Harsh criticism - how do you take it?

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Tim James

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We've all been there.
You've slaved over your magnum opus. Got it to the peak of perfection. It's a fantastic read with a brilliant ending. And now you are ready to unleash it onto the world. You've already booked your seat at the next Booker Prize ceremony.
So you give a few copies to your friends to admire, post some extracts up on various writers' websites to show them how excellent your writing is and drum up some interest. Maybe you even send out a few copies to agents, because they're going to love it. And you sit back and wait for the round of applause to begin.

And then the responses come back and you eagerly read them.
But what's this? "Your title is a bit plain ..." "I don't think that works .." "You've used 'that' too many times..." "That character is a bit iffy ..." "You need to learn how to use a semi-colon ..."
They've trashed it. All your hard work and they've said it's awful.
And the red mist descends...

So what do you do?

Do you:
A: Go running to your bedroom and hide under the duvet, crying "Mummy, mummy! They are all being horrible to me. Make them stop. I'm going to throw my computer out of the window and never write another word." and seriously consider calling the Samaritans.

or do you:
B: Say to yourself, "Oh well. So much for that." Chuck the "perfect" manuscript that you have spent the best part of a year on in the bin and start on a fresh piece muttering, "Well they didn't like that one but they're gonna love this one."

or do you:
C: Straighten your back, stick your chin out and say, "Bunch of idiots! What do they know? It's perfect and I know it is. I'm going to self publish it anyway, just as it is. Then when the money starts flooding in and I'm a millionaire, I'll send them all an email telling them how wrong they were. Stuff the lot of them. B*****ds!"

or do you:
D: Swallow hard, twice. Carefully extract your fingernails from the deep grooves they have made in the desk and go and make yourself a cup of tea. Then come back and reread all the comments taking notes and saying to yourself, "Yes, I can see that now .... Umm, yeah, good point ... I can see how that might work ... Well I'm not sure you are right there but I'll think about it ..." And then start to make changes to your manuscript to make it even more perfect. And then when you finally get it into print thank them all in the acknowledgements section for all the help they have given you.

I know which one I chose. It's D every time for me.
Writers are not generally nasty people, nor are agents. If they give you feedback, it's because they think they can help you improve what you have written. You may not totally agree with what they say, but you should accept that you asked for an opinion and they have given it.

Anyway, that's the end of my epistle. Dare I ask for comments?
 
D for me.
I had to go away and come back after Sunday nights feedback from Pete.
It was a hard pill to swallow, the kind that scratch and stay lodged in your throat kinda pill.
But several cups of tea later washed it down.
Got my notebook, read the comments in the chatroom and watched the video like fifteen times.
But what really hurt for me was the whole, Tolkien thing.
Is that what my work is a fluke, over-ambitious, sickly flowery in parts, disjointed and had no plotting whatsoever.
Is it really that bad, I thought. :(
But I've took it on the chin.
 
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Critique is part of being a writer. It's not personal. Yes, it feels personal, but this is a highly subjective business. I've been published for years and my number of releases is approaching triple digits. But that doesn't mean my writing is perfect or is above criticism. Not even close. Some people love it, some people hate it, some people are neutral about it. That's how it is, even with the best sellers out there. It's SUBJECTIVE. It's part of the industry.

Take what you find useful from a critique and leave the rest. My litmus test is if I'm hearing the same things from more than two or three people, I pay attention to that. If you're going to put work out there for critique, or if you're going to submit to agents, be prepared for anything. It can be a wonderful learning experience if you approach it that way.

And it doesn't matter if you're self-published, traditionally published, or published with a small press. Critique is everywhere. From publishers, editors, and readers. It's part of the business.
 
While writing the above I was reminded of a piece of criticism I received on another site way back.
I had posted a fair section of a work in progress for comment.
One respondent, whom I respected, said that they liked a particular minor character and felt that the character should be given a bigger part in the story, built up some more.
Another respondent, whom I also rated highly, took the opposite view. They thought the character should be cut completely as they didn't add anything to the story.
Now I was in a quandary. Here were two people, both of whom had offered me good advice in the past, telling me totally opposite things.
So I sat down and thought about it and I suddenly came to the realisation that they were actually telling me the same thing. The character in question was badly portrayed. That was the issue. I hadn't described the character well enough.
They had both offered different solutions, cut or expand, but they both spotted the character wasn't doing me any good.
Once I worked that out I knew what needed to be done. In the end I expanded the character and kept him in because I liked him. But it could have gone either way.
Sometimes the solution a reader might suggest is wrong, but often they are pointing out something that needs to be addressed.
 
What do you do? I sit on it. I sat on it for quite a while. Then rewrote it. It wasn't a redraft. It was a new story, arising organically from the previous one. I realized I hadn't written the story I'd wanted to, but I only found out what I did want to write by writing the dud, and that was a training.
 
Childhood readings of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If' come back to me at many stages of the writing process, including feedback. It depends who's doing the criticising, as to how much worth you give their opinions. Some readers are astonishingly uncritical, seeming to like everything put in front of them, while others would be better off picking fleas out of a baboon's fur, for they detest anyone who's done something they can't be bothered to attempt. I once managed a computer suite, where a weirdo spent all day logging onto forums and customer review sites to post bitchy comments, even though he knew nothing about the book, film or music album. I banned him.

I had a good old rant, a while back, about a crime novel that mysteriously managed sales in the millions, despite being one of the worst bits of writing I've come across. It's worth looking at the widely varying Amazon reviews for the book in question, which range from adulatory to scathing:

https://colony.litopia.com/index.php?threads/the-percentage-game.3790/

People have differing tastes. As the old saying goes: "You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time”.

The ultimate point is, do you please yourself? How would you feel if you sold out, abandoning your principles, to write lowest common denominator garbage that nonetheless sold to mouth-breathers who move their lips while reading? You might be making money, but is that the only measure of success?
 
Critique is so important. Recieving feedback feels like a christmas present, and I always hope my MS is littered with hash comments. For me, the harsher the better. It's a great way to learn. Sit back, look at it, and then think ...
 
I thrive off it. I'm constantly trying out new techniques and styles and the last thing I ever want is empty platitudes. The only way to really learn is through honest critique, and yes, sometimes it can feel harsh but very often those are the critiques from which I learn the most.

And as @Tim James so rightly points out, the more your receive critique the better you become at interpreting them and getting to the root of any problem that might exist.

But giving critique is also essential. The more you critique other people's work the better you are able to self criticise and look at your own work objectively.
 
As far as I can tell, critique is the only way to improve. Having others critique your work, and critically considering others' work. Oh, there are times when I decide a particular criticism is something I will ignore, but more often than not, criticism leads to insight and insight leads to dramatic improvement. I get quite a high off that moment when someone else's perspective on my writing suddenly makes something click, and I can see the solution to a whole raft of flaws in a piece I've written (flaws I hadn't even been able to see before).
 
The issue for me is how constructive the critiquer is trying to be. I lasted a month on a writing forum years ago when I posted a piece of work which was annihilated by one of the members. It turned into a bun fight between various factions of the membership, while I pretty much sat on the sidelines horrified by being the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. To cut a long story short, the person who reviewed by work was removed from the forum. The first ever to be 'kicked out'. I had nothing to do with this but I couldn't post in that forum again and stuck with the writing forum I had been part of for years.

Sometimes critiquers get it wrong, even though they are being constructive. A writer needs a good feedback radar. I am only honing this skill now as I've rewritten pieces after following bad advice. However, I've also dismissed good advice which years later I look back on and wish I'd understood how much value this advice held. Assessing feedback is as much of a skill as giving it.
 
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C. Or certainly a variation of C without throwing the book directly out on Kindle.

This really reflects what Carly just said. It's about having that critique radar and being able to sense those who are giving genuine, honest advice but simply don't know that market, and are giving advice based on what they think that market requires. Case in point: To give myself a break from YA, I wrote a tongue in cheek comedy horror aimed at 7-9 year olds. I work with this age group on a daily basis, so I know their sense of humour and the games they play. Even nursery and reception kids seem to love zombie games. My agent rejected the script immediately, saying she didn't feel it captured the age group at all. I was devastated and I decided to give writing a good long rest. I left the agency and prepared to let the manuscript lie dormant.

A few weeks later, on a whim, I sent the book direct to a publisher. They snapped it up. I contacted an agent who specialises in this market and she loved it too. A few weeks later, I've got a new agent and a two-book deal.

So, while taking criticism is important, it's also important to realise that structural and subject criticism is often subjective. If you really believe in what you've written, stick with it for a while. See what happens.
 
D for me.
I had to go away and come back after Sunday nights feedback from Pete.
It was a hard pill to swallow, the kind that scratch and stay lodged in your throat kinda pill.
But several cups of tea later washed it down.
Got my notebook, read the comments in the chatroom and watched the video like fifteen times.
But what really hurt for me was the whole, Tolkien thing.
Is that what my work is a fluke, over-ambitious, sickly flowery in parts, disjointed and had no plotting whatsoever.
Is it really that bad, I thought. :(
But I've took it on the chin.

Well, I know it upset you and so I’m going to answer Tim’s question and then ramble on for some time about feedback. I wanted to warn you ahead of time. Oh — and Tolkien.

To answer Tim’s question:

E. Plot my revenge.

I only did that once. It’s funny. To me at least. Although, it might be a true story.

To me, harsh criticism means the person was intentionally being a jerk. That’s only happened to me once. The person who enjoyed himself a little too much at my expense hasn’t returned to the scene of his crime. The content of his criticism, when you remove how he said it, the joy he took in saying it, and the length of time he took doing it (my guess is he doesn’t last that long during sex), wasn’t wrong.

I’m repeating something someone says to me when I do what I do and ask, “What does this mean?”.... What people say can’t be wrong. It’s their impressions. What they tell you to do about it might not be right for your story.

There’s more than one thing going on when people critique. There’s at least two, sometimes more. But I’ll try to explain the two things I think are almost always going on.

The first is, they’re telling you something took them out of the story. They noticed something. My guess is that this is the most valuable piece of information.

The second is, if they believe they know why it took them out of the story, they’ll start to tell you. They’re not always right about this part but its a good idea to listen to them if only so you can think about it later. It will give you clues at least to why it took them out of the story or what stopped them.

One of the things I do, which also isn’t in Tim’s list, is I’ll critique a critique. I never doubt that anyone is right but I’ll sometimes turn myself into a pretzel trying to figure out how they’re right. I’m as likely to do this with a positive one as a negative one. I might even be more likely to do this with positive critiques. It looks like a whole bunch of analyzing and brainwaves but it’s an emotional reaction just as much as yours is and so you can be sure that most people have an emotional reaction and the stories you get about how people deal with critiques might be slightly curated, so to speak, not because people are dishonest but because they’ve handled their emotional response... and feelings about what others think fade especially after we’ve learned ways to thicken our skin with practice.

I gave the man who took such pleasure telling me my 2k of lyrical prose made him want to rush towards his death a nickname. It’s The Albino Lizard. I like it especially and if I ever see him again, I’ll have difficulty resisting the temptation to work it into conversation. The devil on my shoulder would say, “He won’t know who you’re talking about, what’s the harm.” ... and then the angel would say, “Don’t feed the beast. Comfort yourself with the knowledge he can’t write for crap.”

My angel might need a little work.

Now to get really specific about what Pete said about Tolkien. I can’t remember what he said exactly. But I’m 100% on what he didn’t say. He didn’t say you had copied Tolkien or that your writing was a fluke. He didn’t say your writing was sickly flowery or that you had no plotting whatsoever. Those are your thoughts and they’re extreme thoughts and it might be worth your while to examine how you’ve taken something someone said and turned into something much more negative than what could have possibly been intended.

Rethinking what was said to you isn’t that much different than writing or critiquing. Look at the language you used with yourself, because I’d bet Agent Pete didn’t use those words to describe your writing.

We don’t have anything to lose by being compassionate and kind to ourselves. You’re stuck in a lifelong relationship with You and so you might as well be nice. Don’t tell yourself someone called your writing ‘sickly flowery’ or that you had ‘no plotting whatsoever’ when that wasn’t what was said. Edit what you’ve told yourself so that it’s less dramatic and emotionally charged, not so that it’s more. Take the ‘sickly flowery’ and substitute ‘too many adjectives’ and take the ‘no plot whatsoever’ and substitute ‘the plot needs to be tightened’.

Sometimes it is a good idea to clear your head and work on another story. Or, write a short story. I remember that was said.

And It’s worth noting Tolkien is considered the father of fantasy, one of the greatest writers of all time.
 
Willing to accept any and every technical criticism because it is almost always justified and I am on a massive learning curve. If I could go back and tell my much younger self one bit of advice about this fiction malarkey it would be about mastering the craft. That it matters. Currently working on redrafting/pulling apart/rejigging/what ever you can think of on my first self-published novel and cringing at almost every paragraph.

What I will not accept is criticism about the actual story line. (and to be fair, nobody has pulled me up on those). The story line/plot is mine and mine alone. If it did happen then I reckon I would snap because for me that is the heart of it and that is what I have created. You either like it or you don't. But that is sacrosanct and whilst I accept that there is always room for constructive criticism, I would struggle big time to accept it, no matter how much logic, commercial or otherwise, there was in what somebody else had to say.

Makes me sound rather precious but for me my writing is perhaps the only area of my wider life that I consider 100% my own. Willing to compromise and turn the other cheek on almost every other part of it, but not that. The beginning, middle and end are mine. Those are what I create and those are what I own. Pull me up on my grammar, on my spelling, on my style, on almost any and everything else but the shit I put my characters through and out the other side of, then the hackles rise and I resort to the barbarian trapped in a corner mentality, that has not done me much good in life, and come out swinging.

And despite knowing that it never ends well, I am still pleased it happens. :)
 
I think it is important to learn from constructive criticism. However, assessing a person´s writing is a subjective business. @AgentPete´s video about VOICE is a case in point. What some people found captivating others hated. That´s why, as authors, it´s important never to take anything personally. I think, deep down, writers know if feedback is valid or not.
 
There's no arguing with feelings. Other people are allowed not to like your writing. You're allowed to feel disappointed at criticism. What you do with the feedback is something else. You know when someone is rooting for you, sincerely wishing to see great writing, and when they're trying to stick the knife in. Schadenfreude. May it bite them on the bum. The difference is always clear. The former, you don't have to agree with, just think on it, but if a red mist descends, you'd better look at yourself instead. Truth is beauty. The work is everything. The latter ought never to be given the empowerment of that opportunity. Like @Matnov I listen to what's said, usually I'll act on WHAT to fix but don't take advice on HOW to fix things.

This is the only writing group I belong to. The idea of writing groups in general, are anathema to me. There is so often some resident competitive twat/queen bee of the kind @Amber describes, gagging for a chance to smilingly stick a knife in, pretending it isn't personal. These, you can enjoy outraging by gliding on blissfully serene.

Artists of any kind are known to be a passionate lot, quiet or otherwise. And in the world of visual arts, tend not to be too quick to champion the work of peers, because they are all about their own thing, and perhaps that's entirely natural. But the idea of competition is laughable actually. Not one of us here is in competition with one another, only with 'the market,' while answerable only to our own Muse.

Friedrich Nietzsche: And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
 
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It depends. Context is everything. And self-confidence is essential. You can't let any self-important, semi-literate jackass put you off, but you'd be a fool if you didn't listen to people you can respect.

I think you can split people into three groups.

1. People whose editorial instincts you can and should trust.
2. People whose opinion as readers you should respect.
3. People who should have been drowned at birth.

It also helps to understand the strengths of people in category one. For example, I have a friend who is super-strong on story and plot-holes and the like, but less than marvelous on other things.

No matter where your feedback is coming from, there are a few simple rules I try to follow.

1. Always say Thank you.
2. Never argue with readers. They are always right.
3. Discard any advice that doesn't feel right to me. (Except on those rare occasions when it comes from an organization that is paying me)
 
And until you have enough experience under your belt, it's often difficult to know who to trust and who to politely ignore. Even when you have a lot of experience that can be a tough call. Is it your gut instinct telling you the person is FOS, or are they saying something you don't want to hear but should listen to?

I hate to ignore any feedback from a reader perspective, because after all, that's who I'm hoping to ultimately sell the books to. But because the average reader is not also a writer, they're going to give you an entirely different critique than the ones you'll get from other writers. It's good to have both perspectives when you can get them.

As writers, we can be super nit-picky. Some of us are grammar nerds. Some writers believe critique includes re-writing something the way they would write it. And sometimes you get comments that come out of left field, simply because we're individuals and have our own way of looking at things. It can be difficult to sift through all of it and find the stuff that's relevant and useful for you.
 
I like to get as many views as possible from people I trust and then work out what to do.
As has been mentioned before if you don't agree with something just one person says, then maybe you're right and they are wrong. But if several people are pointing out the same problem then you probably need to look at it again.
 
I like to get as many views as possible from people I trust and then work out what to do.
As has been mentioned before if you don't agree with something just one person says, then maybe you're right and they are wrong. But if several people are pointing out the same problem then you probably need to look at it again.

Yes, but not always. I pretty much guarandamntee that most of the people offering critiques out of the good of their hearts would have torn this opening sentence apart.

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering in the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.
 
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering in the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.
It is certainly challenging.
 
I read Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running last year, which is a clever contemplation on life, running and the creative process.

I have no particular interest in long-distance running, but having read four of Murakami's strange novels in recent years, I was intrigued by how he approached writing projects, and this memoir gave me insights that I recognised from my own working methods. It sometimes feels like a good 70% of creating a story involves staring into one's imagination juggling different ideas, and this is something that Murakami does while running, which becomes a form of meditation for him.

He's a quotable writer, and one thought from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running could be applied to not just running, but all of living—as well as what's involved with writing a story—including seeing it criticised.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
 
...
I have no particular interest in long-distance running, but having read four of Murakami's strange novels in recent years, I was intrigued by how he approached writing projects, and this memoir gave me insights that I recognised from my own working methods. It sometimes feels like a good 70% of creating a story involves staring into one's imagination juggling different ideas, and this is something that Murakami does while running, which becomes a form of meditation for him.
...
I often do a lot of my plotting while going for a long walk.
 
I often do a lot of my plotting while going for a long walk.

Me too. I'm doing my weekly shop and library visit today, cycling (and walking on the steep bits) a mile into town, and I know that thoughts will come to me about my WIP that I'd never have had sitting in front of my laptop.

I've also taken to deliberately using the doorway effect to reprogramme my brain cells, as wiping them clean of what I was thinking about, to tackle a snag in the plot from a different direction sometimes offers a solution.
 
...They've trashed it. All your hard work and they've said it's awful.
And the red mist descends...

So what do you do?

Do you:
A: Go running to your bedroom and hide under the duvet, crying "Mummy, mummy! They are all being horrible to me. Make them stop. I'm going to throw my computer out of the window and never write another word." and seriously consider calling the Samaritans.

or do you:
B: Say to yourself, "Oh well. So much for that." Chuck the "perfect" manuscript that you have spent the best part of a year on in the bin and start on a fresh piece muttering, "Well they didn't like that one but they're gonna love this one."

or do you:
C: Straighten your back, stick your chin out and say, "Bunch of idiots! What do they know? It's perfect and I know it is. I'm going to self publish it anyway, just as it is. Then when the money starts flooding in and I'm a millionaire, I'll send them all an email telling them how wrong they were. Stuff the lot of them. B*****ds!"

or do you:
D: Swallow hard, twice. Carefully extract your fingernails from the deep grooves they have made in the desk and go and make yourself a cup of tea. Then come back and reread all the comments taking notes and saying to yourself, "Yes, I can see that now .... Umm, yeah, good point ... I can see how that might work ... Well I'm not sure you are right there but I'll think about it ..." And then start to make changes to your manuscript to make it even more perfect. And then when you finally get it into print thank them all in the acknowledgements section for all the help they have given you.

I know which one I chose. It's D every time for me.
Writers are not generally nasty people, nor are agents. If they give you feedback, it's because they think they can help you improve what you have written. You may not totally agree with what they say, but you should accept that you asked for an opinion and they have given it.
While the gist of the above is that D is the correct answer – and I agree. I wouldn't discount B. Sometimes what we write is shit (I'm speaking of myself). Sometimes we don't have the experience to write the story we're groping towards (I'm speaking of myself). Sometimes we need to write a big pile of shit before we get to the good stuff (I'm speaking of myself, and I ain't there yet).

Getting good at this is hard. Getting good at this takes time.
 
Very often I will set off on a long walk with the germ of an idea for a scene and by the time I return (two or so hours later) I will have the whole scene mapped out in my mind complete with "practiced" dialogue.
Quite what anyone watching me thinks of me muttering to myself as I walk along, I have no idea.:)
 
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