I remember the first real critique I got. I didn’t write new material for days.
It took time to process it, to decide if I was going to be a self-righteous jackass or a serious writer.
It wasn’t even a bad critique. The critiquer – a professional, by the way, a published author – had good things to say. The writing wasn’t the problem. It was the structure of information in the story. She pointed out things I did well, even things she said I did extremely well.
Feedback can be hard to swallow. It’s like handing over your newborn baby to the doctors for inspection – all you want is your baby back and to be told everything is great.* And one of the reasons we don’t like critiques is that we’re struggling already with our own self doubt and self criticism. We really want our egos stroked – we don’t want our fears validated. But once your baby is published, it’s out there for the world to see. You can’t undo mistakes. Your last chance to fancy yourself up before the prom has come and gone and if the lipstick’s too thick and bright and the make-up gaudy and the dress trampy, well, then you’re the prom ho this year.
Editing, critiquing – these aren’t dirty words. These are the chances you get to review everything you’ve worked so hard for and make sure it’s perfect.
I’d much prefer someone tell me in an edit that I made a mistake than to see it when I’m skimming the hard copy of my finished book.
I was looking over something I wrote months ago, making notes. All those lines, squiggles, inserted words? Those are my notes. Things I want to change. Almost every page I’ve read so far looks like that.
Why, you say? Because it means I learned something in the past few months. It means I can step back objectively from my stuff and see room for improvement.
Authors struggle with hitting the wall of self doubt, no matter how many books they’ve written.
That’s one of the reasons I read author blogs. The refreshing honesty balanced by insight from people who really know what they’re talking about is a godsend, because when you begin this publishing journey it’s pretty scary.
And the minute you get somewhere in your career, all sorts of weird stuff starts happening. Which will be the subject of another blog post some other day, I’m sure.**
But this is why I don’t prop myself up as the voice of knowledge about publishing, because I’m still muddling my way through, still learning, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I still will make mistakes. Routinely, I find the people who assert they know it all often know the least. Listen to the people who’ve been there, not the people who’ve never gone through the process, or – like me – are just starting the journey. At the end of the day, all I’ve got is my experience and my advice, which people can take or leave. And do routinely. It’s the people with 1,2,3,10 books under their belt that actually know this business.
If you go here and click to view the original post, you can read Miss Snark’s recent comments about editing. She talks about sending your work out to get it marked up to be ready for submission, to be ready for acceptance.
Great advice that everyone should take seriously. Even those of us with book deals.
There have been a few occasions when I submitted short work and there was no editing process. I found out after it was published that it was published. That was hard for me to take, as a former journalist. I was used to getting back copy covered in red ink, and then having one more chance to tweak in the production phase.
What have I learned? When you submit your work, you’d best make sure it’s ready.
Now I’ve got friends that are authors I can turn to. And do turn to, shamelessly. I signed my deal and recruited 7 professionals to read the manuscript. It’s interesting hearing back from them, because they don’t all catch the same things, and that’s wonderful. That’s why I’m glad there are 7 of them. Different people have different writing pet peeves, different styles, different experience, and they all push me to make this a better book.
I’m grateful there are people with more experience, with more talent than I that are willing to share their insights with me. I admire the hell out of them, because they’ve proven themselves not only talented professionals, but generous people.
There are those that seem to feel the way to make them feel better about themselves is to kick others that are “ahead” of them in the game. I experienced that with my former writer’s group. I’ve seen it happen to others.
But that isn’t how I feel. I’m just honoured that I get to run with the pack. It doesn’t matter if I finish in the top 100 or the bottom 100 – when my book is published, I’ll have crossed the first line.
Right now I could name several authors in a heartbeat, each struggling with deadlines, with the muse, with major life stuff that’s impeding their writing. I wish I could carry their burdens for them. Each one has helped me so much, so selflessly, and I feel for them. I want the best for them in their lives and their careers.
A lot of people start out on this journey, and only they know deep down why they’re in the game. I’m here because I love to write. Storytelling is a compulsion, a passion.
I started with the goal to get published. Not self-published, but to have someone else believe in the merit of my work enough to invest in it.
There will be other goals later. But this is the first major milestone on my journey.
And a big part of the reason I’ve made it this far is because I listened to the person who told me I could do better, instead of throwing a hissy fit, tucking my tail between my legs and running off, sulking, making up excuses for not writing. I licked my wounds for 30 days, and then I grew up.
Think of it this way. When I worked with children, some days I lost my temper. Some days, I was just tired of the discipline routine. There were days I didn’t give 100%.
But the only days I didn’t get paid for were the ones I didn’t work.
That doesn’t mean it’s okay to slack off on the clock – please don’t misconstrue my meaning. But there were also days I’d try a strategy with a child and it wouldn’t work. I’d assess it, take it to the team (a speech pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, certified teacher, and program facilitator – all educated professionals). We’d discuss it and come up with another strategy to try, then assess the results… That’s the way it went. There was no formula. No absolute certainty that even the plan devised by the professionals would be foolproof.
And if there’s room for improvement in every other job, why would I seriously think everything I write, first draft, is flawless?
It isn’t. My blog posts prove it, but on the average day I can’t be bothered going over them, because this is just me chatting with the world. I’ll spend my time and energy rewriting what’s really important.
I’m realistic enough to know that not everyone will like it. Thank God there are so many different styles of books to meet different tastes. Nothing wrong with that. We find what we like and enjoy it.
But I can at least give people no structural cause for complaint. That the craft is there, the writing is solid, etc. The story might not be for you, and that’s cool. Yours might not be for me either.
For now, I’m taking every last opportunity to re-read my work before it’s set in stone. And shamelessly taking all the advice I get from people who have been so good to me.
Hopefully I can pass on what I learn to others and cheer their accomplishments in time, as well.
My question to you: What was the best advice, or the hardest criticism, you got that later helped you really grow as a person or artist?
Or, you know, we can just talk about the usual. I’m easy.
* Author John Connolly made this observation on his blog, which was down when I was typing this originally. Hence not finishing this post yesterday when I started it. But I’ve re-written it and John’s angle on the baby analogy is a bit different - still worth the read, though.
** Though I’d like to say to those who’ve attacked me that I hope it goes better for you when you’re in my shoes. Truly, because nothing sucks more than being alienated routinely, and when you express frustration over that, you’re the naughty one. It’s a no-man’s land, not yet published but no longer “just” aspiring (as others have put it). You don’t really belong anywhere. I feel more alone now than ever before in this journey, which is really, truly sad. Every sincere good intention is judged, every time you defend yourself you’re unreasonable – it’s so easy to blame someone who must just be getting too big for their britches…
Truth is, I’ve never been so scared, thinking about putting my book out there. Letting go of my baby - a baby I was convinced would never be published.
I wouldn’t wish this petty bullshit on anyone. But I’m also not going to keep bending over for the same people to kick me some more. Life’s too short. Their energy is better spent getting their own publishing deal. Shame they waste it on me.