Attitude

Very few of you will actually need this drummed into your heads. That said, I’m a guest (can’t read, can’t comment) in a group where submissions editors share the horrible come-backs that authors send them after they reject submissions. I’d share some with you, but that’s against the rules. Reading those come-backs has taught me a lot about what not to say or do in a professional publishing context.

No matter how great you think you are–and you can be a multiple award-winning author who’s rolling in money, fame, and glory–no one actually likes an arrogant asshole. Likewise, no one likes a person who is difficult to work with. I have been both arrogant and difficult to work with, and I’ve worked with both sets of people, and I know what I’m talking about.

First: writing is not a competition. There’s no race for you to get your work to publication before someone else does. You absolutely do not need to worry about theft or plagiarism unless your novel is 100% ready to go and someone literally steals the file or print and mails it to a slush pile before you can do so. And even then, you have so much proof that you wrote it that you can beat that thief in court.

There are dozens of paranormal romances out there featuring alpha werewolves. There are dozens featuring sexy vampires. Mysteries with private investigator characters are a dime a dozen. Whatever idea you have, it’s probably not unique or original, which means no one can steal it. You may have a new take on an old idea, but you probably don’t even have that.

What you have is your unique way of telling a story that’s probably hundreds of years old by now.

People love that shit. I grew up reading the original fairy tales. I mean, I was five years old, sitting there working my way through the Cinderella version where the stepsisters cut off their own toes and birds pluck out their eyes as they’re literally marching Cinderella to the marriage altar. Those stories are a part of my DNA and probably why I can’t resist writing dark stuff. Readers love tropes and will actively seek out their favorite tropes, or retellings of already-existing stories and themes, so you really, really don’t have to worry about someone stealing your idea and publishing it. Just write the damn story.

Writers who zealously guard their work, require NDAs (which aren’t appropriate for anything except Harry Potter Book 7-level stuff), and who screech about theft of idea are obnoxious and insecure, and the rest of the reading/writing community stands back and laughs up their sleeves over such people. Don’t be one of them.

Second, do not drag other authors down. Lift them up.

You know who looks ugly when they trash an author? The person doing the trashing. Yes, I even mean people who trash Stephenie Meyer and E L James. Both Meyer and James are rich, rich, rich, and they both have devoted fan bases. Don’t you wish you could have that? The people who trash them try to cover it by saying they disapprove of elements of Meyer’s and James’s works, but the fact of the matter is that they’re trashing the authors, not the themes and plots and characters of the books. “Meyer is a hack” is about Meyer, not about her writing.

I once read the first 10% of the first Twilight book because I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I didn’t see why people loved it, but I also didn’t see why people hated it. I didn’t finish it, didn’t read the rest, didn’t watch the movies, and have no opinion about the quality of the books. I know almost nothing about Meyer herself. Same with James. I didn’t read the 50 Shades books. The point is, I’m not a fan. I gain nothing by defending them except my own self-respect.

It’s totally fair to take exception to some idea, theme, element, character portrayal, etc. in a book. I have read books where African Americans were portrayed in racist ways, and I sure as hell took exception to that and said so loudly. It’s totally fair to publicly discuss the things you don’t like about a book. It’s also fair to say that the purchase of a new book that promotes stereotypes is a tacit support of those stereotypes, which is why I refuse to buy any of Orson Scott Card’s books from anywhere other than used bookstores, and I didn’t see the movie even though I like Ender’s Game. The man hates gay people, and I don’t care to support that opinion with my money. But I don’t trash Card as a writer. I criticize his oppressive belief, and I could never be friends with him, but those are not the same thing.

Dragging other authors down will not make it more likely for you to publish. It won’t make your readership bigger. It won’t net you more money. It will make you look like an asshole, and it will keep you from ever being read by that author’s fans. It may also make you a laughingstock on social media.

Likewise, never, ever publicly trash a reviewer, whether pro or amateur. In general, be as civil as possible. Everything negative you say can and will come back to haunt you and may result in the end of your career. People listen, and they make up their minds about whether you’re worth the trouble, and that could be the difference between the publication of your manuscript and its rejection.

If you receive a rejection slip, do not write to the publishing company and insult them. Your prose isn’t as awesome, deathless, high-brow, important, amazing, incredible, or life-changing as you think it is. The people who read it aren’t ignorant hacks. If they don’t understand your message, you didn’t do a good job of writing it. And if you show yourself to be the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect, don’t expect to ever publish. Publishing companies have lists that they put people on. “This person didn’t handle rejection well, behaved in an unprofessional way, and personally insulted staff members X, Y, and Z” is not a note you want appended to that publishing house’s file on you. Not to mention, they do, on occasion, talk to each other. If you want publishing houses to enter into a bidding war for your work, you better handle rejection as politely as possible first.

Third, your prose is not deathless.

In fact, it’s probably not as good as you think it is. That’s okay. Total crap does get published, and the worst writer I ever read has a fan base. You can be quite publishable and have a good career with middling prose. Many do.

When a critique partner suggests you change something about your book to make it work better, give the request some serious consideration. If your reaction to receiving critiques is to shove your fingers in your ears and start chanting nonsense syllables, you’re behaving in an arrogant (and childish) fashion.

“But I’m an artist!” you might say, or some variation thereof. Great. There’s a reason they’re called “starving artists.” If you want to be “true to your art,” don’t complain if you never earn any money and remain unknown. Many people are happy to be true to their art and forego royalties. There’s nothing wrong with that. And I’m not saying change your work to please everybody, because you can’t please everybody.

That said, if you intend to be commercially successful, you do want to make sure that 80% of your crit partners/beta readers are satisfied. If you have five critique partners and three of them say that you need to clarify your main character’s motivations, then do so. Besides, as you grow in skill you won’t have the conflict of being true to your vision and producing something commercially acceptable. (If you’re writing for a hobby, do whatever you want–but again, don’t be an asshole about it.)

I write a lot about Latino characters. One of my characters was named Brayan. I wrote over 200,000 words using that spelling. Some of my crit partners had no idea how to pronounce the name, which happens to be the phonetic spelling of “Brian” for Spanish-speaking people. While “Brayan” is more authentic, I changed the name (and not without a serious struggle) to “Bryan” because my readership is mostly going to be native English speakers, most of whom won’t speak Spanish. I don’t want my readers to experience the name of this significant character as a road block, because if they do so, they won’t be able to fully immerse themselves in the story. So I changed the spelling of his name.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory wrote an epic fantasy called Blade of Empire. I  enjoyed it immensely. Most of the characters are elves, and in their world elves have extremely long and complicated names. The male main character’s name is Runacarendalur Caerthalien. This is an epic fantasy, with two of three books published, so you can imagine how many characters have names like that. An enormous number of readers who reviewed the books (especially the first one) commented on how off-putting the names were. Now Lackey and Mallory are experienced, many-times-published authors who have devoted fanbases who would probably read their books if every character used their social security number as their name. But you and I, we are not them. We don’t get that willingness to jump the hurdle of difficult names, etc.

Consider changing whatever it is that’s causing your readership / critique partners trouble. Be flexible. Listen. Learn. Consider. Approach your writing relationships with humility, kindness, and respect. Give honest feedback, but don’t be cruel. Don’t say horrible things about people in person or on the Internet even if you think you’re totally justified. Don’t ever publish anything negative about anyone while you’re upset. Life, writing, and the whole process actually goes easier if you think of yourself as one of many writers, if you’re willing to take advice, and if you make the attempt to be easy to work with.

How to respond to the crits you’ve received

Last article on critiques was about process. This one is about how you relate to other people.

Before I start in on this article, which is all about how to handle being criticized, I would like you to know that the vast majority of the time you get critiques, they’re probably going to be a pleasant experience–especially if you take the right attitude about them and you make yourself a pleasant person to critique.

When someone gives you a critique, thank them like I’d said in the previous post. They spent time on your project and you do the bare minimum to reward them.

Thank them even if they did a shitty job.

Thank them even if they insulted you. (Never use them again if they did so, but still.)

You do this because you want to be seen by the world around you as a gracious, professional writer who will be pleasant to work with. The more you make the habit of being gracious even when you don’t feel like it, the easier it will be when you’re sitting on a panel of published authors some day and someone goes to the microphone to tell you, in public and before everyone, how much they hated your book.

Think it won’t happen? Maybe not in front of a microphone, but every writer who ever makes it big has someone who very publicly states how much they hate that person’s work and what a hack they are. In print. Nationally distributed. Or on talk shows. So practice for that day, if nothing else.

Then open a Word document and write out your feelings. Use as many swear words as you want. Tuck it away somewhere and never, ever, ever publish it.

Next: No matter how much you desperately want to, and you probably will, do not answer the questions your crit partners raise unless they really do want to know the answer and they tell you so. 80% of the time or more, they will be asking the question in order to let you know that there’s some confusion you should address, not because they are in burning need of the answer themselves.

Example 1

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Example 2

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These are critique clips from my WIP’s second “chapter.” My critique partner has asked questions; they’re in green highlighting. He also highlighted the stuff in yellow, which is what his first question references. I didn’t answer these questions because they’re not meant to be answered by me to him, but by me to my readers, which means that what I really need to do is go back and make my writing more clear.

When a crit partner asks you a question, it means your writing isn’t clear. Fix your writing. You’re not going to be going home with your readers, answering their every question as they read. Make sure your writing isn’t confusing in the first place.

If you’re a normal new writer, you’re probably going to want to talk for a very long time to anyone who will listen about your story. Sometimes this is appropriate. Sometimes it isn’t.

It’s never appropriate to go on and on about your story, your plot, or your characters if you’re boring other people or taking unfair advantage of their good nature, patience, or your crit partnership. Pay attention to their expressions, their body language, and the tone and words they use to respond. If their feet are pointed away from you, they don’t want to hear what you have to say. They want to walk in the direction their feet are pointing. (Really.) Online, if their responses are monosyllabic and there are big pauses between them, that’s a good sign they’re more invested in something else at the moment.

Some crit groups (the best ones) are places where you can bring up problems with your story and your crit partners will discuss those problems with you and help you hash them out. This is a workshopping thing, and it’s fun and awesome. You must be as willing to help them with their stories as you expect them to be willing to help with yours, or you’re being an ass. Don’t be an ass.

If you want to do have a workshopping discussion, here’s how you do it.

Incorrect way:

You: “You guys kept asking what my main character’s motivation was for assaulting the tavern. She really wants the cash box under the till because she knows the tavern makes a lot of money on Fridays and the staff is lax about money drops, so it’s a great time to rob the place. She even made sure that the bouncer would be distracted by slipping a little laxative in his lunch when he ate at her diner earlier that day, remember? I said in Chapter 1 that she was broke, and in Chapter 2 I said that the tavern staff was lax, and in Chapter 3 I mentioned the laxative, so why didn’t you get it? And you said you didn’t understand the magic system I’m using. It works like this …”

Correct way:

You: “Hey friends! I’m having a problem with Act 1 and I want to talk about what you all brought up in your critiques. Do you have a moment?”

Them: “Absolutely!”

You: “Joe [crit partner 1] said that my main character’s motives for assaulting the tavern were a little vague, and Katie [crit partner 2] agreed with him. I’m having trouble seeing it. Can you explain a bit more? Also, can you please help me figure out how much I need to explain about the magic system for readers to understand what’s going on without being bored? I’m stuck.”

People love to talk about how they feel and what they think. It makes them feel smart and valued. Give your crit partners the chance to feel smart and valued, not like you think they’re stupid, ignorant, and bad at reading.

What if your crit group meets offline?

Some crit groups are set up so that people hand out their 10 pages of writing (typed, double-spaced) during the first meeting, then get their crits back the following week. Some people focus on one person and their story a week. However you do it, this is the process for receiving your feedback.

Shut up.

I’m not kidding. The best, most useful, and probably most personally difficult way to accept a critique from your offline crit partners is to let them give it. Some people will speak directly to you. Do not reply. Do not answer their questions. You may write their questions down, but don’t say a single word unless they desperately need you to in order to continue their critique. Other crit groups will do a panel thing where they all sit around and talk about your work with each other and you shut up and write everything they say down and do not say a single word unless they beg you or they’re done, at which point you say “thank you.” I know I’m being repetitive here, but I cannot stress this enough. If you want people to want to crit your work, this is what you do.

Besides, you do get to speak.

Your crit group’s mores may mean you get to reply to your critique partners individually, after each person is done. You might reply to them en masse when they’re all done. That’s up to your crit group, of whom you’re a part and can help make those decisions. I prefer to reply to everybody, because sometimes more than one person will have the same basic criticism, but each will have their own spin on it.

Do your absolute best to avoid explaining what’s going on in your book, what they missed, or answering their questions unless they ask you to. Instead, ask them the questions you wrote down. Then your group can, with you as a part of it, have a productive conversation about your WIP. Write down stuff from that too. What you’re getting is a gift, and you should appreciate it.

If your group has time limits for feedback, respect them. Don’t talk over, through, or for another person in your crit group whether you’re the recipient or another critiquer. If you can’t stick to a time limit, write down what you want to say and hand it to the person it needs to go to. If your group has four writers and each of you submits something each week and receives crits the next week, then it’s going to take time to get through each critique, and if you hog all the time, people will get irritated at you. Take all the time you’re allotted, but don’t go over.

If you think that the members of your crit group are just plain wrong, or are expressing their personal irritation with you through your crits, then you should meet with them outside of your writer’s get-together and hash it out, or leave and find another group. Don’t try to resolve your personal problems with a crit partner (or theirs with you) in the middle of the meeting. All that does is make everyone uncomfortable, and then you get people who make excuses and don’t show up.

Now all of this advice is on how to behave well and on how to resolve problems with crit partners. This is because if there are no problems between you and your crit partners, then there’s no need for the advice. That said, even friends sometimes run into trouble, and it’s good to think about what to do ahead of time.

Most of the time the critique process is pleasant. I usually experience a bit of an endorphin high when I read a critique because someone actually read and replied to my writing! Most everyone I know couldn’t give a shit about my writing, which is a common problem for new writers. On top of that, I get to find out what they liked / what I’m doing right! And I get to find out what I can fix to make it so that even more people like what I’m writing, which means maybe some day someone will give a shit about my work and I get to learn something. That seems like a win-win situation to me.