When the World Discourages

Last week I received my first writing review with some serious professional clout.  As you know if you’ve been following this blog, I was a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards this year for my novel Moonlight and Oranges, which is a huge honor and a nice pat on the back.  I’d never made it this far in a large contest before.

After the quarter-finals, comes the judging round for the semi-finals, and the voice of the critics are unleashed on a more intimate level.  This is what you get when you want to play in the big leagues.

Brian McDonald has a wonderful blog post about very successful artists who pushed through the criticism and disapproval of the experts and powers in their field. Did you know everyone thought George Lucas’ Star Wars was a waste of time?

It’s stories like these that I need to cling to when I’m reeling from a review–and yes, reeling is a pretty accurate word.  In my review, I had my characters, my plot, and my prose criticized.  I’m definitely not above believing that my piece could stand improvement–most writing can always be improved–but it definitely shook me to the point where I asked myself is this book worse than I thought it was?  Is it really…bad?

One of the first things I had to do was remember that though this was an esteemed review source, it was still just one voice.  I’ve had quite a few people tell me they enjoyed the book immensely when I shared my manuscript with them, and my critique group has encouraged me on it as well.  My critique group is readers and writers who are all striving toward publishing, and they have quite a decent idea of good writing.

I can’t decide to reject the encouragement of my community just because I had one dismal review.

Time and time again, I’ve had people tell me in the art world (and this includes writing) that the key is often times persistence.  This is so true that sometimes it trumps quality.

Now, I’m not condoning anyone putting shoddy work out there.  You should work hard to present your best, but this has to be balanced against the mandate to send your work out and stop the perfectionism at a healthy point.

The reason you see work out there that isn’t as good as what you could have done is that they sent it out and you didn’t.  It’s so logical when you say it that way.

So I sent out my novel to the Amazon contest.  It was the best that I could make it at the time.  Now, it’s even more improved from further comments from my critique group, but I’m glad I sent it when I did.

Another thing to keep in mind–there may be something helpful in the harsh review.  Larry Brooks wrote a great post on handling criticism last week.  Perhaps the critic’s dislike of my prose means that I used word choices that were inappropriate for the audience.  Or maybe he/she  just had a personal preference for characters who were less theatrical in their diction.

If what the reviewer says makes some sense, and this requires careful, sensitive prodding on the part of the artist, then the review might be used to help you rather than make you depressed, angry, or tearful.

If you’re putting your work out there at all, you’re going to get negative feedback from someone.  It will very likely feel harrowing.  It’s okay to cry, be angry, punch a pillow, get depressed, etc.  These things are natural reactions to having your work and creativity disparaged.

But you have get up and write some more.  My friend and writing mentor, Jack Remick, wrote on my facebook “Get back up on the horse, send the novel out, keep writing, be strong.”

My dear friend, Laine, who is studying journalism, wrote to me, “As you continue to write – your skills strengthen and your characters deepen.”

The one rule is you’re not allowed to quit.

If writing is a passion burning a hole in your heart, but you’re too discouraged to pick up the pen or approach the blank document on your computer screen, it’s time to join a writer community that will encourage you through the tough times.

These rough criticisms will come and they’ll come faster and thicker the farther you get into the writing world.

But we have to get back on the horse.  I’m doing it now, and I promise you it’s possible.

Do you have a horrible criticism that’s still a sore spot for you?  Have you learned anything helpful from a review that seemed, at first glance, to be nothing but a hurtful attack?  Sharing these stories helps us all.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. The fine art of improvement is knowing when you need constructive criticism, and knowing when to ignore it; a skill that seems only to come with age ;0)

    You can find criticisms of every great author, alive and dead. If you hope to ever make that “Greatest Authors of All Time” list, you have to expect that criticism is part of the game. It’s no fun but it is a part of the package.

    CS Lewis – Criticized for celebrating death
    http://www.facingthechallenge.org/pplewis4.php

    Tolstoy disses Shakespeare
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Tolstoy

    Mark Twain’s Pauper was not well received
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain#Early_journalism_and_travelogues

    F. Scott Fitzgerald is called “a fair-weather talent”
    http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/24/specials/fitzgerald-kazin.html

  2. Wonderful examples! My favorite is Tolstoy’s revulsion for Shakespeare. He even went to the length to write an essay dissecting it to show exactly how bad he thought a play was. It’s amazing how opinions differ.

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