Keep the faith: a mindset to put criticism in perspective… and a tip to stay inspired through multiple revisions

guardKeep the faith Nail Your NovelThe students at my Guardian masterclasses always keep me on my toes with great questions and suggestions. (I teach advanced self-editing for fiction writers aka ‘put your book through the wringer and feel great afterwards’.) Here’s a discussion that I thought was too good to keep to ourselves.

Question: how to take criticism
One writer remarked that she found it deeply painful to receive criticism about her work. Not because she thought she didn’t need it. She keenly appreciated that a perceptive critical appraisal would be full of helpful pointers. She would act on its suggestions.

But still she could never escape this gut-level reaction: this darn well hurts.

As an author who can agonise for years over a manuscript, I never forget what it costs. A long game of stubborn persistence, scrunched drafts, discipline and self-belief. This, I think, is why the criticism is so painful – because it seems to disregard that epic effort. But even if the book isn’t yet perfect, the glitches found in a critique are minor in quantity if you compare them with the work already done. A critique shouldn’t be seen as invalidation of your investment in the book, or an indication that you’re not fit to be in charge of it. You know you built it from many careful decisions. A critique is the final piece of help to allow you to complete that work.

(You might also like this post – Why your editor admires you. )

Question: how to stay inspired through multiple revisions
So the theme of the day was persistence. Many drafts, lots of graft, honing until your eyes cross. But how, one writer asked, do we keep hold of our vision and stay the distance?

I talked about The Undercover Soundtrack. Of course I did; you know that’s my thing. One student countered with a delightful variation. She collected album covers for inspiration, for promises of ideas and worlds and characters. Isn’t that divine?

Most beautiful album covers Nail Your Novel

That crossed a dream; afternoons in Camden’s Record & Tape Exchange, enthralled by the track listings of albums, though just as often, the songs couldn’t live up to my hopes. Ah well. (These do, though; from Jonsi. )

Jonsi Nail Your Novel

This is what we need over the long period of writing and editing. We need ways to refresh our excitement and anticipation, our belief that the book is worth persisting with until it fulfils our hopes.

nyn1 reboot ebook bigger(BTW, if you need handholding there’s plenty in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.  Or there’s my Guardian self-editing bootcamp.)

So I’ll end with two questions. How do you take criticism, deep in your heart of hearts? Have you developed coping mechanisms and what are they? And how do you keep your inspiration through multiple drafts?

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  1. #1 by RSGullett on February 7, 2016 - 3:48 pm

    Great advice and encouragement. Staying the course.

  2. #3 by Teddi Deppner on February 7, 2016 - 3:54 pm

    Criticism in terms of feedback on things that don’t work I get excited about. When I can see what isn’t working, I’m relieved, because now I can fix it. Sometimes it’s challenging, when what isn’t working is subtle: like helping the reader to emotionally connect to the character.

    But the kind of criticism that makes me sad is when someone just doesn’t like the story, or when they have sweeping opinions that I don’t agree with. Then I usually feel like there’s not much I can do, because I’m not going to change my vision of the story to fit theirs. I think we all wish, deep down, that EVERYONE would love our stories. And even though I realize intellectually that not everyone will, it’s still disappointing when I encounter those for whom the story isn’t a good fit.

    As for staying excited through revisions? I need ideas! That’s exactly where I am right now. What usually keeps me going is rereading my original notes and keeping the original vision fresh in my mind. That, and a lot of stubbornness. Never gonna give up, never gonna surrender. This story WILL be realized, and it is worth the work to make it good!

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 7, 2016 - 11:50 pm

      Hi Teddi! Ah, what to do about the people who aren’t in tune with our aims… In fact we can’t do anything. Not everyone will like our work. But we have to hope to make a dazzling impression on those who should.

      As for your final paragraph – agreed! It’s always worth keeping some original material to hand to remind us of the original enthusiasm. As RS Gullet said above – it’s a long game.

  3. #5 by alloftheseprompts on February 7, 2016 - 8:32 pm

    I needed this post 🙂

  4. #7 by arhadley on February 8, 2016 - 12:33 am

    Really great post! Validating. “This, I think, is why the criticism is so painful – because it seems to disregard that epic effort.” You hit the nail on the head with that sentence. It is difficult to receive critiques at times but in the end it is a strong force that moves me forward. 🙂

  5. #9 by acflory on February 8, 2016 - 10:17 am

    Yeees…. Like the student in your post, I find all criticism/critiquing hurts and I have to really, really, really trust the person doing the critiquing. That said, I do tend to listen, and much soul searching ensues. The truly hard part, however, is when the critique is right, e.g. ‘that most readers won’t…blah blah’ but I know that I can’t eviscerate the story just to make more sales. That hurts like…. 😦

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 8, 2016 - 6:53 pm

      Hi Andrea! You’ve introduced a good word to the discussion: ‘trust’. And we could add another – ‘motivation’. What’s your critiquer trying to achieve? Are they trying to help you make the book blossom in its own right or are they thinking of a target audience? As you say, much soul-searching ensues.

      • #11 by acflory on February 9, 2016 - 11:44 am

        I’ve been very fortunate with my betas [not quite the same thing but there is trust involved] however I’ve heard stories of other writers not being so lucky. Not all critquers are…selfless in their comments.

  6. #12 by Erin Bartels on February 8, 2016 - 1:43 pm

    I think more than a decade of copywriting has helped me take criticism fairly in stride. I’m used to a lot of people picking apart my work on a micro level and so I don’t feel any personal hurt when I get criticism from others (though I might disagree with it on occasion). Probably because of those years of copywriting, I don’t actually get much feedback from beta readers or critique partners on a sentence level. I always get comments that the writing itself is lovely. It’s the big stuff–plotting and pacing–I get comments on and I’m always a little concerned about it, especially when I’ve worked on something a lot already. Sometimes it’s hard to see the alternative, even when you know something is not quite working. Time helps, but even after 6 months away from a draft, when I come back I still know it too closely to be sure that it’s not too slow or quiet here.

    • #13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 8, 2016 - 6:57 pm

      Hi Erin! Oh what a good example. And there are a lot of writers who can make a book ‘sound’ right, but can’t see the more fundamental problems. That’s why I don’t bother polishing the prose until I’ve got the underyling book structurally sound. Though it does mean it’s not remotely fit to be seen for a couple of years!

  7. #14 by DRMarvello on February 8, 2016 - 2:03 pm

    I think an important part of “keeping the faith” is having a clear vision for your story. The clearer that vision, the easier it is to assess critique. I also think it’s important to remember the purpose of critique and revision: to improve your story. The tone of critique can contribute to the pain it inflicts, but if you remember that the comments are intended to help you produce a better story, it’s easier to accept them in the spirit they were given.

    Roz asked: How do you take criticism, deep in your heart of hearts?

    Now I take it pretty well. It’s just feedback. The story is ultimately my responsibility and part of that responsibility is to carefully evaluate the critique I receive for ways it can improve my writing or my story. With my first book, I was more sensitive to the tone of the critique I received. I’ve since realized that the person offering the critique was not trying to offend me; they were expressing genuine confusion or frustration. Those emotions were valuable indicators of an issue that needed to be considered carefully.

    Roz asked: Have you developed coping mechanisms and what are they?

    My primary coping mechanism is kind of a zen thing. The story is what the story is. No one else can possibly understand my vision for it, so it’s inevitable that I’ll receive feedback that is off the mark. That said, I believe every comment potentially points to something that needs to be addressed somewhere in the story.

    It’s easy to lose track of that perspective while I’m in the throes of revision, so I have two coping mechanisms to deal with specific criticisms. I first ask myself; Do I agree? It’s my book and my vision, so I don’t have to agree with every criticism. Even when I do agree, I almost never take suggestions. If there’s an issue, I’ll fix it my way.

    If I don’t agree, I apply one more filter before moving on; Is there *anything* I can take away from this criticism? Sometimes the comment points to a problem elsewhere in the story. I may need to add a bit more setup so a scene makes sense or do a better job of character development so a reaction is believable.

    Roz asked: And how do you keep your inspiration through multiple drafts?

    That’s a tough one. I’d have to say my process is a big part of what helps me maintain inspiration. For me, revision is not an open-ended experience. I do a first draft, a second draft to tighten things up, a third draft after I receive beta feedback, and a fourth draft after I receive editor changes. I then do a final read-aloud proofreading pass. Having a consistent process means there’s always a light at the end of the revision tunnel. The process also keeps me from tweaking endlessly while giving me enough passes through the manuscript to feel confident I’ve done the best job I can at my current skill level.

    Past experience has shown that the story gets better and better with each revision pass, and that helps to inspire me, too. Now, as I’m about to publish my fifth novel, I’d say my process is what helps me keep the faith.

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 8, 2016 - 6:59 pm

      Hi Daniel! ‘My process helps me keep the faith….’ Amen, in triplicate. Yes. I know I can make the book better. I know I can keep digging at the problems and surprise myself. As you say, the more we write, the more we get fit to withstand the feedback, and the more capable we feel.

  8. #16 by Lisa Ciarfella on February 9, 2016 - 11:16 pm

    having just got out of my writing workshop today, this topic couldn’t be more timely!
    And yes, frankly, it can suck!
    Sometimes feedback it not thoughtful, can hurt, and be super discouraging. Other times, it can clarify, crystallize and help direct where you next revision should go.
    For me, I just have to wade through it on a weekly basis, taking the good and tossing the rest!


  9. #18 by phambichha on March 6, 2016 - 2:02 pm

    Reblogged this on Phambichha's Blog and commented:
    persistence is the key to receive criticisms and go through multiple revisions

  10. #19 by Alexander M Zoltai on July 10, 2016 - 3:07 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog, from Roz Morris, leads toward two critical abilities necessary to produce a book…

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