Monday, May 6, 2013

How To Get Over A Destructive Critique

How To Get Over A Destructive Critique

Have you ever quit writing for a period of time? Perhaps for years?

I did.

I was a teenager and had written a story I was particularly proud of. I'm not sure why, after all these years the memory is vague, but I remember being pleased.

Then I made a mistake. As it turns out, a huge mistake.

I gave it to the wrong person to read and then I asked them for feedback.

It's not just that the feedback stung. It's not just that this person's list of things wrong with that story was as long as my arm, it's not just that they clearly felt resentful that I'd wasted their time. No, it was that my own judgement had been so far off, that I'd been proud of a story that was so clearly crap.

I hope you folks see the flaw in my thinking. I'd asked one person.

Yes, sure, that person had read most of what I wrote, but I failed to ask myself whether they could have had a bad day, whether they were going through something in their private life which might have made them a tad grumpy and irrational. Which, as it happens, they were.

But let's imagine that my critiquer had been having a great day and wasn't the least grumpy and gave the same devastating critique. In retrospect, what should I have done?

Ignore it.

Here's what I think: if anyone gives you a critique so scathing that, were you to take it seriously, you'd never want to put pen to paper again then ignore the critique! Do NOT take it seriously.

Even if you gave the story to 10 people and they all thought it was fit for nothing but lining bird cages that doesn't say anything bad about you as a writer. You liked the story, that's what counts. And, sure, there's probably something about the story that's personal to you that makes you love it, but that's not a bad thing. Save the story, cherish it. That one's for you.

Now move on and write the next story. Do it NOW! Right away.

I've only ridden a horse once, so I don't know from personal experience if it's true that after being thrown you have to get right back on, but I think if a person has a horrible experience with a story they have to write another one right away. But, please, be sure to give your new story to someone who isn't having a bad day and who seems genuinely happy to give you feedback.

Also, it can help to be clear about the kind of feedback you'd like as well as what you consider constructive as opposed to destructive criticism.

As long as you're writing you're getting better. Not writing never helped anyone become a better writer.


What to do if your story is given a devastating critique



1. Talk about it


Having friends is great, having friends who are writers is a must.

Embarking on a career as a writer without having a network of writing friends and acquaintances is like going on a deep sea voyage during hurricane season without lifeboats or a personal flotation devise.


2. Write about it


I think this is a great way to turn a bad experience around. Especially if you can sell your story. Turn your horrible experience into creative non-fiction and then send the piece out or indie publish it.

You might want to write a first draft and then let some time pass--weeks or even months--before you read it again. Make sure it's not a rant. (grin) Or, if it is, make sure it's a rant that would be entertaining to others.

Making money from the experience may not be the best revenge (Joe Konrath had a few tongue-in-cheek suggestions a while back) but it's still darn satisfying.


3. Learn from it


As I mentioned, often destructive criticism has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of your story and everything to do either with an agenda the poster has (some reviewers enjoy dumping on anything they perceive as indie), or the kind of day they're having.

Since you've read the critique the damage has been done so try to determine if there's anything you can learn from what the poster said.

Were they irritated because you'd used a mirror to describe a character? Were they perturbed that you didn't tell anyone your protagonist's name until well into the story? You don't have to change something just because a reader or three was upset about it, but sometimes the information can be useful.

Sometimes it makes one feel better to know why a critiquer had the negative reaction they did. "This story is a pile of crap" isn't helpful, "This story is a pile of crap because X" helps put the review in perspective.


4. Do NOT respond


Whatever you do, don't respond to the negative critique.

I once had a crank caller who I suspect was my ex-boyfriend. This person would call at all hours of the night, wake me up, then make gibbering noises into the phone.

At first I politely asked the caller to stop. Then I shouted. Then I used a loud whistle.

Nothing worked.

Then I stopped responding in any way and just hung up the phone and disconnected it from the wall for the rest of the night while I slept.

The calls stopped.

Responding to negative reviews just wastes your time--time that could be spent writing--and it can  make one look unprofessional.


5. Don't look


Don't look at your reviews.

(This point only applies to reviews on social media sites and retailers like Amazon.com.)

I know, I know, this is much easier said than done. We want to know what other folks thought of our work.

Actually, that's not true. We want to know that readers loved our books. Chances are most will but it's inevitable you'll get a bad review if you keep writing for any significant amount of time.

And you can't do anything about it. You can't respond to the reviewer (see point 4, above) so what's the point of looking?

If we write hoping for the approval of others we set readers up as our judges, which isn't how it should be. Yes, we want to share our stories with others--that's a big part of why I write--but I write primarily for myself.

If I think I've written a great story, if I had fun writing it, that's all I can ask. Of course I give it to my first reader, and I usually do another draft after that in response to their feedback (they seem to always catch something I missed) but, fundamentally, I write for myself.


6. Eat Chocolate


Chocolate is good. (grin)

Question: How do you get over a destructive critique?

Other articles you might like:

- Writer Beware: Penguin And Author Solutions
- Creating The Perfect Murderer
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover

Photo credit: "Galapagos Sea Lion's Baby Portrait" by A.Davey under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

15 comments:

  1. Yep, agree with 3,4 & 5. My waistline will suffer with 6 ;)

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  2. Good post. We've all gotten this kind of critique--or at least, I assume we have--and we have to rise above it and, as you say, learn from it.

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    1. Thanks Joshua! Yep, exactly, learn from it and move on.

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  3. I remember precisely the moment when I knew I could make it as a writer.

    I wrote an experiment in sf horror, 'Rain'. I wrote it in present tense with long, complex, repetitious sentences using a sing-song rhythm. Took it to a writers' group ― the SlugTribe ― for comments and critiques.

    Among writers' groups, the SlugTribe is the elite. When I attended, it counted five SFWA members in its group: two professional editors (the founders) and three other writers. At any given meeting, three to five of them attended along with a double-handful of newbies and wannabees.

    After reading 'Rain', the editors tore into it. Told me what they did not like, what I did wrong, how to do it better. Some wannabees piled on. (I particularly liked the guy who said one of my sentences worked but he didn't want it to.)

    Then Patrice spoke. "I like it," she said.

    Patrice had rep. SFWA member. Fantasy writer. One of her works won Year's Best Fantasy Short Story. And she liked 'Rain'. She liked the sing-song. She liked the long, complex, repetitious sentences. She enjoyed the story.

    A wannabee echoed Patrice. Then another. And another.

    And the fight started.

    Not a brawl, no. Emotional, vociferous disagreement. Passion (Patrice) against reason (the editors). The odds measured in bodies were two-to-one against 'Rain'. The outcome was certain. 'Rain' had to lose the battle.

    That's when I knew I could be a writer.

    I understood that not everyone would like my work.

    But some would.

    That's all it takes. Some to like my work and pay for it. Others may hate it. Hate it in loud voices. I don't write for them. I write for me. Some like what I write. Happily, that's enough.

    If you ask for critiques, you're gonna get 'em. Good and hard, you're gonna get 'em. If you listen to them all and change your work to suit everyone the result will be bland, cookie-cutter crap.

    Learning whom to listen to is hard. Learning whom to ignore is harder.

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    1. Thanks Antares, well said!

      "Learning whom to listen to is hard. Learning whom to ignore is harder."

      Oh yeah.

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  4. It can be hard to take harsh feedback, especially when it seems to echo your inner doubts of "I'm no good!" -- but any critique in which the person giving it equates "brutal honesty" with mere "brutality" is nearly useless to both parties. Unless the person giving it somehow feels better afterwards.
    Giving feedback is difficult -- for it to be any use, you have to provide examples to back up your opinions, and explain them.
    Getting it can be hard, too, when you want to hear about all the things that are brilliant, and even when you want to hear about all the trouble spots you know you can't see yourself.
    But I agree with all your points above, especially the "back away slowly" one. Unless it's a live person giving you feedback, you can just ignore the vitriol. If it is a live person tearing into you, staying calm and asking questions about why the person didn't like a section, or character, or the whole work is about the only engagement. (You're still there to listen, after all.) And the person's answers can help you filter the feedback. If the person normally hates this kind of story, period, then you could possibly ignore their feedback; or, if you want, consider whether there's any way your story could draw in that audience who normally wouldn't read it (that may not be possible, or desirable -- but that might be the only part of the exercise that is useful when feedback is just abuse).

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  5. I've been on the other side of this equation, and that's hard in another way. More than once, an aspiring writer has given me a short story and requested my "honest opinion."

    I know they're hoping I'll say something like "Wow, this is great. Let me tell my publisher because I'm sure they'll want to get it in print ASAP," but that is not going to happen.

    I also know that if I gave the writer my honest opinion, ("This is terrible. You changed point of view three times in the first page. You've filled it with unnecessary adverbs and you've got a dozen tired cliches. Your characters are stereotypes and I have no idea where you're going with this story and I don't care."), I'd hurt their feelings and I'd lose a friend. And they'd probably stop writing.

    This has always been my approach to critiquing someone else's work. I try to find something good, or at least say "I see some good things in here" even if it's only noun-verb agreement. I'll probably say a word or two about the overuse of adverbs--they always overuse the adverbs--and then I'll suggest taking a writing class or joining a writers' group.

    I think writing is a good thing and I never want to be the one who discourages anyone from doing it. If they follow my advice and get some help learning the craft, they will get better. And no one's feelings are hurt.



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    1. I love your approach Judy.

      I think it's great to point out overuse of adverbs, the protagonist's lack of a goal, and so on, as long as--as you've done--the sandwich method is used and one ends on an note of encouragement.

      Sometimes I think it's all in the tone of the critique.

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  6. Helpful post, Karen. I've experienced devastating critiques that have impeded my progress on a WIP for months. Conversely, I once posted a polite, supportive and honest review on my blog that the author took as very negative--made it much worse when she tried to argue with me!

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    1. Thanks Charlotte!

      Yes, critiquing can be a minefield. No matter how constructive ones points, no matter how supportive one's feedback is, there is the possibility that offense will be given.

      You're absolutely right. Writers can have bad days and react inappropriately to their critiques, just like reviewers can forget that the writer whose work they are eviscerating is a person worthy of respect.

      And, absolutely, arguing with a reviewer is just a no-go. I think the safe thing to do is not respond, but if one absolutely must, the only thing one can do is thank them for the time they took to read their work.

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  7. If you wrote something with a passion, it cannot be a pile of crap. It can be raw. It can be improperly arranged. It can be confusing and slow. But within lies a spark. And that spark to become a fire, needs fuel and air. The fuel is inside your mind. The air is represented by your fingers or hand - with which you lay down the words. Your mind has inexhaustible output, but that output can only work so far, as you stimulate it by writing. Like in the real economy, producers can't produce if there's no aggregate demand. And the way in which the writer creates aggregate demand for his own thought production, is by putting one word behind the other - and so on and so on.
    Think of it this way. There's you in the present, and there's you in the future. Your incomplete work in this moment is your net liability. In order to transform it into a net asset, you need to write, and write, and read it, and read it, and write again. And when the present catches up to that writer of the future, your work will have been completed. And behold! You know have a net asset - a story from heart and mind.

    I didn't receive a destructive critique... so far... ^^ But when I'll receive it, I'll be sure to learn from it, if the reviewer is arguing objectively. If he's not, I'll just have to ignore that review.
    I write for myself, because I've created these characters and this universe to reflect "the" story that has always been inside me. You know how they say that everyone has a book inside them, well... for me this is it. And even if I were to write non-fiction, about Chartalism, demand side economics or something, I'd be littered with negative 1 star reviews from neoliberals and adepts of the austrian school of economics.
    I've received my first review on Smashwords. (a stranger's honest review) The man said that he was relatively new to this particular genre, and that A Stage For Traitors was outstanding. He wrote that he enjoyed the plot and characters, and that he couldn't wait to read the next book. He pointed out some errors with the language (the context in which to use hung and hanged), but even though this was a pet-hatred of his, he said that it's a common issue with authors who's first language is not English. (I've worked to make the corrections). Overall, he said that it was a brilliant first novel, and that it was a worthy rival to Game of Thrones. He gave me 4/5 stars.
    Naturally, the man already had me, when he said that he couldn't wait to read the next book. The comparison with GoT was the cherry atop the chocolate.
    I know that there are people across the world who share the same likes that I have. And some of them read, and some of those read ebooks. Now if I'm lucky, they'll pick up my work. And when they do, they'll enjoy it.
    A toast to chocolate! It's good on bread. It's good on peanut-butter. It's good in a doughnut, and it's good in ice cream... and probably coffee, if you're a coffee drinker. I don't drink coffee. Cold water over my face does the trick. Drink to chocolate!

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    1. "If you wrote something with a passion, it cannot be a pile of crap."

      "I write for myself, because I've created these characters and this universe to reflect "the" story that has always been inside me."

      Exactly!

      Somehow I knew you loved chocolate. (grin)

      Yes, I love chocolate. Especially milk chocolate and hot chocolate with melted marshmallows on top.

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  8. Destructive for me means that they intended to hurt the writer (not that the writer took the review personally). Negative means that the critique offered nothing useful (i.e., a person telling you to turn it into a romance and it's a science fiction novel). I've had both, the first a writer who used a critique of my piece as payback for telling him he had opened with too many character names. The second was 10 writers who told me to not write in omniscient viewpoint but never commented on the actual writing. And I've had critiques that fit into neither category, but were nasty ones for their own reasons, and nothing, curiously, that had anything to do with the writing.

    It's hard getting critiques, especially the first one. The scariest words from a writers for me are "Be brutally honest." It tends to mean the opposite, that the writer is expecting praise. Some of the worse writer meltdowns I've seen have been because the writer asked for this kind of critique. So a missing step is to adjust your expectations. People are going to find things wrong.

    Most first timers forget that. I always like seeing definitions of destruction and negative because the terms get thrown around as if someone finding anything wrong with the story is giving a negative or destructive critique. My critique group really liked my story, and they were extra hard on it. They were right about everything, and they were also afraid that I wouldn't come back. It's not easy taking critiques.

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