Monday, August 20, 2012

Rejection PART I: Unpacking Criticism

*** ARCHIVE FROM 2012 ***

Since I'm back on the query trail, I thought it was a good time to revist a topic we covered last year...

Published authors, agents and editors talk A LOT about how there's a need to develop a thick skin if you're going to be successful in publishing. But what does that really mean?

Primarily, in my experience at least, it means two things: Developing the humility to unpack criticism and the ability to separate rejection from failure.

I'll talk about rejection in the next post, but for now, I want to address how to go about...

Unpacking Criticism

When someone reads your work and offers uncomplimentary feedback there are three ways to react:
1. Anger or defensiveness;

2. Retreating out of fear of further hurt;
3. With thoughtful consideration.

The third option is the only one that will improve your chances of success in publication.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've felt the anger of a criticism: "What do you mean that scene was “a little flat”?! Are you kidding me?! I spent DAYS on those pages! And now I need more exclamation points to fully express the emphatic nature of these statements!!!"

I've had moments where I'd like to crawl under a rock and pretend I never wrote a word: I've written fourteen page emails explaining to my critique partners exactly why that scene / character / plot-point had to be that way...

But in the end, those reactions don't make me a better writer.

For me, unpacking criticism is a four part process:

Part One:

Rule #1 of Unpacking Criticism - Thou shalt not respond - at all.

Rule #1-b - If response is absolutely required, it shalt only acknowledge receipt, gratitude for time taken by critiquer and statement of intention to consider all points. (i.e. "Thanks for sending that through! I really appreciate your time. I'll get back to you when I've had a chance to digest it all.)

After I read feedback or critique, I let myself react emotionally (where no one else can see). I feel the feelings, have the justification conversation with myself, throw a pity-party or shed a tear - whatever is required to vent the emotional response I've had. Then I wait for myself to calm down (NB: Sometimes this takes minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days).

Part Two:
Rule #2 of Unpacking Criticism - Honesty is the best policy. Do yourself a favor and admit you don't know everything - even if it's only to yourself.
Once the intial shock / emotional crisis has passed, I review who offered the critique or feedback. Are they further along in the journey than I am? Do they have a vested interest in seeing me succeed? How familiar are they with my genre? Are they published? Are they an agent / editor? What is their experience or knowledge of the craft?

In the vast majority of cases, I am reminded that this person is either a fellow-writer with a genuine desire to help, or a professional with a much sharper, more experienced eye than my own. In other words: I renew my respect for the source.

Only very rarely do I finish this part of the process with a caution to myself that this person might not know an adverb from a gerbil.***

I also take some time to remind myself fresh eyes can catch things a reader would see that I'm blind to and remember how much better I've felt about my story in the past after taking on board some of the suggestions for change from previous critiques.

Part Three:

Rule #3 of Unpacking Criticism -  Any work I do now that makes my manuscript better takes me one step closer to being published.

I sit down with the critique and re-read it, highlighting any points that immediately jump out as 'right'. I make notes on how and where I'll action those points, then sift through the rest.

All other pieces of critique will fall into one of two categories:

The reader doesn't understand! Whenever I feel this way, I'm reminded it's my writing that failed - because no one can read any book except the one I wrote. So either I need to give more information, change my approach, or clarify something to ensure everyone 'gets it'.

I don't want to do that! This is where things get gritty. In the almost-two years of being critiqued by published and agented authors, as well as my agent, I'm finally beginning to see that the majority of the time I'm resistent to acting on feedback, when I boil it down it's because it seems like too much work.

And in almost every single case where that is my driver, the feedback is right.

I can tell myself the story doesn't need that, the character isn't like that, yadda yadda yadda... but the truth is, if other writers / my agent can see it, then an editor will too. What do I gain from pushing my story out there with flaws I know exist? Nothing. Wouldn't it be better to take the time and effort involved to fix the issues before someone who has a shot at making my career reads it?

Step Four:

Rule #4 of Unpacking Criticism – It will be worth it in the end.
Start writing. Do the easy stuff first. When I see how much better the manuscript becomes after that's done, I usually find a second wind for the harder changes. And if I don’t… well, a little hard work never hurt anyone (and is probably good preparation for the revision under deadline I’ll do with an editor)

So that's my process. I don't know how you're doing with receiving critique, but if it's a struggle, I hope this helps.

Your Turn: Where are you at with getting feedback on your writing? Do you have a writer's group? Critique partners? How do you cope with criticism of your 'baby'?

***Exceptions to the rule:

1. When five people have critiqued the manuscript, and only one has noted the point (though it's probably still worth considering since that implies 20% of my readers might have the same reaction.

2. When the comment comes from someone who knows zero about writing and doesn't usually read my genre (this is more of a beta-screening issue - now I'm pickier than I used to be).


  1. Great points here. And remembering #4 is so important. It's worth the hard work to get things right. Best of luck querying!

  2. I just want to say about rule #1: sometimes it's good to respond. It depends on who the critiquer is, but if it's someone I trust I like to ask them some questions to get more clarity on their feedback. You definitely have to wait until your emotional response has settled down, and you can't challenge the critique, but sometimes a well-asked 'why do you think that' can help me decide if their feedback is universally valid or a peculiarity of theirs.

    1. Good point, Blair. I guess I have to be careful in those initial stages otherwise I might start giving vent to some of the emotion. But you're right, there's no doubt it's helpful to find out what led to certain impressions, etc, down the line.

    2. Definitely have to be careful. A friend once told me it was unrealistic that my character wouldn't give up grad school to stay with the man she loved. When I pointed out that in real life his fiancee lives 2,000 miles away and he won't quit his job to be with her, he didn't take it so well. I've learned to be more diplomatic.

  3. Excellent points. I've been drafting a post for next month on this topic from a different perspective, but many of your points overlap with mine so I guess that lends credence to them, right? I couldn't help but nod the entire way through #3. So right you are.

  4. Greetings!

    I'm hopping over from GUTGAA and visiting some blogs before it begins. Nice to meet have a lovely blog...

    Donna L Martin

  5. Ah the double-edged sword of the critique - helpful to pick up our blindspots, but hard to accept we might not have got it right either. I love that you sit and let the emotion go first - that's the hard part for me. But at the end of the day it's about getting all you can out of a critique and making your work the best it can be.

  6. All excellent points, especially #3 & 4. I find that I'm ok with getting my work critiqued, it's the "revising after the critique" that's hard...!

  7. Great advice, as usual. I had to realize that a) if the reader didn't understand something, it probably wasn't their fault. And b) there is absolutely no point in writing a response to their critique explaining what they missed in the story. {And, boy, did I want to!} I figured I should be spending my explanation energy by fixing it in the MS. Hard to control myself, but so worth it. Critique is just there to point stuff out. And I won't have the privilege of explaining a confusing plot to readers {somehow Ally Carter got away with it, but that's about it}.