Friday, February 15, 2013

Accepting Criticisms

As a writer, there was a time when I agonized over each word. Felt pain at the placement of a period and coma. And sculpted each paragraph character by character with great love and care.

Then, once these words were placed and the thoughts and concepts were formed on the page, I would show them to other people. And invariably, these people would comment on them. I have to confess that I took these comments poorly.

Anything less than glowing praise of the writing I had given birth to was greeted like someone calling my baby ugly. I argued with my readers. I talked down to them. I drove them away with my defensiveness and disdain.

That was the wrong way to take criticism.

It took some time to learn to accept criticism with more grace. This process took me through three phases; The Outward Phase, The Mechanical Phase, and The Storyteller Phase.

The Outward Phase:

The first thing I had to do, was to stop myself from stopping the critical comments. Not every reader followed the reader's group rule of making three positive comments for each negative. They will only state negatives. And it doesn't always sound like they are even trying to be helpful.

You can feel and think and fume inwardly over these encounters.

But outwardly you need to say, "Thank you."

I started actually saying, "Thank you." when I was faced with negative criticism. This had the positive effect in two ways.  First, readers stopped being as harsh, because they felt they had my attention. Second, it let some of these critics get to the good comments because I didn't spend time arguing and correcting their negative comments.

And in my head, I would start my replies to critical questions with a thank you statement, and this changed the way I was talking.

The Mechanical Phase:

At this phase I realized that it wasn't my job to explain things to my readers, it was the story's job to do this.  And if a reader didn't understand what was happening and what a character's motivation was or what anything in the story was supposed to help the reader understand, then it was a failing in the story.

And if the story was failing, then I, the writer, needed to fix the story, not the reader.

So getting negative criticism becomes a list of story problems to be fixed.

A reader says they didn't get that the main character was a woman until the second scene, lets look at how to fix that. A reader says they didn't understand the emotional connection between the two brothers, then the story needs to mention that somewhere before it matters in the plot.

So in this phase, after writing a story, I became the mechanic in charge of fixing all of the problems so that the story would be better.  This helped me to deal with criticism because it helped me to actually be looking forward to hearing about what is wrong with a story I had written.

The Storyteller Phase:

Before this phase, I was still in love with my words. Words were my friends and my children. "Ain't nobody messing with my words."

And I had to let this go.

I think it was natural, when I was just starting to write, and trying to build my own voice, that I cared so intensely about the words I was writing. But I reached a point where it no longer mattered.

I still enjoy a good turn of phrase, and take pride in particular bits of prickly dialogue, but the placement of a word is not a big deal.  The words are no longer my offspring, they are just the tools that I use to construct my story.

In this phase I am still happy to get the list of things to fix. And I thank people for giving me negative comments. But what I am really after is anything that will help me tell my story.

So if my readers don't link a scene or plot twist, I can drop it. If they don't like the way I am writing the dialog, I can change it. If the placement of a period or adverb is confusing or distracting, I can fix it.

I can make any change that helps me tell you the story. Any change.

Because I am no longer just a writer, I am a storyteller.

There may be more phases.  It may be that other people experience these phases in a different order than I. But for me, it has been a journey of becoming a better writer and learning to tell my stories in better ways so that readers get to experience more than just words on a page, but the story that I have to tell.

PS:  Yes, this is a license or permission to tell me my story sucks and that I must be crazing to call myself a writer and should seriously consider that career in drywall hanging.

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