By Mary Margret Daughtridge
I recently finished the copy edits for SEALed With A Promise (coming Spring 2009.) I had to take my own advice more than once. :-)
Criticism—it’s right up there with death and taxes for a writer. Inevitable, and you ignore it at your peril, because the closer you come to being published, the more people there are who tell you exactly what is wrong with your book and expect you to fix it—if you want to be published, that is.
Unfortunately, most of the advice about how to take critique, like don’t take it personally is only useful if you already know how to do that. If you could not take it personally, you wouldn’t have a problem, right? As a Master Practitioner of NLR, for many years I’ve helped people make positive, permanent changes in how they think and react to criticism.
I’m not going to ask you to view a critique of your work unemotionally. That is so not going to happen. However, you can learn to shield yourself from being overwhelmed by hurt and anger.
So let’s talk about how put the skills you already have to work for you.
Let’s start with “don’t take it personally.”
You’re a writer. You live in your imagination. You can change point of view at will. Suppose you were reading a critique of somebody else’s work. Could you do it without taking it personally? Sure. So (step one) imagine you’re writing a scene in which a writer has received a critique. She’s with her best friend. The temptation will be to write the scene in the POV of the writer—after all, you’re already identified with her. But give yourself a challenge. Write the scene from the POV of her best friend who has been asked to read and comment on the critique. She laughs at the idiotic comments, gets mad at the insensitivity, commiserates with the pain of having all that hard work trashed. But remember you are not in the POV of the writer. This is the POV of the friend of the writer, a person absolutely on her side. Someone who feels for the writer. (Stop here and do the exercise now.)
Step two. Now rewrite the scene, nope, still not from the POV of the writer. This time in the scene the writer and her friend are going over the critique when a kindly someone, who doesn’t know the writer, drops in. They invite the visitor to read the critique and the point of view shifts. Now you’re writing what someone completely objective feels and says about the critique. That person feels compassion but also thinks the critique is wrong in some places but right in others. “I mean,” she shrugs apologetically, “that sentence is sort of awkward. And, too bad, but that is a dangling modifier. And maybe if you set the scene earlier, it would be easier for the reader to get into it.” (Do the exercise now.)
Step three. Now write your taking criticism scene from the POV of the writer. You’re identified with her, but she’s not you. She’s unusually honest with herself and also keeps her sense of humor. She admits she’s disappointed. She wanted feedback that her story is the most brilliant, most touching, most exquisite piece of writing since (choose one) Nora Roberts, Harold Robbins, Evelyn Waugh, Samuel Pepys. She wanted someone to express wonder at her gifts! Joy that a new star has appeared in the writing heavens! And to say publication was assured. She really, really wishes the manuscript glowed with accolades. She’s disappointed. But, hey, she knew all the time, it might not happen. Overnight success happens only after years and years of preparation.
You can stop the process here, if you want to. But is there a voice in your head when you read a critique that says things like you’ll never make it, you’re a terrible writer? Turn that voice into a character too, and let the best friend and the kindly observer take her on. She’s not only wrong she’s mean to attack you when you’re vulnerable. Nobody should be allowed to treat you that way. Use as many characters as you need to tie her up, gag her, and lock her in a closet.
For those who like technical terms this whole process is called dissociation. Imagining the POV of the friend who is reacting to the writer is one kind of dissociation, and imagining the POV of the disinterested, but kind, observer reacting to the entire situation is another. Finally, using the POV of a writer who keeps her sense of humor and proportion is another way to dissociate.
You have moved from taking it personally with all the hurt and anger that goes with that position, to having feelings but not taking it personally, to being able to view the critique from the point of view of someone who critiques the critique.
I can hear some of you objecting, “But all this is imaginary. What will happen when it’s a real critique?” College basketball players were divided into two groups. One group was assigned thirty minutes additional practice shooting goals, while the other group was told to mentally shoot goals for thirty minutes. The group who only imagined shooting goals improved as much, and in some cases more than those who physically practiced. Being a writer, you already have the fundamental skill of imagining someone else’s feelings. As with all skills, the more you practice the more you will improve.
Will you eventually become ‘thick-skinned?’ Probably not. You’re a romance writer. Sensitivity to your own and other people’s feelings is built in. But when somebody says “Don’t take it personally,” you’ll know what to do.