Books by Melissa Bowersock

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Consider the Criticism

Nobody likes getting criticism, at least nobody I know. It’s painful. It’s debilitating. It’s confidence-destroying.
I think it’s pretty normal to want to dismiss criticism out of hand. Bah, what do they know? They haven’t published 15 books. They haven’t been in this business for over 30 years.
The other alternative is to take it all together as a soul-crushing package and think your work is terrible. Who were you kidding? You can’t write. Look at that critique. It’s over. Done with.
Not so fast. There’s a middle road. There’s a demilitarized zone somewhere in the middle where you can walk safely between hubris and defeat.
Consider the criticism.
I know it’s not easy, but take every single comment, every single critique, and hold it up to your story, like holding up two typewritten pages, one on top of the other, to the light of a window. See how the criticism lines up with what you’ve written. Does it make sense? Is it valid? Does it make a point? If it doesn’t, then you haven’t lost anything by considering it. If it does, then you stand to gain. If the truth is that the criticism has hit its mark, that’s to your benefit.
I am reminded of an excellent book called The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women (1979 Sally Miller Gearhart).It’s a wonderful bit of feminist utopian literature about a time when women have broken away from civilization, gone out into the wilderness to live without men and without men’s aggressions and  intrusions. There’s one point in the book where two characters are at loggerheads. A mediating cooler head asks them, “Would you be willing to yield?” Not, “Would you yield?” but only, “Would you be willing to yield?” Would you consider it? Would you be open to the possibility? Just being willing to yield opens the door to all manner of options, all manner of conversations, all manner of communications and resolutions. It’s a first step. From there, you may step forward, or you may step back. But you’re not locking yourself out of any options.
One point to remember: bad spelling and bad punctuation are never okay. If you’ve got mispelt werds and incorret puntuation, in your book, you’re making the reader work twice as hard to figure out what you’re trying to say when they should be gliding along on your words. This is one area that I would say is non-negotiable. If the mistakes are in there, and someone has been good enough to bring them to your attention, fix ‘em.
The rest of criticism is grayer, less black and white. However, if you get the same reaction from more than one reader, you might want to take a good long look at that aspect. If more than one beta-reader or reviewer says they had trouble following your dialog, understanding your characters’ motivation or feeling empathy for them, you might want to revisit that. One of the largest disadvantages to being a writer is having the entire story (including backstory) in your brain, while you’re only parceling out bits and pieces to the reader. Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re giving the reader enough or too much. If you’re getting frequent complaints about similar issues, look closely at that. Please.
Consider it.
Then, after all that, you’re the final authority. Only you know what the story is, where it goes, what it wants to say. Only you know what your characters want, need.
I once had a publisher try to change the way my main character spoke. The character repeated herself. It could be annoying. She had very low self-esteem, very low self-confidence, and she felt she needed to justify every decision she made. The way she spoke embodied the way she felt, deep down in her soul.
But I considered what my publisher said. I imagined changing the dialog. I imagined my character not being quite such a pleading doormat.
It didn’t work.
The style of her speech told us who she was. It revealed, in its tentative way, how she felt inside, what drove her. It showed us who she was.
I didn’t change it. But I did consider it. And that same publisher made some other suggestions for changes with which I did agree. I’ve gotten to the point that I find myself comfortably taking roughly half of the suggestions given to me.
Getting criticism is never fun, but it really could be doing you a favor. Criticism just could be the grit that polishes your work to a brilliant shine.
Have the guts to be willing to yield.

Originally published by Indies Unlimited on July 29, 2014.

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