Handling Criticism

If you’re a writer who has ever shared his or her work with anyone else, then you have probably had to deal with criticism at some point. Whether it is from a friend, a member of your writer’s group, your editor, or some stranger on the Internet, you have probably received at least a little criticism, even if the critic in question only pointed out a small typo.

Most writers will tell you they are okay with criticism, yet I’ve seen how defensive writers can get over their work when anyone dares to criticize it. I myself have fallen into this trap before, probably because I secretly wanted to be told how great my story was, instead of where it fails and how I can improve, which is what constructive criticism is all about.

Yet learning how to handle criticism is, well, critical for all writers serious about improving their craft. I believe one of the major reasons I have improved as much as I have over the years is because I’ve had a few people — some friends, some not — bluntly tell me when my stories sucked. If I just put my hands over my ears and yelled “Lalalala I’m not listening!” I would probably not be even half as good as I am now.

Don’t get me wrong. Critics aren’t infallible. They can be mistaken. They can misinterpret your work. They can point out problems that really aren’t problems. They can be inarticulate in their criticism, especially those who don’t usually give out criticism. And sometimes, critics do slam your work for no reason other than to make you feel bad or make themselves feel superior to you.

What you need to develop is a way to distinguish between constructive criticism and what I call destructive criticism. Constructive criticism is meant to help you. The critic wants to see your work get better and wants to see you improve as a writer. Constructive criticism can be blunt and even harsh, but it is ultimately coming from a place of concern and should be listened to, even if you don’t agree with all or most of it.

Destructive criticism, on the other hand, is designed to destroy you. Destructive criticism will sometimes point our real problems in your works, but most of the time a destructive critic is out for your blood. Their criticism is rarely based in logic, reason, or the text of the work itself. They are often far more extreme than their constructive cousins and should generally be ignored if possible.

In short, the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism is the difference between “Your story sucks and this is why” and “Your story sucks and you’re an idiot and should never write again.”

Both forms of criticism are difficult to deal with, as they can sound very similar at times. The trick is replying to them in a respectful and professional manner. You have to keep your feelings — generally pride and anger — from controlling you.

My usual tactic is to wait before replying. I will read my critic’s comment, but will refrain from responding for at least a day. It’s rarely necessary to respond immediately anyway. You will usually make yourself look bad if you reply while in the thrall of your emotions.

After my emotions have simmered down, I read the criticism again. If it is at all constructive, I will thank the critic for pointing out problems I myself failed to notice when self-editing. If I disagree, I will explain why in a respectful and logical manner. If I really can’t respond without making things worse, then I will simply thank the critic and move on.

The writer who can deal with criticism professionally is going to have an easier time getting into the business than a writer who shouts and screams at anyone who doesn’t like his work. Therefore it is important to develop your own methods of handling criticism. This is how I do it.

Do you have any useful tips for dealing with criticism — constructive and destructive — in a professional and respectful manner? Share them in the comments below.

-Tim

Advertisements

Immersive Writing

When I write, it is important that I immerse myself in the characters and world I am writing about. I cannot be a mere observer on the sidelines, mechanically recording the actions and thoughts and feelings of my characters or what their world looks like. I have to force myself to feel what they feel, think what they think, believe what they believe, see what they see, until I can start thinking of them as real people and not just figments of my imagination.

I consider this an essential part of organic writing (you can read about my organic writing process here). Because I don’t have a tidy outline to refer to when I am unsure what to write next, I need to know my characters and world almost as well as I know myself. I need to know what a character would or wouldn’t do under certain circumstances. I need to know what problems might occur in this world.

I rarely start out immersed in my worlds, however. It usually requires time for me to become fully immersed in the stories I write about. I know I have achieved immersion when I feel the same things they do and when I am thinking about my world and characters even when I am not writing about them.

As a result, sometimes the fictional world feels more real to me than the real world. I’m no Daydream Believer. I can tell the difference between fiction and real life. Yet in order to write stories that are genuine, I’ve found I need to blur the differences in my mind, make the dividing line between fiction and real life less clear than it normally is.

In other words, telling myself “It’s just a story, none of these characters are real, none of this really happened” is the most unproductive thing I can tell myself while writing. At the very least, I need to feel that my stories are “real” because if I don’t my readers won’t care about the characters, their world, or the things happening to them.

After all, isn’t that one of our goals as writers? If we are not convinced of the truth of our stories, then our readers won’t be, either, and they won’t want to read. Or if they do read, it’s unlikely they’ll finish or want to pick it up again or recommend it to other people.

Therefore, in order for my readers to believe the truth of my stories, I myself need to feel that my stories are “real.” At least I need to feel that way until the story is finished, anyhow.

How do you go about immersing yourself in your work? Do you find it easy or is it difficult? Do you do anything special to immerse yourself in your work or do you just let it happen naturally while you create?

-Tim

Write Every Day (and how to deal with procrastination)

For the past several years now I have set aside time each day solely devoted to my writing. The time and length have changed over the years, but I still keep writing every day. Currently I write for two hours in the morning; or, if I am working on a finished story, I spend those two hours editing/rewriting what I already have done.

Writing every day is how I get my work done. If I did not write daily, I am certain I would probably not be even half as good a writer as I am now. At least I would have less experience, and experience is possibly the most important commodity a writer can have. Only experience can tell you, with absolute certainty, what does and does not work for you; nothing else is nearly as true or honest as experience. Remember that.

For NaNoWriMo, writing every day is particularly important if you hope to meet the 50k limit. It’s possible to finish NaNoWriMo without writing every day, I suppose, but keep in mind that every day you miss is another 1,667 words you’ll have to write in order to catch up. That can add up quickly; miss three days and you’ll have 5,001 words to write, which is about a tenth of 50,000. If you’re a fast writer you might be able to catch up quickly, but even then, you’d have to work far harder than the writer who keeps up with his daily word count.

Even if you’re the kind of writer who doesn’t write every day — and there are some writers who are like that, though I don’t understand how they get anything done that way — you should consider writing every day for NaNo at least. It doesn’t need to be two hours, like I do. Just find a good time for you to write at and make sure you can always be there to write.

If you decide to start a daily writing schedule — and you should if you ever want to get anything done — then you have to deal with distractions. The Internet is a particularly bad one; there are so many interesting things to do on it, so many cool blogs and web articles to read. It’s even worse because using the Internet can make us feel like we’re doing something related to our work, even though we’re usually slacking off (unless you’re doing some research, although research I think should generally be done outside your writing time unless it is a fact you need to know right away).

I know the distracting nature of the Internet well because I still struggle with it myself. I have found that a good way to deal with the Internet is to check your social media, email, and other things before you write. Do it quickly, don’t spend too much time on any one site, and then when you are done, start writing. It’s not perfect (there is always something new to do or read on the Internet, after all, and it’s easy to think “Just one more website” after I’ve checked out my usual things), but my mind is a lot more willing to focus on my writing when I have dealt with some of my more pressing Internet business.

As far as I can tell, there is no way to defeat procrastination once and for all. All writers — from the masters who have dozens of novels under their belts to amateurs just starting out — must struggle with it their entire lives. Experienced writers probably have an easier time avoiding procrastination than amateurs, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the professionals never have to deal with it. They just know how to handle it better than the rest of us (usually, sometimes, maybe).

As with nearly everything else in writing, go with what works for you. Ultimately, you and you alone know how you can deal with your procrastination. All I can do is offer some ideas that will hopefully help you.

What do you think? How do you keep your attention on your work during your writing time? Know of any good articles, books, or writing resources to help the procrastinating/easily distracted writer?

-Tim