Wanted: Writer with Armor-Thick Skin

Believe it or not, I am participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this month (that’s a scene set-up; this is not about Camp) mainly because NaNo has made camp more flexible this time around: you can set page goals if you need to edit instead of write. And, I’m in edit mode. A fierce edit mode. This may become a tear-down-to-the-studs renovation. (I can’t help it; I’m a home-improvement show addict and DIYer.)

Why? Because in the past few months, I’ve received beta-read critique and post-contest critique on my manuscript for my first novel. And now, in the middle of Camp, and of edits, I find out from these critiques that I need to start over. My beginning  (revision 3.1.3) still needs work. A lot of it.

I’m no stranger to critique. I’m a writing teacher, and I’m mean (or so I’ve been told) — a descriptor which I love because it means I’m doing my job and not coddling your kids’ fragile emotions *insert evil genius grin here*. I’ve also been writing for quite a while –since I was 12–and I’ve been in more than my share of critique groups. But this is a novel that I’m going to publish. Something that ultimately is my expression of my imagination, but something that I am trying to sell to a reader. So, it has to appeal to said reader. And if said reader doesn’t like it, that means my work trying to publish it is for naught because no one will want to buy it.

And here’s where the Armor-thick skin comes in. It’s one thing for someone to say “we are going to pass on your novel.” It’s quite another for someone to say, your work sucks, and here’s a list of reasons why.  That can hit you like a bolt of lightning: sharp, painful, and potentially life-ending. Or you can dial down the drama and process it for what it is: constructive criticism. Yes, it can be harsh, but it’s not lightning. You can fully recover. Here are some tips how.

1.) Realize harsh criticism is better than no criticism. I always tell my students this quote before peer reviews start: “the worst thing someone can tell you in a peer review is that something’s ‘good’. The SECOND worst thing they can say is that ‘it sucks.'” Why ? Because at least with ‘it sucks’ you have a direction in which to go. It’s got to be changed for it to be better. With a simple, “it’s good!” you have no direction on how to make it great, and no direction on what isn’t working, so basically that’s no help to your writing.

2.) Ask for more. So there’s an obvious reason why (because more criticism equals more guidance), but that’s not why I’ve included this tip. The tip here is a boxing metaphor: after you’ve been gut-punched, take a breath, get off the ropes, and get back in the fight. Here, if someone’s given you constructive criticism where you need to make significant changes, make your revisions, and send it back out for another beta read or critique. If you get positive comments, you know you’ve fixed your issues. Personal example: I knew something was wrong with the beginning of my story. I sent it for beta reads for other things, but the critiques I got were mainly about the beginning. I made changes and sent it out for another critique. I still have issues with the beginning, but now I’ve got even more specific feedback. And the things I added between reviews were praised! So, I know I’m on the right track.

3)Find some good in the bad. I’m finding that the harshest critiques come with the most guidance. I don’t know if it’s because they want to help or they are rewriting your story the way they want, but a lot of times, it works. As a teacher, I give the harshest critiques to the students who need it the most or the students I know can do better. These are the ones who need and will use my help and become better writers.

4.) Learn how to be a better critic. Sometimes you get harsh criticism that can be helpful, and sometimes you just get bad criticism. Instead of wanting to exact revenge, ask yourself, how you can keep yourself from giving bad criticism to others? Inevitably, one day you will be asked for your feedback. And knowing what you don’t want to see on your manuscript can help you be sensitive to the feedback you give others.

5) If you still need a coping mechanism, try the gym. If the harsh criticism made you angry, go run it off on the treadmill. If it made you sad, go somewhere and cry until you can’t anymore. Do whatever you need to do to get over it, then make a choice: fix it or forget it. Ultimately, what you write is up to you. But know that a critique or review group or a beta read is not a praise session. It’s to help confirm what works and find what doesn’t. And more often than not, readers don’t consider your feelings in relaying this. But it’s about the writing, first.

So back to Camp I go, knowing now that what I thought were finished pages were merely drafts that need another revision. But not this month. This month, it’s about CampNaNo.

Daily Prompt: Criticize