Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When is it safe to ignore criticism of your writing/art?

Hey everyone! In my last post I talked about my excitement for the LDStorymakers Conference in Provo, Utah, and promised that I would eventually blog some of my thoughts and feelings about the experience.

First off, it was AMAZING!!! I had a fantastic time, met awesome people and made great connections. The classes were phenomenal and as I embark on revising my manuscript, I've been doing it with one eye on the notes I took from a few of my favorite workshops.

But of course, not every happy story is without it's hiccups, and oddly enough, one of the WORST experiences of the conference was also one of the most informative. It really made me reflect on my work in a different way and reevaluate what I believed about receiving feedback. And that's the first story I want to share from the conference, mostly because I think it will be interesting to other people.

As a side note, I almost didn't post about this, because I don't want to seem crabby or ungrateful or to suggest that my general experience was anything other than awesome. I've worked through all the emotions that came from this long ago, and can happily stick my thumb sky high, a la Siskel and Ebert, when I sign off about this story. But I am sharing this, because the thought keeps reoccurring that what I learned might benefit someone else.

The First Chapter Contest

Leading up to LDStorymakers, I entered a First Chapter Contest with - you'll never guess - the first chapter of my most recent manuscript. Before I submitted it, I participated with a group of other writers attending the conference, trading manuscripts and offering feedback. It was fantastic! My work improved hugely thanks to their input, and I started making friends, some of which I met in at the conference.

During this process, I received amazingly positive feedback. A number of people told me they loved my work, some even going so far as to say it was the best of everything they'd critiqued for the contest. I was getting such consistently good reviews, I couldn't help going to Provo somewhat hopeful. I knew my category - Young Adult Sci-Fi and Fantasy - would be a tough field, due to it's popularity, but with such an outpouring of affection, it didn't seem unreasonable to think I might win something.

I didn't win anything.

Okay, well... that was fine. Of course I was disappointed, but this had always been a possibility. At least I would find out how close I came. One of the great things about this contest was that every entrant received feedback from four judges. The judges would all be writers in that area who were either agented or published, so that sounded pretty legit.

As one of my dear friends said, maybe I was *just* below placing and they could tell me how to improve. But as my wounded pride grasped for some straw to hold to after losing, I said, "yeah. Or maybe I got three really good reviews and one who didn't understand my work and marked me down so low, I couldn't place."

Guess which one it was?

If you were thinking this was the post where Emily is forced to swallow some humble pie then, HA! That is not this post! You may refer to the post where I talk about my sister not wanting to eat scrambled eggs for that!

As it turned out, I was bang on. I got three very, very high scores and the other? Not so much. To put the numbers in perspective, imagine submitting an assignment at school and getting three A+ grades and one C from four separate teachers. Those were my marks. In a school setting, you would appeal that C and probably get it thrown out. But this was a contest with over 300 entrants and not the sort of thing where appeal boards are set up. The arts don't work that way. If you don't win, you don't win. End of story.

So what do you do with a critique like this? What do you do with critique generally? Let's see if we can unpack some of the dos and don'ts of listening to feedback.

1) Don't Bother with Opinions that come from People who Don't Care about your Work

I think it should go without saying that anyone who attacks creative work or laughs at it or ridicules it or generally points out flaws so that they can make themselves feel better is not someone you should be listening to. No mean-spirited critique is helpful. Also beware of those who describe themselves as "brutally honest." While not universal, most people who describe themselves that way emphasize the "brutal" part more than anything else.

Frankly, I don't believe the truth is inherently brutal. We're talking about creative work here, not nuclear war. There is nothing someone can say to you about your work that can't be stated kindly.

One of the main criticisms I've heard levied at MFA programs is that students become competitive and critiques start turning into attacks. I'm so grateful for the teachers I had who chased away the notion that we were directly competing with each other, because I can admit that it WAS tempting to see things that way. But many of my classmates were creating work so vastly different from mine, it would have been foolish to treat them as direct competition. My classmate who wanted to write about psychedelic drugs was not going to chase my Middle Grade novel about cats out of the market.

So be kind and be helpful. You can afford to be. And even when you are dealing with people within your genre, competing for the same attention, still be kind. You never know when you're going to need those people to help you by blogging about your book release. Like most professional environments, the writing world gets smaller the deeper you get into it.

In return, look for helpful, insightful critique that has your best interests at heart. If someone seems intent on tearing you down, don't listen to them.

That being said, critique often feels inherently cutting, so do beware that just because something HAS hurt your feelings doesn't mean that the person who said it MEANT for it to hurt your feelings. If you find yourself wounded by a critique, try asking them to clarify what they are saying or how you could make it stronger. Sometimes that prompts the kinder, healthier response as they start looking for solutions rather than problems. Ask about how you can improve your work. It also helps you by making you focus on forward progress rather than what might be "wrong" with the project.

Of course, if they follow up these measured, even questions with something rude then by all means, roll your eyes and move on. This is easier said than done. It can be very VERY hard to share your work with the world and any rejection can feel damning. But you'll only get better by listening to people who look at art with an eye towards making it better.

2) Subjectivity is a Thing

So as mentioned above, the arts are unfair. They're inherently subjective and sometimes you draw the short end of the stick. And because the arts are ALSO underfunded, you can't exactly beat your chest demanding a more *fair* result. People do the best they can with the resources they have and the people who run contests of any kind wrack themselves with guilt already over the dreams they may  be crushing.

I've participated in a large number of contests over the past few years - some I've placed in, others I haven't - and I've seen the hosts struggle to massage the egos of disappointed writers as we slump back to our writer-caves. Much of the time, they repeat over and over how subjective art is and how, in another context, our work might be loved.

But in actuality, I've rarely found this comforting. Usually when I've missed out on something, I've been able to explain it somehow, either through feedback or through where I perceive there to be a weakness still. Hard as it is for authors who are starting out to hear, most of the time, you miss out because you ARE missing something, even if that something is small. At least, that's been my experience. Which kind of undercuts this bullet point, but leads us to the next...

3) Always Evaluate Criticism Carefully

It is much easier to write something good than it is to write something that is perfect. I actually tend to pick apart the work I like MORE than the work I don't, because I see better where the piece could go. This is one reason why finding people who like your work to give you feedback can be really important. These are the people who feel a vested interest in making your work better.

But isn't it shortsighted to only listen to people who like your work? Why yes, dear reader, it is! Especially if you evaluate how much someone likes your work by how many nice things they have to say about it. If you have a good relationship with your critique partners, you'll listen when they say "this is crap" or "I don't understand this" or "wanna go get a burger?" (This last bit of advice is extremely important!)

But there are other sources (besides your friends/critique partners) that you should turn to for feedback whenever possible. You should also listen to the Important Strangers. Who are Important Strangers? They are people with some sense of authority in your area who have a vested interest in making your work better.

So for example, I once had an agent write back on a query letter that she liked my manuscript's concept, but thought I used too much dialogue. Or there was the time one of my professors pointed out that "he shrugged his shoulders" can ALWAYS be shortened to "he shrugged" since no one is going to be confused and think someone is shrugging their eyebrows. This feedback is incredibly valuable, as it comes from a higher vantage point than yours. As such, if anything, it should be taken MORE seriously.

And this is why I had a hard time, initially, putting that bad review down. The feedback I got WAS from an Important Stranger and I was used to listening to them. The contest was anonymous, so there's no reason to think this person hated me or didn't want me to succeed. More likely, they just didn't like my work or think it up to snuff, and felt they should give an honest critique for the sake of the contest. There certainly wasn't anything mean-spirited about the comments.

At first, I tried to reconcile the reviews by thinking, "well, maybe this reader is more deeply bothered by my story's flaws. Maybe if I fixed those flaws, then my work would be ACTUALLY perfect!" So I read over the review carefully. But when I lined it up next to the others, I began to realize a disconcerting pattern.

Reviews 1-3: I loved the opening! So brooding and atmospheric! So evocative! I was right there with your characters! The soldiers and caving-in ceiling gave it immediate tension!

Review 4: Boring opening. A leaky ceiling is not interesting.

Reviews 1-3: The style was so gorgeous. You are clearly a gifted writer. The language was so evocative.

Review 4: I don't think this writer knew what the words they were using meant.

Reviews 1-3: I would definitely read on, though I've got a few concerns that need addressing when you edit this. I hope you get this published! It's going to be great!

Review 4: I would not read on. This is not publishable yet. Needs a lot more work.

Clearly reviewer 4 didn't like my chapter. But often the things they were hitting me the hardest for were the things my other readers loved, like my word choice and my opening. And changing those things in order to satisfy that fourth opinion would have essentially meant making my book something it wasn't ever supposed to be.

I wanted evocative language that built tension slowly. This story was about quiet dread, not flashy explosions, so yes, the leak in the roof came first. And three of my Important Strangers understood that and loved my work for it. One didn't.

At various intervals, I've posted about my experiences disliking books or finding ones I hate so much I don't finish them. Some have been classics, and a small part of my brain might even understand why. But at the same time, I do not get the appeal of The Chocolate War and if it showed up in a contest folder for my review, I would probably give it bad marks. If I didn't know it was a classic, I might assume everyone else was busily giving it bad marks too.

4) In Publishing, Nothing is Sacred. Be Ready to Make Painful Changes... Usually

What I relate this all for is to say very strongly that it is not advisable to change your work substantially until you have MORE THAN ONE opinion on it. Even if that opinion comes from an Important Stranger. Of course, if you do have only one review, but that review resonates with you and you DO want to change it right away, that's another matter. But if their words are coming somewhat as a shock, wait for another opinion.

Again, from personal experience, I can say that if something needs to be fixed, you will get enough feedback from trusted sources to confirm that they are right. Querying my first manuscript, I learned that I needed to rethink the way I balanced scene and description. I needed to be more ruthless when deleting "extra" words. I started the book in the wrong place.

I hated rewriting my first book. But when I finished, I was so glad that I did. While that book still isn't perfect, I could see how much better it had become. But in order to get there, I had to be willing to delete scenes and characters I loved. I had to gut large sections of text. I had to reevaluate praise I got in school, because the publishing world didn't respond the same way as my teachers and classmates. I had to admit that some of the "artistic choices" I'd made were the wrong choices.

When I looked at those first chapter critiques, I knew that I'd made an artistic choice with my manuscript, and that choice had lost me at least one reader. But I also realized that for the sake of the project, it was a reader I could live without.  My reviewer assured me that if they found my book on a library or store shelf, they would not turn the pages past Chapter One. And that's okay. I didn't write it for them.

I didn't think I'd come away from that contest with this kind of story. I hoped for a more traditional happy one. But if nothing else, that critique taught me something I hadn't realized I'd only partially believed - that it was okay to disagree with someone who disliked my work. There are situations where it's appropriate to nod, say "that's your opinion" and then get on with life. At the end of the day, it's not worth writing a book unless you love it. There are far easier ways to make money than publishing fiction.

Oddly enough, that bad review only made me more confident in my love for my story. I could firmly say that there were things I wanted that book to be, no matter what someone else said. And that feels pretty darn good.