Criticism is a valuable part of the writing-publication journey. In this business there is no end to criticism and that's not a bad thing. Criticism makes us stronger and forces us to grow. Perhaps one of the most humbling and important lessons I learned was how to take criticism gracefully. Listening to suggestions or negative feedback about your 80,000 word baby is hard. No - It’s FREAKING hard. But it’s essential to becoming a better writer.
This time of year at the DJ we are going through year-end reviews. A big formal way to receive criticism about your work. There are people who are better at this than others. Some bosses pack the year end review with feedback you've never heard before. This type of criticism is a confidence grenade and can leave you in a doubt spiral. Then there are the bosses who are totally upfront. You've heard from them all year about the things you need to work on and you know where you stand.
Luckily, with few recent exceptions, my DJ bosses have been in the latter group. I’m constantly receiving feedback about my work: Like when my boss tells me she hates how I handled the conference call, or my team tells me they think I could do a better job of communicating standards and goals, Or when my peers just flat out think I suck at my job. Receiving criticism can feel a lot like this:
If you received this feedback at the DJ you would never dream of firing off an angry email to your boss telling them how wrong they are. Not if you expect to stay employed, anyway. When it comes to our DJ's we've learned to take criticism gracefully (even if that means going to an empty parking lot where no one from work can see you cry).
Experts at taking criticism gracefully seek the constructive in the negative. The goal is to learn from feedback (no matter how much the feedback hurts to hear).
In writing we have a ton of 'bosses' giving us constant feedback: Agents, Editors, CP's, and Readers. If we are going to make it in the pub world we'll need to learn to turn criticism into improved craft.
I was reminded of this two years ago when I won a crit for a super-awesome-famous-cooler-than-cool HarperTeen editor. I was thrilled and honored to have someone so knowledgeable reading my work.
The editor read my first 25 pages which included a prologue. (*cringes at use of prologue*) I know, I know. But I'd heard all the advice about 'hooking readers immediately' and 'opening with action' so I figured the best way to do that was with a prologue.
The HarperTeen editor said the prologue didn't work in my case. She agreed that it was action packed but stated the reader wouldn't give two flips about the characters or the action because they didn't know the characters. (I'm paraphrasing here because the super-awesome-famous-cooler-than-cool HarperTeen editor was professional, generous, nice and really sweet about the entire thing.)
By dropping the reader deep into the action without allowing them to invest in the characters my 'thrilling' scene was boring and tedious. The editor urged me to reconsider my opening and suggested I start with a normal day-in-the-life-of-the-MC. That way the reader could get to know my character.
I hated her idea. I was a little smug about it too (I'm ashamed to say).
How am I supposed to hook my readers if the story opens with a normal boring day?
I chewed on her feedback (aka criticism) for months. I ran through all the reasons why her idea was bad. Why my current opening was awesome. How I could never make her idea work in my narrative, yadda yadda yadda....until it hit me: the tiny pebble of truth (our in this case a giant boulder of truth). Her idea was AWESOME! It was just freaking hard and I didn't like that. Her idea challenged me and I didn't like that. It meant a huge rewrite of the first half of the book.
When I decided to try the editor's idea I was really pleased with the result. I even did a few happy dances:
Turns out it's possible to hook a reader even if the story opens with a 'normal' day.
It can take time to understand advice that, at first, seems like criticism. If you can master this you'll be successful at anything you set out to do. This is especially true in the wild world of writing where criticism is constant.
Good writers aren’t born, they're made. They train and work hard. They learn and grow. Take this time to thicken your skin and you'll be better for it. Just another way the DJ makes us better writers.
Have you learned to take criticism with grace? What helped you get a thicker skin?