the most hurtful of all. Even if it’s too late.
Try this: think, plan, listen, decide, commit, write, listen, respond accordingly.
You read the October series, now you can get it and the linked content — plus the entire novel, “Bait and Switch” for use as reference and example — in one 300-plus volume of chewy go0dness… as useful in the other 11 months as it is during November.
And, if you’d like to know how that happened so fast…
… and think you’d like to publish your own ebook, click the “Author 2.0” button on the far right (bottom) column of this site. It’s a multi-media training program on how to get it done, even without really knowing what you’re doing where tech stuff is concerned. An invaluable resource if this is where you’re heading.