Dealing with criticism

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This isn't an easy one. We all face criticism, and by extension rejection, in the course of our creative endeavors. And it can be hard. It sucks. But learning to deal with criticism gracefully, and to process it and turn it into fuel to better our writing, is key. I'll go over rejection specifically in another volume, but here let's focus on criticism, specifically constructive criticism you'll get from CPs and other readers (including agents, while querying).


First off: when you receive critique (sometimes in the form of a rejection), read it. And GET UPSET. Be angry and defensive. What do they know! They're WRONG! You did that thing for a very specific reason! They just don't understand your vision. WHATEVER.

Vent to friends, including CPs (if feedback is from another CP or an agent). Then set the feedback aside and don't touch it for a few days. Don't start editing or working or even formulating an edit plan. Inevitably there will be both things you agree with and those you don't when you receive feedback, though sometimes you'll revolt against everything, especially if it's more brutal/honest/critical than you are used to. Important note: don't vent publicly! Anger over feedback/rejection should be exercised privately. Things always look different "in the morning."

Once you're calmed down and gotten out your feels out, come back to the feedback and read it again, slowly, and with an open mind. You know what's there already, and already having the highlights--especially the negative ones (criticism tends to stick in our brains more than positive feedback)--you'll be able to parse the words better. Suddenly, you'll find positive notes popping out that you totally missed in your frustration-fueled read. The criticism you read just a day or so earlier won't seem so harsh when you reread. You'll find conditional statements and sound reasoning (usually... hopefully) that maybe make some sense now.

Now you can formulate a plan. What are the big things the feedback pointed out that resonate with you? Things that make sense to fix. Start making a list.

You're allowed to discount certain criticisms or things that simply don't resonate. A critique should never be taken as a blueprint for All The Things You Must Do, as rarely is one person on the money about everything in your book. Not even your editor, once you have a book deal, has to be 100% right about everything. You, as the author, should be able to push back on certain things.

But try to remain open to the things that sound BONKERS or TOTALLY WRONG to you. With time and consideration, you may find those points and suggestions to totally blow up or change your manuscript may be the most helpful ones. Cutting a character entirely may magically fix your pacing. Killing someone may create the emotional resolution that makes the ending work. Cutting a POV may unlock the story/execution and create tension/conflict that give you the pageturner you need. And so on.

Keep your crits and look back on them later. You don't have to make every change right away. You may do one revision, and then come back to a big note a year later and realize "OMG that IS the thing that will make it all work." I've had to go back and apologize to a CP I told was TOTALLY WRONG! about something when my agent said the same thing, 9 months later, and I did the thing and, well... they were right.

That's the thing: you need to keep a sense of humility and open-mindedness. As writers (and creative types in general), we tend to feel very close to our art and everything feels personal. We have a vision for our work and characters and it's hard to take on board an outsider's view. But ultimately books aren't written in a vacuum and stories aren't CONSUMED in one, either. Once you release your work into the world, it is in the hands of readers... and they'll have all sorts of opinions. Learning to work with critique partners and then professionals, such as agents and editors, you'll develop a thicker skin. You'll learn to see a story from a variety of angles and viewpoints, and how to strike a balance between your vision and how someone else views the story.

You are not your story. Repeat that to yourself. YOU ARE NOT YOUR STORY. Your story is yours, and you love it, but the writer and the story are separate entities. You can criticize a story without criticizing who the author is, and when you receive crits it's important to bear that in mind. Criticism of your work is not criticism of you, or who you are as a person. A story or writing can need work and more practice, and it doesn't mean you are garbage and useless and talented and not worth anything. These thoughts will go through your mind--all writers deal with "imposter syndrome."

Repeat the "vent to friends" and "feel your feelings" cycle as many times as you need to. But you'll find that the more you work with good CPs and dig in and revise your work, each time you produce a better manuscript, you'll start to feel better. The next crit won't be as hard to bear because you know it's part of the process to make your work better. You'll feel empowered by crits, because someone else is handing you the tools you need to revise. You'll develop deeper relationships with your core CPs--the ones who really fit what you need and how you need to hear it--as well as eventually your agent and editor, and you'll become a criticism-managing machine! You'll REVISE ALL THE THINGS! Your books will become better because you'll internalize certain tools and tips and drafter cleaner and better.

Lean into the process of criticism and revising. That's how you'll become a better writer, writing better books.



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