Hello Dear Readers,
Happy Tuesday. Is anyone else having as difficult a time getting back into the swing of things? All I want to do is sleep.
If you want to be a writer, one of the first things you have to do is learn how to accept criticism. Criticism is not only a fact of life for any working writer–it’s essential. Learning what you do well feels great, and can give a much-needed boost to your ego, but learning what you need to work on is much more important. If you can keep your mouth shut, stop saying “…but what I meant was….”, and really listen to what your critics have to say, your writing will vastly improve.
Not that all criticism is equally valuable–far from it. If you write enough, and especially if you have some success at it, you will encounter: people who critique just to hear themselves talk (this happens a lot in writer’s groups); know-it-all bores who use a lot of big fancy words that in the end add up to nothing; cautious beginners who spout rules from how-to-write books, not realizing that rules were made to be broken; and–worst of all–bitter wannabes who just want to take the wind out of your sails.
You don’t necessarily need to choose your critics well (although it’s a good idea), but you do need to carefully decide which criticism is worth listening to. Stephen King has said that if five critics tell you different things, ignore them all. But if all five people are saying the same thing, it may be worth paying attention to.
For the most part, I invite criticism of my work. I know it’s a sure way to improve my craft, and I wish I had more critics to turn to (while everyone may be a critic, not everyone can do it well). There are a couple of exceptions to this rule–I always get nervous before showing my work to The Boy, because he’s a self-proclaimed English geek with a master’s degree who can be brutally honest at times. He’s been nothing but enthusiastic when it comes to my writing so far, but I still get spooked. However, once he starts telling me what he likes, I get excited and I want to hear what isn’t working for him. I just need to warm up first.
The other instance that makes my hands shake is showing my work to authors who are higher up on the ladder of success. I’m always scared that one of them is going to tell me to keep my day job (however, even if they did, I wouldn’t listen. After I stopped bawling, I’d continue to write). It’s never happened, and some of the city’s most successful authors have been unfailingly kind and supportive of my work. But the initial reveal is always a nerve-wracking experience for me. I wonder if Stephen King ever feels this way. Who is Stephen King’s Stephen King?
Recently I received some criticism of the most unusual sort. A Grade Five teacher by the name of Vanessa Young-Caimol is a fan of this blog. When I wrote a post asking for opinions on how to start my novel Dragonfly Summer, she decided to open the question up to her students. They were so excited that they asked if they could write to me, and I received their heartfelt letters last week. The result is some of the most charming (and at times amusing) feedback I’ve ever received on my work.
Some of the students spent more time drawing their name on the page than actually telling me what they thought of the writing, but I can relate–I’m a big doodler, too. Some didn’t have time to say more than “I would like to give you some feedback”. But I was touched by each and every one of their honest submissions, and I will keep them forever. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share one of my favorites with you.
You could make people talk in the first one and in the 2nd one you could use some other things involved like a computer or a desk or a piece of wood and a falling garbage can that hit someone, but I like the 2nd one better because it was more detailed and it had people talking and it had more description of feel and sound and smell.
Unfortunately, that student didn’t sign his or her name. I’d like to thank Ms. Young-Caimol’s class for sharing their thoughts with me. It’s an honor that all of them took the time to tell me what they thought of my work. How many adult authors get to see their writing through the eyes of a child? While I’ve never considered adding falling garbage cans to my novels, it could be just the thing that story needs.
What was the most striking feedback you ever received? It could be the good, bad, or the ugly.
That is very sweet. There is nothing like the honesty and innocence of childhood. So wise. Naive, yet insightful.
I agree with you about criticism. You do have to be careful who you share with and who you listen to. Some people can be crushing and in the meantime, they don’t know what they are talking about.
I find I can only critique well if I feel connected with the work I am reading. If I don’t connect with it, I can’t usually say much more than, “that’s good.” Which of course isn’t helpful at all. Nor does it mean that it isn’t good… It just means I’m not the right critic.
I had many conversations with John Wiere when he was WIR at the Wpg Library a few years back and he told me about some of the horrible stuff he would receive to review. I asked him how he handled that when he actually had to meet with the person face to face, and he said he didn’t talk about the work, he just talked to them about writing. Critique should NEVER ever tell you to stop writing. Everyone who wants to write should write. (Just like everyone who wants to sing should sing — although some of us should stick to car or shower singing.)
The best complement I ever received was from Manitoba writer Robert Kroetsch. He came up to me specificially after my post class reading and told me there was a real spark to my writing. I still think about that…. especially because he said it about a piece of my second novel… the one that I don’t often show to people.
What a wonderful idea to have her students partake in this Holli! This just made me smile!
The worst feedback I got was from someone I thought respected my writing but really only respected people who wrote like she wished she could – everything got the red pen not for any other reason than, “that’s not how I’d write it'” Needless to say, that person doesn’t get to critique anymore 🙂
The best was from a friend who doesn’t write but is an avid and critical reader – he doesn’t like many books or authors because he has very high standards for quality. I was a bit scared to send him my early chapters of Three Quarter Down, but when I got his email I was stunned. It said, simply: I WANT MORE! Then he gave me some more feedback in another email, after a second read. That was worth gold.
If you ever need another reader, let me know!
I love the comments you got from the class. They’re brilliant!
As for striking criticism I’ve received… One of the most memorable was from a co-worker many jobs ago. I’m a horrible singer, but even thought I knew that, I still used to sing all the time. I never knew what made me a bad singer, just that the words coming out of my mouth (“notes” is too generous a term for them) sounded nothing like the music I could hear in my head. I asked people if they could identify anything specific I could work on, and finally that co-worker said, “All your notes sound the same. It’s like you’re singing all those different words with the same note.”
That was a revelation to me. In my head I could hear symphonies of sound, all in perfect tune, but that wasn’t translating into my singing. I was stuck on a few notes without any sense of tonal range.
I’d like to say that I went on to become a world-class singer, but the truth is I still suck on pretty much the same level now as I did then. But I’ll always appreciate her honest criticism.
Thanks for your wonderful, insightful comments, everyone.
@ Kim – I think Wiere was on to something, but not everyone is that kind. And most people can tell if a critique really means “don’t quit your day job” – at least, I think I could. I’m always relieved when my writing friends say otherwise, even though the opinion that counts most should be my own.
@ MM – Who could ask for more than a simple request for more? It is indeed a compliment of the highest order. And don’t worry about the “that’s not how I would write it” – I think we’ve all come across one of those. In that case, it’s clearly not you – it’s her.
@ Chris – I love to sing, too, but I hesitate to sing in public (unless I’m in a choir) because I’m afraid to find out that my voice doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the one I hear in my head. I admire your courage to sing regardless, just because you love to do it and it gives you joy. When it incites a homicidal rage in your listener, it’s the choice of song, not the way it’s being sung. 🙂