Accepting Critiques of your Work: Sanctification

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Courtesy of bing.

 

The rough draft is done. The rewrite is done. The first round of alpha readers is in. (You know who you are: thank you!) Adjustments are made, notes are taken, and the story is ready to simmer while the rough draft of Book 2 is written. Rinse and Repeat.

This is my general cyclical habit when I’m writing a novel.

Last year, I added in a new step via Scribophile. As I read, critique, and learn from other writers at various stages in their craft, I share my chapters to be critiqued in their turn.

What a different world. I get the email notice that my work has been critiqued and I’m instantly nauseous. This is not my writing group of gentle suggestions. This isn’t fellow believers who see the beauty of the gospel in my work. This isn’t friends who’ve been reading my work for years. This isn’t even acquaintances of friends who wanted to see what I write. These are people who don’t know me and are willing to take any given chapter apart word by word. (I’m now crawling into a corner.)

If you’ve never opened yourself up for a sound critiquing, you need to know there is little in the world as painful. I had to build a tiny network of friends/fans/readers just to talk me down off the rough every time I got a critique.

I will admit much of the negativity and harshness is in my head. The critiquers have, over all, been very encouraging, kind, positive, and helpful. But, God is a master at using every element of our lives to point out our remaining sin and make us more like Christ. Getting critiques of my beloved story was the perfect opportunity for God to help me see my pride.

Sigh. There was a lot of it.

Paragraph breaks, commas, dialogue, telling, info drops, confusion, descriptions. Each time someone pointed out something that needed another polish with the old rag, a little voice of anger rose up in me: “Can’t they see that this is the greatest work ever???? What’s wrong with them?” Whoa. Hold up there, Betsy. Greatest work ever? Really? Come on.

Someone’s struggling with pride. Me.

Lesson 1: Getting Critiqued Requires Humility. If you want to survive any type of criticism and come out better on the other side, you must willingly admit that you are in need of improvement. You do not have it all down. You aren’t perfect. And you can’t see everything. It’s a scary and vulnerable position to put yourself in even when you have a computer between you and a critiquer. But! It’s also very healthy. I’ve done my greatest growing under strong criticism. (Generally, after some pity-partying, but I’m working on that.) Thinking you have it all together, that you have no room to learn, grow, or improve is not a good place to be. It’s a place of pride and a place of stagnation. We all have ways we can be better. Better writers, wives, mothers, church members, and just all around human beings. If we don’t accept criticism, we’re probably in danger of also deciding we don’t need to listen to the preaching of the Word, or our spouses, or our parents. This leads us right into rebellion.

God used an online critique group to really poke at my pride. It wasn’t fun. But, I’m thankful he didn’t leave me thinking I was all that, and didn’t need to keep growing.

Lesson 2: Getting Critiqued Requires Confidence. Having other readers and writers tell you a name doesn’t work, or a sentence doesn’t fit, or they don’t like the description here, or a character isn’t making sense to them is very important for the storyteller to hear. But, the storyteller can’t blindly apply every suggestion given. Why? First, constantly contradictory advice is given. What works for one reader doesn’t work for another. One person loves a description and someone else hates it. You must decide what works in your book. Second, only you the storyteller sees the end. You know that the description is important, or the character, or the name. They haven’t read the whole book yet.

So while you humbly listen to their advice, you also sometimes have to confidently reject it. They don’t know your story as well as you do. You can’t make everyone happy. Sometimes a critique is wrong.

I’m the kind of person who hates conflict. (ISFJ, here.) I’d rather sacrifice what I want in the name of peace and quiet, then stand up for something. I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to ignore critiques, advice, suggestions, and outright demands. I don’t have to do what someone says just cause they really hated something. It’s my story.

This flows out into the rest of my life as a warning about who I listen to. I need to be very careful who I allow to critique my life. My pastors, my husband, close, wise friends. These are the people I need to listen to and I can confidently trust. I don’t need to accept every criticism the world or people level at me. I don’t need to listen to people who tell me how they think I should manage my health, my life, my home, my schedule, if what they say doesn’t line up with the truth of the Word, or what my husband has laid out. I can confidently ignore them. They aren’t my authority. Sometimes this means preaching to yourself when you read a blog article, watch TV, read magazines, or even talk to friends. Sometimes it means talking to your husband when you get home about what a supposed authority said.

 

criticism

Courtesy of bing.

 

From having my work critiqued by strangers, I’ve learned that you must hold in one hand great humility, and in the other great confidence. You must be willing to admit you need work, while at the same time know what’s best for your story.

Life is the same. You must humbly listen when others point out faults or make suggestions. You must confidently stand strong so you don’t try to be everything to everyone and forget who and what’s important in your life.

God is good and uses everything, even a harsh critique of a chapter you love, to show us our sins and to make us more like Christ!

 

Writing Lesson: Reading

1385917_10202312859570822_2002110902_nMy mom had a radical idea when I was a struggling student who couldn’t stand English, had little use for Math, and really didn’t understand Science . . .or, looking back as an adult . . . refused to apply herself to any of these fields. Once I got into college, I kept a 3.8 GPA and had no problems in my English, Math, or Science courses. But high school seemed to be a point in my life when I just didn’t care. So, my super awesome Mom did what she could to try to prepare me for my life as an adult. She encouraged the one thing I did love – reading. She figured I’d learn a fair amount of the English I needed just from seeing it over and over again. I guess she also figured that as long as I could read I could learn the other stuff when it became important to me. Funny enough, she was right.

I love to read. I love books. Libraries and Half-Price Bookstore are like walking into a room with all your favorite people just sitting around waiting for you. My smart phone lets me take books with me when I go workout without needing to lug a volume with me. And, there are so many good audio books out there that I can work and ‘read’ at the same time. I must live in reader heaven!

Somewhere along the way, I was inspired to take that love of reading and start writing. I fought this gift for quite a while, but God kept nudging me and pushing me towards it. I have now been writing for over ten years. I’m going to give you the same advice every writer gets. If you want to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. (This is not one of those rules you can squeeze out of I promise you.)

You need to read. You need to read many things. You need to read in your genre, and you need to read outside it, especially outside it. You need to read classics and weekend reads. You need to explore new writers, new worlds, and new stories.

But! Don’t just read. Don’t just lay there like a limp noodle and let the words pass before your eyes without letting them affect you. Read as a writer. Do you think a sculptor goes and just looks at Michelangelo’s David with a passing glance? Do you think a composer listens to Beethoven’s 9th symphony with a casual enjoyment of the combination of notes? No! Of course not! They figuratively sit at the feet of these masters and learn. They take what they know already and see how the masters applied it. They bring their amateur expertise and use that to guide them as they study what the masters did. You can’t read the symphony unless you can already read music. See, they’ve moved past the basics, but that doesn’t mean they stop learning.

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As writers, we must do the same. We must saturate ourselves with masters, old and new. How do we do this? What are we looking for?

1) Read with An Eye: Train your mind to pay attention to what you’re reading. Don’t let yourself just read. Watch sentence structure, timing, plot development, world building, beginning, and ends. Pay attention to what you read. How did the author use grammar to communicate ideas? How did they handle the pacing? How did they catch your attention? What was their first sentence? When did you realize you were hooked on the story? Did they choose 3rd person of 1st person POV? Why?

2) Rule Breaking: Watch for places the author breaks all the rules. When did they tell instead of show? When did they use an –ly, -ing, or past tense words? When did they use flashbacks? Think of all the rules you’ve ever been told as a writer and then read someone who has effectively broken them.

3) Plot, Dialogue, and Character Growth: Watch the dialogue of master story tellers. Look for ways they make each character unique. Pay attention to how they ratchet up the tension and reveal the plot. Watch the character development. Did the characters change all at once or slowly over time? How did they keep them differentiated? How many characters do they have? Can you keep them separate?

4) Think and Talk About It: After you’ve read a book, analyze it. Think through it. Find a trustworthy friend, share the book with them, discuss. Don’t just read it and go on. What touched you? What bored you? What brought you to tears, made you angry, or frustrated you? What scared you? What made you want to name your first-born child after a character? What side characters did you like or hate? What sticks with you for days afterwards? What do other people say about it? (Hint: read both positive and negative reviews!)

5) You Write what you Read: What you feed your brain will pour out your pen. Do you want to write something good? Well, read something good. If you enjoy horror read King, Koontz, Poe, James, and Lovecraft. If you want to write urban fantasy, read Gaiman, Butcher, and Rowling. If you want to write about war, read about war from men and women who’ve been there. Read about WWII, Vietnam, Korea, and the Iraqi war. Look for master wordsmithers. Look for writers with deep descriptions, well-developed characters, and places you want to stay . . .or run far far away from.

6) Research and So70d6145144e9644c75e0368ad263d4e8mething Different: If you learned something, it counts as research. You may be writing a fairytale and reading Correia. That’s fine. His action scenes and gun knowledge can help you tighten up your own action scenes. You can learn more about guns than you ever needed to know reading one of his books. It’s okay, in fact, it’s recommended that you read things far outside your genre. It will make your work richer if you pay attention.

7) Bad can be Educational: Sometimes we learn by seeing other people’s’ mistakes. Pay attention. If you’re bored, figure out why. If something doesn’t sit right with you, analyze it, and learn from the mistakes of others. It’s amazing how much you can improve your writing by recognizing bad writing. Just make sure you apply it to your work. As you do this, keep in mind genre differences. You may not be the writers target market. Don’t be offended if you’re not.

There are times to read just for the sake of reading, but as a writer, you must always remember you’re honing your craft. Reading is how you do that. All the list of rules in the world won’t make you a better writer. Reading will, if you read with purpose. Keep your eyes open, monitor your reactions, think!, and apply. If you don’t do that as you read, you’re never going to improve your writing.