critique and feedback

Hurts So Good: Crack the critique mindset

One of the most insidious ways to hamstring yourself on the way to publishing your first novel is to be overly cautious about sticking your head out of your shell. When you hide your writing until you’re “ready,” nine times out of ten, it means you’re hiding from reader critique.

Sorry I had to call it out like that, but sometimes it’s hard to face the truth: your manuscript suffers when you hide it from readers.

I say this to you as someone who’s been slapping slabs of writing onto the sacrificial altar of editorial review for decades now. It’s not that I don’t get what you’re feeling; it’s that I’ve had years and years to get used to the idea that my words aren’t me. They’re not a summation of what I can do—they’re one thing I’ve chosen to do. And by the time those words have hit the editorial desk, my creative side has already moved on to new projects.

Still, it seems safer to clutch your pages to your chest and keep them to yourself until it’s time for editing, doesn’t it? It’s hard to open your work to outside opinion when it feels so intensely personal. But that’s the thing about writing a book: the writing feels very personal, but publishing it is not personal at all. If you’re only writing for your own eyes, you’re not really writing a novel; it’s creative writing, maybe, or journaling. But if you’re writing for the reading public, although you may have plumbed the floor of your psyche to get those words onto the page, the words don’t belong to you anymore. The words now belong to your readers.

So let them go.

Embrace reader critique

If you’re avoiding facing feedback because the criticism stings, you need to a way to get past your emotions. Vulnerability is scary. I get that. But keep your goal in view: to spot issues you can’t see from your own perspective. What does the story you’ve watched for so long through your own tunnel vision look like from readers’ eyes?

It’s all very well to ask a few trusted friends or family members to read your book, but let’s face it: they’re only doing it as a favor. Your book probably isn’t even the sort of story they’d pick up to read on their own, right? They’ll latch onto a few simple snips of praise and perhaps toss you a wee little bone about a minor plot hole or some typos.

Impartial peer review, though—ah, that’s a whole new level of feedback. These readers don’t have any skin in your game. Even so, they’re intrinsically motivated to help because reading your book is a waste of time unless they find something useful to contribute. Now the game has changed. Now you’re getting the kind of impartial feedback that helps you spot where the creative ideas in your head don’t match the story you’ve put on the page.

Critiques and workshopping represent the starting line for your book in the race to evolve from a creative project of the heart to a commercially viable product. On the way to publication, you have the chance to get feedback about your book from alpha readers, critique partners or groups, beta readers, editors and cover artists, agents and acquiring editors. All of this information helps you refine your story into a book readers will want to spend their time and money on.

Sound like a smart idea? It is. Here’s how to find a critique partner or group.

Cultivate a growth mindset

Successful, growth-oriented authors view reader critique and editing as opportunities to propel their craft forward, not as a rubber stamp of their achievements thus far. It feels good to hear all the things you’ve done right and what makes your book a great read. Of course it does. What should feel equally satisfying is having someone identify an issue in your story before it’s published, while you still have the chance to make it better.

If you’ve never received constructive criticism about your work before, and especially if this is your first time writing or publishing a novel, editing can be downright difficult to process. Still, the popular concept of authors as sensitive snowflakes who can’t take criticism does them a disservice. Oversensitivity is a natural reaction for beginners, but an author with a professional mindset learns to divorce the ego from the words.

There aren’t many Donna Tartts out there who are writing one gleaming masterpiece every ten years or so. Most successful authors are closer to John Grisham, pounding them out year after year. No matter which end of the scale you’re on, you have to come to grips with the reality of producing a creative commercial product: you win some, you lose some. The thing is, the smaller your scale, the less opportunity you have to learn.

So keep writing. Give yourself more chances to get it right. Write trunk novels that never see the light of day. Write short stories and give them away to help promote your books. Write something just to see what happens. Practice really does make perfect. Write another one. Right now. Seriously, go start a new story.

And then set it free among your beta readers or critique group or with your editor.

Expect to hear no

The whole point of publishing a book is to touch readers and get them to have an opinion about the experience. You’re selling that experience. It’s your product.

Cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset. You see those startup creatives over there getting all steamed up about their big new concept, fearlessly iterating until their product rises above the rest? You can do that, too. Roll up your sleeves and iterate, authorpreneur. Seek out reader critique. Seek out feedback. Make your product the best it can be.

It’s true, some agents or publishers or readers just won’t like what you’re selling. Take inspiration from your friends the content writers and journalists who pitch a dozen stories every month or even every week. The sheer number of rejections and rewrites required to successfully place a story in the right market makes it abundantly clear that criticism and rejection isn’t personal. It’s the project that’s not moving, not you.

So keep moving.

Set your publishing goals

Not all of us are headed to the same end game in publishing, and that’s as it should be. There’s room for one-off authors, hobbyist authors, semi-pro authors, full-time authors … We don’t all share the same publishing goals. What we should all share, though, is a commitment to readers. Until you’ve opened yourself to hearing reader critique and feedback, however, you’re still writing for yourself.

Once you’ve allowed the insight of others to help you see your book more clearly, your book will shine. Let go and let it happen. It’s your book’s time to shine.

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

Understanding how stories work changes everything. I’ll show you how to back up your creative instincts so your ideas hit home. It’s time to accelerate your journey from aspiring writer to emerging author. 

Ready to get serious about your book? Apply to work with me.

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