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Taking Criticism Well

I'm not even trying with this shit anymore. I hate stock photos.

I'm not even trying with this shit anymore. I hate stock photos.

I wrote about rejection a couple weeks ago. You can go read the post but here's the short version: it sucks. Writers deal with rejection for most of their careers. Until you're on Stephen King's level and printing your book is tantamount to printing money, people are going to reject your shit. Readers, agents, editors...the list goes on.

This week I want to talk about something else writers will deal with throughout their careers: notes and criticism. Like rejection, the sting of getting "negative" feedback will never go away completely. But with time and repetition the smarting will fade to a dull hellfire in your chest. And better yet, you'll grow to realize that stabby feeling you get while watching your prized work go through the shredder is actually a good thing!

I believe the mark of a true professional artist is the ability to take notes well. Anybody can write a book in their spare time and never show it to the world. That's fine. In fact, I think everybody SHOULD do at least that. Creative self-expression is a foundation of healthy living. What separates a hobbyist from a professional, though, is the willingness not only to cast their darlings into the void but also to respond a certain way when the void comes back and says, "this sucks."

That's right! It's not enough to find a few beta readers and then argue every point with them. In my college fiction course we were only allowed to say two words while being critiqued. They were "thank" and "you." We weren't allowed to defend our moody and chain smoking protagonists. We weren't allowed to argue the necessity of using the word 'commodious' over 'large.' That's because it isn't the time to defend anything while getting notes. It's the time to listen very hard and very close.

Critical feedback is invaluable to writers. It offers what we'll never have regarding our own work--objectivity. These are our stories. They come from our heads and hearts and therefore are impossible to separate from fully. That's where beta readers come in handy. They march into our delicate word shrines without knowing what we know about the story and characters. They don't have any emotional connection. They, frankly, don't have to give one shit about how important the story is to us personally.

This is why you should treat feedback as an opportunity and gift--not as a dreadful, stomach-turning exchange that ends with hurt feelings. Every note is an opportunity to fix a problem before someone with decision-making powers reads your manuscript. For example: if your beta readers dislike your second act, you have a chance to fix it. If an agent dislikes your second act, they will reject your manuscript. Most agents I've talked to won't read it again, either. Even if you fix it.

As a lifelong gamer it helps when I shift my perspective slightly. Look at it this way. Beta readers are like extra lives. If you bungle your protagonist's arc, then a beta reader will rip him or her or it to shreds, then you lose a life. No big deal. That's why you have more than one. However, when you're dealing with an agent or, more rarely, directly with a publisher, you only get one life. One shot and one first impression to knock their socks off. Why wouldn't you take advantage of all your resources and use up those extra lives by finding some generous beta readers? Mess up with them so you don't mess up with an agent. This is the magic of getting critiqued.

I used to get nervous about hearing feedback on my work. All writers do. It's a completely natural reaction. I'm not lying when I say my whole outlook on the process changed in a split second. Like somebody flipped a light switch in my brain. My friend and collaborator Hershall was giving me notes about the first draft of my script for our flash game The Blind World. I knew he was a talented writer and I valued his critiques. I was also nervous as hell logging into our Skype meeting.

And then, after the first couple minutes, I got it. I understood the point. In my head I reworked the meaning of getting critiqued in the first place.

What you have to remember when you get notes on your writing is the reader isn't the enemy. They aren't a jerk trying to hurt your feelings. If they took the time to read a rough draft it means they must like you as person or at least respect you as an artist. So I starting looking at it like this. Your reader is on your team. They want to see you and your book succeed. Every negative note they give is only their way of saying, "this might be better if you do it another way."

There's a darkly funny irony in how writers are solitary and introverted creatures by nature and yet a key step in their creation process is dealing with direct, unfiltered criticism. I started writing because I didn't have many friends and had commodious worlds filling my head to near-burst. It took me a long time to learn what I currently understand about taking feedback with dignity and humility. Honestly, it's just another tool in the writer toolbox. It's a straightforward relationship. The better you respond to criticism, the better your writing will be.

So get writing. Start messing up now so you'll be good when it counts.

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