It’s a Mystery: Why I Love Criticism

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 At that time, for fifty dollars an unpublished or a published author could submit fifty pages of a work in process for an evaluation by a published writer.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?

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Catherine Maiorisi

Author

Catherine is the author of four NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mysteries–A Matter of Blood, The Blood Runs Cold, A Message in Blood and Legacy in the Blood.

In addition to the four Corelli mysteries Catherine has written four romances and The Disappearance of Lindy James, general fiction.

When not writing, Catherine is either cooking or reading. She lives in the New York City with her wife.

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12 thoughts on “It’s a Mystery: Why I Love Criticism

  1. I’m a mentor for MWA this year and I’m appalled by your bad experience. Something like that could really destroy a writer. Good for you to take it in stride!

    1. Susan,
      it was a long time ago. When I mentioned it to the chair of the committee several months later she invited me to join the committee.

      We changed the process so that every critique was read by a committee member prior to being sent to the writer. If the critique was thought to be harsh or not constructive we went back to the critiquer and asked him/her to revise it. If they refused (and some did) we dumped it and had the work critiqued by another published writer.

      I left the committee years ago so I’m not sure if they still screen what they send out.

    1. Michele,
      He sure had a case of something. But it was so horrible that I couldn’t take it seriously. I knew my writing wasn’t wonderful but I also knew it wasn’t horrible so, as I said, I decided it said more about him than me.

  2. I’m in a really good, really rigorous critique group, and everything I’ve revised and submitted with their advice has been received very well. But right now I’m having a crisis of confidence in my own writing, and it’s been hard to hear their feedback. Thanks for the reminder that once I’m back running normally, I’ll be very very glad for it again.

    1. Catherine,
      I know that feeling well. I would venture to say that most writers experience it from time to time.

      I’ve found that after I circle the critique for a few days it’s easier if I start with what I consider the simple things, like maybe I’ve repeated myself or something’s not clear or I need a better word, and then move on.

      Early on I had a crisis of confidence because the romance I’d submitted had an underlying flaw that would require working through the entire manuscript to fix. I hoped no one would notice but of course they did. I had no choice so I went to work. Fixing it actually wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. Good luck.

  3. I crave critical feedback, even if it hurts. Not only do they help in an immediate way with the WIP or next WIP, I revisit critical reviews and editor’s letters that shaped my writing to remind myself that I do know how to learn and grow.

    1. Karin,
      Now I understand why your books keep getting better and better. I try to learn from my mistakes and constructive criticism can point the way. I strive to make each book I write better than the last.

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