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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