On July 16th, 2011, Ella wrote, So I’ve finished my novel and I’ve to shown it to some people and let them critique me. However, I’ve never been very good at taking criticism, and I’m having a hard time using their comments. It just sort of makes me queasy when someone says there’s something I should change about my precious book, and I get so worried about what they say that I want to give up, or at best, overcorrect. I guess all I’m really asking is if you or the bloggers have any advice on accepting criticism and using it to your advantage. Thanks!

Great question!

Criticism is hard. Tomorrow I’m going to meet with my critique buddy, the wonderful kids’ book, YA, and science writer Karen Romano Young, to discuss my work-in-progress and hers, and I will be scared. I’m scared already, even though we’re friends and she’s a really nice person and her criticisms have been very helpful. I’ll be so scared I’ll want to talk about her book first and then ease into mine.

Although it’s hard and sometimes torture, criticism is essential. Few writers (but definitely some) can revise entirely on their own and turn in prose that needs only a light editorial dusting. The early chapters of Beloved Elodie have big boring patches. I’m hoping the pages I gave Wren (Karen) this time are tighter, but they may not be, and I have to know. She may see other problems, too, that I’m not aware of, which will be especially useful to learn about.

You don’t have to process criticism right on the spot, and you probably can’t. It may be impossible. A great line when you’re getting criticism is, “Thank you. I’ll think about that.”

Later, in the privacy of your room or office, you can go through the five stages of grief (classically applied to the response to a diagnosis of terminal illness, but no hyperbole is too extreme when applied to writing criticism!):

∙    Denial — The manuscript is fine exactly as it is!

∙    Anger — My writing pal is just jealous!

∙    Bargaining — I can change this paragraph on page 75 and the second sentence on page 112, even though I spent seven hours on each one, but if I revise them, I won’t have to rewrite the entire middle section.

∙    Depression — My story never was any good, never will be, and I might as well trash it. (Some of you, I suspect, skip the first three stages and go right here. If you must, you must, but try not to inhabit this step for long.)

∙    Acceptance — Hmm, hmm, hmm. If I make my villain more likeable, as my writing buddy suggests, then the conflict with the hero will have more tension. Oh, this is cool! I see how I can make everything better.

The best strategy for getting comfortable with a dose of criticism is to sit with it for a while. Let your readers’ suggestions percolate in your brain without making judgments. Take a walk, pet the dog, play with the cat, bake muffins. Let a few hours go by. If you find self-hatred settling in – if you think the criticism also means you’re a terrible person – remind yourself of your virtues and the people who love you.

I’m talking here about constructive criticism. My advice is different if what you’ve been told is global and non-specific, as in “Sorry, I just didn’t like it.” Or, “I hate it when you give me something to read. I always hope it will better but it never is.” Or, “I think you should take up another hobby.” When you get this kind of thing, ignore it and show your story as quick as you can to someone else and never to this frenemy again.

Constructive criticism is criticism you can use. I’ve mentioned on the blog that editors have responded to my manuscripts in the past with criticism that my heroines aren’t likeable. These editors have meant well, but that statement isn’t helpful all by itself. I haven’t intentionally made my heroines unsympathetic. What I need are specifics. What did my character do or say or think or fail to do or say or think at which moment in the manuscript to convey that she isn’t likeable? Show me the places: which action, which line of dialogue, which paragraph of thought. Then I can fix.

Your critics may not be gifted at helpful criticism. They’re probably not professional editors, so they may be vaguer in their ideas than you’d like. In this case, after your period of silent absorption of the criticism, you can ask your readers questions, the questions that have come to you while you contemplated.

When you get specifics, when you know the problem is that the action drags in the second chapter, for example, then you may stop feeling overwhelmed. You start to think that you can cut half a page of dialogue and you don’t have to name every book in your main character’s bookcase. And instead of thinking your manuscript is bad, you can start thinking how great it can be.

I’ve written about this before, but when I started out as a writer, I used to take all criticism. After my first writing course ever I formed a writing group. We were all beginners making our best guesses about what would improve our pals’ stories. I tried whatever was offered, figuring I would learn and I could always go back if the suggestion didn’t work (I saved my old versions even them). This strategy helped, because I did learn. Plus, it desensitized me by taking me out of the realm of hurt feelings. I didn’t have to decide in a vacuum about the validity of a comment. I could try it out and see if it held water.

Of course this goes back to the need for specific criticism. It’s hard to try out a broad suggestion like, “Make it more exciting.”

You can show your revisions to your readers and ask if you’ve addressed their concerns and if new things are bothering them. If you’re in a critique group, you can come back and back with the same pages until you’re satisfied.

I no longer take all the criticism that comes my way, but when I ignore a suggestion I always have a reason. My character wouldn’t do this. Or, this idea doesn’t jibe with the tone of my story. Or, this is factually incorrect. If I’m not sure, I usually try the suggestion.

It may help with your criticism aversion to know that every writer gets criticism. Nobody writes a perfect book. And everybody has to take her share of hurtful criticism, criticism that isn’t well-intentioned. It comes from friends or reviewers in the media or on Amazon.com. We take it, and sometimes we stew for a week or a decade – there was one miserable review of The Two Princesses of Bamarre that I can still quote word for word – but we keep writing.

Finishing a first draft is an achievement worthy of whooping and dancing and shouting from the rooftops. So is finishing a revision. Make the good, useful criticism your friend. Make it a reason for gratitude and celebration. You’re getting help with what you love. Hooray!

Here are three prompts:

∙    Snow White cooks and cleans for the seven dwarves while they’re digging in the mines, but they’re never satisfied with the results. Write about how she deals with their constant criticism. Write several versions for several different Snow Whites, if you like.

∙    Through magical intervention, your main character, Marcia Masters, who yesterday was a ninth grader, is now a teacher and her students are her former teachers reduced to children. Write how her teaching goes over the course of a class or a few days.

∙    Your main character, Michael Monroe, is working on a project with his father. Michael is eager for this, but nothing he does pleases Mr. Monroe. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Madame Red Pencil, the Editor

Before I start the regular post, and in case you missed it, on the website there’s now a color sketch of the cover for A Tale of Two Castles.  In your comments after my post about covers, many of you expressed a preference for painted covers, and that’s what this is.

Also, I’ll be signing in Kingston, New York, this Saturday and in Fort Thomas, Kentucky in November.  If you’re nearby, check out the details on the website.

Last week I  wrote about this question by Erin Edwards: How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them?  But I didn’t get to her second question:  Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?

Before I had my first contract, when I was sending manuscripts out, most of my criticism came from the teacher I mentioned last week, Bunny Gabel, and the writers in my critique group.  But occasionally an actual editor would send a suggestion along with a rejection.  If the editor went to the trouble of giving advice, I took this as an invitation to revise and resend – if the advice felt reasonable and seemed a good fit for my story.  Way back then I had total freedom: the editor certainly wasn’t eagerly waiting for a revision.

In every case, when I revised and resent, the manuscript was rejected again.  Further suggestions might be made, with less enthusiasm, and I might revise and resend again.  This wasn’t a fast process.  If I was fixing a novel, revising would take at least a month, and the response always took many months to arrive.  But with the exception of the picture book I described last week, I always felt that I had improved my story.

However, although I had no success, some of my writing friends did.  They established relationships with editors, understood what was wanted, and were rewarded with contracts.

Eventually I did get to work with editors, and of course there are differences.  When a criticism comes from another writer or from a friend, I have context.  If I’m in a critique group, I know my critique buddies pretty well.  I’ve read their stories and seen how they react to other writers’ work.  I’ve experienced their strengths and their blind spots.  When a critique buddy offers a criticism I usually know how to understand it.  Almost the same was true of Bunny.  Although I never saw her writing, I did watch her response to my classmates’ material.

With an editor, much of that is missing.  Usually we have available to read only editorial letters and emails.  The editor – let’s call her Madame Red Pencil – may never have written fiction as an adult – and can still be a marvelous editor.  We can’t tell how she evaluates other authors’ work, only our own.  If, for example, she hates flashbacks, everyone’s flashbacks not just ours, we won’t know unless she tells us.

In both cases, there’s a relationship to preserve.  I don’t want to lose a friend over criticism or to reach an impossible place with an editor.  And with an editor, even if there is a contract, she can decide not to publish the book or that she can’t bear to work with me ever again.

Naturally some editors are better than others, and certainly there needs to be a good fit between the editor and the writer.  In general, Madame Pencil won’t acquire a manuscript unless she loves it.  This is because she has to read it again and again during the editing, and she has to be its booster in the publishing house.  So the most important relationship ingredients are there from the start.  She adores your work, and she’s primed to adore you because you created this marvel.  And, most likely, you’re primed to feel good about her because she gets you.  Maybe she’s the only one who noticed how gradually and carefully you built up the cruelty of your villain.

With luck, her edits will be even more helpful than the suggestions of your critique pals.  It’s her job to crawl inside your story, to see it from within itself.  Then it’s her job to grasp it as a whole too, and also to figure out how it can become its best incarnation, and to present her ideas in a way that you understand, and if you don’t get it right away, it’s her job to rephrase.  When all this happens, yes, an editor’s criticism is easier to take.

When I first handed in the draft that eventually became The Fairy’s Return, my editor wrote in her editorial letter that my heroine was a buffoon, and she didn’t mean it in a good way.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew she was right.  Luckily she had a suggestion that showed me what to do.

The editorial letter I got in response to Fairest was eighteen single-spaced pages.  In it my Madame Red Pencil told me to cut entire chapters.  I reacted as I usually do to a long editorial letter – with fright.  Could I do what was being asked of me?

Editors don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes Madame Pencil can see a problem but not how to solve it.  Or she may make a suggestion that doesn’t suit my approach.  When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, my editor and I both knew that the beginning was a mess, and neither of us had a clue as to how to straighten it out.  Eventually I got it on my own.

By now I’ve worked with a bunch of editors, some more gifted than others.  The worst edit – absolutely useless – I’ve ever received was the most enthusiastic.  This editor wrote Ooh! and Ah! and Eek! here and there in the margins, and that was it.  The only suggestion she made was wrong.  Sometimes I have complete certainty, and this time I had it.  When I explained my reason, she agreed.  This reminds me of the comments from some of you on the last post that friends give you only positive feedback, and you don’t know whether or not to believe it or how to proceed.

But even if the overly enthusiastic editor hadn’t agreed with me about her sole edit, I wouldn’t have done it.  Madame Pencil’s edits are suggestions, and this is understood by both of us.  Ultimately the book is yours, and you have final say.

My editor and I initially disagreed about The Wish.  She wanted a different book and I wanted the book I’d written.  For a little while it looked like she was going to reject it.  In the end she didn’t, and she edited it, and I took her edits seriously and worked to understand and use them as much as I could –

Which is my policy in general.  In minor matters if I disagree with an edit, I just don’t do it, but in major matters, I explain and discuss, and sometimes I can be persuaded, and sometimes the editor can be.  Our interests are exactly the same.  Your critique pals and mine and Madame Red Pencil all want the book to fulfill its potential and find lots of readers.

No prompts again, but save what you’re writing, and have fun!

Taking It

On June 12, 2010, Erin Edwards wrote, How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them? Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?

When I was starting out and hadn’t yet tried my hand at a novel and all my picture book manuscripts were being rejected, I wrote one that garnered editorial interest.  The story was about a girl, maybe four years old, miserable when bedtime came and her parents were having a party for grownups.  Awake in bed, she decided to dress up as an old lady and crash the party.  She did and was the life of it.

In the story I didn’t say whether or not the adults were onto her, and editors didn’t know what to do with the ambiguity.  I received editorial suggestions that I attempted to follow in revisions.  One editor even met with me.  He talked about “warm storytelling” and suggested I read Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which I dutifully did (it’s great!).  Afterward, I felt that I had an epiphany and really learned something about craft, rewrote the story in a state of great excitement, submitted it – and this editor hated it.

With each revision, the charm of my original story melted away and I couldn’t get it back.  Finally, I saw it was permanently lost and stopped submitting it.

However, nothing like this has ever happened to me since.  I included the anecdote because it can happen, and when it does, it’s really sad.  Maybe the trouble in this case was that the story hung on that gossamer thread between adult belief and disbelief.  Possibly it would have resolved itself if the editors had left the uncertainty to an illustrator to interpret.

Again when I was starting out, I joined critique group after critique group (they tended to fall apart after a while) and I kept taking writing classes.  In my first critique group we were all beginners and none of us knew what we were doing.  We just offered each other what we could, at that point more as readers than writers.  I decided that I should try all criticism.  If a suggestion didn’t work, I could go back.

But usually they did work, and I learned.

A friend of mine had a brain injury that has left her with limited ability to hold onto new memories.  She can’t hear a fact and remember it, but she can still learn by repetition, by doing, through something called implicit learning.  We all learn some things implicitly, like how to ride a bike or how to swim, and I think most writing learning is implicit.  For example, I may read that writers should vary their sentence structures, but just reading the words and remembering them isn’t enough.  I have to try out the suggestion in a mechanical way many times before the practice becomes part of the way I write.

Before I got published I took a writing class that I loved and repeated again and again.  Bunny Gabel, our marvelous teacher, who has since retired, conducted the class as a workshop.  At the end of every class we would drop our week’s writing on her desk.  By the next week she would have picked a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book of three students to read aloud.  She wouldn’t identify the writer, and when she finished, the class would weigh in, constructively of course.  At the end of the student comments, she’d give her own.  The writer was not supposed to speak, just to listen.  In the years I took the class nobody ever broke the code.

Just listening works well under any circumstance.  If we explain or defend, the criticism doesn’t penetrate.  We need to sit with it before we understand its value – or worthlessness.

In class, the level of the criticism was high.  A bunch of the students were published and most of the class were repeaters like me.  At the beginning of every semester, Bunny laid out how the class worked, and she always said that any and all comments could be entirely wrong.  For me, sometimes they were.  The class was hearing a chapter only, so occasionally they couldn’t judge.  Luckily, some of my classmates were in a critique group with me, and I could ask them if an opinion was off-base.

I’m better now at knowing which criticism is worth listening to and which isn’t.  Experience has made me better.  Writing is weird, and I think it’s that implicit learning.  Every book is a different challenge, and what I learned on my last book may not apply to my next.  I feel like a perpetual beginner, and I am, because we learn to write for as long as we do write.  At the same time, I have attained some mastery – and I owe a lot of it to that class and to other criticism I’ve gotten along the way.  I learned the advice implicitly by doing, and now the voices of my fellow students whisper as I work, Am I revealing feelings?  Can the reader see what’s going on?  Have I remembered the other senses in addition to sight?  Am I writing ideas in order?

So how to tell if criticism is on target?  In your comments on the blog I see that many of you are good critics of your own work; you know what your weaknesses are.  When someone criticizes an aspect you know is difficult for you, that’s criticism to believe.  If more than one person identifies the same problem, you probably should pay attention.  If someone fails to understand something you wrote, that is worth looking at.  In fact, when a reader says she’s confused, her confusion may be the most useful criticism of all.

One of the things I love about writing for kids is that there are standards.  One can judge.  Someone can really tell me what’s wrong with my story.  For example, there isn’t enough tension, or the story is too long, or my main character is annoying in a bad way.

But when I used to paint there didn’t seem to be an objective standard and, maybe as a consequence, I never found my way.  If I visit a show of contemporary art and see badly drawn images I can’t tell if that’s the artist’s intent or if he’s a lousy draftsman.  I love art and my taste is broad, but sometimes I’m clueless.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve gotten very interested in poetry.  Last night I was working on a poem and making extra spaces between words and lines for a certain effect.  I’m not sure if I was being too obvious or doing something good, and I don’t know if anyone can tell me or, even if another poet has an opinion, if that opinion is valid.  Much as I love poetry, this makes me uneasy.  In kids’ books something is right or it isn’t.  Poets can actually use incorrect grammar on purpose and that’s okay.  Aaa!

In our writing, the only kinds of criticism we need to be wary of are global criticism as in, You’re not much of a writer, dear, and harping criticism that isn’t meant to help.  If someone insults your writing, don’t show it to that person again.  No second chances, in my opinion.  And if someone nitpicks and you come to understand the nitpicker doesn’t mean your writing well, cut that connection too.  The person can still be your best friend, but not your writing buddy.

And the only recipient of criticism who needs to be very careful is the writer who is already too hard on herself.  If that’s you, cultivate kindness to yourself.  When you show your work for criticism, warn the person that you’re fragile.  This is okay to do.  You in particular may misunderstand and think that what you’re being told is worse than it really is.  Double check to make sure you understand.  Ask, if you need to, if your critic thinks you should trash your story – before jumping to the conclusion that that’s exactly what he does think.

I’m almost at the end and I haven’t talked about how getting criticism changes once one is published or accepted for publication.  It changes enormously, and the answer segues into working with an editor, which I think is worth a whole post, so I’ll continue next week.

The only prompt is to be brave and show your work to other writers, to friends who are big readers, to teachers, librarians.  If you’re not accustomed to doing this, observe yourself as you take in the comments that come back.  Write down what you need to remember.  Don’t argue.  Work on developing a thick skin.  Then return to your computer and try out the edits, being sure to save your earlier drafts.

Meanwhile, keep writing, save everything, and have fun!