Finding Criticism

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While I was on vacation I got an email from my editor and sat back to consider it with suspicion.  I was worried that it might contain good news and let’s face it, nothing is worse than good news.  Allow me to explain.

It’s easy to look around and find ten people to read your work and tell you it’s wonderful, or gosh-wow great, or really, really nice but none of that is terribly useful.  On the other hand, try to find ten people to give you a thoughtful critique and offer suggestions on how to improve your manuscript.  The latter is the more difficult feat by far.

editingGood criticism is hard enough to come by that I started giving my test readers questionnaires to answer when they’d finished the book and even that was only marginally successful.  The fact is that most people who read for pleasure don’t read as critically as a writer does and the result is that the feedback they give is often little more than “I loved it,” or “I can’t wait to read the next one.”  That’s fine for stroking the old ego but it simply isn’t much help when I’m trying to improve my craft.

One way to find good criticism is a regular writer’s group.  I try to meet with a small group of other writer’s whenever I’m home in Nashville.  I’ve unofficially dubbed us The Rabbit Room Writers’ Fellowship for the sole purpose of getting the library to let us meet in their conference room.  We’ve met probably half a dozen times over the last year and those few, small gatherings have been a well-spring of wisdom and learning for me.  The thing that makes it work is that we know each other and respect each other enough that we don’t need to pull punches.  If I write something that doesn’t work, they will tell me.  That’s a valuable thing.

When I made the decision to publish The Fiddler’s Gun independently I was confronted with the reality that I wouldn’t have the benefit of a team of editors and copy-editors poring over my manuscript deep into the night to ferret out every misplaced comma, character inconsistency, and thematic indulgence.  Instead, the responsibility was all mine.  So I screamed in panic and hired a freelance editor.

Kate (my editor) and I had already known each other for some time and I knew something of her work and trusted her editorial eye.  But once I had hired her I began to worry that I’d receive her edit and see something happy and terrible like, “It was really great! Don’t change a thing!”

And thus did I eye her email with trepidation and suspicion.

I squinted at the screen as I read it and then let out a long slow sigh of relief.  She hates it!  Hallelujah!  She hates it!  Okay, I exaggerate.  There was no hate.  She did however explain that she was working her way through the manuscript and offered a detailed critique of several thematic issues and plot points that she wished me to consider (or reconsider) while she continued her work.

Even though I didn’t agree with all of her points, I couldn’t have been happier with her feedback.  Since then I’ve been chewing over things in my brain and working on how to solve the issues she brought up.  I’ve always felt that no matter how strongly I feel about my writing that I have no business arguing with a trusted reader.  The reader is the boss and if the boss isn’t happy then I need to change something.  So even though my initial reactions to some of Kate’s ideas were defensive, the more I think about them, the more I feel she’s probably right on the money.

An objective critique is a valuable thing, especially when it hurts to hear.  I have no doubt that I’ve learned more about the craft of writing from painful criticism than I ever have from praise and compliment.  The former makes me want to do better, the latter makes me think maybe I’m good enough.  It’s easy to see which of those feelings is more productive.

If you’re interested in how the book is coming along, be sure to check out the website at TheFiddlersGun.com.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


12 Comments

  1. Robert Treskillard

    Great advice, Pete!

    I’m, thankful to be in a family where I can read my work aloud and be told pretty frankly what’s working and what’s not.

    Still, as much wisdom as we can glean from others, the better. Good for you getting an editor before publishing.

    -Robert

  2. Christopher Dilworth

    Wow…you nailed my story. I feel like the little kid bringing home a page of scribbled crayon for mom and dad who always say “Oh, that’s wonderful son! Let’s put it on the refrigerator!” Or like the person going through a divorce who everyone avoids because they are too afraid of saying the wrong thing so they say Nothing! And then I met my editor…Diana. I’ve seen her writings in her teenage days which I didn’t always understand but knew she was on a deeper level of thought than most. In an effort to get an honest opinion and encourage at the same time, I presented her with a couple chapters of a work I was laboring over but couldn’t get edited by anyone but me…or mom and dad… and she ripped me apart! Now published, I can’t thank her enough… Check it out… “Desire…sin lies at the edge”… yeah, shameless self-promotion… but if you saw what it looked like in the beginning, you would be thanking Diana, too!

  3. Stacy Grubb

    Thanks, Pete. This is incredibly timely for me as I received a list of comments from some DJ’s concerning one of my tunes yesterday. While none of them were constructive (the good or the bad), a few of them were pretty critical and that stung at first; especially a couple that made no bones about not liking my writing or vocals. But you know what, I don’t like everyone’s vocal and/or writing, either, and I haven’t always been so kind in expressing that (though, I would be if I was telling them to their face). Like you, I value a constructive opinion and find it downright critical (har har I’m punny) if I want to present myself at my very best. It usually takes me a while to recover, however, before I can start thinking logically and not personalize the advice given. Even for as much as I know I need a trusted opinion, I’m always afraid to hear it; afraid it’ll knock me so far off balance that I’ll entertain the notion of throwing in the towel and wallowing in the self pity of how talented I’m not. Yeah, it’s dramatic. I usually snap out of it, though.

    My bad habit that God’s getting rid of for me is to be so affected by a mean word that I rue the day I ever sang a note or jotted down a line.

    A question, though: When you are given an opinion that you disagree with, how do you choose whether or not to follow that advice or to leave it as is (or maybe even leave the idea as is, but work on your delivery)? I have a trusted friend whom I often get to screen my songs and 9 times out of 10 his suggestions are ones I can live with and I’ve always come to appreciate the changes after the grueling process of figuring out how to change it is over. However, there are one or two instances in which, for his reasoning (usually to make a song more commercially accepted or easily understood), he was probably right, but I felt that changing it damaged the integrity of the song and my purpose for writing that line the way that I did. I don’t want to be one of “those” writers, though, who cuts off their nose to spite their face and doesn’t even realize it.

    Stacy

  4. Aaron Roughton

    Matt’s post yesterday about artistic effort vs. impact ties in very closely with criticism for me. My problem is not in accepting criticism that I believe to be honest and worthy, but in deciding what it is that makes some criticism worth listening to and other criticism worth brushing off. Actually, it’s probably more than that. The trouble for me is in deciding whether my own opinion about the criticism of my art, or even the art itself, is valuable, and whether I’m qualified to discern the good criticism from the bad. It takes one good example like Matt talked about to shake my confidence in my ability to evaluate my art. It took me years to get past that initial defensive reaction that Pete talked about and actually move toward an application of criticism to growth as an artist. I still shy away from criticism more often than not.

  5. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    How do I decide whether or not to follow advice that I disagree with?

    That’s a good question. One of the reasons that I dislike internet critique groups or the idea of open-to-all-comers writer’s groups is that I think it’s of paramount importance that you know the person who is critiquing you and know their abilities, skill-level, background, and tastes. If a bum off the street tells me my work sucks, I’m far less likely to follow his advice than I am if Johnathan Rogers tells me my work sucks. One is a stranger that I don’t know from Adam that may or not not have any clue what he’s talking about, the other is a friend whose work and opinion I respect and who is a far better, wiser, and more experienced writer than I am.

    But even then, I don’t know that I ever apply advice without a great deal of thought. I think it’s important to sleep on things, to let them cook a while. And that goes double if the criticism is bad because you will probably have had a defensive reaction to it that you need to let go of in order to see things clearly.

    When it comes right down to it, though, I think you’ve got to weigh all things and make your own choice as an artist. As your skill level and experience increase, so will the accuracy of your own instincts.

  6. Mark Cook

    this makes me think of Evie’s post not too long ago about teaching art and how you learn how to give the appropriate encouragement and criticism. Good criticism: art teacher tells you you’ve got something, but shows you how to draw a better tomato. Bad criticism: art teacher tells you that you might as well give up, that tomato looks like a porcupine.

    Good criticism is important at all levels of life. and i think the best criticism can come from humility. both in the giver and in the receiver.

  7. Stacy Grubb

    Pete,

    Thanks for the insight. I too have found that making a snap decision isn’t the best thing because, as you said, my immediate response is always to get defensive. My adrenaline gets going and all these thoughts start bombarding me, telling me I’m a no-talent reject dufus for not already knowing this stuff before presenting what I thought was a stellar project only to have someone pick it apart in a matter of minutes. So, it usually takes me a good couple of hours to get rational and really start considering the suggestions and toy with some possibilities for how to make the changes. And then it takes at least a day or two to be happy about it.

    But then there are the situations where I feel as though the changes may be a step in the right direction for one purpose, yet in the wrong direction for my own purpose in writing the song to begin with. To give a ferinstance: I wrote a song several months ago that talks about the last conversation I had with a special aunt of mine that passed away unexpectedly last September. I was first inspired when I was at my dad’s house looking through some old pictures and felt a wave of sad shock when I stumbled across one of my aunt and I immediately started crying and thinking of a dream I’d just had of her. I thought to myself how nice it would be to go home and have that dream again, but then I remembered how devastated I felt when I woke up and she was gone again. She was an incredibly tortured and sadly misunderstood person and a line in my song deals with that, but maybe a little too obscurely and my very trusted critic suggested under no uncertain terms that it’s just too mysterious for people to define and know what I’m saying and that it’d be a disservice to the song to leave that line. I feel otherwise because it describes the way I view my aunt well. Understandably, people don’t know my aunt, my reason for writing that song, or the way my mind works, so he’s right that folks won’t get it…or at least not the way I get it. But I’m a huge lover of mysterious lyrics and love applying my own meaning to them kind of like a part-time psychoanalyst. What can I say? It’s what I do. It’s my bag, Baby. But I know that most people don’t listen to music the way that I do. At the same time, I don’t want to stand my ground to the point that this song loses something because of one wonky line. Focusing on that line, I feel passionate about maintaining its integrity, but stepping back from it to see the whole picture: Does that then ruin the integrity of the entire song? Those are just things I ask myself and, I think because of the sensitive content of this song, I’m having a harder than usual time deciding whether or not to follow the advice of someone much more experienced than me and make it more accessible or to stick with the original line and keep it authentic.

    This response is long enough to require an editor, I think. Any takers?

    Stacy

  8. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Samuel D:

    As a friend once said to me when I was complaining about gaining weight, “You’re not fat. You just look fat.”

  9. Stacy Grubb

    Ron and Sam:

    That reminds me of something my little boy told me when he was about 3. I was correcting him for calling me stupid and said, “No, sir. We don’t call people stupid.” And he said, “No, Mommy, I wasn’t calling you stupid. I was just letting you know.”

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