Let’s say that you are more than a dreamer. You’ve actually finished a story. Now that you’ve finished it, you’re eager for feedback. You show it to friends. They read through it, and (just as you suspected), it turns out that you’re a genius. They all loved it. So did your mom. At this point, you should be growing suspicious. Is it at all likely that you’ve written the perfect book? Bet against it.
Where’s the criticism? You should be begging for it. You should want resistance. You should want people to try to tear your work down. You should want people with slender fingers and long nails pick, pick, picking at your cheap sweater.
Resistance makes you better. Criticism (from an honest reader) forces you to close gaps, fix inconsistencies, and throw whole sections away that you labored over for hours. More than that, when you wrap up a draft and hand it off to that honest and able critic, and they are unable to pick holes in your narrative, then your confidence can blossom. Look to the three little pigs for wisdom, and don’t blame the critic when your lovely straw house whistles away around your ears. And don’t be disappointed either. Criticism is your friend, even when it burns. It is gravity to your architecture. Wind to your paper kite.
We’ve already sorted aspiring writers into groups, let’s honor the tradition and do it one more time.
Group One: Some aspiring writers are desperate for criticism. Really, truly desperate. They bite your ankle and won’t let go until you agree to read their stuff. But when you do read their stuff–and you tell them exactly what’s wrong with it–you find out that they weren’t desperate for criticism at all. They were desperate for affirmation. Better (or worse), they were desperate for your connections. They wanted help, a step up, a solid plug at the old house. When they get criticism instead, the hackles rise, the gums recede (yes, the gums), etc.
Group Two: Other writers are almost ashamed to show you their stuff. They hang their heads in shame (“Yes, I wrote a novel. Don’t tell.”) If you read their fiction and give them some blow-back, the weakness continues. “I’m sure you’re right. It’s probably terrible.” They don’t even try to stand up for their work. Push against the criticism, please! No reader is infallible. Fight back. Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong, but don’t assume that you are. Criticism doesn’t improve you unless you lean against it.
I’m really only tagging this issue and running away. But, I will be back. Maybe even before Christmas. But before I fade into the oblivion of sleep, I’ll describe one final group. We could call it the Ideal Group. Some would even label it as The Imaginary Group, but I have met plenty of writers that fit within it.
Group Three: These writers want your criticism, but they weigh it (and they weigh praise as well). They aren’t offended when people pick, but neither are they intimidated and groveling. Where holes are revealed, they get to mending, grateful to have found them. When holes fail to appear, their confidence grows. Slender fingers did their worst, and that should always be reassuring. There are plenty of editors in the world that are morons (I’m not thinking of anyone in particular–I’m just judging from some of the books I see printed). And even when an editor (a high priest of possible success) dumps on their work (or makes pleasant suggestions), these aspiring writers don’t rush off and change everything. But they seriously consider changing everything . . .
A final comment. There are times when I don’t know if something is good until I delete it. And so it goes back in. But it was receiving someone’s criticism and attempting to implement it that made me keep those particular portions of my books just as they were.
My editor knows that if he sends a manuscript back to me without pencil through and through, I get nervous. I want to know that my stories can stand up beneath a storm of #2 graphite.