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Jan 18, 2013

How To Take Criticism Of Your Writing


Now, we always give advice on how to crit, but, as we discussed 
earlier, perhaps it is more important to discuss how to receive 
crits. Personally, if one receives a crit that tells you, "Your basic 
idea is all wrong," how should you take this?

image: xkcd



1. Get some perspective. I look at something else that same person 
has critted. I read the piece and then the critter's opinion. Often, 
I'll find that I disagree just as much with that critter's evaluation 
of the other person's work as of my own. In that case, I dismiss the 
critter, because our tastes differ. On the other hand, if the critter 
has useful things to tell other people, I'll take what she tells me 
more seriously.

2. Ask for specifics. I once received a crit telling me that my 
villains were cliche, and the ending ending to my book was obvious. 
This was not helpful to me. I emailed and asked *what* about the 
villain was cliche and what the reader thought the ending would be. 
The reader then told me it was because the villain wore black and 
some more specifics, and what they thought the "surprise" ending 
would be. This *was* helpful.

3. Remember your own point. In the above example the critter was 
completely wrong about who the villain was and the twist at the end. 
But the critter's reaction told me that I had correctly set up reader 
expectations.

4. Keep in mind the rules of your genre. If a critter condemns your 
paranormal romance because he anticipates that it will end with the 
hero and heroine living happily ever after and that strikes him as 
sappy, boring and overdone, he doesn't grasp the rules of the romance 
genre. Ignore him. Above all, do not give your romance an unhappy 
ending to please him.

5. Consider that the alternative to the "trite" may be equally trite. 
I have had people tell me that they are tired of High Fantasy in 
which the good guys prevail over the Forces of Darkness. They want to 
see the bad guys win "for once." Guess what. That's been done too. If 
you want to do it again, in your own story, go for it. I don't.

6. Remember no story can be all things to all people. I like to 
observe the nasty things that people say about the writing of Stephen 
King, Nora Roberts and J.K. Rowling. It's cliche, poorly written, has 
too many adverbs, is sentimental, is trashy, appeals to only to 
morons, etc. Maybe all true. But something worked.

7. What is the true core of your story? Perhaps you have 
inadvertently fleshed out your beloved story with readily available 
cliches. The important thing is not to lose that luminous inspiration 
that first moved you to write, even as you brush aside the cobwebs of 
trite ideas from it and polish it. Good critters may try to 
distinguish between the diamond and the tinsel, but ultimately, it's 
up to you, the author.

Partly it depends on the piece. Partly it depends on how many people 
tell me the same thing. Partly it depends on the critter. Sometimes I 
put up an experimental chapter or story on the OWW, just to test the 
waters. I don't have much invested in the piece. If I get a lot of 
negative crits I'll shrug and pull it off and try something else later.


Suppose I put up a slight revision of a chapter of a book that is 
nearly complete and over 100,000 words, and that has previously 
earned a lot of enthusiasm and maybe an Editor's Choice along the 
way. I say in the intro, "I just want a final polish for nits on this 
chapter." Or, "I added a new scene into the middle of the chapter and 
want to know if it still flows ok." Then some innocent newbie comes 
on and tells me that I shouldn't start the book there, I should make 
the main character someone else, and they already know the ending of 
the book and it's trite. Am I going to listen to a word that person 
says? No. Might the newbie be right? Sure. But at a certain point, a 
book or a short story is what it is.

Here's a concrete example.

I once received a crit telling me that my villains were cliche, and 
the ending to my book was obvious. This was not helpful to me. 
I emailed and asked *what* about the villain was cliche and what the 
reader thought the ending would be. The reader then told me it was 
because the villain wore black and some more specifics, and what they 
thought the "surprise" ending would be. This *was* helpful.

They were also completely wrong, of course, about who the villain was 
and the twist at the end. But that told me that I had correctly set
up reader expectations.

In one of the introductions to her books, Bujold also talks about the 
fact that many of its Beta readers told her to take out the first 
scene, where Miles visits his grandfather's grave. This slows down 
the action of the book, they said. She kept it in, because she was 
not writing an action book, but a character book with a lot of action 
in it. She knew better than to sacrifice what was really the bedrock 
of the book, even though out of context of the whole series, those 
scenes might have seemed unnecessary. And indeed, I would say that it 
is her superb characterization that makes her books stand out.

Moral of the story: Making a general sweeping statement that the core 
idea of a story is trite is useless feedback. If you recognize 
cliches or you think you anticipate the twists or ending of a story, 
tell the author what you anticipate. BE SPECIFIC.

This gets back to the "reader reaction" kind of crit, which I find 
the most helpful to receive. "Tara, I knew this guy was bad news, 
because, just like every other High Fantasy villain he dressed in 
black and Reeked of Wrongness" rather than "Your villains are too 
cliche. Try something new."

And if you're the author and you receive a generalized negative or 
condescending review, ignore it unless the critter offers specific 
examples of what and why. A critter who can't do that isn't a very 
good writer him/herself and probably isn't offering good feedback 
anyway.

2 comments:

Davin Malasarn said...

Excellent post, Tara Maya. For me, #2 is most often the thing that makes me feel better after getting a devastating critique. Usually generalizations seem so big, but specifics make a much more manageable checklist that I can go through.

Heidi C. Vlach said...
This comment has been removed by the author.