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March 22, 2011

Are You Teachable?

Boy learning to ride a tricycle

Over the past six months, I’ve received feedback on my work from many sources—contest judges to beta readers.  A lot of them told me things I didn’t want to hear.

It would have been very easy to get defensive and react along the lines of:  Didn’t they read it?  It’s right there.  They just didn’t get what I was trying to do, or what I was trying to say.

Believe me, I wanted to react that way.  Guess what?  99% of the time, any issues are our problem as the author—and not the judge’s or beta reader’s fault.

We know what we’re trying to say.  We know these characters.  We know if they’re nice/likable/worthy-of-sympathy.  But I discovered, after much time and thinking, my judges and beta readers were right.

I’ll say that again: They were 100% right.  I was wrong.

I didn’t do a good enough job showing what was in my head.  I did a sucky job of showing why the reader should care about my main character.  I did an atrocious job of showing in one pivotal scene what was going on in my character’s head so the reader wouldn’t hate her.

Yes, my friends, I had written a “throw the book against the wall” scene and didn’t realize it.  *sigh*  To all my contest judges, beta readers, and critique partners—I apologize for putting you through that.  *blush*

Luckily, I’ve been able to make that criticism work for me.  I’ve learned and improved with every piece of criticism I’ve received.  No, that doesn’t mean the judge/beta reader is always right about how to fix it, but some kernel of truth lies at the heart of it.  We often must read between the lines to discover that truth.

For example, one contest judge (multi-published) told me I should describe my settings more, have the main character notice the carpeting.  Now, that’s a ridiculous suggestion on any level.  a) The main character wouldn’t stop to notice the carpeting of her own house, and b) it was an unimportant detail.

However, the kernel I was finally able to glean from that was that I wasn’t immersing the reader deep enough.  I was skimming the surface, both in the main character’s emotions and in the sensory details – the touching, smelling, hearing, tasting senses.  I wasn’t giving enough information to let the reader experience the scene.

So the specific criticism was wrong, but there was a reason she’d brought up the issue.  And it was an issue I needed to solve.

This is why virgin-eyed beta readers are worth their weight in gold.  Only someone completely unfamiliar with our story can see some types of holes.  Maybe the scenes aren’t clear enough, maybe it’s not deep enough POV, or maybe the protagonist isn’t shown being sympathetic enough.  (Or in my case, maybe all 3!)

My point is that 99% of the time there’s a kernel of truth in a judge’s or beta reader’s criticism, so our default should be to try to discover that truth.  I’d rather improve my writing than be certain that I’m “right” and the judges/beta readers are “wrong.”

I want to be teachable.

Have you learned about yourself or your writing from critiques?  Are you able to turn those weaknesses into strengths?  Any words of wisdom to make criticism hurt less?

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Shain

I really enjoyed your post and when my time arrives I hope that I can react with the same attitude, openness, and outlook that you did. I will be hanging this post up in front of my desk.

Rachel

Oh my. It takes a lot of strength to admit all that. And while you have me wicked curious as to what pivotal scene lead to hate I’ll put that aside to share this….

Beta Readers and judges are extraordinarily valuable for telling you what you’ve convinced yourself isn’t true actually is. As I wrote one I thought the heroine was being a bit of a nag, advancing her own agenda. I talked myself into believing that it wasn’t that bad, that her agenda was a worth the nagging. My beta readers blasted it, and her. They called her a harpy.

They were right.

The more invested I got in her agenda, in her actions, the more the story ‘needed’ to go that way. I convinced myself that it was no big deal. I was wrong. Very wrong. When I stopped lying to myself and admitted that the book took an amazing turn. But I needed the b*tch slap from my Beta Readers to do it. As hard as it is to take at the time, criticism really can make a better book.

PW Creighton

It’s so hard not to be defensive about our writing. We’ve spent countless hours immersed in a world that was only in our head and so much time with the characters that they can count as friends. When someone punches holes in that world it can be upsetting. When I first started on the series I would avidly defend what I was writing, now when a CP or Beta punches a hole I look at it and go ‘crap, time to edit again.’ I know I’ve matured when I objectively punch holes in it myself. There’s always room to learn if you pull your head out and listen.

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Another great post Jami. For those of us that are just starting out, the maps you lay out for us are great. It will help us avoid the pitfalls and rabbit trails as we move along. Okay, it won’t, but at least we can come back to read this blog when we get our hat handed to us by a beta reader, lick our wounds, realize it’s not the end of the world and move on to making our WIP better.

green_knight
green_knight

I’m not teachable. I’m willing to learn, but I don’t assume that anyone holds ‘a truth’ that I need to acquire – I am happy to learn – am learning – from people all the time, but I equally feel that I have something important to share with _them_.

Ultimately, the responsibility for decisions rests with me – I need to feel comfortable following advice, and not do something because someone else says so; I need to *believe* in it.

CMStewart

You’ve discovered you have the most important (in my opinion) trait of a great writer- the ability to learn and grow. Congratulations (again)!

I’m teachable. But I’m mostly self-taught. 🙂 I hope when the time comes, I’ll have the flexibility to find all the “grains of truth” in my beta readers’ and critique partner’s suggestions.

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

I think sometimes the criticism hits too close to we, the writer, are as a person. Hearing the insight of others on ourselves can be difficult. For example, I gave out a one-sentence summary to several beta’s and the responses were that it was too clinical and a couple of terms I used confused them. Well I am a bit clinical in live, one of those cursed analyzing minds and generally a perfectionist. I could have taken this hard, however, it made me realize that maybe I needed to lighten up a bit, that relaxing with myself would let me relax with the story as well. And it worked.
The only way to take criticism well (at least for me) is to think of it as a report from a mechanic on a malfunctioning car. Sure the “sticker shock” of the revelation may be a bit much but we still want the breaks to work, or the miles loud roar of the muffler to stop reverberating in our dreams. So we deal with the shock, attend to the issue and in the end are generally happy we did so.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Not a month ago I wrote a synopsis I thought was FANTABULOUS, the best synopsis ever written…um, yeah…I was a tad optimistic, and very, well, blind.
My critique partners, who know me so well, set me straight. They ripped the thing to shreds.
I had a fit, I actually cried in Panera while we were going through it. DID THEY EVEN READ IT? Don’t they see what’s right there in front of them? How could they say that?
I was incredibly insulted, and upset.
Luckily my CP are amazing, wonderful, fantastic women, who are not only wise, but supportive. The lucky thing too, they don’t back down even though I acted like an idiot.
I’m so glad for that because after I went home, re-read all of the bright red corrections, and really absorbed the reasons behind them, I realized they were soooooo right.
99.9% of what they said was necessary to make my synopsis much, much better.
The moral of this story…”99% of the time, any issues are our problem as the author—and not the judge’s or beta reader’s fault.”
Great post Jami. I will try and remember to implement your wisdom from now on:)
Have a great day,
Tamara

Rachel Firasek

This is a great post! I’d like to think I’m teachable, I’m certainly always learning.

Carradee

I just lost a huge nice well thought-out comment. >_< Ulgh. Okay: take II.

I'm at that fun point in my fantasy writing where some folks "get" and love it, and others are bewildered by it. More than one person has called my writing style unique, though I'm not sure why.

But on critique partners, I've noticed that even when their critique is wrong, every critique illustrates a disconnect between reader and story. That disconnect could be something as mild as the reader not knowing that the archaic spelling of "fairy" was "faerie", so he's convinced you can't spell. Since that particular work was a quasi-historical fantasy, that spelling wasn't changing.

I have another WiP where the narrator makes sense to other readers in my particular demographic, but ones outside it have difficulty following her. That's a problem, because I'm not trying to write solely to my demographic. And it's a first person story, so figuring out how to adjust things is a bit of a challenge.

Still. When you're inclined to protest that the critic's wrong, it helps to remember that they’re listing a disconnect. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that line they’re complaining about, but you haven’t set it up properly.

Abel

Being teachable will make you a better writer and a step above those who think their writing is perfect. Keep writing. Keep writing.

Tina Lynn
Tina Lynn

*sigh* I wish. There have been many times that I’ve looked at a comment and said, “What??? Are they kidding?” But after I take a breath and really look at the word/sentence/paragraph/scene, I’ll get it. But some are much harder to find than others and it ALWAYS hurts.

Daisy Harris

I’m all about being teachable. Yeah- some people get it and others don’t- but I want as many people as possible to “get” my stories. I generally find that if one person doesn’t understand a point, or is rubbed the wrong way be it, other readers will feel the same.

General comments like “your heroine’s not likeable” or “you need to read a book about world-building” hurt. In a perfect world critiquers would be better able to express exactly what went wrong and how to fix it. But alas, in the real world, it often falls to the author to suss that out.

Great topic! Cheers, Daisy

Michele Shaw

First of all, as one of said betas, thank you for not hating me! It was a joy to read and I appreciate the opportunity:) You are right, though, while criticism is never easy, it’s always valuable in some way. I can’t help but get that twinge (at least for a second) when I get criticism. The key for me, is I ALLOW that twinge to happen, then get myself to step back and admit where I went wrong. It’s hard, you are brave. Anyone who puts themselves out there is, IMHO.

Piper Bayard

Sometimes those judges’ comments are hard to take, for sure. I remember reading one and thinking, “They just want to put someone down. They didn’t even try to understand my story.” Then a couple of months later, Kristen Lamb said the same thing, and I had to take it seriously. What to do with ego? You can’t write with it, and you can’t write without it. Thanks for a great post.

Ashley Graham
Ashley Graham

Ah, I’ve dealt with this one a *number* of times. It sucks when people tell us what we don’t want to hear, but at the end of the day, it’s those comments that help our writing the most. The hard part comes when you think you’ve finally gotten things right and people still don’t get it. Being close to our manuscripts is HARD STUFF. Good thing you’ve learned how to handle critiques well and use it to your advantage. You’ll go a long way!

Tahlia Newland

I’m definitely teachable and work hard to set ego aside. Since it’s such an important aspect of the writers life, I’ve written a lot of posts on dealing with criticism and rejection and working positively with feedback. I have a whole category for it!

You might find this one on how ego strangles our progress interesting
http://tahlianewland.com/2011/01/27/how-ego-strangles-artistic-development/

Murphy

Hi Jami!

Great post and great comments. I do think, that just as the writing process is a learning in motion craft – so is the absorption of criticism and how we apply it. Just as CP partners have to adjust to each other and get in the groove of comprehending how their partner thinks and therefore reacts and comments to their work – I think we need to recognize this with the beta reader’s process too. I know first time out of the gate with a beta reader I was too willing to change things because I’d gotten comfortable with the CP process and carried over too much trust – without allowing myself time to adjust to this far different critique/comment process. Not that I didn’t get great feedback – it’s just that I should have allowed myself time to absorb it – like I did when I was first starting out with my CP.

M.

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