Friday, March 9, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.

Last night I found myself in a heated debate with a very good friend of mine. This is a sort of weekly routine for us. One week we'll argue over the merits of spanking children (of which we have none), and the next week we'll be discussing women's rights, which somehow leads into a verbal knock-down drag-out argument over the second amendment. I'm still debating the cause of these debates. Are we politically-charged creatures or do we both just enjoy a rousing debate? And then of course, is option 3: we both thrive on being right and being the most intelligent person in the room. The latter is likely the most honest.

So, about this argument. This friend of mine who is  verging on pseudo-chic in all of her wannabe hipster glory-- with superior intelligence to boot-- argued against an idea for a scene that I have for THE BIRTHRIGHT SERIES. I'm choosing to keep the content of the scene under-wraps, but I do want to talk about criticism: when it's constructive, when it's destructive, and when it's just plain wrong.

Personally, I don't like criticism. It makes me doubt how utterly fabulous I am, and if there's one thing that's true to my personality, I don't like doubting my fabulousity (and no, I don't care that fabulousity is not a word.) I don't like pouring my heart and soul into a piece, fine-tuning each line so it carries the right amount of poetry to it, and delving into the story only to get a critique back where the reviewer is less-than-impressed with my ingeniousness.

Let me share with you a recent experience I had with my critique group. I had just re-worked chapter 1 in ANOMALY, the first in THE BIRTHRIGHT SERIES in its entirety, for the 7th time. That's not 7 tweaks, revisions, or editorial drafts. I mean I rewrote that chapter 7 times. I mean that Miss Eliza Landry went from a frat party in one version to breakfast in another, and at one point she was a high-school student in a version long-lost to good taste.

When I finally found my footing, and I finally found Eliza's beginning, I was thrilled to share it with my critique group. There was no scowl at the computer screen, hoping and praying they would like it. There was no nail biting over being torn apart for a style choice. There was nothing but confidence when I hit the "Send" button. I was flying high.

And then I got my first critique back-- and the e-mail beamed at me with the subject line proudly reading "More Please." And I thought, I knew it! Another very good friend of mine that is in the critique group as well, Brenda Gonet, is actually excited for chapter 2 to be sent her way, she's so thrilled with chapter 1. So there I sat, with a happy heart, waiting for that last critique.

When it finally came in-- from our group's toughest critic, might I add-- I was still confident and proud of my submission. And then, once I read it, my heart fell, my eyes glazed over in frustration, and I gave her e-mail address a look so dirty I'd of been embarrassed for somebody to have seen it. Not a happy camper was I.

This ball-buster (as I like to refer to her in a mostly fond manner) had so many comments-- positive and constructive-- that a tiny vein must have burst in my forehead. But still, I stood by my scene. I stood by Eliza's actions and the set-up. For the first time since I cooked up this series way back in 2009, I didn't doubt the story; I only doubted the way I told it. Once I cleaned up the carnage of my soul, I was able to see that. For once, I got it right.

The truth is that the critique was accurate, polite, and well-meaning. Even though my heart was heavy with disappointment that she wasn't in love with it like I am, I knew that she meant well. I've found that the best thing you can do when you receive a critique you don't like is to walk away from it for a day or two. Let the sting heal, and once it has, go back to it.

I always ask myself 3 questions when sizing up a critique on my work:

Is there a theme in their comments?
Is this a matter of personal preference?
Are they right?

The answer to the questions was a resounding "yes" in all but a few spots. One comment was that she preferred the former version of the story where it didn't start knee-deep in the action. She was right in that the reader gets a more immediate sense of Eliza in the former; but that version wasn't right for the story, the character, or the writer. So, in that case she was both right and wrong. Starting in an intense action scene can lead the reader to question why they should care about the character. But by the same token, most YA readers seem to prefer to jump right in and to get to know the main character after they're hooked on the plot...

Which brings me to one thing I could not argue with her about to save my life: the action scene lacked intensity. As a writer, it's trying to hear that you haven't given the reader enough. Sometimes, it's already taken all I had to write the scene the way it is; and to be asked to pump it up can send shivers of madness down a worn-down author's spine. Eliza, while in a life and death situation, is lacking a strong emotional connection with her situation, and that's my fault. While I think I nailed most of the action, some details are just much too sparse. Not only were these comments helpful, they were also numerous in nature. I can't argue with that assessment one bit.

Occasionally you'll run across a critique of your work where it seems they didn't like anything you'd written. It's happened to me and man, did it hurt. The first thing to ask yourself is how you can make it better. Does the critic want more emotion, more action, less dialogue? So, try writing the scene with inflections of their advice. Is it better or is the scene still not working? Maybe the critic isn't giving you what you need-- and maybe they are and you're unable to see it. Sometimes, we authors do run across a poor critic. Only the author can make the decision to accept or ignore a criticism they have received.

So, last night when I thought I was sharing a poetic, impactful scene with my good friend, and it fell flat, I wanted to scream. It wasn't that she wasn't kissing my fanny-- although I like that, too-- it was that I felt she was understanding the purpose behind the scene. I was convinced that she didn't get it.

A few circular arguments, eye rolls, glares, condescending remarks, and personal digs from both sides later, and we had finally reached a consensus: we're both right, we just have trouble communicating. Sometimes, as the author, I have yet to take an idea out for a lap and haven't quite let it discover its full potential. And how can I be expected to relay its virtues without ever having witnessed them myself? Sometimes, my good friend is just the warm-up I need. She challenges me, forces me to be clear in my explanation, and demands that I be capable of defending myself.

I say that an author should never shy away from a harsh criticism. The harder the knock, the stronger the defense, and the tighter the story. I'd bleed on concrete, wounds agape, unable to breathe if it meant it would help my story. But that kind of thing isn't likely to happen off the page. I'm just a very dramatic character in everything that I do.

This ending would be the perfect time to lead into a discussion about the theory that writers have to have the hide of a rhino or they'll commit suicide; but really, I'm not a sensitive enough individual to be able to tackle that topic. I'll just leave you with this: be sure that whether or not you choose to listen to your critics, that you always listen to your characters.

- JC