On Criticism and Growing Out of Being Hurt by it

I have entered the next stage of writer-maturity. To be honest it’s a little weird; I can’t tell if this growth is a fluke or the true mark of internal change. It may also, I admit, be a sign of giving up. Let me explain:

Recently I received notes from my agent back on A Curse of Rose and Snow (the sleeping beauty story). You will remember that a revision of the story bumped it up to 100k words. I knew that was too many words, and I expressed that I needed help for where to cut. My agent got back to me with notes about a few small issues in the story (essentially I over-explain stuff), and said she felt we could cut around 15k easily just through working out these issues.

And I felt nothing.

Then we started digging into the ending, and if this big thing that happens contributes to a satisfying ending, or if the changes I’ve made have developed the story in such a way that this big thing is more heart-breaking than the last draft. If we move to the truly satisfying ending it completely eliminates the second book.

And I felt nothing.

Except maybe beaver-like. You know, eager-beaver? As in, I was ready to get to work.

I took my plans to Twitter, where the responses I received were usually cringes at the amount of words I’d have to cut. Writers offered sympathy, imagining how they’d feel if they had to cut that much from their stories.

But seriously, you guys… I felt no pain.

There have been times I cried at receiving notes. I am not the type of person who cries at the drop of a hat (or a plot line, heyo!). But sometimes trying over and over and getting it wrong or hearing it’s just not going to work absolutely takes it out of you. To be fair, the crying thing was with Nameless, and we all know what a saga that’s been. But even the first time I got notes back on ACORAS–even though it was very well-received!–I had to cringe through 15 minutes of feeling embarrassed or just plain bad at some of the stuff it was recommended I fix.

But, 15 minutes later I was over it and eager to make the story the best I could be. This time… it’s like I totally skipped over that 15-minute lag.

Here are my thoughts on why:

This was the year several acquaintances and friends debuted their first books. I have seen the novels of people I know at my local bookstore. I have read negative reviews–hundreds of them, and not just for my friends, but for all the books I’ve read.

I have considered how I will feel and react when my own books come out. If I’ll hide negative reviews from myself, or if I’ll spend days wallowing in misery. I have picked apart my manuscripts looking for things that might annoy reviewers. Not in an obsessive way, but more from a desire to anticipate the future, and prepare against it.

And somewhere along the way I internalized that no book is perfect. I’ve seen the reality of the publishing process, and I know that each book will go through multiple stages of editing, where changes will be made. And sometimes you have to make changes for the good of the book as a product.

Sometimes you have to consent to a cover you don’t like, because the marketing team feels, in their expert opinion, that it will help you sell better. Sometimes your summary on the back doesn’t hit on that point you felt was integral to the plot, but that same marketing team felt their version would get people interested more.

Sometimes you have to change endings, drop characters and plot lines, or even change beloved names. To sell better.

I want a career. I want to be true to myself and my stories, and write the best damn book I can, but I want a career, too. That means accepting that sometimes the things I prefer (Death to ALL the characters! Defiance of genre norms!) aren’t going to excel in the marketplace.

At least, not yet. I look at the careers of authors I admire, and in some cases see where they had to play it safe in order to write dangerously. That’s a future I want for myself.

Sometimes I worry about selling out, especially when I read a terrible book and wonder how on earth it got published (Answer: because there was a market for it, and that’s the simple truth). But I know that I could never do that to myself, my stories, or whatever magical force it is that compels me to write. I can’t not write the absolute best book that is in me.

But compromises do have to be made. And I guess this year I finally accepted that my manuscripts are not just deeply personal works of art, but products. I am proud of them, and they come from me, but I am also willing to modify them in order to get them out in the world, where I believe they belong. So criticism against them, especially from people I trust and rely on, isn’t criticism against me personally. My agent, my friends, my critique partners, and I are all in this together.

I was also deeply affected by this image of President Obama’s marked-up speech draft going around the internet, the caption of which is: You are never too important to be edited.

Even in my deepest thoughts, when I hope that this will be the time everyone comes back and says I’ve written the perfect manuscript with not a word to be changed, it is comforting to know there’s not a human on the planet that doesn’t need to be edited.

We are too close to our work. We have to be guided in the right direction, and told when our desires are too wacky. We must be challenged and pushed in order to make the best stories we can.

Maybe I’m in a good place right now, or it’s hormones, or I spent enough time away from the story, or I’ve read my rejections so many times they don’t hurt anymore. But I feel like I’ve finally accepted this.

And the edits? Painless.

~

I’ll be on Twitter each night giving updates on how many words I cut, if you want to see what losing 15k in a week looks like. Yes, a week. I’m trying to do it in a week. :-)

Tell me about the criticism you’ve received, or a time when even the most kindly-meant notes hurt your feelings. What did you learn from it? How do you handle rejection?

<3, Savannah

9 thoughts on “On Criticism and Growing Out of Being Hurt by it

  1. I think the toughest comment I got on something was “This is character is too much you.” Ouch, that sucked. But when I started coming up with my own character that weren’t based on anybody, especially not me, it became easier to take criticism and learn from my editors/CP’s.

    • I understand where you’re coming from. Way back in the day I was guilty of the whole self-insertion thing, particularly in fan fiction (and, okay, an original work, too). The problem with basing a character off yourself isn’t just the inability to take criticism about them, but the inability to be flexible. Sometimes you have to change a character to make a plot work, and if you’re rigid on that stance then you’re stuck :-)

      Something I’ve really liked is determining the Meyers-Briggs type indicators of my characters. It solidifies these abstract traits I have in my head, and gives me more clues as to how they would react to something, instead of having to rely on a gut pull towards a certain direction. It also really proved to me that my characters ARE different from me (I was called out on self-insertion, too, and I guess in the back of my mind I’m always cautious that it doesn’t happen again, even unintentionally).

      Your comment reminds me of something else I’ve been thinking about lately, which is indulgent behavior in stories. I’ve noticed with a lot of beginners (and I’ve been SO guilty of it myself) that sometimes they have characters go on little rants about stuff the writer dislikes, or maneuver their characters into awkward or non-relevant conversations just to bring up a love of a particular band/actor/etc. I think being able to recognize these indulgences is imperative to take work to the next level. Once you can find the obvious stuff, you can start to recognize plot bunnies or other bits that only serve the writer’s sense of entertainment, and do nothing for the reader.

  2. Great post! And so true. Revising is a long and arduous process, one that requires a thick skin. But, as you said, better to hear it from an agent or a CP than a reviewer.

    Best of luck with it!

    • I feel like I go through thick-skinned phases, lol. If no one’s read my stuff in a while I feel more nervous waiting for their feedback than if I’ve just come off a long string of rejections/criticism.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  3. The worst (and best) piece of rejection that I have ever received was when an agent said that she wasn’t as grabbed by my writing as she wanted to be, and that for that reason, she had to pass. That one really put the breaks on my ambition for that particular manuscript because I came to the realization that it was my WRITING not the plot that was throwing people off. Since then I have been working on project after project, or at least trying to, and I have been attempting to find my voice and a way to present the stories that I want to tell in a way that’ll grab someone right away. It’s a hard path for me to walk, and I’ve hit a complete roadblock muse / inspiration / will – wise, but I have faith that it’ll work out eventually… and I know that you’ll be able to work through cutting 15k words in a week as well. Best of luck!

    • Wow, what a stunning realization. I’m sure that must have been incredibly painful. :-( But on the positive side, at least now you know, and it sounds like you’ve accepted that. I’ve seen a few people who work in the industry and have no accurate gauge of their own writing talent. Now that you know what the problem is you can work on it, and again, it sounds like you’re doing just that.

      In the YA community especially we see a lot of young writers, and sometimes I have to remind myself that in other genres it’s normal to start a career in your 30’s and 40’s. When I learned that one of my favorite writers who I thought was in her 20’s was actually in her 40’s I felt this huge rush of relief. I realized I have /decades/ to get to the level she’s at, and it also really pushed home for me how long she spent working on those ‘talents’. Natural skill is nothing if you don’t develop it.

      It sounds like you’re putting in your 10k hours to become an expert, and with that level of dedication and acceptance there’s no way you’ll not make it eventually :-)

  4. Savannah, this is dead on. I know exactly that feeling you’re talking about. And also your feelings on wanting a career. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Bravo for finding your inner peace. Now get back to work!

    Note: The last line is a reminder for me more than you ;)

    – Liz

    • Haha, thank you, Liz. I appreciate your comment a lot.

      PS: I’m on the brussel sprouts boat, too! My office keeps complaining that I stink up the place with my mind-morning brussel sprout snack, lol.

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