Criticism hurts. But it’s necessary. I know, it would be really nice just to surround yourself with three or four of your friends and give them drafts of your almost-finished, and they all reply back with comments like, “It’s amazing!” or “I’m a big fan!” or “You have talent!”. While all these things may be true, if they don’t give you a good dose on what’s wrong in the story, they are not helping (unless you’re fishing for either kind quotes or motivation).
There’s only one exception: and that’s when the person you emailed with your book truly likes it. But never, never take all opinions for granted. Always have faith in your work, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s perfect, whatever your friends may say.
If the person you emailed likes your book, they’ll reply with a clear, well-punctuated response and will give you all the reasons why they liked it. But if the “opinion” is poorly written and unconcise, don’t trust the critic. However, if you find someone who gives you an accurate, detailed description on what they liked and why, then you have good feedback.
However, most of the times, good criticism equals negative criticism. Because the main draft of your work is most likely not your best work (literally), it will need revision. Often times, your love for your work, pride, or any number of factors can blind you to the errors in your manuscript.
This is where the critics come in. And when I mean “critics” I mean hard-ball, mean old bouncers like Anton Ego. Maybe even someone who has a genuine distaste for your work. Remember, your enemies only choose to see the evil in you, so if you ask them to criticize some of your work, they will do so, and brutally. But therein lies a good editing process: the better, harsher criticism you get on the worst problems in your story, the better off you will be.
But we’re not aiming for simply negative criticism. We’re aiming for good criticism. I don’t want someone to be merciless on my manuscript just for the sake of mutilating it. You want someone who can truly, bluntly, and honestly point out the biggest errors in your book. This can be from your friend or enemy, but it has to happen. No work is free from the terrors of rewriting.
So where to find good critics? Well, you need to consult someone whose advice counts at least in your eyes, as professional. Find someone who you think is clearly above you in skill in writing, or even someone who is a valued counselor, a clear thinker, or an honest acquaintance. A professional, perhaps. Maybe you could send your book to Christopher Nolan or James Riley, or another author or moviemaker whose opinion on storytelling your admire. Find someone who counts as an expert or even someone that you consider to be an expert.
Then, be humble about asking them to look at your work. Tell them that this work is still in the editing process and therefore has many errors. Don’t bug or badger them, but make sure you get what you want. If they don’t get back to you after two follow-ups, just wait until they get back to you. Be patient when working with them. I don’t like to hire my critics, because they’re kind enough to do what they do for free.
Then, here comes the hardest part: dealing with the criticism. I warn you: If you see the dreaded reply come back from your chosen critic(s), be careful. If you haven’t had your daily cup of coffee, do that first. If you’ve had a bad day, wait till tomorrow. Don’t open that email until you’ve battened the hatches, hunkered down and prepared for the worst. If this was truly good criticism, than you will have a LOT of work on your hands.
Once you’re ready, open the email (or letter, or whatever). Then, scroll through and read. You will get two kinds of dissections from a honest critic: what he/she found interesting about your story, and what they thought was annoying. Take these both in stride and analyze them. Don’t let the good things go to your head and don’t let the bad things discourage you.
One note: not all criticism, not even from a good critic, is worth keeping. Just because “the critic says” is not good reason to rewrite your book. Take their words not as a directive, but as guidance, counsel, or advice. In the end, they are not the author. You are. Maybe you know better about your story. In that case, have clear, concise reasons of your own to counter the suggestions of your critic.
Remember, humans differ greatly in their likes and dislikes. If you really really really want to keep this one bit, and you have reasons for doing so that you think are better than what your critic says, keep it. Don’t fall into the Aesop’s fable pickle of the Old Man who tried to please everybody and the Donkey, as a friend of mine once said.
Never, ever refuse counsel because you’re too lazy to edit your story. Don’t take your critic’s work for granted. Always thank them. Be sincere. Don’t be resentful. Everything that they said that was logical, make changes accordingly. Send them a thank-you note, or even better, a free copy of your book once it’s published.
Good luck, and happy writing!