Monday, August 26, 2013

How to Survive the Bloodshed and Carnage of a Bad Critique

By Aaron Michael Ritchey


Okay, you’ve just left your critique group and for forty-five minutes, your group shredded your lovely words into sausage. You are left with chorizo and blood dripping off the page. One of the members highlighted every time you used an adverb. Another member wonders if your character is mentally ill, because no rational person ever would’ve done what he\she did. The entire group believes your story is on a one-way trip to Nowheresville, population you.

Okay, maybe you don’t have a critique group. Maybe your critique partner lit your work on fire. Or perhaps your editor commented on the final page, “After reading your latest manuscript, I have decided to start drinking heavily. I will work on the slop you threw on my desk, but if you have any pity in your talentless heart, you will give up writing forever.”

Okay, maybe your work made it through not only your critique group, but your editor, as well, and is actually published. You are perusing your Amazon page, obsessing over your ranking, when you stumble on a review from some English literature professor in Lithuania. It’s a one-star review. Half of it is Cyrillic, but the English half paints you as a demon with a pen, bound for hell. According to him, your work has marked the death of literature and we should all start playing Xbox.

Okay, maybe it’s worse than all that. Maybe your mom read your latest chapter and told you it’s good. Like this:

“So, Mom, what did you think?”

“It’s good, dear.”

“What’s good?”

“The words. I like how you wrote all those words and arranged them into sentences.”

“Did you like it?”

“Yes, dear. Now, how about a nice cup of tea? We can talk about Peyton Manning.”

How do you survive the bitter review, the heartbreaking critique, or un-praise from close family members?

You don’t. 

Die, writer, die.

Wait! What if you can’t NOT write. What if you tried stopping? What if you tried giving up on your current work in progress to work on something more marketable, like an erotica novel based on the relationships in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? But in Russian. You tried to dump the story you love with all your heart, but you just can’t.

You wish you could die, but you can’t stop writing. 

Then listen very closely.

Closer.

Closer.

Listen to my whisper.

Critique groups, reviewers, your mom, they are all tools. No, not in the negative middle school name calling way, but in the carpentry way. Sometimes you need a hammer, sometimes you need a screwdriver. Some days you need a hacksaw, some days you don’t.  You might not need the file for months. 

In the end, you are building your own house, writing your own story, fashioning your own work of art. It’s your baby. Some people will not like your baby. Others will adore it. Your story may need a screwdriver and someone in your critique group only has a chainsaw.

The secret to surviving criticism is to look for the truth, acknowledge the opinions, and then apply what cannot be ignored.

Try to ignore it all. Look at Twilight. How well do you think that would’ve done in a critique group? Um, Stephanie, there’s a lot of pining happening. When is something going to actually HAPPEN? You’re gonna' lose your readers. 

Look at the first page of Lonesome Dove. Dude, he starts off with pigs. Really, pigs? I’d have slapped Larry McMurtry. Shoats? What the hell is a shoat, Larry?

And Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone starts off so cartoony. Please. Um, Jo, you might want to watch less Spongebob. Your opening reads like good Nickelodeon gone bad.

Should Stephanie, Larry, and Jo have listened to me? Obviously not. They should’ve ignored me. Ignore criticism if you can.

If you can’t ignore it, if the critique eats away at your soul, if you wake up with it running through your brain, well, it’s truth, homie, and truth you should listen to. If a critique gets its red-inked talons into you, then embrace the truth and try to apply it.

If you can’t apply the criticism, then it’s not meant to be. But at least you were open-minded enough to try. But be careful. Make sure your critique group is supportive. If it’s just a hack and slash party, run the other way. 

And be even more careful. Don’t let a nasty critique murder your book. I’ve had bad critiques murder books before and in the end, no one knows for sure what will and won’t work. I’m not sure if writers, agents, editors, people in the industry, can read like normal readers. Normal readers in some ways are far more forgiving. In other ways, they are as brutal as a starving pitbull in a King Soopers deli.

When you give people half-finished work, they will always have an opinion. Sometimes that opinion will be valid. Other times, your beta readers may just be excited that they have input on a work in progress. If you had given them the same work, the exact same words, but bound with an ISBN number on the front cover, they wouldn’t have any opinions and they’d read the book and love the story because it’s a finished product. 

Finally, don’t take it personally. Such a simple idea, but hard to put into practice. Most likely, we’ll write lots and lots of books, so if one book doesn’t work for someone in your critique group, maybe the next one will. 

Be strong, be confident, listen to what’s true, ignore what’s simple opinion, and above all, keep writing, keep giving your work to people, because words are dead until someone reads them.


Write the story that burns you to cinders. Listen to the critiques that fan the flames.


About the Writer: YA Paranormal author Aaron Michael Ritchey has penned a dozen manuscripts in his 20 years as a writer. When he isn’t slapping around his muse, Aaron cycles to look fabulous, works in medical technologies, and keeps his family in silks and furs. His first novel, The Never Prayer, hit the streets on March 29, 2012. Most recently, his work appears in the steampunk anthology The Penny Dread Tales Volume III and in the latest issue of Electric Spec.

7 comments:

  1. Awesome! I wouldn't change a word of this article, it's that good. Sorry I couldn't give you a more positive critique. Ha, if you're own mother says Let's talk about Peyton Manning, you really need a tough skin. Well done, Aaron!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great advice. That's when I find "tuning out and tuning in" to be the best advice for me. Thanks for sharing a perspective we all need to read and remember!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent post, Aaron. I'm going to pass around a copy of your words of wisdom at my critique group meeting tomorrow night. :D

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks all! I had a great time! And is it wrong to laugh at my own stuff? "Your opening reads like good Nickelodeon gone bad." Now, I don't care who you are, that's funny.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yikes! I hope you were kidding about your critique group. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. To be clear, my critique group is great, but they're great because they give me their honest opinions, and sometimes, those opinions can be a little rough. Hence, this blog post. But if it was all just a mutal appreciation society, I'd have to join another group. However, keep in mind, if your critique group is just a whipping session, and nothing positive comes from it, time to find another critique group.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Latest tool to lunge my way was a blowtorch, and not even from my critique group. :-) Per latest WD, David Sedaris *never* reads *anything* written about him. Sounds like a good policy.

    ReplyDelete