How To Handle a Bad Critique – Aaron Michael Ritchey Style

BY Aaron Michael Ritchey

So I’ve been in critique groups for nine years now. That’s a whole lot of words being read by other people. You want the math? Oh yes, I know you do.

So ten pages a week, times fifty-two ‘cause there are fifty-two weeks in a year, so that’s 520 pages a year for nine years. For a grand total of 4680 pages. If a book is around three hundred pages, that’s 15.6 books. Roughly. Break that into words, about three thousand words every week, times fifty-two, times nine, and that’s 1,404,000 words critiqued.

I won’t do hours.

So yeah. I’ve been around the block and back. Most of the time the critiques are good, sometimes they are fun, and sometimes, sometimes, the critiques have claws that rip my poor wittle heart to shreds.

A bad critique attacks the very heart of my writing, and I’m not sure how productive that is. But it happens. It’s part of the deal. A good critique seeks to improve or offers a different perspective. A bad critique is destructive. And to make myself perfectly clear, sometimes the bad critique comes from someone who innocently is just offering their opinion. A bad critique can fall out of the sky like hail. Hail doesn’t hate you. It just falls. Sabes?

How do I handle things when good critiques go bad?

I hate.

I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I sharpen knives and listen to Cannibal Corpse. I plot murder, rebellion, revolution, anarchy in the U.K. I draft long emails defending my work, defending the vicious act of writing words and its difficulty, defending the very purpose of my soul on earth. I print out the emails and eat them, tearing one page off at a time and swallowing them down with cold, cold black coffee from last Thursday.

Or I write letters (not emails) with blood-filled pens on sheets of paper made from human skin. I attack the critique, wanting them to know just how much I DON’T CARE ABOUT THEIR USELESS, STUPID, PEDANTIC OPINIONS. Who are they to question me and my work? What do they know? If they’re so smart how come they’re not New York Times bestsellers? I eat those letters as well, but I use gutter water to wash them down.

I rant. I shake my fists at heaven (literally). I weep.

Alone. So alone.

So that’s what I do. I don’t recommend it, but you can do all those things, just don’t carry out your wicked plans of murder, rebellion, revolution, and the U.K. doesn’t need your anarchy, thank you very much.

So I do that for awhile. I used to do it for weeks on end. Or months. Okay, 2009 was really bad. But I learn. It’s a slow process, me learning, but I learn.

Last time I got a bad critique I spent a bad night not sleeping and doing all the things I said. The next day, I journaled about the experience and got a good understanding of my part.

Because yes, when I’m upset, when my heart is shredded, I have a part. The experienced triggered something in me, and it might have much to do with what actually happened. If I didn’t care about the bad critique, I wouldn’t care. Why do I care? That’s what I have to find out.

Through the inventory process, I find out where I was selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and afraid. Generally it’s all four. And yeah, when I’m hurt, it’s all about me and my ego.

After getting a good understanding of why I’m weeping, I then find people to talk to about the experience. Sometimes it’s just one person, but if it’s bad, I find two: one normal person and a writer (who is not normal).

We talk it through because you know what? Humans heal through their mouths. We talk to each other and magic happens.

So I figure out why the bad critique hurt me, I share the secret, and I get free.

And I keep writing, I keep submitting, and I keep editing. Because bad critiques, bad reviews, bad deals, are part of the writing experience. You want the whole buffet, yeah?

Well, there’s always gonna be crap sandwiches in the buffet, but don’t load up your plate with ‘em. Because like I said at the start, most of the time the critique experience makes me excited to revise! That’s what you want. That’s the idea.

And if your critique group is mostly serving you crap sandwiches, week after week, it’s time to find another critique group.

Guest Post: Maura Weiler – Your Non-Agent Might Know Best. Or Does She?

By Maura Weiler, Author of Contrition

ContritionFinalCoverWhich is worse– an impersonal rejection letter from an agent, or a personalized rejection letter with feedback that would require a massive rewrite of your book with no guarantee that the agent would revisit it? Both. Oh wait... I mean, it all depends.

I entered the submission process for my debut novel, Contrition, with this policy: If two or more agents offered the same feedback, or if one person gave feedback that resonated with me, I would listen to it. If only one person made a particular criticism I didn’t agree with, I would disregard it. My policy seemed sound until I promptly ignored my own advice.

I was very lucky to have a great return rate on my initial submissions. Two of the seven agents I contacted wanted to take Contrition on. A New York agent was ready to send it out with very few changes. A California agent hit a roadblock when the founder of the agency didn’t give her blessing. What that founder did give was two pages of notes on how to improve the story.

I was initially cranky about the rejection, until I realized what a compliment it was for an established agent to give such detailed notes on a book she didn’t want. Sobered, I stopped to appreciate that. Then I got cranky about the notes themselves.

One of her suggestions was to turn the main characters- a journalist and a cloistered nun who clash over the meaning and purpose of art- into sisters raised apart. Oh, how the delicate genius in me gnashed her teeth over that one! Twins raised apart felt like reality-show drama and would entail a major rewrite of a book that another agent was ready to send out. This fancy founder/agent clearly didn’t understand my vision.

But I still wondered if she was right. Her other notes were very insightful and she understood the market. So I told my delicate inner genius to get over herself. Then I told the New York agent I was going to spend a couple of months rewriting some elements of the book, and silly me, I believed it.

It turned out that I needed at least two months to pout and mourn the loss of my original version before I could even fathom cutting it up. I had already written numerous drafts over numerous years– did I really have to rewrite it again? Yes, I did. Because as wonderful as I felt my original version was, I would now always question whether or not it could be better.

In the end, it took me three years to rewrite the book. I made most of the suggested changes, including turning my main characters into twins raised in different homes. The twins’ separate upbringings and freshly minted sibling rivalry brings a great deal of texture and complexity to their relationship. Now readers tell me they can’t imagine the story without the characters being sisters.

By the time I finished, the interested New York agent had left her agency. My subsequent querying didn’t result in a new agent until four years later when an agent discovered Contrition in her old emails and signed me. Three years after that, she sold Contrition to Simon & Schuster’s new imprint, Infinite Words. It was all very unexpected and wonderful and I am thrilled to celebrate its publication day today.

If I had known that putting off a committed agent to do a rewrite she hadn’t asked for and I wasn’t sure I agreed with would delay the publication of Contrition by more than a decade, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I’m happy with my choice, because Contrition is a much better book as a result.

What would you do? What’s your policy on agent criticism?

Maura WeilerMaura Weiler grew up in Connecticut and earned her BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, respectively. She is a former columnist for The Connecticut Post and a trash artist whose work has been featured on NBC Television and in galleries and shows across the country. As Director of Development at Blue Tulip Productions, she helped develop the screenplays for such films as Speed, Twister, The Paperboy and The Minority Report. Contrition is her first novel. For more information or book club queries, visit www.mauraweiler.com.

Facebook: Maura Weiler Author

Twitter: @mauraweiler

Simon & Schuster Author Page: http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Maura-Weiler/475408214

Maura is kind enough to be giving away her novel, Contrition. Just comment below and one lucky winner will be picked at random. You can comment until Friday, April 24th by midnight. Winner will be contacted by email.

After the Critique: Sorting the Good Advice from the Bad

by Lori DeBoer

You’ve done the drafts and decided to test the publishing waters by sharing your writing with your inner circle.  Or maybe you've signed up for a slot with a local or online critique group.  While your manuscript is out and you are waiting for feedback, it's a good time to calm your Beta reader jitters by developing an action plan.

To wit: How are you going sift through all that feedback?

A plan will help you keep your post-critique bearings. You want to emerge with a good dose of confidence and clarity about how you’ll tackle your revisions.

Here are some strategies for sorting the good advice from the bad:

Consider the Source
This advice comes straight from my mom, who doled it out when I took an unkind comment to heart from folks I shouldn’t have been listening to, anyway. Granted, her advice didn’t make much sense when I was a kid, but I’ve grown to appreciate her message.  So, does your oldest arch rival find your most recent short story “trite”?  Does your mom think your memoir shouldn’t go on and on about Great Aunt Vivian? Does your boyfriend cringe at the sex scenes in your romance novel? Does your boss’s nephew who recently graduated from college really know if zombie novels are passé?  Consider the source.  Bonus tip:  Don’t give your memoir-in-progress to anybody in your family, or even tell them you are writing about the family. . . for at least a year. Trust me on this.

Be Realistic
If you are a total beginner, it’s likely you have a lot to learn. Even seasoned professionals work hard at their craft. Nobody expects to play a professional sport or become a professional musician or actor without years of study, practice and paying those proverbial dues.  If you have just started out and are getting consistent suggestions that you might want to dump your prologue or that your characters are flat, you might want to entertain that feedback.  Remember to say “thank you.”

Set Some Benchmarks
Writers who are successful read like writers. That is, first they read in their genre for pleasure. That out of the way, they reread their favorite and least favorite books in said genre with a (metaphorical) scalpel. They break those books down into what works and what doesn’t and dissect their disparate parts until they can put them back together. Once you do that, you can figure out who critiques your stuff with an insider’s knowledge, who recognizes what you are trying to do and can help you get there.

Avoid Extremes
Did the comments you received make you feel like you were walking on sunshine, on top of the world or in seventh heaven? Or did the comments make you feel like crawling into a hole, under the covers or back into the hell that you were spawned from?  Either extreme should give you a tip-off that this is not the critique partner/group/forum for you.  Even if the folks giving you comments are wildly published, you should find the nearest exit and run.

Get a Second Opinion (Or More)
When I was pregnant with my son, I was diagnosed with a fatal disease and thought I would die in childbirth. Turns out I should have gotten a second opinion.  I was tired and didn’t, but that’s another story.  Unless you are in the throes of a high-risk writing pregnancy or some other sort of extreme author illness, buck up and get a second or third opinion. And while you are at it, check that person’s credentials. Some opinions are more informed than others.

Ask for Specifics
If a reader claims that your writing sucks, is insipid, flat, filled with cliches or, God forbid, “sentimental,” ask for specific examples.  Ask politely. Even if the critique is spot on, it’s difficult to get a feel for what’s not working in a piece when you are handed vague and pointless remarks like “it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Likewise, if a reader professes to “love” a piece, resist the urge to leave it at that. Ask him or her to point out moments or passages in your writing that evoke these feelings of “love.” The most recent research on motivation shows that we learn more from specific feedback about what’s working more than barbed remarks about what we are doing wrong. That said, gratuitous praise helps no one.  In fact, no one really believes overinflated, vague praise. Not even kindergartners.

Challenge Your Resistance
If some feedback or suggestions really makes you angry or upset, you may want to take a look at why you threw a tizzy fit in response, even if you threw it quietly. The feedback could be truly terrible. Or it could be that the advice you received is spot on and you subconsciously (or consciously) just don’t want to deal with the ramifications  Because revising is a lot of hard work, like hauling rock, only with your bare-naked brain instead of your bloody hands, and who wants to do that?  So, feel like pushing back?  Try pushing on in your revisions.

Know Thyself
What are the secret, dark and dishonorable impulses that might be motivating you to write? Is your memoir a thinly veiled attempt to tell the world about how your mom/father/ex/teacher/fill-in-the-blank treated you? Are you seeking revenge for all your past hurts in the form of a novel about time-traveling werewolves? Are you writing schlock because it seems like easy money and you have allowed yourself to become a bitter person? Do you dream of instant author popularity at your 20th class reunion?  If any of this resonates with you, it could be that your personal baggage is getting in the way of you reaching your personal writing best. Figure out a better way to schlep that stuff around, or dump some if it altogether, and chances are your writing issues will also resolve.

Be Willing to Experiment
Not sure what to do with a piece of advice?  Try it out! At the advice of others, I’ve overcome my tendency toward being stubborn (I am the youngest child) and overhauled my stories. In one case, I changed the age of a character, in another, I changed the setting and point in time, in a few other stories, I’ve changed the point of view.  Sure, these revisions have taken time and I've groused about them, but I’ve always learned something from these experiments. If you feel petulant about undertaking revisions, remember that you aren’t working on a typewriter for Pete’s sake, so no hardships there, and this is what writers do. So just get it over with and see what cool scenes you come up with.

Let it Simmer
Take enough notes so that the feedback you receive makes sense, and then stick that writing in a drawer and let it simmer for a couple of weeks. After you are no longer in the thick of producing that story, you’ll be able to look at your work and the advice you received with a more impartial eye.

Ultimately, what you do with the feedback you receive on your writing is up to you. At some point, you’ll find a reader or two who really understand what you are trying to do with your work and can help you bring it to a level that will earn you legions of fans. My advice?  Those kinds of readers are keepers. Feed them chocolate and and gratitude.

When it comes to revising your writing, how do you sort out good advice from bad?  Please weigh in!

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.