Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dealing with Criticism

For the last two weeks, I have been blogging about contests and other arenas in which we put ourselves out there to be judged. I talked about my hopes and fears in regard to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and how disappointed I was when I didn't make it to the semi-final round.

I also talked about how we can shoot ourselves in the foot by taking failure to mean that either the judges are crazy, stupid or ignorant or that our writing is lousy. Either of these reactions places us in a position in which we are helpless to change anything. We believe we can't succeed either because the deck is stacked against us or because we have no talent.

The better response is to learn from the failure and try again, to use the judge's/agent's/publisher's comments as a springboard to improvement.

What I didn't talk about was the comments we receive from critique groups, writing seminars, workshops, and conferences. Or from friends to whom we have given our work for feedback. Not all the comments we get from these sources will help us grow as writers.

NOT EVERYBODY IS GOING TO GIVE US HELPFUL FEEDBACK.

There are a number of things to keep in mind when evaluating feedback.
  • Is the person a writer? If so, does he have an axe to grind?
  • Is the person a reader? Is she a sophisticated reader? Does she read the kind of stories you like to write?
  • Is the person superior in his own eyes? Does he see himself as the last word in discernment? Is he ready to tell you whose work is great and whose is trash? In other words, is his critique all about proving how great he is?
  • Have you respected what the person has had to say about other people's writing?
I had quite an experience years ago.  

I went to a writer's conference where there were scheduled sessions during the day, but "Pirate" sessions late at night. Starting around eleven p. m., the "cool" people gathered in an auditorium and awaited the "great man." This was a teacher whose short stories had appeared many years before but who was no longer active as a writer. He did, however, teach at this particular conference every year. He would wander in around midnight and take his seat on the stage.

He would then ask those who wished to be critiqued to rush the stage to take a number. People pushed, pulled and tripped each other to get to the stage to get a low number. Only a few could be read and critiqued in a single session--though we stayed there until four a. m. some nights--and there were no holdovers. If you didn't get to read that night, the whole process started over the next night. 

So, from the get-go, the critique session was not only competitive, it was cutthroat.

It got worse from there. When someone took to the stage to read their piece, listeners tried to outdo each other  to rip it to shreds. The "great man" held his peace until the bloodletting was over. Then he might say, "I might have liked your story until_________ said___________. But I see he was right." 

The person mentioned was usually the most vicious critic.  The writer was not allowed to defend her point-of-view, and would leave the stage feeling humiliated.

Why did I attend? Because someone I respected told me that these pirate sessions were the best way to drop my ego involvement with my work and to grow a thick skin. To be a writer, I was told, I had to forget about sensitivity and hurt feelings.

When it was finally my turn on night three or four, I read my piece and waited. There was silence for a long time. After awhile, the great man, nodded and murmured that the piece might be quite good. He invited others to weigh in. A hand shot up. It was a young girl, maybe fourteen years old. She'd been given a scholarship to the conference because her high school teacher believed she had great promise and the conference leaders agreed. She proceeded to pick the story apart, using terms and words learned from the older participants  over the course of the week. As far as I could tell, her comments showed little understanding of what I was trying to do with the story. When she finished, others joined her. (Some attacked her critique, but not to defend me, only to claim a superior ground from which to criticize my piece.) Finally, the great man shrugged. "I guess I was wrong," he said. "Your colleagues have spoken."

These pirate sessions, of course, were an abuse of the critique process. I (and countless others) would have done better to stick to the day sessions. But, for some reason, I wanted a stamp of approval, an imprimatur, from these prestigious extra night sessions and the great man who ran them. It's probably something to do with needing approval from a critical father or something stupid like that.

To this day, I have never figured out why the great man ran his sessions the way he did or what he thought anyone gained from them.

Which brings me back to my point:

NOT EVERYBODY IS GOING TO GIVE US HELPFUL FEEDBACK.

Above I suggested several factors to take into account when evaluating a critique. They all boil down to this:

CONSIDER THE SOURCE.

If you have reason to respect the person's opinion, by all means use the critique to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your piece and improve it.

Respecting the person opinion means:

  • You know his motive is to be helpful.
  • You are reasonably sure she knows good writing when she sees it.
  • You believe he knows how to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.
There is no substitute for testing our work with other writers and/or readers. We all know how difficult it is to see our work clearly when we are close to it. 

But, for God's sake, choose your readers carefully!

What about you? Have you been unfairly critiqued?



Sunday, April 21, 2013

Failure

Last week I wrote about waiting to be validated as a writer. The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semi-finalists hadn't been announced yet, and I wrote about the importance I was placing on the results, and whether validation would change anything about my writing.

Well, the results are in.  I am not on the list of semi-finalists.

It took me a day or two to get over it.

The other day I read a blog post about failure. I think the author was trying to be funny when she listed the top ten reasons why being a failure is a good thing. She proudly proclaimed herself a failure and noted that failing gave her the kind of freedom winning never could. Since no one could possibly expect anything of her, she could do whatever suited her without anyone taking notice of her.

Perhaps. But I didn't really believe her.

Failure stings. Losing hurts.

Nobody enjoys pain, so we look for ways to mitigate the loss, deny it or wish it away. But if we're honest, the disappointment of losing still hurts.

Some of the things I've heard writers say in the throes of disappointment are destructive.

  • "Those judges/critics don't know what they're talking about. My work is great. They're the fools for not seeing it.
  • "I was judged unfairly because my story is not a carbon copy of  _________." (Name it: whatever the fashionable genre, style, or subject matter is at the moment.) 
  • "My work is too avant-garde." (or too realistic, too dark, too optimistic, too uplifting, too humorous.)
  • "I guess my work really stinks after all. I should just give up."
  • "I knew I'd never win. Why did I even bother to enter? It's a waste of time to even try."
In these examples, the writer either blames somebody else or himself for his failure. 

If it's somebody else, it's either the judges who are too stupid to know genius when they see it, or it's the zeitgeist that is all wrong. Either way, the writer is helpless to change the situation.

If it's himself he blames, he sees it as something intrinsically wrong with him, his writing, or even his luck. Again, he is helpless to change the situation.

But there are other responses to losing that are more empowering. 

Notice, I didn't say they take away the sting, only that they leave us with a sense that we are, to some degree,  in charge of our own outcomes.

When successful writers lose( or fail), they are likely to say one or more of the following:

  • "Out of ten thousand entries only twenty-five made it to the semi-finals. Those are tough odds for anyone. I did well making it to the quarter-finals."
  • "I'm going to read the reviews of my work to see if I can learn something from them."
  • "I'm going to read the winning entries to see if I can learn something from them."
  • "If the judges/critics misunderstood what I was getting at, maybe I wasn't clear enough. I'll take a look and see if the story got muddled somewhere."

You get the idea. 

In these examples, the writer does two things that will help her improve as a writer:
  • She takes responsibility for her work without going down the rabbit hole of self-flagellation.
  • She treats her work as something outside herself--a product, if you will--not as a part of her heart and soul.
In other words, she treats the loss as a problem she can solve rather than as a blow to her self-esteem.

May we all learn from our experiences.

Have you ever had a failure or a loss? How did you handle it?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Waiting for Godot

Friday was April 12th, the day the list of semi-finalists for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award was supposed to be announced.

All day I was on tenterhooks. I had been named a quarter-finalist for Catch the Sun. Would I make it to the next round? Would I be a semi-finalist? I kept checking my email. I probably checked it every five or ten minutes all day long. By mid-afternoon I decided I probably hadn't gotten an email from the contest because I hadn't made it. Probably they just let the successful entrants know by email. The rest of us shlubs were expected to just check the list of semi-finalists on the website to discover we were not on it. Which didn't make much sense since the emails I had gotten after the first two rounds of the contest simply announced that the list was available on the website for us to peruse. And that meant those who were on the list as well as those who were not must have gotten the same email.

Finally, around ten o'clock that night, I went to the website only to discover that the list was not there yet.

What a relief! I wasn't a loser! At least not yet. 

And that got me thinking: just why should my peace of mind, my sense of myself, my confidence in my writing be dependent on awaiting the outcome of a contest? Why do I need to wait for the verdict of anonymous readers to know how to feel about my writing?

What would change if I became a semi-finalist? Or, more unbelievably, a winner?

The answer is NOTHING. I would write my novels and stories just the same, either way. Of course, being a contest winner helps a writer get noticed by agents and publishers. And that's no small thing. We all want to be read. To be read, we must be published. And we need people to find out about our books. But sometimes I think we writers are too focused on achieving recognition and not focused enough on getting better.

I've had many conversations with writers over the years about this. "When will I get noticed?" most of us ask. "How can I keep writing if no one thinks well enough of my writing to give me an award or a contract or an advance?"

We all need encouragement. And none of us can exist very long in a vacuum. But I've been at this long enough to know that I will write no matter what. It's what I do. It's how I express myself.

I've heard writers declare they will wait for only so long, and if nothing happens, they'll give up. They'll stop writing. They'll do something else that gives them a sense of accomplishment, achievement.

But what about writers like Emily Dickinson who never achieved success during their lifetime?

The truth is that the process of writing and the results of writing are two very different things.

The process is about being in the moment and existing in the world created by the imagination. It's about trying to achieve an effect, or a mood. It's about testing our skill against the intransigence of language, about expressing what is sometimes inexpressible, about bringing a whole world to life that has no real existence.

The results are about how others view what we have done. If they like it, we get paid for our efforts. Perhaps we even become well-known. Our readers may think of us as better or worse than we are because they judge us through our work. If we write about lovable people, our readers see us as lovable. If we write about scoundrels, they may think we are unpleasant people.

The point is that the results have no connection to the work as we experience it!

Waiting to be validated is exactly the wrong approach to take.

Still. I wonder if the Amazon Breakthrough Award semi-finalists will be announced tomorrow.