Taking critique like a pro

April 23, 2012

"Too early to give up my day job?"

In our line of business, it seems our lives center on offering critiques – during the editing process with our authors, advanced readings at writer’s conferences, reading pages with queries – and we can never be certain how the other person is going to react. I think a lot of it has to do with trust.

If you’re sitting across from an editor at a writer’s conference who has only read 25 pages, do you trust them? Do you believe their crits are valid? What about a writer’s board where you post your work…do you trust those who read and offer their comments?

More importantly – are you willing to listen, even if the critique isn’t what you’d expected?

Defense Mode

It’s scary to dangle your big toe in the water and finding the temperature is freezy cold, knowing that you’re going to have to jump in anyway. The first thing your body does is go into defense mode in order to keep you warm. Listening to someone critique your work is a lot like that, and I have to say that if I have the choice of working with in full blown Defense Mode and getting run over by a bus – I may opt for the bus.

It’s hard delivering unhappy news, and few enjoy the prospect of sitting across the table from someone while you comment on the character development, writing style, or the pacing. The Defense Mode makes life sheer hell for both parties. I can see it in their face and body language. They go all stiff, and almost rear back with every little point I bring up.

Many years ago, I had a writer get quite verbal about being critiqued. She interrupted me and spat out that no one had EVER geven her writing anything other than laudatory reviews, and I MUST be brain dead. Taken aback, I reminded her that my opinion is simply that – an opinion – and that it was her decision to listen to what an experienced editor has to say, or she could leave. She packed up her things and blew out of there in a huff.

Wow. She paid $50 to storm out. Guess she showed me.

If you go into Defense Mode, then how can you possibly learn? The point is to listen, not defend. When you defend, you close your ears to all the valuable nuggets. Seems counterproductive to me.

If you’re asking for crits and spend your time defending why those crits are wrong, then people will wonder why you bothered asking in the first place.

Your Writing Doesn’t Come From the Hands of the Great Cosmic Muffin

I’m just thinking out loud here, but do those who are defensive believe their writing is perfect and needs no critique other than high praise? I’ve seen this aberration, too. Writers believe their writing is a direct gift from the Cosmic Muffin, and they pay for a conference critique in order to fight off the contract offers. And no one is more shocked than the author when this doesn’t happen.

Pardonez-moi? My writing ISN’T perfect? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? Yeah, seen it. Here’s the thing, I’d be willing to bet that Mrs. Cosmic Muffin would agree that her Husband needs editing. Everyone does. I’ve read authors for years whose writing declined and it’s because they are so big that they can insist that no editing be done. As a result, I quit reading their books until they developed some humility.

Being humble means that you acknowledge your human-ness and imperfections, and are willing to listen to an unbiased critique.

Crits Aren’t Personal Attacks

No one is out to get you when they offer their comments on your work, and you should honor the fact that people have taken the time to read, absorb, and write a thoughtful critique on what they feel does and doesn’t work.

OK, let me backtrack a second. MOST crits aren’t personal attacks. I’m sure we all know folks who are so insecure that they purposely attack someone’s writing in order to make themselves feel better. They’re jealous, petty little things who should be soundly thumped. A personal attack disparages you, not your writing. Or their crits may be so achingly paltry and shallow that they have no meaning.

An example of this happened with one of our books. A section of the book was very controversial, as was our intent because the issue needed to be recognized and discussed. We warned the author that he may be attacked, and he was fully prepared. The majority of the reviews were very powerful, but there were a few that disparaged the author for his choices and offered zip on the book itself. Those were personal attacks. Thankfully, these sorry folks are in the minority.

We all have varying degrees of suckosity, and wouldn’t you rather hear it now than read it in a Kirkus review?  You aren’t perfect – no one is – so bless those who take the time to bring your writing out of the heavens and more down to earth…where reality resides.

If you appreciate that the intent of a critique is to HELP, not attack, you won’t feel the need to be defensive.

What to Use, What to Lose?

Getting crits can be like the beagle in a bar. She sees all those bottles of booze lined up against the mirror and goes into overload because she can’t decide which one to pick. Crits are like that, too. You can get so many crits that say so many things, and you’re on overload trying to figure out what to use and what to lose.

Does It Resonate:  The first thing you must do is decide if a crit resonates, that when you see it, you say, “Yep, totally know what you’re talking about.” Or maybe it’s something you hadn’t seen or considered before, and it just feels right to consider making the change. If a crit goes against every fiber of your being, then consider not using it. I’m not saying the crit isn’t valid, but it’s simply not something that you’re comfortable changing. And we all know there are crits that, deep down, resonate, and we know we need to make the change – but oh, how it hurts!

Case in point, a lovely woman brought her advance submission to me at a writer’s conference. I loved the premise, but the writing just hit me wrong. It was too angry and belittling in all the wrong places, and the writing was choppy, making it hard to stay engaged. For the following three years after that, she brought me her advance submission, which was largely unchanged. She’d spent at least four years trying to sell the work, but without enough changes there was no way it was going to sell. She ended up giving up on it. It broke my heart.

Now, would she have had a hit on her hands if my crits had resonated with her? Who knows? Just because you’re shown a store of fabulous clothes doesn’t mean you have the sputz to choose a dress that looks good on you. And just because you’re given solid crits doesn’t mean you have the sputz to make it a great book.

I’m not sure if she didn’t have the sputz or was overwhelmed at the thought of changing the very foundation of her writing, but it was plain that she chose not to make very large changes, and her book now resides in her desk.

If you get a good cross-hatch of critiques, there has to be something that resonates, that says, “yes, that makes perfect sense.” Look for it. Be open for it.

The Consensus Crit:  In a perfect world, you get a consensus – tra la! I’ve given crits at writer’s conferences and watched the author nod her head, “Yep, that’s what I’ve been hearing all weekend.” Nothing better than a giant wart because it’s easy to fix (hopefully). That is why getting critiques is so important. We get so close to our work that we don’t see those big “oopsies.”

If you have enough people telling you something is a wart, take heed.

The Contradictory Crit:  This is the part that drives many to mainline engine grease because hearing contradictory comments is overwhelming. Some may love the character development, others may feel you need further character development. Gah! Whom do you listen to – Super Dooper Editor From Hoo-Ha House or Editor From Small House? Your writing buddies, or the guys at Starbuck? Believe it or not, valid critiques aren’t a matter of pedigree because they’re all readers. Deciding on what’s valid comes down to what you feel in your heart. It’s the crits that make you think, “Ah ha.”

You need to be selective about what makes sense to you and what doesn’t.

“I’ll Take Them All”:  If you make changes based on every single crit you receive, your work will lose its cohesiveness, and you will be ready for your designer straight-jacket because you’ll drive yourself nuts. What’s worse is the work will no longer feel like yours, but rather a collection of others’ opinions. Before long, you’ll hate your story and be thoroughly defeated and confused.

The best gift you can give yourself is to massage your confidence. No one knows your story better than you do. Yes, those unbiased eyes are a godsend, but you need to have the confidence about your story and your ability to filter out what’s right and what’s wrong for your book. I’m not saying that your work will be better for it, but it has to be yours. You have to own it.

Not everyone is right. Learn to grow your filter so you know what to use, and what to lose.

Being the Pro

When you take the giant leap to allow others to read and crit your work, you need to have your head screwed on straight. You need to be clear about why you want critiques. If it’s because you want to stroke your Ego, then look forward to a sound bruising. But if you truly feel that you’re floundering and are asking for specific help, then you’re all about learning and becoming better.

Being a pro means that you’re objective about your writing. You’re able to stand outside yourself and see your writing as a business, not just something that is near and dear to you. If an editor tells you that your book about cancer doesn’t bring anything new to this very crowded marketplace, then it’s not an attack, but a professional opinion from someone who does this for a living.

If a reader from a writer’s board tells you they found the pacing really slow in the first three chapters, they’re giving you honest feedback.

Writing is a solitary endeavor, and at some point you need to escape Writer’s Island and seek out other opinions.

You don’t need to defend it, but rather grow from those comments so you can become better. And really, that’s what we all want, right?

Gut instinct – you have more of it than you know

March 12, 2010

In as many days, I’ve had two authors relate how they received feedback from several informed sources and instinctively knew which critiques were solid and should be acted upon, and those critiques which rubbed against every fiber of their being.

No one knows your story better than you. That isn’t to say that those informed sources – be they independent editors, agents, or your mother [yes, Mom, I always listen to you!] – don’t have solid ideas that could enhance your story. It’s just that you know which crits are best aligned with your story. It’s a literary sixth sense – not unlike that creepazoid who followed me out of the mall a few years ago. Even though he’d done nothing untoward, I just felt like he was up to something. Sure ‘nuf, he was body slammed by security after being recognized as the perv who was showing his willy to unsuspecting wiminfolk. Eww.

Crits are opinions – no matter who’s giving them

I hesitate to compare crits to a perv, but there is that strong notion of knowing what’s legit FOR YOU and what just won’t work. This applies to your agent and, yes, even your editor, which brings a writer’s sphincter pucker to a whole new level because s/he is dealing with informed sources who believe they have a better idea.

How many times have I asked for rewrites only to get an “ah geez, really? That’s the way I had it before my agent told me to ‘fix’ it.” What can I say? The agent is an idiot? Of course not, nor do I think that for a single minute. The agent merely believes his/her way makes your manuscript more marketable. Most of the time they’re right. Sometimes they aren’t. Just like editors.

Confidence breeds an open dialog

That’s why it’s so important for authors to be well-researched about the publishing business. The more you understand your competition, your targeted audience, your promotion plans, and your story, the better able you are to open up a dialog with your agent or editor regarding those changes. Sometimes that dialog starts with, “This goes against every fiber of my being.” Yah, that gets my attention tout de suite.

There have been rewrites I recommended to my authors in which they balked at the changes. If they can give me a legitimate reason as to why those changes may not be appropriate, the more apt I am to listen. Simply telling me, “I HATE that idea,” doesn’t hold water for me. But if something truly goes against every fiber in your being, don’t be afraid to go head to head with your agent or editor. This is your work, remember?

The flip side of that is you can be sure your agent or editor will have an equally legitimate reason for suggesting the rewrites. It’s a give and take relationship with one goal in mind: to sell a bajillion books. Everyone wants the very best for your book. Really.

So while you’re both on the same team, don’t forget that your gut also has a very important voice. Listen to it from time to time – and not just when you have a hankering for a box of Twinkies and a margarita.

Ouch. Did I do that?

March 7, 2010

…if I did, then I cringe in your general direction. What am I talking about? A wonderful analysis of the Seven Stages of Receiving Critiques. Since you will never be able to avoid being critiqued at some point in your writing career, I recommend reading Charlotte’s Web post haste.

Is your planter box too small?

December 11, 2009

I have a plant that I’ve nurtured for a couple years now. This is a real feat considering I can kill a flower faster than most sentient beings. This little plant has achieved what others before it couldn’t; survive despite my best efforts. I know it should be growing and flowering more and the reason it doesn’t is because I need to plant him in a bigger planter. Problem is, I really like the one it’s in. And that’s a problem because I’m not allowing him to be all he could be.

The nicest thing I could do is move him to larger digs. In return, he’d reward me with lovely flowers and greener leaves.

My little plant reminds of some writers I encounter. Like many of my colleagues, when I reject authors after reading their pages, I include a critique as to why it didn’t work for me. I do this because I want to help them understand how they can improve – knowing full well that my opinions are purely subjective, though they do come from an informed source.

Maybe the work was overwritten. Or maybe they are juggling a ton of characters and it results in a mish mash. It’s possible the voice and story is fabulous, but the narrative is muddy, or the humor forced. Whatever the reason, the crits are meant to benefit the author – to guide them toward a successful story.

But I can’t compete with authors who live in a too-small planter boxes. This means their roots are poorly defined and it’s pretty crowded in there. The soil’s nutrients are probably all used up, and it’s struggling to stay alive. In a word, there’s little room for anything else – like critiques.

Rather than seeing crits as an opportunity for improvement, they are defeated because there’s no room for growth. They’ve gone as far as they can go – like my little plant. Instead of digging in and doing some serious rewrites, they believe their only option is to…vanity pub their book.


If you have visions of shelf space and marketplace dancing in your head, why would you give up so easily? Is your planter box that small? I’ve seen all the excuses for defeat:

  • “Editors won’t accept debut authors.” Bullpucky
  • “They want to edit my work, and I want to leave it exactly the way it is.” Oh puhleez, get over yourself already. Your work does not come directly from the hands of the Great Cosmic Muffin. We. All. Need. To. Be. Edited.
  • “I want complete control over my book.” Ayieeee. Vanity publishing does not give control. You do not set the price, the cover (unless you submit it yourself), the distribution, or a return policy.

These are excuses for not moving to a bigger planter box. It’s easy to be complacent because it demands nothing in return; a contract, publication, success, a feeling of triumph.

Expanding your four literary walls is an admission that you’re not done, that there is room for improvement. That you won’t settle for second best. And yes, it might even be an admission that this manuscript isn’t marketable. What better way to honor your desire to be better than realizing you wrote a dud. Heckfire, wanna see the duds sitting under my bed? No, I’m not talking about the beagle. She sleeps on the bed.

The idea of not being done when you thought you were is tiring, for sure. It’s so much easier to simply stay put and settle for a vanity option. And just like my poor plant, your manuscript will never grow, and you’ll never grow as a writer.

“Yah, but I’ve had over a hundred rejections!” you scream at me.

And is this not a screeching indication that a larger planter box is needed? Is this not a sign that something is inherently and consistently wrong with your story? When you’ve been handed comments on a silver platter, this is the time to hit up the Literary Garden Store because you need to be nurtured and developed so you become a better, wiser writer. This will prevent you from ever saying,  “I give up, the only option is vanity.” You’ll know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

Vanity pubbed authors rarely make the jump to mainstream publishing because their small planter box doesn’t allow enough room for improvement. They’re satisfied pumping out inferior work in the belief that the “system” is against them. Nothing could be further from the truth. All we want is brilliant writing, and that takes a willingness to listen to crits and work to become better.

So for crying out loud, pick up your roots and move!

What’s the right way to respond to a critique?

November 30, 2009

“Thank you.” Nothing more, nothing less.

Are they attacking me personally?

Eh, sometimes. Face it, there are some real wheezbags who, for any number of reasons, enjoy ripping the heart out of writers  – anyone seen Authonomy lately?. Maybe they were dropped on their heads at birth. Who knows? Regardless of their motives, they took the time to read your work. Don’t own those critiques, even when they’re good. It’s one opinion of many. Look beyond the sting or the joy, and see if they may have a valid point. If they do, great. If they don’t, great.

The long and short of crits is that they are designed to point out flaws that the reader felt existed. Remember, our writing doesn’t come directly from the hands of the Great Cosmic Muffin, and we all need to be critiqued and edited.

Am I ready for crits?

My philosophy is that anyone who reads crits and goes into the fetal position and cries while sucking on a pound of chocolate may not be ready to put their work out there. The only time you’re allowed to drink heavily, eat pounds of chocolate, and cry is when you’re writing your book and when you get your edits back from your editor. Everyone else is navel lint and not worth expending such emotion. [Edited to add: Ok, fetal position, drinking, eating chocolate is also allowed with crits PROVIDED you understand you’re being unreasonable] …thanks, Pelo.

I remember one a friend of mine blew his stack over a tepid review from Publishers Weekly. He was ready to contact the reviewer and read him the riot act. I told him that under no circumstances would he do anything of the sort. First off, the reviewer took his time to read the book. Secondly, out of the thousands of books that come into the magazine each week, he chose his book. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Do they have a point?

In between blowing your nose and ranting, you need to consider whether the person critiquing you has a point. It could be their delivery is rather severe, but that shouldn’t discount what they’ve said – unless they simply say, “Your writing sucks stale Twinkie cream.” Those crits should be handed to the beagle, where she will rip them to shreds and send out her buddies, The German Shepherd Hit Squad. They wear lots of leather and growl in German.

Hearing that your writing is less than NY Times bestselling stuff stings, but you need to keep your eye on your goal; writing a damn good book. How can you do that if you ignore crits because they hurt your little feelings? Buck up, mate.

Toughen that hide, baby

This is a tough, tough business, and writers need to have the skin of an alligator. Growing a tougher hide means looking at your work objectively. It means understanding that this isn’t about you, but how effectively you communicate what’s in your heart to paper. You’d think the transition would be easy, and if it were, we’d all be bestselling authors, right? Thoughts that rummage through our cerebral hard drive don’t always translate well when they hit the pages – and maybe we can’t see that.

If you’re looking for people to coddle you and tell you how mahvelous you are, then go no further than your mother. Mom always loves my work, bless her soul. I’ve considered the possibility that yes, Gertrude, I’m really that good. And then I wake up from my deep sleep and know that Mom will never tell me I suck.

Having a tough hide means looking at your writing as a business. It takes experience and gritting your teeth. It takes appreciation that you desire to be a better writer and the only way to do that is to stick your big toe into the shark-infested waters and let ‘er rip. If you don’t, how will you ever know if you’re any good?

So no matter if someone told you your main character has the personality of a lima bean and your plot is as thin as shredded wheat, you smile and say “thank you.” Because maybe somewhere, deep inside the sting are some words that will turn your story into the stuff that auctions are made of.

Good deeds feel good

September 7, 2009

Is there anyone who doesn’t love Nathan Bransford? He’s just such a nice guy. Ok, we haven’t met, but I adore his blog because he’s a real gent and is very knowledgeable. He even appears to have a life – something I find hideously attractive, and have promised to try it myself sometime. Should we ever attend the same writer’s conference, I’ll promise to buy him a beer.

My gushiness comes from his post about Writer Appreciation Week. He reminds us that everyone was unpublished at one time, and it’s simply good business to support a new writer. He sez:

Read their work. Give them feedback. Help them get better.

He’s right (crikey, when isn’t he?); doing a good deed for a new writer promises all kinds of good Karma Points and makes the Cosmic Muffin oh-so happy. And at this point in my life, I want to make the Big Cheese happy, yanno?

The merits of my job put me squarely in the face of many new writers. Time constraints prevent me from helping everyone, but, boyo, I do try to help a lot. Every full manuscript that I read receives a full on critique, filled with examples of what did and didn’t work for me. Sure, I’ve been told to go make merry with barnyard animals for my trouble, but it doesn’t dissuade me from this practice.

My feeling is that I read their query and liked it. I read their first 30 pages and liked it. Requesting a full is an investment of my time and their faith. The author is honored and hopeful at having been asked to send in a full, and I feel it’s only good manners to provide something tangible for my efforts. It feels wrong to just say, “No thanks” after reading their entire story.

It’s like the time back in high school when I scraped my meager savings together and took my boyfriend skiing and paid for lift tickets, lunch, and gas to celebrate our six-month anniversary [makes me groan just thinking about it. Six month anniversary? Really, Lynn?]. We had a fabo day. When I dropped him off at his house, he gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Hey, thanks for the fun day.”

‘Hey, thanks for the fun day’? No confessions of undying love? No, “By golly, you are without a doubt the coolest chick in Palos Verdes”? Hey, buster, I invested in this day, the least you can do is cough up more than a weak thank you. I broke up with him two days later. The ingrate.

So Nathan suggests that we be gracious to new writers, and I agree. Extend a helping hand. Help them improve because we were all there at one time in our literary careers. Right now new authors are hearing all kinds of horror stories about the publishing industry. Encourage them to keep their focus. Help them gain their confidence by pointing out solid problems; be they POV switches, character development, or a shaky plot. Most important of all, put yourself in their shoes because they are a mirror of your beginnings.

That’s what I love about writer’s conferences; the crit sessions enable me to speak directly to the author and give them my thoughts on their writing. There is nothing sweeter than seeing the light turn on in a writer’s eyes over something I said. It’s like for fifteen minutes, we have a Vulcan Mind Meld, and they can see what I’m talking about – the strengths and weaknesses of their story. It’s kitty nip for the literary mind, and I breathe it in whenever I can.

One small aside is that I hope doing good deeds helps to balance out some of my misspent youth. You listening, Cosmic Muffin?

The ability to say “thank you”

August 29, 2009

Still fresh on my Alaska buzz. Or is that the beagle’s welcome home margaritas? One of the things that stood out were, of course, the lovely people. Such fascinating stories from this independent bunch. You have to be hearty to live there, and they have marvelous stories to tell. Which brings me to the critique sessions.

I always approach these with no small amount of trepidation because I’m never sure how the author will accept my comments. I had a woman at another conference take great offense when I told her the writing was too much tell and not enough show. So much so that she stormed out of the meeting after telling me that “no one has ever talked about my writing that way!” After I picked my jaw up off my lap, I was philosophical, figuring I was not the first one to say this about her writing.  Rather than sit and listen, she tossed out a tarty rejoinder. Not that my observations are lined with gold, but the loss was hers.

Being critiqued is hard, especially when it’s the first time. You’re worried whether the agent or editor will deliver a scorched earth crit or soft pedal their comments with a nice mix of honey and truth. Is anyone ever fully prepared to grow a thicker skin in a matter of days or weeks? I don’t think so. The growing process starts after the first crit.

As much as I adore talking to authors, I look at crit and pitch sessions much the same as I do a tax audit because it’s hard to say everything I want to say in a fifteen minute time period. I always worry that I’ll come off too critical and kill the author’s spirit. I choose my words carefully and try to say things like, “I would like to have seen this or that” rather than pointing an accusatory red pen in the author’s face to drive home the point that their writing lacked character development.

Some agents and editors really cut to the chase and can be quite brutal. As much as it probably shocks everyone, I lack that gene [thankfully], and my tongue isn’t as forked as I may let on. Given the time it takes me to read and write up my comments on a separate sheet that contains examples and observations where the author may want to focus further attention, I appreciate authors who can smile bravely and say, “thank you.”

There is no other medium that allows authors to be critiqued by agents and editors other than writer’s conferences, and I always send out a cosmic high five to those brave enough to dip their toes into my inkwell. When I’m thanked for my time and efforts, well, it’s icing on the cake. Believe me, I understand you’re nervous and not as confident as you’d like to be.

So thanks to all you wonderful authors who remember those simple little words that make it all worthwhile. It’s the jam in my jelly doughnut.

There’s no crying in publishing

July 30, 2009

Of late, I’ve had a spate of whiny emails from authors who were hurt over my comments about their manuscripts.  To offer some perspective, most editors don’t offer critiques after reading a full. They either say yay or nay via form rejection letter. My feeling is, if I’ve gotten to the full manuscript stage – meaning I liked the query and their first thirty pages – then I owe the author a reason as to why it didn’t work for me.

I don’t give feedback in order to invite an ongoing dialog where the author can tell me where I’m wrong in my assessment and, oh by the way, the quality of my critiques sucks stale Twinkie cream. I don’t need to be lectured about how I should have said something nice [which I really try to do], and have the author tell me my crits weren’t constructive. And I reeeeally don’t want to ever hear this, “how are negative comments supposed to make me grow as a writer?” Oh, the horror. Are they kidding? Beagle, warm up the blender.

Folks, there is no crying in publishing. You take your licks, and whatever sobbing you do is done in private. You don’t go crying back to the agent or editor, or someone who critiqued your work and tell them they hurt your little feelings.

Authors must take care of their insecurities on their own time and on their own dime. When I’ve spent hours reading a full, I’m fulfilling my professional duty as editorial director of a publishing company, and the last thing I expect to encounter is an author who has the maturity level of a string bean.  I can guar-an-tee that I won’t  stop the publishing train to whup out a box of Kleenex.

I know this sounds harsh, but geez,  do people cry to their banker if he refuses to grant a loan and tell him he hurt their feelings? Do they bawl in front of their boss when he their report isn’t fit to send to the homeless guy down the block? No, they suck it up and behave like a professional.

If you feel the need to be spoon-fed a critique in a specific style and manner, then I submit that you aren’t ready to play with the big kids yet ‘cos there is no crying in publishing.

%d bloggers like this: