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ASK THE EDITOR Taking Criticism

by Susan Malone

February 2004

We've talked recently about how to deal with rejection, and what to do with the information gleaned. But another scenario exists on that subject: how to know whether to take criticism and dive back in, or hold to your guns.  Though we've discussed that a bit, it bears going a little deeper.

Because often, the decision is not very clear-cut. And to know when to revise and when to keep ploughing through becomes somewhat murky.

I always encourage my writers to attend conferences. You get a lot out of them, including meeting other writers, agents, and editors, along with nuts-and-bolts sort of classes. One of my clients just came back from a conference, and called me in a state of chaotic confusion. Her first meeting with a big editor, from a big house, did not go well. The editor didn't like the setting of the book, although she loved the writing and the plot setup. So, my writer was all set to go home and rewrite the entire book, with a completely different backdrop (for the record, it's a Fantasy, and the editor thought the setting "too Arthurian"). This writer's mind was spinning with all the ways to reset the tale.

Then, behold and lo, she had a meeting with another editor, whose take on the book was 180 degrees opposite. This editor loved the setting, and the characters, but was confused by the plot setup. Also for the record, this is a very good book, and one that has a great chance of selling well. The writer had SIX people–all big agents and editors–ask to see the complete manuscript. Of course, she wants the book to be right on, so as not to blow her big chance.

So, what's a writer to do? How do you sift through when the feedback is convoluted?

First off, had she gotten similar feedback, we would have revisited the negatives. Perhaps the setting had been overdone, in today's marketplace. Perhaps the characters weren't quite there. Or, the writing was uneven. When you have a number of rejections that all say the same or similar things, then you must dive back in and take another look. Maybe the critics were all wrong, but rarely do all the ducks fly in the wrong direction (although as Mother Nature knows, it CAN happen, so you always have to hold even that in the back of your mind). Often, when such is the case, you, the writer, can go back and find a better way still.

But if the feedback is nebulous, wait. This really is a very subjective business (as any of you who've had personal rejections can attest). So, get more opinions from agents or editors before you do anything. Most of the time, when you're faced with widely varying rejections, you just haven't found the right person yet. The funny thing about selling books is that, unlike selling bread dough to fifty different grocery stores, which then sell to the masses, you just need one yes. Just one. Your job is to find that one person who falls in love with your book. Now, that may not mean that no revisions will follow; different editors want specific points for their lines. But what it does mean is that you don't want to throw out the batter entirely. Maybe it just needs a touch more salt. Or, a more quickly rising yeast. Or maybe, it's fine as it is.

Listen to ALL of the criticism. Every speck of it (as long as it's from a professional, and not Aunt Ida down the street). Think of it objectively. Weigh it against the costs of losing the magic that someone didn't see. Or, does another way exist to bring that magic better to the fore?

Unfortunately, as with most sort of sales, there is no one, two, three, four of book publishing. You have to have a salable product, yes. But once you know in your heart that you do, then taking each bit of critique and sifting through it becomes much clearer, and much easier.

And that's the final point: trust your gut. If a nagging little voice keeps coming up saying, "This part really doesn't work," or, "That addition is superfluous," listen to it. No, don't listen to the voice that says, "You're an idiot for even trying this!" THAT voice is a lying demon. But the other one–the soft one which comes with specifics–that voice is almost always correct.

When you get to the point of following your instincts, you'll know which way to go. My writer who attended the conference and called in confusion really wasn't confused at all. She had a gut feel and called to bounce off of me her reactions–which were valid and true–kinda like when people call Dr. Laura for her to tell them what they already know. It's good to have someone like that available, so you don't roll into a tailspin just from the insecurities of the ego–a distinct possibility, until you really find your sea legs. And even once you have, sometimes those old demons will confound you.

So get quiet. Go within. Do those things that help you sort through any of life's travails–journal, meditate, contemplate, stare at the ocean, ask for guidance from whatever you know as the Divine. Your answers will come, and they will be the right ones. And then you can revise, or tell that editor, "Thank you very much," as you move on to the next one.

About Susan Mary Malone


Author of By the Book (novel) Body Sculpting; Fourth and Long; Five Keys for Understanding Men. Twenty Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! She is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com . Reach her at www.maloneeditorial.com

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