Posts Tagged when to get criticism
I am at a nail-biting time. I’ve just sent the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, to its first critical readers in the outside world. Soon I’ll receive their notes.
I’ve been through this process many times, obviously. I know roughly what to expect – both from my own experience and my experience mentoring and editing. It’s inevitable that:
- some parts will be overcooked
- some will be undercooked
- and hopefully some are just right.
After six years working on this novel, I’m eager for comments so I can finish it properly. But that anticipation also comes with trepidation. I’m a perfectionist and I hate delivering a less-than-perfect performance. This first reading is a thoroughly necessary process for any writer, but also a nerve-racking one. Do we ever get used to it?
I asked a few author friends how they handle this sensitive time.
Carol Lovekin @CarolLovekin is the author of three Welsh Gothic novels, Ghostbird, Snow Sisters and, most recently, Wild Spinning Girls. Like me, she’s a writer who takes her time, excavating a book to find the real bedrock of the story – as she described in this wonderful blogpost.
‘My first experience of structural edit feedback was brutal reality disguised in kindness. One of the things my first editor told me was, ‘Your writing is lovely; the problem is, there’s too much lovely.’ In other words, we’re dumping a lot of this. Descriptive writing is my forte. It felt utterly heartless. Once the edit was done however, I barely recalled those passages I’d sworn were my ‘best bits’ and the result was mind-blowing. Janet encouraged me to defend my words when it felt essential, and crucially, when to acquiesce and trust her wisdom. She taught me how to be a better writer and I return to her training over and again, specifically to that comment about the ‘lovely’. You will do your best editing when you draw on the criticism, good and bad, from previous books. It’s a privilege to be asked to rewrite until you bleed superfluous words.’
Find Carol here.
Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin is a novelist, memoirist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, artist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. You might recognise him from this recent interview.
‘These days, I’m happy to be read closely by anyone, and realized that to have any reading, let alone one that is close and careful and comes with thoughtful responses however critical, is a gift. Yes, praise feels good, but so does respectful and constructive criticism, even when the criticism is large or global, still, I see it as a gift: someone has given me and my work their time and effort. The only thing that upsets me is when someone asks to read a manuscript of mine and then says nothing, or worse, doesn’t read it. This is, to my mind, an unpardonable sin to commit against a writer (especially when committed by a fellow writer, who of all people should know better). I can’t imagine having an author send me their work and then ignoring it or letting it sit for weeks and months. Of all responses we can possibly get to our works, none is crueller, more damning than silence. The silence says (my translation): your work is so egregious I cannot bring myself to comment, or worse: I could not bring myself to read beyond a few pages; or worse still: I didn’t bother to read your work at all, having anticipated its badness. For me, a verdict of, “I read every word of your [book/story/essay] and suffered greatly each one” is preferable to silence. Well, I’d say to myself, —at least they read it!
Find Peter here.
Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler is the author of the memoir The Skin Above My Knee and the novel Pickle’s Progress. (You might remember she wrote an Undercover Soundtrack about her memoir.) Now in the final stages of edits to her second novel, Oslo, Maine, due out in March 2021, she says her process for getting reader feedback has changed.
‘I’m much more selective about readers in general and because of this I tend to show my work less and less. Most importantly, I trust myself more. I’ve realized I don’t need a lot of people to put eyes on my writing. But those who do, I select carefully.
‘In January I sent this novel to three people. Two were authors who have published numerous novels. This fact of being published is important because they’re wise to both what a book “should be” and the winds of the industry. The third was a dear friend I’ve known for 40 years who reads a ton. I knew he would be honest and thoroughly professional with me. They all came back with written comments. I also had conversations with all; one talk was lengthy.
‘The main thing I look for is consensus on what is not working. Confusion in the plot. Timelines that need correcting. Characters not nuanced enough. Things like that. If two of the three mention the same problem, I know it is real and must be addressed. Happily, all of them said it was 90% there, which of course, is lovely to hear. However, I don’t in any way take praise as a reason to relax. Praise simply means I’m on the right track. I have since gutted the thing. The plot is the same, but I have changed literally every sentence and even some character arcs. I’ll continue to work intensively until submission. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the course of three books. I try to get my novel in as complete a version as humanly possible when I submit to the publisher. Then his or her edit suggestions tend not to be as heart crushing. (Been there.)
Find Marcia here.
Mat Osman @matosman is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are still touring, and he’s now published a debut novel, The Ruins. He says his background as a musician prepared him well for editorial comments.
‘As a musician you’re entirely used to the idea of collaborative art. Albums are made by a group of people, constantly altering and improving and rewriting and trying things different ways. I found with the novel that I actually missed that feedback. I think I came to the editing in a completely different state of mind from most authors. Musicians (and especially producers) can be pretty brutal so I’m used to being told ‘God, that was absolutely useless, try it again without the boxing gloves on’. So an editor saying ‘We need to make these cuts and changes to make it read better’ feels very unthreatening to me. I have a friend who is a film editor and it’s a fascinating process to watch – they cut and cut and cut until everything that’s left is doing a job.
Find Mat here. Pic by Theo McInnes.
Claire Fuller @ClaireFuller2 is a novelist and short fiction writer. Her longform works are Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange.
Now on her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, she uses a writing group for feedback as she goes.
‘I share parts of the novel I’m working on every month. That does make sharing the whole novel easier because I’m used to getting feedback. Two or three friends from that group will read the whole novel, and before I send it to my literary agent. (And I’ll read theirs when they’re ready.) When their comments come back, I always feel a moment of anxiety – what if they hate it? But of course the comments are always mixed: some bits are working, other bits not. Then I have to let the comments sit for a day or two to digest them and let my emotions calm before I can look at them dispassionately and decide which ones I want to act on.
‘My agent is my second reader, and we usually meet for lunch to go through what she thought. If she books somewhere nice, sometimes I’ll think she must be happy with it, or if I’m feeling particularly insecure (when aren’t writers insecure?), I’ll worry that she’s taking me there to break the bad news! It’s never as bad as I think, and actually I like editing more than writing first drafts, so I’m happy to get feedback.
Find Claire here.
As Claire says, it’s never as bad as we think. And her point leads me to a final tip.
To get into the criticism-improving frame of mind, I decided to reread the feedback I had for Not Quite Lost, my last book. I meant to re-appreciate how helpful it was, how it showed directions I’d never otherwise have noticed. (Like Marcia, I gutted the book again afterwards. I’m a very thorough self-editor.) In so doing, I made an important discovery. In my memory, one reader found a big flaw, and I recall feeling embarrassed, because I’d made her read a misconceived mess. Now, reading her email again, I realised she was praising most of the book. At the time, I hardly saw. So that’s my tip. If you have been through this process before, dig out the critical reports you received on previous books. You’ll see how helpful they were – and you also might be surprised that they were positive and supportive too.
I’m still biting my nails, though. Wish me luck.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’d like to know more about my creative life, including the full Richter scale of collywobbles about letting my manuscript loose, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Have you ever had this type of comment in feedback?
‘You’re grasping for a strong thematic purpose. The characters’ actions and the plot are full of significance. Somewhere there’s a strong message. But it’s too abstract or muddied to come through.’
If so, this concept might help. It’s borrowed from writing instructor Lynn Steger Strong, and described in this article in Catapult. Think of your work in two phases – the writer phase and the reader phase.
What might that mean and how might it be useful?
First, an interpretation.
The writer phase
This is the dreaming draft, the phase where you splurge everything you have, go exploring, invent your socks off, have dinner with your characters, test their mettle, immerse in your settings and themes, storm your brains. You figure out what you mean, what you’ll have happen, what you understand.
The reader phase
This second half is where you sell it to the reader. If the first phase took place behind closed doors, here’s where you think about all those eyes and brains seeking a connection with you and your work. For this, you need to make a mental shift. Get ruthless and assess every moment of the story on its own terms. For you, the text is already thrumming with meaning and richness. But will the reader get it?
In the reader phase, that is your quest.
Again, how might it be useful?
You need both phases. Why? Because you can’t explore and refine at the same time. If you do, you’ll shortchange the book. You won’t mine its full potential because you’ll be thinking with your critical hat, wondering what a reader would make of it. And if you don’t switch the other way and ask yourself, am I making sense, you might have a muddled mess. One mode is the accelerator and one is the brake. And we all know not to press both at the same time.
So that means there are a few crucial differences in how you approach the two halves.
Mindset for writer phase
Be fearlessly inventive. Every idea is precious, rich and worth exploring.
Don’t invite critical feedback except on isolated points. Eg to solve specific plot problems, or to find story models that suggest useful structures or character functions. For instance, if you want a downbeat ending, you might want to look for other books that made it work. Meanwhile, keep the bulk of the book to yourself. Lock the doors and simmer.
Mindset for reader phase
Playtime is over. You have a duty to your audience. In phase 1 you were fearlessly inventive. Now you must be fearlessly adapatable. The more you question what serves the reader, the better your book will be. Do you have enough context? Often a manuscript is obscure because the writer hasn’t let us understand why certain plot events are important.
Here’s another essential of the reader phase. You must be prepared to make drastic change. Think like a vandal. The lines you gave to one character might be much better if said by another. A scene might be better in another point of view, or later in the book, or used as back story.
This means a lot of precious material might have to die, and you’ll find yourself resisting. If so, examine why. There are usually two reasons-
- You’ll steer the book wrong, perhaps with a tone you don’t want or an issue you’re not interested in. (This is a good reason to reject a change.)
- The change will cause a lot of difficult unpicking, or stop you using other fascinating bits. Ahem. In the reader phase, nothing is sacred. All is material.
This is the stage where you seek critical feedback. Indeed, if you’ve successfully switched to the reader mindset, you’ll welcome every glitch they find – because it supports your mission to find everything that doesn’t work. And here’s the real strength of this approach – switching to the reader mindset makes revision much more positive.
The writer’s journey and the reader’s journey
Lynn Steger Strong talks about the length of a journey. The writer takes a long journey to create the book. We’re inventing, looking for sense, patterns, resonance, pivot moments, grace and charm. The reader, though, needs to get there instantly. Taking them there is the challenge.
Thanks for the pic Joao Trindade
Let’s discuss! Do you find your mind works differently when writing and revising? Have you received feedback that said your book was too muddled or obscure? How did you tackle it?