Criticism: how to take it and what to do with it.
At last the book is finished. There were times when you thought it never would be, but you’ve got there with all the strands drawn to a satisfactory conclusion. You’ve read it through, corrected typos and inconsistencies. You’re elated. It isn’t at all bad. However you’ve read the reviews on Amazon and know that even best-selling authors have the occasional damning one star. What will other people think about your baby?
The easiest way to find out is to ask your fellow authors, your supportive writing circle, whether round the table or on-line. It may be that some of them have already read bits of the story. It’s time to put the whole thing up there for review.
You are not prepared for the sheer volume of criticism and advice, a lot of it conflicting. Is there too much action, or not enough? Are the descriptive passages you liked so much really too long-winded and rambling? Several people have commented on the dialogue. They didn’t seem to find the Scottish dialect convincing.
When the dust settles, you recover and read your story again. Some of the criticism you can dismiss; your peers are telling you how they would have written it, but this is your story. There are other points that are clearly valid. It was worthwhile getting your fellow authors’ opinions, even if you are a bit confused. You move your Scottish character down to the Midlands where he feels much more at home. You change his name from Alistair to Joe and get rid of all that unconvincing Scottish dialect that was so difficult to write.
Your story is much better, but you are still confused by the differing opinions you have received. You’ve had a recent bonus, so decide to spend it on getting a professional critique. The agency will make sure that the reader is attuned to your genre. You wait several weeks until one day, as you are about to leave for work, a large brown envelope pops through the letter box with the name and address written in your own handwriting. You pick it up and put on the table and go to work, where you are unable to concentrate. The image of that package looms too large.
Later, after your evening meal and fortified by a second glass of wine, you slit open the envelope. Well! Who would have thought anyone could be so picky? There’s pages and pages of stuff and all those notes in the margin. It looks like they are suggesting a major re-write. You read it through in anguish. Could they find nothing good to say? After a few days of depression, you read it again. It’s not quite as bad as you thought at first. In fact, it’s quite encouraging really. Of course, there’s a lot to do, but it’s not impossible.
The re-write takes ages and you suddenly realise you’ve spent longer editing than you did writing the original version. That moment of elation when you thought you’d finished seems a very long time ago. The story is quite different now, but better, definitely improved. But is it good enough? Your confidence has been shaken.
The next step could be friends and work colleagues, people who may not know you write, but who share your taste in books. People seem quite eager to read what you have written, perhaps they are a little curious and you wonder how much of yourself has been exposed in your writing. This is much more stressful than sharing it with your writing circle. These are real people, your potential readers should you ever get published. Of course, they will say they like it. They probably value your friendship or know they need to continue to work with you. The feedback from these people will be different. They won’t be criticising your writing style, your dialogue, character development, viewpoint, structure, all the stuff you got from your fellow writers and professional editors. However, this exercise can tell you a lot.
Once started, did they read it quickly, sitting up until midnight to finish it, or did they return it after some time explaining how the housework meant they simply hadn’t had time to finish reading it before? Were they keen to discuss it with you and enthusiastic about the story, or were they a bit vague and didn’t seem to get your main character’s motivation? This feedback may make you decide that you should put this one away and go on to the next thing, having learnt valuable lessons from the experience. Positive feedback from these genuine readers could give you the confidence you need to send it out to agents and publishers or even to publish it yourself.