Monday, April 22, 2013

Getting Used to Criticism

Getting used to Criticism...

I was talking to a friend the other day, and he mentioned he had just finished a manuscript of a novel from an acquaintance that was outstanding but probably would never be published because the author could not muster the courage to face rejection or criticism. He told me he was surprised by her decision, but I wasn't.

I felt the same way at one time. A bad experience with a crooked agent ( I just got another restitution check for a whopping $1.76!) took my courage away. I paid for my lack of research and learned some valuable lessons about the industry. I did not "try again" until almost five years later, after two more drafted stories. The result was a better, more organized me as a submitter. I was ready for my form rejection letters I would keep in a file to prove to myself that at least I gave it a shot.

I understood the writer friend of my friend. I understand her fear even more, now, two books into this experience and contemplating a full re-write/revision of book three and plans for book four. The fear is still there, but it has morphed into a less daunting version. I have learned through my publishing experience that I am now part of a small but dedicated and skilled family of writers and thinkers; honest folk who care about story and good writing and do their utmost to nurture and encourage.

I have landed myself smack-dab in the middle of the critical world, and I am absolutely in love with the whole process. I find it both unnerving and affirming at the same time, and even as I write this I realize I am just repeating what others have already said much more eloquently. But that is the fantastic part about it all: it IS a universal truth for all of us and yet the nuances, the intrinsic identifiers are different for everyone. I think that is why I find words so attractive. We all use the same ones but with such variety and innovation! I grieve for the friend of my friend, who for fear dooms herself to always wondering.  There is a delicious kind of uncertainty about what the published author does, but what is certain is they confront their fear directly and advance bravely into the breach as though they were one of Henry's happy battle brothers.

I've begun interacting with writers this year as a published author, and during my first intense moments at Norwescon I found myself empathizing with the folks submitting their works for scrutiny. I have described that experience previous, but I return to it now for this post because I recall feeling a little sheepish picking apart their work. How was I any better or more qualified? What set me on the other side of the table besides a happy accident? I admired their courage in participating in the workshop. I found myself wanting to cheer them on even as comments from around the table became more critical and exposing. But they did it! They submitted and listened and learned! They taught me a valuable lesson in courage. And that lesson returned to me tenfold in the parking lot of a local golf course when my friend told me of his friend's fear and reluctance.

There are too many truths that fail still-born or subsumed through want of courage and conviction. This industry is HARD on people. It is both the great hope for truth and at the same time can be truths greatest enemy. The artistic expression is such a strange marketplace. The variables can get seedy, ego a little too needy, value a little too literal... What hope for ART then?

The key is criticism--both the giving and receiving. If I had not first offered up a story, then faced and then found a way to make my editor's heartfelt criticism work, then King's Gambit would never have achieved its final shape. The Poets of Pevana would have remained a hot little mess of a draft desparate for courage and nurturing, grafting and pruning...

A little success, a few kind words, a positive review from a stranger are all part of a magical spell we cast on ourselves when we do our homework and commit to criticism, when we trust to our stars and lick the stamp or push send on the file. I am glad I did. I hope that friend of my friend can find hers.

Happy reading, and writing!



Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Mark!

As usual, your post has given me a lot to chew on.

Quite honestly, I think sometimes not submitting, whether for fear of rejection or other reasons, is the smart choice.

Publishing is hard, and it's not for everyone. Publishing eats into one's writing time, and chips away at the day job, family life, household budget, everything.

Writing tends to give back more than it takes. Publishing, on the other hand, most often takes more than it gives back.

I say all this while being very happy with my own publishing experience. But I have heard a lot of difficult stories since I've entered the publishing world -- more difficult ones than happy ones. There is a harsh reality out there that is often not acknowledged publicly.

Sometimes it might the best choice to write for the sake of writing, and to keep all those wonderful stories for the enjoyment of a few privileged friends.

That being said, a little bit of courage can go a long way. I do hope the novel of your friend's friend finds its way to an editor's desk, and from there to my bookshelf. ;)

Terri-Lynne said...

Egads, Mark--this is one (of the many!) reasons I love you. You get straight to the heart of it, pull out what we all feel, and give it back to us in a lovely package we can relate to, and feel good about.

I've said it before and I'll say it a million times more--we make a fabulous team. We work well together because I'm as in love with your work as you are. We both have ITS best interests at heart.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--"Writing tends to give back more than it takes. Publishing, on the other hand, most often takes more than it gives back."

Darling--true, true words. And this is yet another reason why I am so happy I am with Hadley Rille Books. We three have had the best of both worlds, but I do believe it has a whole lot to do with the fact that we all look at the process, writing, and the results the same general way.

STORY is first. We write them because we love them. The writing IS the joy. Everything else--the good reviews, the emails from "fans" even if there are only two of them!--all add to that joy.

When you start in joy, add to it more joys, then there's no bad place for it to go.

It's the same with bigger presses, of course--on a grander scale. We all know writers who've had commercial success but unhappy experiences that follow. We are lucky our stars aligned with our hearts to pull us into this family of artists and thinkers, as Mark put it. Doesn't get much better than that!

And now I've gone to mush, so I'll sign off!

Unknown said...

Great post, Mark! I've found that the hardest critique to take is usually the one I learn the most from. It takes courage, though, to put youself in the firing line. One bad experience can turn you off for good. I always believe that a great book can take a small village -- a great writer, truthful test readers and, most of all, an editor who understand your story and helps with the finishing touches.
Sharon Struth

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Karin--I think you're right! Anticipating a (hopeful) redemption actually did make me look at his "better" traits more favorably. Nicely done! You're pretty smart, aren't you. :)

(signed in as TWETS to avoid going to spam.)