When I wrote “the end” on the first fiction I’d ever written, I asked my wife to read it. She’s a theater director who has worked with playwrights to improve their plays and I knew I’d get an honest evaluation. She pointed out problems in my writing style and asked questions that got me thinking about the story. I went back to my computer. After several more drafts, I gave the manuscript to friends and a couple of family members to read. Everyone loved it. I felt terrific. But… In my heart I knew it wasn’t good enough.
It’s A Mystery: Finding Objective Readers
I wanted readers who weren’t invested in my success to tell me what needed to improve to make the manuscript better. But I was new to writing and there was no one in my circle of friends and acquaintances knowledgeable in the art of writing a novel. Lucky for me, I had joined Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime hoping their meetings would provide the knowledge I was missing. And the Mentor Program offered by the New York chapter of MWA was just what I needed. At that time, for fifty dollars an unpublished or a published author could submit fifty pages of a work in process for an evaluation by a published writer. I was petrified. I wanted the critique, but I was afraid of it.
What I hoped to hear, of course, was that the manuscript was as wonderful as my friends and family said. What I got was an objective opinion that identified the same problems in my writing as my wife had, offered some suggestions on the story but praised my plotting, pacing, and dialog. The author encouraged me to continue to work to improve the writing and the manuscript. That positive criticism assured me that I could do it, that I could write a book that a stranger might one day enjoy reading.
It’s A Mystery: Why is Criticism So Scary?
With nine published books I’m no stranger to criticism. But still whenever I get an editorial letter pointing out issues/problems/deficiencies in my latest manuscript, I avoid it for a day or two then peek at it. A day or two later I read it quickly and put it aside. A day or so later I sit down and address each point. I really, really, want to know what my editor thinks is wrong or could be done better or could be deleted. But, obviously, I’m still petrified by the idea of it. And I don’t know why.
Not A Mystery: How I Deal with Constructive Criticism
The reality is I crave constructive criticism. My goal is to make each book the very best I can and an objective outside eye can see things that I don’t. When I’m anxious about a critique
I remind myself that it’s not me personally that’s being criticized, that I have the final say on how my book is written and that I can reject any suggestion that doesn’t fit with my vision. And I also remind myself, any critique, any review, any agent’s rejection is just one person’s opinion.
Not A Mystery: Constructive Criticism is Important
I don’t know how I would have reacted if my first experience with getting a critique hadn’t been positive. But when I resubmitted my rewritten manuscript to the MWA-NY Mentor Program the next year that’s exactly what happened. What the published writer sent back was a sarcastic, destructive critique that basically said my manuscript was worthless, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I shouldn’t be writing. I could hear him shouting and see him foaming at the mouth as I read his words. Happily, by then I was confident enough to recognize that buried in the vitriol there were a couple of things to pay attention to and that his rant said more about him than it did me.
On the other hand, one of the most helpful critiques I ever received was from the mystery writer friend who pointed out that Corelli and Parker were stereotypes. She gently suggested I put the manuscript in a drawer and write something new. I didn’t like hearing it but she was direct and supportive, so I didn’t feel attacked. I took some time to think about her comments and she was right. But I wasn’t ready to move on. So during the next six or seven years while I wrote other books, I edited and rewrote that manuscript many times. The result was stronger, layered, realistic characters, much improved writing and, a novel I’m proud of.
Writers are fragile creatures. We pour ourselves into our art then put it out into the world for all to see and comment. No writer, neither a beginner nor a multi-published author, should ever be attacked for their writing or for their writing skill or lack of skill. But we are all fair game for constructive criticism.
Authors, how do you feel about receiving criticism? How do you feel about giving criticism?
In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.