Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Vital Lesson In Becomming a Novelist: How to Survive the Slings and Arrows of Constructive Criticism

Most of us write our novels in isolation.  The story originates in our heads, and then we write and edit while secluded in our bedrooms, backyards, offices and basements.  During this stage the story, themes and characters make complete sense and we assume that they will be clear to everyone else.  We focus on the novel for countless hours, ignoring friends, family, careers and meals all in the name of our masterpiece. 

Then, at last, we take this masterpiece to a conference or workshop and they tell us:

“I don’t get it.”
"This character isn’t memorable."
"You have way too much dialogue."
"Nothing happens in the first forty pages."
"The magical rules of your world are confusing."
"No one is buying [insert your genre] right now."

But that’s okay.  You’re not alone.  Getting harsh feedback is just a part of being a novelist human. 

However, it is something many of us have difficulty handling.  Going back to your workspace with what was once a masterpiece but now is carved to pieces with feedback can be truly overwhelming.   Where do we even start with so many notes?   

I recently wrote a blog on 10 Things I Learned From “The Novel Year,” A Class At The Bethesda Writer’s Center.  To add on to that, here is yet another lesson I learned: how to handle the reams of constructive criticism your novel will receive.

1)    Don't be That Person in the Workshop

Let’s be honest, we’ve all had moments when we’ve been told how confusing or unnecessarily weird our novels are or how the scenes just aren’t gelling.  We’re sitting, nodding our heads and smiling while on the inside we’re like:

And that's normal.  It makes sense that we'd be upset because we've already spent an embarrassingly large percentage of our lives on this work. 

However, we want to keep all that frustration on the inside.  We don't want to be that person who loses their cool and claims that everyone else is too ignorant to grasp the complexity of our work.

Fortunately this didn’t happen at all during my class in Bethesda (they were all amazing writers), but I’ve seen it happen in plenty of workshops and conferences.  There are three reasons why you don't want to be this person.

1. It's unprofessional.  The only thing people will remember about you is that you're the one who lost their temper while everyone else took their feedback with calm dignity.

2) It makes the rest of us feel awkward.  Seeing someone explode in a workshop is like going to a couple’s house for dinner and seeing them bicker all evening.  Everyone pretends they’re not watching, but they can’t look away.

3) No one is going to want to give you feedback ever again.  If they do give feedback they will be reluctant to be totally honest out of fear that you will snap.  In the end it will be your story that will suffer and that is unforgivable.  You are allowed to suffer but your novel never should.

Don’t forget, you only need to keep your frustration on the inside until the conference/ workshop is over.  While you are with your fellow writers you need to take deep breaths, ask questions (always make sure you understand what they are actually telling you) and thank them.  Then, when you meet up with close friends or a significant other you’re allowed to let off a little steam as demonstrated by Al Pacino Satan in the picture above.  

2)    Don't Be in Denial

You also don’t want to be this guy:

 I'm going to come out and say it.  Your novel isn't perfect.  My novel isn't perfect.  Most novels that are taught as classics in ninth grade English aren't perfect.  We need all the help and guidance we can get.  Ignoring this fact isn't going to help us and it’s not going to help our writing.  (And let’s face it if you’re a real novelist you put your writing way ahead of your own health and mental well being.)

A lot of constructive criticism can be hard to accept, but we need to incorporate it because otherwise our writing won’t improve.  Part of the reason why the criticism stings is because on some level we know that our writing still needs tons of work.

The best way to get over the denial is to implement the criticisms one step at a time.  While you are at the workshop/conference take copious notes.  Ask questions if you can in order to make sure that you actually understand what you are being told.  Some of the feedback will be very broad (“This character doesn’t make sense”).  Asking questions can help pin down the specific problems. 

One thing I have found about feedback is that fellow writers are great at pointing out issues with my writing but almost never give good advice on how to fix those problems.  This could be because they don’t know the world/characters as well as I do, or that they are throwing out suggestions on the cuff rather than taking time to think through the changes.  Nevertheless, still copy down any advice you can get.  Just because you put it in your notes doesn’t mean you have to use it.     

When you get home, take those notes and turn them into a list of things you have to do in order to improve your novel.  Ninety-five percent of the time seeing all of that advice in the form of a bullet point list will make the upcoming work feel considerably less overwhelming. 

This is where you will have to take a step back and take some of the blind passion out of how you feel about your work.  Thinking outside the box is key at this stage.  Obviously you shouldn’t take every piece of feedback you receive, but you should seriously consider them. 

Just think through, “What would happen if I eliminated this character?” or “Would the ending improve if I took out this scene?”  You will be given a lot of advice where your initial reaction will be “Of course I can’t do that!  That will ruin my work!” but it won’t ruin your work to honestly consider the suggestions and to even write a couple chapters where those suggestions are implemented. 

You have already spent countless hours writing the novel, what’s a few more in which you follow through with advice given by fellow writers?  You would be surprised just how much of the feedback you would never consider ends up improving your work.           

3)    Get Excited About Feedback

Don’t forget, the whole point of constructive criticism is to improve your novel.  Of course this is something most of us are aware of but once we truly embrace how much feedback helps we stop viewing it as a way for outsiders to tinker and insult our writing and start to actually get excited about the guidance we’re receiving. 

This especially applies to feedback that might change a large chunk of your novel.  If you’re told that you need to rewrite the last ten thousand pages or completely eliminate a character, you will find yourself actually pumped up about the changes if you can accept that they will make your novel the fantastic piece of literature it deserves to be.  Feedback isn’t a crisis, it’s an opportunity. 

It’s vital that you understand why you’re completing the feedback you are being given.  Don’t just go through making corrections just to check them off a list.  Do your best to understand and accept why these changes need to be made. 

Remember, the reason why you're a novelist is because you love writing.  If you're told to rewrite the ending that just means you get to do something you love twice.  I know that’s cheesy and it’s an attitude that’s sometimes hard to grasp but improving your work will only make you feel better about your art.

4)    Your Novel is Not a Baby

When writers send their work out they often say that it's like, "Sending my baby out into the world."   They don't want to see their baby get bruised, hurt or insulted.  They love their baby and fear for it once it’s out of their protection.

 While I can sympathize with these feelings, it is an attitude we (myself included) need to drop ASAP. 

Our novels are not babies.  They are a work of art in progress and someday they might be a product (sorry, but it's true).  For better or worse people will criticize our writing.  That’s just the way the game works. 

Don’t forget, the novels we send to workshops and conferences aren’t the finished products.  They won’t be finished even after we implement all of the feedback.  Our novels won’t be “complete” until they are actually published.  We need to stop viewing our manuscripts as precious jewels and see them as constantly changing works that will have a number of influences beyond our control. 

If we are told that a character or a chapter or even a whole section isn’t working, our attitude shouldn’t be “But that’s how I wrote it.”  We need to take a deep breath and start listing all the things that can be done to fix this problem.  Even if there are some possibilities on that list you would never use, you should at least consider them.  The story needs to evolve.  Just because you make a change doesn’t mean you have to keep it. 

If you find yourself rewriting the ending and realize that it’s just not gelling, the characters aren’t behaving the way they should and the plot is falling apart, you can always just take a step back and pursue it using a different strategy.  If you ever feel less like you are writing your novel and more like you’re writing cheap fan fiction set in your novel’s world you can always start over. 

You may not get it right on the first or second try but you will eventually nail it on the twentieth or thirtieth.   


I'm going to repeat this: YOU ACTUALLY WROTE A NOVEL!  

With all of the feedback and criticism that you're going to get it's easy to get down on yourself and your work.  However, if you’ve made it to the point where you’re getting feedback then that means that you’ve completed a draft (or at least that you’ve written a large portion of one).  That means that you’ve accomplished more than many people who just go home, watch TV and obsess over their day jobs.  You have followed your passion. 

Don’t become overwhelmed with constructive criticism.  Yes, it's vital if you want your novel to reach its full potential, but you have already accomplished something fantastic, you deserve to acknowledge that.  Accepting and implementing feedback is just the next step in becoming an even better author. 


  1. "Remember, the reason why you're a novelist is because you love writing. If you're told to rewrite the ending that just means you get to do something you love twice." Call it cheesy if you like, but I think it's the most valuable tidbit in this whole piece. Bravo.

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