Friday, October 10, 2014

About Those Trolls…

Merry Farmer’s piece on Monday struck such a chord with me that I felt compelled to further ponder the role fear plays as we writers embark on and pursue our careers.

Like Merry, I dreaded public criticism of my work. Even the idea of private trashing made me cringe. Why? I harbored a deep-seated fear that my dream would be crushed. That dream of becoming an author, nurtured since childhood, was still quite fragile. Also, the book’s secondary theme, domestic violence, contained scenes of abuse based on real incidents—mine and others.

Because the cost of an editor at that time was well beyond my means, I joined a writers’ group to get an evaluation of my manuscript from objective strangers who would likely be more open and honest than family or friends. However, I was emotionally connected to the story in ways that worked against my ability to handle harsh criticism and was too inexperienced to appreciate the difference between constructive critique and personal attack.

The lady who had formed the group was young and unpublished and had recently embarked on her adult life with a husband and babies; at that time, I was probably older than her mother. She was also very opinionated—or so I perceived—and quite vocal about those opinions. Long story short: her blunt comments and insistence that I had not written the story I really wanted to write blindsided me and almost ended my career along with my dream.
kamuelaboy via morguefile

Now, nearly two decades later, my take on her painful words comes from a different place. Did she share her review with others? I don’t know. Was I overly sensitive in my reaction to her criticism? Probably. The critique—3 or 4 pages long, single spaced, and very thorough—was extremely well written and definitely deserving of more consideration than I gave it at the time.

Was she a troll, out to shred my five-years-long effort to produce novel number one? Did she intend to end my writing career before it even started? Then I might have said yes, but now I know otherwise. Was the book published despite her exposure of its significant shortcomings? Yes. Self-pubbing allows that to happen. Did it get rave reviews to offset her critique? Family and friends posted some nice—although somewhat biased—comments. How do I feel about my story now? The basic story remains good, but it needs major work. I’ve pulled it out of circulation and plan to rewrite several parts of it this winter. Will I make my subplot the main theme as she suggested? No. However, I may write the sequel that was part of the original plan, and in it the secondary character she insisted should be my protagonist will finally fill that role.

Lessons learned:

Most critiques are not missiles aimed ruthlessly at the hearts of writers and should not be feared.

We are often emotionally tied to our works. The keynote speaker at a writing conference several years ago stated that our works are not our babies. He was a guy. We women are often more sensitive about our stories and our characters—our books are our babies.

Serious critiques deserve consideration. Will they always be right? Not necessarily, but that doesn’t make them wrong either. On the other hand, reviews on Amazon or similar sites should often be taken with that proverbial grain of salt—or ignored altogether.

The road to full-fledged author status from fledgling writer is a journey. Journeys have bumps and detours, but a good map and an unwavering belief in dreams can keep us on the road. While reaching our destination doesn’t guarantee huge success, it does offer the satisfaction of a job completed and the promise of another trip should we opt to take it. Hopefully, lessons taught by the chuckholes in the first journey will result in a smoother ride the next time.

Are you emotionally tied to your work? Are you devastated if anyone suggests your baby is less than perfect? Has negative criticism increased your determination to create a better work, or has it undermined your belief in yourself as a writer?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at www.denvereditor.com.

24 comments :

  1. You gave a great recap of then and now. I agree with what you said but people sharing critiques can also use tact instead of attack.

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    1. Absolutely, Susan! Unfortunately, we can neither dictate nor legislate tact.

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  2. Criticism or critique, that is the question. I can get my dander up too. I feel sometimes that the critic doesn't really understand my message. THAT should be the first clue that my writing wasn't what it should be, right?

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    1. Right. Of course, knowing something is wrong doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with knowing how to fix it.

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  3. Critiques can be a mixed bag. In our group, the Ladyscribes, we are all good at over all critiques, but each of us catches things the others don't. I'm good at structure, another is good at feeling and motivation, another is good at spotting things that contradict one another or don't make sense when put together that are placed far apart. We each bring different talents to the table. We don't always agree with each other. We have lively debates at times. What we take away is if more than one of us had an issue, we listen. We may ask for ideas on how to fix it or come up with our own. We know that the advice comes from a place of friendship and love - and that you can't buy. You do need other people to read through your work who know what they are doing. They don't have to be writers necessarily, but they have to have a good understanding of structure, motivation, feeling, and language use to be abe to help you point out the things you miss because you are too close to it. Fear of criticism and failure can be crippling. Don't let it hobble you.

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    1. This is true teamwork, Diana. Consider yourself very fortunate to be a part of Ladyscribes. I would be thrilled to join (or even start) a similar group.

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  4. I've always coveted a group like LadyScribes - how did you pull that group together, Diana. Have you shared that with us?

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    1. Agreed! This would make a great post for all of us.

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    2. I don't think I have done a post about Ladyscribes. I can.

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  5. Great post, Linda. I think we all had much more sensitivities early in our careers and faltered in the face of a negative critique. I know I did. What I learned by being in groups with professional and diplomatic writers, was how to separate comments about my work from me personally. Because we are so intimately involved in our work, that is hard, but in time we can learn how to make that separation and benefit from an honest critique.

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    1. Definitely. Too bad we have to go through that learning process...it can be a real downer. So now I'd love to find one of those great groups. :-)

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  6. I've been with the same on line crit partners for at least 5 books now, I think. We're "kind" to each other but normally only point out flaws, and most of us are OK with it, because we want to know how to make our work better. We do toss in the occasional smiley face, but nobody feels bad if the critique comes back with nothing but things to fix... we've learned to assume that all the places with no comments are as good as smiley faces.

    I've started paying less attention to reviews, although I love getting the good ones. For the negatives, it's all about hoping that readers will pull what they need from them. If I get a 1 star review because there's too much sex, then that actually becomes more like a 5 star review for readers who want sex.

    The more reviews a book gets, the more spread the ratings, because nobody can please everyone. I just checked the Amazon site. Their #1 best-seller in the Kindle store is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It has 24,875 reviews (I'm ecstatic if I approach 100!) The breakdown:
    5 star = 9938
    4 star = 6990
    3 star = 3839
    2 star = 2037
    1 star = 2072

    Write the next book!

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    1. It has been said that bad publicity is better than no publicity. Do you suppose that applies to reviews, too?

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    2. Definitely -- in today's market, quantity is as important as quality, I fear, when it comes to promotion .. saying "24,000 Amazon reviews" says a lot of people have bought and are reading the book, so maybe I should check it out.

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    3. A lot of people loathed Gone Girl, yet it was made into a movie and went viral because people loathed it. I did not read it, but I've read the rest of her books and she is a brilliant wordsmith IMHO, though her characters are anti-heroes.

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  7. Linda, I, too, was subjected to intense criticism by someone I considered to be a friend. One who told me I wrote "crap". For years after that, I continued to write my stories, but kept them on disks in a drawer, safely hidden away. It wasn't until my husband convinced me to go ahead and try to get them published ("You won't know if they're any good until you try."), that I consented and sent them out. And they were contracted. Sometimes, all you need is a little encouragement from the right source.

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    1. You're so right! Count your blessings that you have such a supportive husband. And congrats on the contracts. :-)

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  8. It's amazing how when I think I've done my best on a manuscript, when I read it to the critique group I learn things I could have done better. It's good to have fresh pairs of eyes looking it over. Even those who are not as familiar with writing can still find things missing that the average reader would also notice.

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    1. This is true. Another set (or several sets) of eyes can be invaluable. I'm always astounded at the things I've missed...I'm an editor, after all. On the other hand, I'm also a writer, one too familiar with my own story and characters, and I know exactly what the books says -- or is supposed to say -- and that's what I read when I'm proofing.

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  9. Linda, Your piece is a reminder of something I have learned as a workshop instructor and coach. It is not only important for someone receiving feedback to remember that it is likely not intended as an attack, but also for someone giving feedback to remember that it can be heard that way. One practice that I've found critical in my work as a teacher, editor, and coach is to take personal responsibility for my opinions and emphasize the first person. So, rather than saying, "You should do this," or "You didn't do that," I would say, "I'm confused here," "I would like to know more about this," or "As a reader, it might help me if I..." This way, it's clear that my reaction is not about the writer and that I know only the writer can decide if there's anything he or she wants to do about it.

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  10. Good approach, Cara. Validating the writer as the decision maker goes a long way toward creating confidence, and it generally promotes a positive rather than adversarial working relationship. During my years as an editor, I took a similar approach with writers to (hopefully) avoid situations that had nearly stumbled me out of the career that I now genuinely love.

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  11. A blog all writers, I'm sure, can identify with, Linda. Well expressed.

    I once put one of my books in for a critique swap, something that one of the sub-groups of Sisters in Crime do. I got something back after He, yes it was a Mister, said he couldn't finish the book. His comments were so vitriolic. The structure was all wrong, and he named other things wrong with it. He read 30 pages. Meanwhile, I read 95 pages of his, which detailed the first five pages of the book explaining the death of a school printer. I was devastated. I put the book aside, but I did tighten the beginning. There's a rather long set-up that is necessary to the story. I cut some extra stuff, which I believe I would have done anyway. I agonized over the book, because I really liked it. Granted, it's the slowest of my books, more mystery than thriller, but it also has 176 reviews with a 4.5 average. I think it's one of my best.

    I've had the same two critique partners for years. We don't critique all together. We're pretty straightforward, and we know each other so well that no one is ever offended. I feel fortunate to have them both.

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  12. Another vote for the value of great critique groups/partners. Devastating as the wrong folks may be and as hurtful as crushing negative feedback feels, we have to remember that we can't please all the people all the time. An average of 4.5 out of 5 for 176 reviews speaks for itself. :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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