Thursday, December 3, 2009

Responding to criticism

I was pointed to a great blog today by Nathan Bransford. His blog on "How To Respond to a Manuscript Critique/Editorial Letter" is definitely worth the price of admission.

These responses can be difficult. I always open them with rubber gloves and as long a reach as I can manage, especially if it's a first-time response from an editor I haven't worked with before, or that I've disagreed with before. And I've had clients tell me they react the same way when I send revisions their way, too.

So what do we do? We know that these suggestions and critiques are necessary to make our writing stronger. (Yes, I said NECESSARY.) But the whirlwind they can cause sometimes makes writers (and artists) want to pack in their pencils.

I've learned to watch for some warning signs in my responses. Maybe some of them will look familiar to you:

1. Anger. This usually takes an "How dare they?" or "They don't know anything" sound. Don't they understand that the whole premise of the plot rests on the fact that the protagonist had his mother serve him bad brussel sprouts as a child?

My suggestion? Anger might suggest they have a point. So have a tantrum if you must, but then take a deep breath, count to ten and look again at the suggestions in small pieces. Remember that it's business, not personal. Your editor or agent isn't out to destroy your voice, your career or your reputation. On the contrary, they have a very vested interest in seeing you succeed. That doesn't mean to have to agree, but it does mean you need to understand why you agree (or don't agree) with the suggested changes.

2. Despair. "I'm just not a writer," "I'll never write again," or "This will take MONTHS to revise." It may be even the silent motion of simply closing the file and walking away with no intention of ever opening it again. (Depending on deadlines, of course. Or money on the line.)

My response to myself has usually been, "Get over it." Put it away for a bit and then take another look after you've armed yourself with a goodly supply of chocolate (or coffee or Barry Manilow or whatever it takes to keep your mental boat steady. Okay, maybe not Barry Manilow.)

3. Dismissal. I was part of a critique group once that had a mix of genres represented in the group. And I found myself "weighting" the criticisms by the genre the other writer wrote. "Well, he writes novels - he just doesn't get picture books," "She's a poet. She doesn't have to deal with character development."

It's common sense that we gravitate towards people with similarities, in almost every situation. But that doesn't mean there's no value in the differences. Why? Because our readers will also have different viewpoints, backgrounds and areas of expertise. Perhaps don't make wholesale revisions based on every comment you get, but welcome the "hmph" reaction as a chance to see from another point of view. And then (and only then) evaluate it's validity.

Criticism is a double-edged opportunity. Too many times it can feel like "hit me again." But it's still the mark of the dedicated writer to be able to accept the input of others to shape and carve our words. Hopefully without feeling carved up in the process.

No comments: