Fourteen people sit around a table. The room is spare, decorated with only a few New Yorker posters and a splash of yellow paint. Every so often, an ambulance screams by. We’re just a few blocks from Times Square. The mood is intense, thoughtful, and occasionally very loud. This is the novel critiquing class I’ve been teaching for Gotham Writers Workshop for almost 10 years. Over that time, I’ve read hundreds of manuscripts and met as many writers, and one thing I can say definitively: A writer’s success depends on how well she can absorb and deal with criticism.
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Which is not to say that dealing with criticism is easy. I’ve been on the receiving end of it for as long as I’ve been a writer, which is a long time. It always hurts. No matter how pleasantly or kindly someone gives it to you, it stings. And it never ends. You manage to get an agent. She criticizes your work (however thoughtfully). Then your agent manages to sell your novel. The editor criticizes your work. The book is published. Reviewers criticize your work. Every day you can go to Amazon and see exactly how people feel about you and your writing. And some of it is so unfair. A person gives you a one-star review because your protagonist is a Sunday school teacher, and she finds that old-fashioned. Well, excuse me. Another one gives you four stars because your protagonist is a Sunday school teacher and she finds that intriguing. Fabulous. Another one writes a really insightful critique that hones in on all the things you were worried about. Oh dear.
So how do you deal with this? Short of curling up into a ball, what are you supposed to do? Here are some tips I’ve found useful:
And by listen, I don’t mean agree. But I do mean you should try to hear what the critiquer is saying without formulating a response in your head. For example, someone tells you that she doesn’t understand why, in chapter 10, your protagonist, Bethany, doesn’t call her mother to tell her she’s leaving for Colorado the next day. Now, you know for a fact that you mentioned this very exact detail in chapter 3. You can point it out. You can print it out if there’s any doubt about you being right. You have an answer for every single criticism raised. But the problem is that you’re so busy rebutting the criticism, you’re not hearing the underlying issue, which is that the reader was confused in chapter 10. She might be right or wrong. But you should go back and look at chapter 10 and read it with fresh eyes. Keep in mind that when your book is published, you will not be able to stand in a bookstore and answer every last question a reader has. The book has to speak for itself. Sometimes you can be right and wrong at the same time.
2. Write down notes.
I find being critiqued a harrowing experience. My beautiful words that I have treasured and nurtured for years are now being flayed alive like something out of Game of Thrones. It’s overwhelming. My mind tends to hover over the ceiling like an out-of-body experience in surgery. I need something to ground me, and I find writing words down helps. It tethers me, gives me something to do with my hands and, more importantly, something to do with my mind. One thing I know for sure is that I won’t remember what people said. I’ll stick on certain phrases, forget the rest. In my class, I always ask students to write down notes on the page. Then go home and review them. Think about them.
Set the manuscript aside for a bit after it’s been critiqued. A day, a week. A little longer. (Not too much longer!) Dealing with criticism takes time. You have to absorb it, process it, heal. Sometimes I’ll have a student who has just received a fairly intensive critique. Massive amounts of work are required, and yet, the next week she’ll show up and ask me to read it again. “Fixed it!” she’ll crow. My heart always dies a little bit when that happens. It cannot be done. These things take time. Do not go home and immediately change everything that everyone suggested. You must digest the criticism. If you make soup, you will know that when you first put all those vegetables in the water, they just sink to the bottom; all you have are hot water and boiled vegetables. But, after several hours of simmering, the flavors merge and the soup tastes delicious. You must let your mind simmer!
Say one of the critiques was that your character isn’t likeable. So you decide to give her a dog. Fair enough. But you can’t just type in some random dog. You have to think for a bit. What type of dog would your character own: a rescue German shepherd or pampered Maltese? How old is the dog? Trained? Does she like strangers? What type of dog did your character have growing up? Or perhaps she could never have one. Do you see how all this ruminating gives you an opportunity to flesh out your character? But it takes time.
One of my favorite things to do is read the Contributor’s Notes in the back of the Best American Short Stories series. In these little sections, each author writes about how she came to write her prize-winning story. Invariably the author will have been inspired by some small act and then puttered around with the story for a long time. For example, writing about “Ike, Sharon, and Me,” Peter Ferry reveals that his story “has been bumping around my head, my heart, and my portfolio in various shapes and forms for about 30 years.” Now that’s simmering.
4. Use the criticism to become a better writer.
If you’re told that your writing lacks description, try setting aside time to work on that. Roam around your neighborhood looking at people and buildings, and jot down notes. Keep a journal. Trying to improve your dialogue? Take a train and eavesdrop. Or watch TV and take notes on what characters say and how they say it. Are your characters flat? Fill out dossiers for them. Plot boring? Challenge yourself to come up with twists and turns. Make a list of the worst things that might happen to your characters. The good thing about the craft of writing is that it can be taught and it can be learned. Whether any of us are destined to be the next Toni Morrison is uncertain, but we can be better writers. We can make Toni Morrison proud, hopefully.
5. Think big.
Oftentimes, students will respond to a critique by trying to do the smallest amount possible. They cling to the manuscript as though it were a life preserver and shave off little bits and pieces of it. Don’t do that. Be bold. Shake it up. This is your opportunity to do something really special. The world does not need another mediocre book. Maybe that means cutting out a scene you love, or a phrase you love, or changing your protagonist to a woman, or moving the whole thing to Bangkok, or starting at the end. As Jean Luc-Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from but where you take them to.” Don’t you want your manuscript to be as good as it can be?
6. Consider the source.
Not everyone gives valuable criticism. For you, that is. Some people just don’t connect with your work. Some people won’t like the genre you’re writing in. For example, I write mysteries, and there are people who simply do not take that seriously. So any criticism they give will be slightly sneering. Some people don’t yet have the tools to critique your work. Some people are just mean, and some people are having a really bad day. A woman finds out her son ran off to a cult on the day she’s critiquing your manuscript about running off to a cult. Her notes are probably not going to be happy. Some people get your sense of humor, others don’t. Some people like your style of writing. Others don’t. Then there are those people who simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Probably not as many people as you think, but there are some. All of which is to say that people vary. One of the important things to do is narrow your circle of critiquers down to those who you trust. Which does not mean narrowing it to people who have only nice things to say about your work. Find that balance of rigorous and supportive criticism that works for you. Ideally you walk away from a critique feeling inspired, not suicidal.
7. Don’t take it personally.
This is almost impossible to do, particularly when you’re just starting out, but it is so important. I have certain students who I consider friends. They’ve been in my class a long time. I think they’re fabulous. But when I critique their work, I’m thinking about their words, not their personalities. I’m trying to help them get to where they need to be. It’s easier on my side of things to realize there’s a difference between the word and the person, but it is true. Of course, sometimes a critique actually is personally insulting. My Maggie Dove character in my mystery series shares certain similarities with me. She’s about my age, we are both Sunday school teachers, we live in small towns, and we both suffered from grief for a long time. I was at a book club, and a woman starting ripping into Maggie Dove and saying she just couldn’t understand why she couldn’t get over herself, and it was all I could do not to smack her. Then there was the other woman who wanted Maggie Dove to fall in love with someone. (I did listen to that, for those waiting for book three.) But the point is that whenever you put your soul on the page, you run the risk that someone is going to stomp on it. So you have to build up a bit of a tough skin.
This is your opportunity to do something really special. The world does not need another mediocre book.
One thing we do at Gotham Writers, which I think works well, is we use a “boothing” technique to try and take a little of the sting out of the criticism. The person being critiqued goes into an imaginary booth. (They don’t actually move.) Once the writer is in the booth, we don’t refer to her by name. She becomes “the author.” It is psychologically much easier to hear, “The writer needs to work on her description,” than “Susan Breen needs to work on her description.”
8. Pay attention to the positive things people say.
So much of a good critique is figuring out what you do well. If you write absolutely fabulous dialogue and everyone is always telling you how wonderful it is, you probably want to have a lot of dialogue in your manuscript. Focus on your strengths. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an iota of description in there, but you do want to put your best foot forward.
9. Embrace it.
First, and last, keep in mind that only true writers are criticized. If all you have is a blank page or an idea in your head, no one is going to have much to say about that. So just the fact that you have something out there is praiseworthy. Give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it. And I mean that seriously. I’m always telling my students, “You’re in the game now.” There is no writer on this earth who has not been criticized for something. Look at Leo Tolstoy’s Goodreads reviews. More than 13,000 people gave Anna Karenina a one-star review. (Some people were really bothered by the ending.) But the point is that Tolstoy wrote something transcendent, whether those 13,000 people see it or not. Focus on your own genius, absorb the criticism, and you’ll do just fine. I promise!
Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series, published by the Alibi imprint of Penguin/Random House. She teaches at Gotham Writers in Manhattan. Web: susanjbreen.com