Monday, July 26, 2010

Can You Take The Heat?

"They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a notice- 'Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.'”
**Oscar Wilde

HANK: Yes, it's hot. Outside. Amazingly so. But the heat I'm getting at is when it's hot off the presses. When you finish--or at least, kind of finish--a 'more than a first draft.' And then the first real person reads it. And then someone--a critique partner, or pal, or independent editor, decides to tell you what's wrong with it. (Or, what's right! :-) )

How do you handle cricitism? And do you think we learn that from childhood?

I had a pal once, years ago, who thought she was just wonderful She was so confident! Whatever she did, she felt, was just the BEST.(emphasis hers :-)) But in reality, she was just--mediocre. I mean, fine, but no great shakes. Still, you couldn't tell HER that! She'd never believe it. If anyone criticized her, or suggested she do something differently, she'd just smile and say, how interesting! and go on her merry way.

I had to wonder about this shining shield she seem to have. So I asked her, once, how her parents treated her as a kid.

Did they praise you every day? I asked.

Oh, yes, she said. They always told me I was wonderful.

Mine didn't. Really, rarely. If ever. There was ALWAYS ALWAYS something I could have done better. And I think that's had a huge effect on me.

ANd now, I'm used to hearing "criticism" every day as news director types look at my scripts. Over the years, I've learned that smart, savvy, intelligent "criticism" is the best thing that can happen.

ROBERTA: How interesting Hank:)--no I mean it. I think my urge to improve my writing is stronger than my dislike of criticism--and I hope it stays that way for a long time. I'm not saying I LIKE all the feedback, but I've gotten much better at two things. First, not arguing immediately:). Think it over, figure out what may be true and even if it isn't, what is the reader stumbling over? Second, choosing who I ask to read my stuff. I want readers who are truly honest, but in a kind way. No matter how many books we have published, our little writer egos are so fragile...

As to the childhood question, my parents were not the shining shield kind. They thought we kids were terrific bottom line, but by no means perfect, so I guess that fits pretty well with how I turned out. I think kids might need unconditional love, but not unconditional praise. Encouragement for trying, but help them evaluate realistically how their efforts worked out.

ROSEMARY: Doesn't everyone's mother think they're wonderful? Mine certainly did. I don't know that she armed me with a shining shield, but she did make me think I could do anything - and I still think I can do most things if I work hard (although pitching for the Yankees and dancing with Baryshnikov have recently fallen off the list.)

Sticking to writing..I have no critique partners and no early readers. Sometimes I wish I did, but I can't see myself critiquing someone else's writing so that probably wouldn't work. It's all so subjective. For good or ill I haven't gotten much pre-publication feedback on my first three books. I just go into my little girl-cave and write. Then I send it off.

My last editor made very few suggestions, but she was right about almost all of them. I have a brand spanking new editor for my next book and we'll see what kind of comments I get on this manuscript.

JAN: I think the more professional you become at something, the more you want constructive criticism, and the better you get at balancing criticism with your own mission statement. We had a woman in our writers group a long time ago who wouldn't just accept criticism, she'd gallop off with it. Constantly changing direction, depending on whoever gave her the criticism. That's just as bad as not listening to any of it.

My mother was pretty much equal parts child adoration and criticism, and I'm talking high levels of both. But I actually don't think that has anything to do with how I handle criticism. I think accepting criticism is basically about having confidence, some of which is learned a long the way and much of which is inborn.. It's a nature vs nuture thing. And until I had two children myself, I thought confidence had to do with nurture. Now, seeing one child born confident and the other born sensitive, I'm firmly in the nature camp. The package is there at birth.

HALLIE: What an interesting discussion. My parents thought we all walked on water but they also had a way of rubbing our noses in our OTHER sisters’ accomplishments. Which is one reason why I went off and did my own thing for a long time before trying to do theirs.

I can’t write without readers. I need other people’s perspectives to save me from myself.

Hey, Ro, I also have a new editor. She's wonderful. I just finished going through her comments and revising the manuscript (“Come and Find Me” 4/11 Wm. Morrow).

She suggested edits in almost every paragraph, and gave me 15 pages (!) of substantive comments, numbered 1 to 287.
Sample: "Let’s see a beat here where Diana realizes she should back off."
Sample: "I’d make this more personal; does she have a flash of regret?"
Sample: "Let's make this active."

HANK: Oh, Hallie, that sounds wonderful!

HALLIE: I've never had an editor give me this level of critique, but I'm thrilled. I don’t make every change, but virtually everything gets dealt with, one way or another. And it’s so great to have someone else really engaged in the manuscript. Going through her comments MAKES me really look at the manuscript, line by line, scene by scene, plot point by plot point--which is very hard at this point in the writing process when I can practically recite it word for word.

RHYS: I can't say I love criticism, but I do appreciate good editing. I think that a manuscript needs to be examined by fresh eyes, because often we're blind to our own shortcomings--do I use this word too often? Have I used this device before?Do I make this character sound petty or shallow? My books are read by three people before they go to the publisher and they all contribute something to the fine tuning.

My editors also make good suggestions, but the important thing for me is that they are enthusiastic about my work. Actually I'm still insecure about my writing. You'd think after so many books that I'd have gotten the hang of it by now, but I still don't really believe it's okay until someone else tells me. I keep expecting someone to say, "well the other books might have been fine, but this one falls short." So I hold my breath until the editor tells me she loves it.

HANK: Me, too. Rhys. I just asked someone to read something, and as I told Jonathan: She could tell me it's the bst thing she ever read. Or she could tell me it stinks. And I will believe either one.

So--can you take it? And how do you handle it?

And be sure to come back all this week for more--tomorrow, advice from a pros. Wednesday, an author with a cheesy debut. Thursday, how to get your ms. critiqued! And Friday--of course, something completely different.


  1. Hallie, wow...I'm so jealous. I suppose there's always an element of "be careful what you wish for" but I've got my fingers crossed.

  2. I think grandmothers were invented to provide unconditional support. Parents? Well...

    But seriously, when my daughter was in elementary school, "self-esteem" was a big buzzword. You shouldn't do anything to threaten a child's self-esteem. The net result was, nobody celebrated excellence. At awards ceremonies, almost everyone received some sort of prize (we parents used to joke that the school gave out prizes for walking across the stage without stumbling).

    But if everyone is told that everything they do is wonderful, why should they believe it? Children aren't that dumb. Criticism, delivered properly, helps you improve.

  3. I think some kids DO believe it. And that's one of the reasons ridiculously untalented people are on those talent shows. (I'm not counting the wackos who go on for their 15 mintes.)

    Some--and their parents--truly believe their precious kid is good--and its all the stupid, misguided, unfair judges' fault. Ah. Drives me crazy.

  4. I have only one crit partner, a writer who knows my style very well as I do hers; that's the first reader and I follow most of her suggestions. But after that, I don't share a manuscript with anyone except my agent. But my former agent told me that it's difficult for an agent to suggest edits because many times an editor will reverse the advice! I would love to work with dynamite editor--someone who can take a good story and really make it sing. Criticism from that person I'd welcome with open arms!

  5. I think criticizing well is a talent. Anybody can be snide (even parents!)--that doesn't help somebody improve. Good critiquing has a different motivation--the desire to help--and even the critiquer needs critiquing.

  6. I am in an excellent writers group now. I incorporate nearly all their comments because they are good at helping me craft a better story. They point out where I need to show more deeply how the protagonist is feeling, create more active phrasing, eliminate 2 of the 3 uses of the same word in as many paragraphs, and so on. No matter how many times I read a scene aloud to myself and try to hone it, I miss things that they hear.

    The critic-readers I really like, though, are my two 20-something sons. I value the kinds of things they catch.

    One member of the group, though, while a good critic, seems incapable of accepting our comments. He always has a rational for why he should keep that which others suggest he could change or remove or clarify. Drives me nuts (like, why does he even read to us if he doesn't want to use the comments!). If it stops one of us, it's going to stop other readers.


  7. I'm sure it's nothing my mom did, but for a LONG time, I was one of those writers who absorbed everything ANYONE said and immediately started revising. Over time, I've learned to do two things: filter who I ask to read my work, and filter what I use. I get a lot of helpful critique, but not everything that proceeds from the mouth (or pen) of my critique partners works for me. It's all so subjective. I think--hope--I've found some balance.

  8. "filter who I ask to read my work, and filter what I use" - excellent advice, Susan! It's taken me a long time to get to that piece of wisdom.

  9. I actually never thought of this before, but my writing may be the only place where I actually take criticism well! Of course, you'd have to ask my critique partners to know for sure. :)

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Oh, Becky, that's interesting! Somehow we can compartmentalize "writing criticism" separately from "burned ziti" and "bad hair day" and "relationship with cranky teenager."

    And we just got a GREAT visitor for Saturday. Stay tuned. But lots of great stuff to come before then, of course!

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Susan,
    You are so right. Criticism is all in the delivery.

    And at the risk of sounding sexist, Edith, in the twenty-year run of my writers group, we found -- well let's say a bit of a correlation between gender and accepting criticism.

    We had two men who were terrific. But we had a number who would come to the group, critique others enthusiastically, until it was their turn to be critiqued. After that, they never came back.

  14. What a fun discussion. My mother thinks that everything I do is fabulous. My dad did, too, but somehow they always found a way to say that I was great in a way that told me I could be even better if I kept trying. For writing I have two main readers: my husband, who is incredibly hard on me, in the best possible way and a close writing friend. My work is always better for listening to their thoughts, even if I don't use some of their suggestions.

  15. I had a teacher in 7th grade who told me to give up any idea of writing. Can you imagine? 7th grade? That hurt, the mark is still there. Every time I received a rejection letter, I thought of that teacher.

    So teachers...beware of what you say. Tell your students to strive for excellence, to learn, to hone their craft. Don't tell them they can't. If they really can't, they'll figure it out. And if they have perseverance (like me), maybe they can. I might not be "Nobel" skill, but I do like to entertain and hope that is what I achieve.

    Believe you can is my mantra.

    Mystery Lovers' Kitchen

  16. Hey, Joelle! Lovely to see you! And you too, Miss bestseller Avery!

    JAn, that is a GREAT story. Can you use that in a short story, somehow? It seems so ripe for something...

  17. The first time is the hardest! I was crushed after my first critique at my Chicago-North RWA meeting. Then I came to look forward to learning what was wrong with my manuscripts and how I could make them better. It's also a learning experience to figure out how other people's manuscripts can be improved.

    Morgan Mandel