“Great Personality” Stories & Taking Criticism Gracefully
I'm thinking hard-core about feedback lately. I love it when I can give other writers feedback, and I love getting it on my work, too. But there's one tricky thing about it that I'm pretty sure makes everyone nervous: the critique.
You know its ugly, wart-covered face as well as I do, writer buds. We slave away on a story for God knows how long, we're SO proud of the shiny thing when it's done, and then we pass it along to our beta readers/CPs for some feedback, which we just KNOW is going to be glowing from top to bottom...
...but then it isn't. -Le sigh- What did we do wrong? Does it just need some good rewriting and editing, or are we wasting our time writing in the first place???
It’s okay, first of all. We’ve all been there! And chances are, you're not wasting your time. I believe writing is a muscle, and like any other muscle, enough exercise will get you where you want to be as long as you stick with it. But that doesn't mean there aren't growing pains along the way, and every single story that has ever existed (don't care who you are) has those aplenty before it becomes a sexy swimsuit model (LOL).
“Okay then,” you say next, “then what’s wrong with my story? Why is the feedback so negative?” That’s definitely the better question here.
If you have to spend time convincing every reader that your story has “a really great personality” to its credit, you’ve got a problem. Unfortunately, when a reader picks up a novel, they inherently become a thirsty 22-year-old on a blind date. They start off shallow, looking for something to attract them, a spark. So the first impression is crucial, y’all. It’s going to make or break the rest of their relationship with your book, and it sounds like your novel’s first impression isn’t...impressive. You have to draw the reader in quickly, right off the bat, and KEEP their attention, or else your book is a goner because they’re eventually going to put it down and not pick it back up. Yep--your story is gonna get ghosted by the reader. (And how often do we go out on a second date after the first one is bad?) I think this is something we writers all know has to happen--but just like with a real blind date, how the heck do we give them the spark? And how do we keep sparking so they can fall in love with us?!
Friends, that is the ultimate goal, isn’t it? You want your readers to fall in love with your story. And if something is standing in the way of that, you need to get to the bottom of it. Though let’s be clear: if there are only one or two critics, yet everyone else loves the story, that’s clearly a matter of just being a poor reader/novel match. But when it’s basically everyone…? Sadly, you have an undesirable book on your hands. Would somebody out there in the universe like it? Probably. But the market is not saturated with these one-in-a-million diamonds in the rough. Your book needs to appeal to the masses, which means you gotta get to work to make your novel pretty and polished like Miss America!
And do you want to know one great way to do that? LISTEN TO YOUR CRITICS, ayyy! I don’t mean letting their negative comments bounce around in your head all the time, weighing on you and making you feel too paralyzed with fear to write. But do take their criticisms and really consider them. Randy Ingermanson says, “You should never pay any attention to what your mother says about your writing, or what anyone who loves you says about your writing, because all those people are liars.” That may sting a little, but it’s true. Your critics (usually) have nothing to gain by telling you what bothers them about your story, so try to remember that such transparency is meant to help you. And for real, guys...We creatives should ALWAYS take critiques back to the drawing board, otherwise what’s the point of asking for feedback in the first place? If you think you know everything, then hit Publish already! And probably watch zero people buy your book. But hey, that’s not anyone’s problem except yours, and you’d have no one to blame but yourself. #sorrynotsorry
So, say you’re going to take my advice and hear your critics out. How does one sift through the criticisms, sorting the good from the bad? Here’s what I have learned works for me:
Consider the Source
Is this person someone who knows what they’re talking about? Are they part of my ideal audience? Are they bossing my writing around, or just being truthful in saying what stuff didn’t do it for them? Neil Gaiman famously said, “Remember, when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” I find that to be a good rule of thumb.
Chew on the criticisms
Realllly masticate those brutal words! Swirl ‘em around in your mouth for a few days or weeks, and ask yourself if what they're saying has merit, even if it doesn't taste good to you. Just because it doesn't taste good doesn't mean it's not healthy for you to eat it. Which leads me to…
Trust your instincts
Can you tell that the critic is being painfully honest about how they felt, and it’s not that what they are saying is WRONG...just that you don’t want to hear it because it hurts? My instincts usually rear their head here and go, “Uh huh, you know this is true. Suck it, ego!” But on the flipside of that, sometimes my instincts tell me the opposite― “This person means well, but I know what they’re suggesting isn’t going to work for me and my style, or for this particular story in this particular genre,” or whatever. Those instincts are often on the right track; though I typically find one or two (different) people to bounce these points off of, just to see if the hesitancy is me standing in my own way or not.
That’s pretty much it! It’s taken me a long time to learn these lessons, and to find this balance. I hope it helps you as much as it’s helped me. Criticism is never easy to take, though, and I do want to articulate that. It’s been a real roller-coaster ride for me to learn that it’s just par for the course when it comes to writing (or anything creative that you’re gonna show people). Fun story (just so you know I’m not pulling your leg), I once took a creative writing class in college, and I remember a time when the assignment was to write a story’s first line, and then the class gave critiques to every sentence one at a time. When they came to mine, it was ripped to shreds. I self-righteously defended every grammatical and literary choice I made in constructing it, and yet at the end of my turn, I could see in my classmates’ (and even my instructor’s) faces that they had written me off as “unreasonable”. And it wasn’t until years later after the publication of my first novella that I realized something about that experience: the second after my turn was over, no one else in the room cared about that sentence except for me. They. Did. Not. Care. And that’s just the way things are! I was fighting tooth and nail for my idealism, determined that my precious sentence was exactly what it needed to be. And all the while, a room full of people were telling me why it didn’t work for them, and I refused to listen because I thought I knew better. Bottom line? I could learn a thing or two from listening to others. Take what they say with a grain of salt and make my own decisions from there, yes, but don’t just stubbornly write off every opinion that contradicts my own. So, yeah, that moment in class was a belated lesson in humility. My writing isn’t perfect, and it’s never going to be. And I’ll let you in on a “secret”: the same goes for you. And Stephen King, and James Patterson, and Sophie Kinsella, and Sarah J. Maas, and...the list goes on. You get it.
Even if you’re a holy-guacamole good writer who will be celebrated for generations to come, you’re still likely to receive your fair share of criticism, rejection, and possibly cruel mockery before you get there. It’s all part of the journey! So take criticism with grace, and with careful consideration. Don’t be a sellout, but don’t be a pig-headed, impudent butthole, either. Strike a balance, and keep writing.
Do you have any of your own suggestions for how to take writing criticism? What about words of wisdom for the “great personality stories” out there? Tell me in the comments.
Stay tuned, as I'll be posting next time about the equally unpleasant other end of the see-saw: being on the giving end of criticism.