The Agony of Criticism   Leave a comment

Willow Branch Blue White Recreation CoverThere are writers and there are authors. Unlike some in the publishing field, I am not convinced that all that separates a writer from becoming an author is publishing a book. I think some unpublished writers are authors in progress while some published writers will never be authors.

It’s a painful truth, but one does not simply sit down and write a good novel. There’s research, there’s writing, there’s rewriting and editing … and more than anything else, there is critique.

How you accept critique is part of what separates writers and authors.

I’ve been scribbling stories since I was 12. I had some critique on my fiction in high school from my teachers, but for most of the decades between then and publishing my first novel I was writing fiction for my own amazement. Then I decided I really wanted to advance a book to publication and I started to submit it to friends to read.

I guess my friends love me. They all said pretty glowing things about the manuscript that would become the seedbed for Daermad Cycle. Somehow I knew that wasn’t completely honest. I went one step further and submitted it to the writers site Authonomy. Mostly I got good reviews and that felt a little bit more honest because these people didn’t know me. Some of the reviewers gave minor critique — moves a bit slowly, takes a long time to get to the point, it’s awfully long — but I wasn’t really sure what to do with that critique.

Then it happened. Somehow I attracted the attention of a notorious misanthrope on the site and he (or that iteration was a she, I think) decided to critique my book.

If you’ve never been run over by a Mac truck, I don’t recommend it.

I knew this was a mean, mean person, but her words bit deep. She (or he) really hated my book. Worse, though a truly miserable human being, this person was also a great writer.

There are three ways to handle that sort of critique:

  • throw the project in the trash bin where the critic suggested … thereby proving that you’re a writer and not an author in progress;
  • ignore the critique and keep the project as it is … also suggesting that you may not be an author in progress;
  • learn from the critique what is worth learning.

The author in progress does the third thing. After I got done being mad and sad in cycles, I resolved to come back to the critique in a while (that turned out to be three months) and mine it for what was worthwhile. Because this person had a history of being deleted from the site, I printed out the critique and put it away for later consumption. In the meantime, more nicer reviews came in that sort of agreed (in a nice way) with the mean review. I recognized that this mean critic had given me solid advice in a truly despicable manner and her critique was really not substantially different from the more soft-soap critique of the nicer reviews. He was brutally honest and that was exactly what I needed.

I went back to the book and applied the critique in a reasonable manner. I broke the manuscript into smaller more manageable portions (thereby creating a series, which is almost never a bad thing in epic fantasy). I was honest about how slow it was and I resolved to change that. I included death and mayhem much earlier than I was comfortable with. I excised the info dumps and limited the beautifully detailed descriptions I like. I added more complex characters, including some actual bad guys. And I got a better book, which got better reviews, but I also gained the confidence to pick a date to publish. You see, buried in that really mean review, was a off-hand statement that I had to mull for a long while and when I came back to it after the rewrite of the book that would become The Willow Branch, Book 1 of the Daermad Cycle, I realized that it was a very subtle compliment. Nasty guy actually thought there was a kernal of something in the book worth saving.

But if I’d done what I thought he was advising — burn the manuscript, eat dirt and die — I never would have come to that realization and either one of two things would have happened. Either The Willow Branch never would have been published or … I shudder to think this — the book entitled that would have been a mediocre book that should not have been published.

One of the major things separating writers from authors in progress is how they handle critique. All critique is useful to those who are willing to use it.

Lela Markham is the author of two published books The Willow Branch (Book 1 of Daermad Cycle), an epic fantasy, and Life As We Knew It (Book 1 of Transformation Project), an apocalyptic headed toward dystopian.

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