Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The C Word (not that, you bunch of pervs! I'm talking about CRITICISM)

No one likes to hear their baby’s ugly. Yet, as a writer, it’s pretty much a guarantee you’ll hear some variation of that sentiment at least seventeen times a day (there’s me quoting science again). Hopefully, if you have supportive critique partners, like I do, they’ll at least soften the blow by telling you how unique your baby is and how much like a BABY it appears. Still, you will definitely hear your work isn’t quite what you thought it was and that it needs improvement.

So how do I deal with this?

For a change, I have more than ‘I don’t know, what do you expect, some sort of advice or something?’ to contribute. 

It starts off with the icky recounting of my first ever writerly criticism. After spending 3 months toiling over my first novel, obsessing over every word, lurking on a writing website and wondering if I should post my work, not posting it because I was too nervous people would hate it, rewriting every single word until I was SURE no one would have a single negative thing to say, I finally posted the first chapter for review. And then I sat back and waited for all the praise to roll in.

That didn’t happen.

My very first critiquer said something very similar to this: ‘No one cares if the sun is shining or if the raindrops fall like dewy tears. Weather is not a hook. It’s boring. Never write about weather in the first paragraph.’  (Just to clarify here, I DID shamefully write about weather in the first paragraph, but none of those examples actually appeared in my writing).

I cried. I cried the whole day. Then I fought against the intense urge to call this guy an asshole, among other nasty things. And then I realized he was right, dammit. Weather is boring! Who likes to read about weather in the first para of a book? So perhaps the guy didn’t have to be so rude about it, but in the end I did receive some real, honest feedback that improved my work. So I thanked the guy sincerely and went to work fixing up my chapter.

Then I wrote another book and got an agent.

What we can all learn from this story in ten simple points:

1.That guy was mean and made me cry. Wahhhhhh!!!!!
2.  Voodoo dolls are handy in cases such as this.
3. When someone has something negative to say, especially if they’re being a crusty old fart about it, it’s easy to become defensive, or worse, lash back at the offending party. When these urges strike, it’s a good idea to take some time to cool off and think before responding. This is key not saying things you will later come to regret, embarrassing yourself, and appearing ungrateful.
4. Sometimes people have had a bad day and it bleeds out into other parts of their life. They don’t mean it.
5.  Find the positive in the negative. You might have to really dig around to find it, but it’s usually in there somewhere. It’s an opportunity for improvement disguised as an insult!
6. No matter how harsh a criticism may appear, someone took the time to read your work and comment on it, and that at least deserves a thank you. BE THE BIGGER PERSON!
7. Hey, sometimes people are just mean. *shrug*
8. Keep writing. Don’t let someone’s criticism of your work turn you away from doing what you love. Look what happened to me—I went on to write another book and land an agent (Have I mentioned recently that I have an agent? I do.)
9. Remember what it’s like when someone is harsh to you, and don’t do it to others. There’s a nice way to say anything. In fact, I think the term is The Shit Sandwich (see diagram above). It's when a criticism is sandwiched by compliments. For example. “My, what an original idea for a book! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book about time traveling squirrels before. You might an edge on the market there. But, one small question: does the squirrel need to speak German? Perhaps a reader would relate more to the squirrel if they could understand him? Anyway, like I said, very unique idea! What an imagination you have.” (note: I never said it was a GOOD idea, so I didn’t lie. Also, I wasn’t mean. Also, maybe time-traveling squirrels ARE the next big thing.).
10.  I only had 9 points. So yeah…


  1. Lol, I love the term the Shit Sandwich. I'm gonna have to remember that. And it's true. It makes it so much easier to stomach criticism when you soften the blow with compliments. I don't think that means we shouldn't ever be honest, but it's all about the delivery.

  2. Every time someone's been mean to me, I'm going to pull out your list (and the voodoo doll) to defuse my high-emotional state. :-)
    It's sometimes hard to take but strangely enough, I've always responded very well to criticism. What does that say about my childhood? I need to talk to my psychologist?

  3. I think, as you alude to, there are different flavours of criticism. I don't mind some with a bit of substance and indeed have learnt a lot from it. It's partcularly evident when you write genre fiction (such as fantasy) as the critiquers 'taste' also comes into play. That sai I think we are all our own worst critics and I cringe at some of the crap I've written before.

  4. you have an agent? : D

    I think the shit sandwich approach is the nice, kind thing to do - as long as it's very clear that shit is shit, know what I mean? It's definitely the right thing to do to find something to praise, however small, but you also need to be sure the message of shitness isn't lost.

    Also, did you google 'shit sandwich' to get that pic? I bet you did : D

    Also, I just used the phrase message of shitness. Giggle.

  5. I agree, Ruth. It's still very important to convey the clear, honest criticism. But depending on how hard the criticism is to hear, the delivery can make the difference between the writer learning something new and giving up on writing all together.

  6. Wow, what a conversation starter! Thanks for all the input, everyone :)

    Definitely critisim has its place and is very important for any writer to improve, so I should have said something to that effect (I'm not a old cow that will cry/use voodoo dolls every time I get any criticism! I swear!) But yes, it never hurts to soften the blow when there's some more harsh or potentially hurtful criticim to deliver by finding something (anything!) nice to say.

  7. Also, yes Ruth, I did google shit sandwich, if you must know! :D

  8. I think Ruth is right - make sure the bun isn't so yummy that you can't taste the shit. So for your German-speaking squirrel story, emphasize that yes, it's unique, but possibly too unique to find a market. Sometimes critters can be *too* nice, which doesn't do a new writer any good either.

  9. Great advice, ED! But who says german-speaking squirrels are the next big thing? :P

    In all seriousness, there's definitely a fine balance between being too nice and too harsh. The key is finding it.

    Thanks for all the input, peoples!