2nd Drafts

How to Handle Criticism

Before I forget to announce this: I’m moving the May 1st book club discussion (LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld) back to May 15th. Several people (myself included) are busy with the end-of-the-school-year-as-we-know-it, so I want to give everyone some extra time to read.

Now for the main event.

On March 20th, I finished the second draft of my novel. It was a forced finish, since I was starting a new job and didn’t have time to further improve the draft. I had a window of opportunity with my critique partners, so I took the leap and sent them my subpar manuscript.

Wow. Their feedback varied so much—something I wasn’t prepared for. I’ve heard the phrase, “The reader is always right.” But what should I do if one person loves the story and another person . . . doesn’t?

That question had me in a funk for a couple days, until I finally realized the obvious answer: just do the best I can to make it better.

In a fantasy world, I could write a story that everyone praised as stellar. In the real world, even bestsellers get some bad reviews. People have many possible reasons for “loving” a story, and just as many (if not more) reasons for not loving a story. It basically boils down to how you relate to the story and characters. What some people like could be a complete turn-off to other people. Let me share a not-so-hypothetical situation . . .

My first novel has good character development but a weak plot. The protagonist is fifteen. The overall mood of the book is hopeful.

My second novel has a good plot, but I sacrificed some character development while trying to create a page-turner. The protagonist is eighteen. The overall mood of the book is dark and creepy.

Looking at these two examples, it seems obvious that I would have trouble making both books appeal to the same person. It’s like finding someone who craves vanilla and chocolate. Yet the stubborn perfectionist in me insists that I try.

Once a book is published, taking bad reviews to heart feels like torture. Too late to fix it now! But before the book is published, we have a responsibility as writers to consider all the feedback we get from CPs, test-readers, agents, editors, or whoever we ask to read and critique.

So if you receive criticism about your story, here are some questions you might ask yourself:

1. Is it possible to fix this problem without changing the essence of the story? Above all, I try to stay true to the story—and to myself.
2. Does this advice conflict or correspond with other advice I received? If three or more people say the same thing, they’re probably right.
3. Do I have a good reason for not following the advice? Laziness is not a good reason!
4. Will changing the story make it better or worse? I envision the scales tipping between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” while I strive for the perfect balance.
5. Who am I willing to let down? Who can I not bear to disappoint?

Not easy questions, and I don’t always have the answers. But I find that considering them often leads to some type of insight. Between my ideas and a CP’s ideas, I might stumble upon a compromise that makes us both happy.

No matter what, I would never give up my critique partners! They are absolutely essential to my writing process. I know I’ve raved about CPs many times, but it bears repeating: find yourself a great CP and your writing will improve tenfold.

To illustrate my ode to CPs, here’s a pic of Ellie (right) and me (left) after our recent meeting at B & N:

Every book needs someone who believes in it even more than the author does. For my second novel, that person is Ellie. Can’t thank you enough for that, Ellie—love ya!!

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