Monday, December 2, 2019

How to be a Writer: Part VII - Dealing with Criticism

Last week, we talked about how to handle rejection. This week, we'll talk about your response to something far more insidious, and possibly far more psychologically damaging: criticism. When you write, it's easy to lose objectivity on a story. I mean, for heaven's sake, you know what you're trying to say, and what comes out through your fingers may be brilliant to your mind, but it may not translate well to readers. That's why we often look for critique groups, writers' circles, and other such gangs of would-be writers who bring their knowledge to the table and expect you to do the same. In addition, we also throw our work out there for reviewers, agents, editors, and every random person who reads our work. And as the old saying goes, opinions are like strings: every yo-yo has one. Yes, I know that's not how the real saying goes. Call it artistic interpretation.

Grandma will always tell you that you're a genius because, well, she's grandma, and that's what she does. Telling you how good your work is without any shred of criticism doesn't help you. That's actually why we seek out things like beta readers, test readers, etc. What you're looking for is an honest opinion on your work. Not one that's spiteful, not one that is uninformed. Ideally, you're looking for a member of your target audience who is willing to be a guinnea pig for your story. A beta reader, writers group, critique circle, etc. should all have a single goal in mind: To make you better.
Be the best version of you...
So how do you deal with criticism? First, consider the source. I'm going to break down some different types of sources of criticism, and how I deal with them.

  • Respected Professional - Let's say, for sake of argument, that Stephen King grabs hold of one of my raw manuscripts. It could happen. And let's say that he offers up some advice on how a particular character should act or about what does and doesn't work. Him, I listen to. Why? Because he obviously knows what he's talking about. Not only that, he doesn't have any skin in the game of whether or not I succeed. If King is offering advice, his is the voice of experience. Listen to him. 
  • Critique Group - You have a group of amateur or professional writers who get together with the goal of working on each others' pieces in the hopes of making them publishable. When it's your turn to be critiqued, you get a lot of advice. Some of it's helpful, some isn't. But the point is, this is the purpose of the group. So, yes, I listen here. There's a caveat (which I'll talk about in a moment or two), but yes, I listen. 
  • Reviewer - When your work gets published, your work will get sent to professional reviewers (you hope). Those reviewers will often times give detailed accounts of what did or didn't work. Do I listen? Meh... Sometimes. I mean, if the criticism makes sense, sure. However, I've read plenty of reviews of my work that it was clear they weren't the target I'd intended, so I didn't put much stock in their criticism. 
  • Rando McRandom - Check Amazon... Everyone thinks they're a critic these days. Why? Because it's easy. Log in and tell the world your opinion (yo-yo strings, remember?). But the question is, do you listen to the criticism of a bunch of random people on Amazon who may or may not be your intended audience? Yes and no. I mean, yes, because reviews drive sales, and after a certain number of reviews (I think it's 100), Amazon takes notice of your book. On the other hand, I've gotten reviews that were... less than helpful. I got one in particular who was so "triggered" by a scene in one of my books that she basically called for me to be pillared. Forget that the whole point of the scene was to show how screwed up that part of society was, the fact that I dared put it in a book (which she didn't normally read in my genre anyway) completely was beside the point. Also, a quick google of my name will let you know the kind of thing you're in for with my work, so there's that. So do I listen to those critiques? Well, if it says something thoughtful, sure. But if it's really just a chance for the reviewer to crap all over the work without giving a thought to how to fix it, no. I just let it live and roll with it. 
Here's the thing: Every piece of criticism is not created equal. At the end of the day, the best gauge of whether a critique is worthless or not is you. You need to be able to read the critique that someone put together and weigh whether the suggestions make sense or if they are as much a fetid bag of dingo's kidneys. Consider: does the critique just tell you that what you wrote sucks? Or does it give you some idea as to what specifically doesn't work, and why? Does the person offering criticism know what they're talking about? Is the criticism designed to knock you down, or to help you build yourself back up? I think that's the real point of consideration. 
Not like this. 
So what do you do with criticism once you've gotten it? You thank the person offering it, consider whether or not it has merit, and act accordingly. You don't get defensive, or snark back at them on Amazon, or tell them off in a heated email. Believe me, I've seen plenty of folks do this and with very few exceptions, none of them are working right now. No matter what, you need to be professional. Act like the professional you are, and thank them for their time, then, if you read the criticism and decided the person offering it is a loony, you go about your day and forget about it. If you start to get the same criticism from multiple sources, maybe have a second look. But, again, it's your book. At the end of the day, you have to be the one who is pleased with it. Those of us that offer advice, well... opinions are like strings, after all.
Look at all the opinions... I mean strings...
Next time, we'll talk about how to give good criticism. 

Until then, write on!