Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dear Author, Don’t Quit Your Day Job

I’ve come away pretty much unscathed from the judging of the first two few rounds of the “Fresh Blood” finals (and for more about the contest and my entry, please see my previous post, Fresh Blood. Who me?). That’s not to say I haven’t gotten criticism, because I have, but it’s been mild and quite constructive. Some of the other contestants haven’t been quite so lucky.

We were warned at the start of the finals that the judges were prepared to “pull no punches” (to quote the copy on the website). Their point, in part, was that if an author isn’t prepared to handle editorial criticism, no matter how rough, then maybe this isn’t the place for him or her.

I think it’s a fair point. Criticism, sometimes brutal, is a part of this business of writing. And though so far in this contest I’ve escaped the worst of it, I’ve received my share of the tough stuff. It’s funny, too, because as a writer actively pursuing publication, one of the comments I get the most is about putting myself out there and opening myself up to so much criticism.

Truthfully though, taking the criticism is not nearly as hard as some people believe. I think being a short story writer for so long now has prepared me well to handle it when it comes my way.

Take, for example, my critique circle. One of the best things that ever happened to my writing was a critique group that I joined a number of years ago. The group had a zero sugarcoating philosophy. Criticism was served raw.

It was sometimes brutal. It was the kind of group where, when you opened up your critique, you needed to sit down, inhale deeply, and find your center before reading what your critiquer had to say. It was also wonderful. If you got praise, you knew it was genuine, but the criticisms, once the cringe effect wore off, helped me polish my fiction (particularly since even now, with the group mostly defunct, I still hear their voices in my head sometimes as I’m editing). It also helped prepare me for the criticisms that often come with rejection of a submission and--dum da da dum--even after publication.

I’ve received plenty of editorial criticism over the past few years. In fact, my favorite rejection letters (which I call “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” letters) are the ones that say: we didn’t like this because... The bottom line is that personal criticism, no matter how rough, is something to appreciate. For one thing, it means that an editor thought enough of your work to respond personally. For another, it sometimes contains a gem of wisdom that can potentially mean the difference between the next response to a submission being a rejection or a sale. That said, my one caveat (to myself and other short story writers) is to trust your instincts. Just because a criticism comes your way doesn’t make it automatically right. Ultimately the short story (or poem or novel or essay) is yours and you need to make the final decision as to what’s right for it.

Post-publication criticism is the one area I’d never considered before I actually received some. Sure novels get reviewed…but short stories? Apparently, short stories too.

For me, that post-publication criticism has always been the hardest to take. Maybe it’s partly because the sale itself feels like an affirmation that a story has merit, so to hear someone else say, “Nah, didn’t see anything to this,” is difficult. I had one critic call a short story of mine “pointless.” Wow. That was rough.

But for me, it’s also difficult in part because while I might end up agreeing with the criticism, I can’t change it. For example, recently someone who reviewed a short story of mine, “How We Fly,” (Abyss & Apex, 1st Quarter 2010) criticized that I’d used the same simile several times in the course of the story. They were absolutely right in their complaint. I went back and searched my document only to find that I’d used the word “vellum” four times. Yikes. It wasn’t intentional. In all the edits that story went through--and there were quite a few--I never noticed the vellum overload. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it, which makes that criticism very hard to bear.

Ultimately, as writers, criticism is something we have to learn to live with. Some people say that writers need to be thick-skinned, to let the criticisms just roll off of them. While I understand that, I disagree. I think our skins needs to be porous. I think we need to hear the criticism, absorb it, mull it over, and then either take it or let it go, and then move on.

Besides, there’s one thing of which I’m pretty certain. There’s probably nobody out there who’ll be as critical of my work as I am.

So if there’s rough criticism coming my way in the “Fresh Blood” contest, I say bring it on! I’ll welcome it, if only for the fact that it would mean I’ve made it through to another round of the finals. Moreover, I’m ready and eager to hear what the judges have to say, both positive and negative, because while there’s a one in five chance that I’ll win (odds that I love) there’s a four in five chance that I won’t, and I plan to take away whatever I can from this contest. While I may not win, there might just be a piece of advice somewhere in these rounds that will help me to make my novel even stronger and result in a sale the next time out.

2 comments:

  1. I agree, criticism is essential to honing the craft. Bring it on, as brutally honest as possible so I can fix what needs to be fixed.

    What's odd is, until reading your post, I never gave a thought to post-publication criticism - where the faux pas will likely hang out there forever. Now, that terrifies me.

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  2. What a great attitude--and I love the porous comment--it's true... if it just rolls off, we don't learn from it. We need to have thick skins for those blanket query rejections, because on THOSE, who KNOWS the reason-but if there is an actionable item, it is worth considering, whether in the end you decide to work with it or not.

    I publish scientifically, so I feel like when I get there, it won't be as bad as for somebody who hasn't stared at a review, but my query group has all been (helpful, but) fairly gentle--possibly because we all started together, and I am now farthest in the process.

    Anyway, I'm glad to realize you are blogging!

    Hart

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