by Susan Dennard
We talk a lot about the importance of giving critiques, the soothing of one’s ego in criticism, the why and the what of finding crit-readers. I have to points to add — two idioms tailored to the Writing Critique World.
1) Too much criticism can spoil the broth.
So, let’s say you’ve been writing a while — months, years, centuries – and you follow the age-old advice: “Get feedback and lots of it.”
You share your manuscript with 4 people, then 6, then 8, then 25. You want to make sure you have the best possible novel before you try to find an agent/editor.
Good for you. That’s the best attitude to have. Like milk, criticism does a manuscript good. Like weight-lifting, criticism helps us find our weak points and fix them.
But, like analogies, criticism should be taken in moderation.
A friend of mine recently critted a paper, and she had this to say: “It’s clear that this writer has done a lot of work on it, and that she knows enough about the craft, but she has had too many people crit her book. It’s hard to find her voice because I can see the effect of so many others changing her MS along the way.”
Too much criticism can be the death of your novel, just as too many cooks can spoil the broth. It is ultimately YOUR story, and if you try to take in too many perspectives on YOUR story, you’ll lose sight of what you were creating. You’ll end up with a Frankenstein-novel built from the feedback and tweaking of others.
While I fully support finding beta readers or crit partners, be careful about how many you work with. I also support crit groups like the OWW or Critique Circle, but again, be careful about how many people’s feedback you take to heart. Honestly, you can’t please everyone, so be sure to evaluate criticism critically and choose whose advice you do want to follow.
And that leads to idiom #2.
2) All criticism should be taken with a grain – nay, a handful of salt.
A story to illustrate: In August, I entered the first 30 pages of my novel (The Spirit-Hunters) into an RWA contest, hoping to gain valuable feedback from professionals. At the end of October on the very same weekend I signed with NCLit, I got the contest results – and you know what?
I got DEAD LAST. Out of ~20 contestants in the YA category, I was LAST FREAKING PLACE. Now, I’ll admit the pages were different from what the pages I submitted to agents – but only in terms of a few story events. Not in terms of voice or character.
And those were the aspects I got smashed on. They hated my main character – too introspective. Not logical. Deserves what she gets. They hated the voice – felt forced. Not accessible to modern readers.
Ouch, right? Even though I’d had so much agent success during the two weeks prior to getting these results, coming in last place really stung. And even though I knew I had written a good novel, the judge’s criticism made me want to curl into the fetal position and groan like a zombie.
Had I received this feedback two weeks earlier – before I started querying – I would have been CRUSHED. Devastated. I would have done nothing but eat ice cream and cry. I probably would have given up on The Spirit-Hunters, in hopes that I could write a better novel with less FAIL in it.
But thank the merciful heavens I received the contest results after taking the plunge into the querying world. Thank heavens I was able to apply some much needed perspective to those contest results. Otherwise, I would not be on submission to publishers right now. I would be belting “All By Myself” à la Bridget Jones and considering going back to freelance statistics (bleh!).
- Because of the timing, I was able to see that maybe the judges weren’t qualified to judge my novel. They were first and foremost romance novelists, which is a very different genre from YA. Additionally, none of them were published writers or represented by agents (which I thought they would be when I first entered the contest). This doesn’t make their judgement wrong, but it’s something to consider.
- What they didn’t like in my novel (the main character or the voice) was their own personal opinion. The main character and the voice were also what attracted several agents to make offers of rep. And think about it: how many books do you love but your friends hate? Different strokes for different folks.
Moral of the Story:
- You need to be really careful when choosing with whom you share your novels. You want feedback that makes sense to you. It should fit:
- your writing style (ex: my style is quirky YA)
- your writing goals (ex: my goal is a career in commercial publication)
- your writing skill (ex: someone who is at the same stage or further along in the path).
It took me a while to find crit readers I trust – I started with too many and found readers from every place imaginable. I was constantly adjusting my novels according to the newest feedback rolling in. It was exhausting, and I lost touch with the stories I’d originally set out to tell.
Now I have two crit-readers plus my agents. I’ll let other people read my novels, but when it comes to feedback, I’m only willing to rely on the people whose advice I know matches what I need. And, perhaps most important of all, the people who trust and can use my feedback in their own novels.
How about you — critique horror stories? Feedback you shouldn’t have trusted or regret following? Or, do you have any criticism-perspective of your own to share?
Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her manuscript is currently on submission to publishers. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.