One of the things that I am fairly good at is taking advice.* This is not a skill that came naturally to me when I was a younger writer. Like many writers, I suspect, I was one of the best in my class. In all my classes up to and including law school. So when someone presumed to tell me how my writing could be improved, I probably reacted much like the kid that Maya Reynolds just tried to help here. Go take a look; I'll wait.

His mistakes, as Maya points out, are ones fairly common for young writers used to being praised. Maybe he thinks that he's being cute and clever by explaining away all of Maya's issues, or maybe he just thinks she's wrong, but either way, he's ticked off not just Maya, but me. As she points out, it's rude and insulting to defend your manuscript against someone who has offered to help you improve your writing.

I don't know how I became comfortable with the process of receiving criticism. I don't remember a particular event or incident where I decided that I would actually listen to what other people were saying and take it to heart. Maybe it was during undergrad, when I took creative writing and we had to be silent doing critiques of our work. Or maybe it was when I got heavily involved in fan fiction, where you look for beta readers to offer opinions on your work before you "publish" it to the world. I can't say.

All I know is that when one of my readers says that something doesn't work for them, I listen. Sometimes, they're wrong about what's off in the section, like in this old example, but most of the time they're right that something is wrong. They're reacting to something, after all.

Does that mean that this young man Maya helped was bound to accept all of her comments and make all the changes Maya suggested, that he had to change all the complicated names, and all the unusual attribution tags, and alter his style completely, just to make her happy?

Please. As if.

But it seems clear** that the writer didn't consider any of her advice. He's rejecting it out of hand. He seems to feel that Maya doesn't understand what he was trying to do with his story. And maybe she doesn't, right? Maybe her advice to him was as off-base as some of the advice I've been the recipient of over the course of my writing years. But I doubt it. The advice that she describes seems like good, common sense advice from a more experienced writer to a younger one. For example, he starts his book with a dream inside a prologue. Here is a list of agents/editors who say publicly on the internet that they hate books that start with prologues that I dug up in five minutes of searching:
Miss Snark
Andrea Brown (in Writer's Digest)
Editorial Anonymous

And here's one where they say they hate books that start with dreams:
Miss Snark (of course)
Pub Rants

That's five representatives of the publishing industry that say that either one or the other of the his opening devices are cliched. So maybe Maya's advice that he should reconsider the opening is right on, hmm?

I guess my point is basically two-fold:

(1) when you ask for advice on your work and someone comes back with stuff that you don't like, shut up about it. Say "thank you for your time" and file the criticism away.*** They have given up their valuable time and energy to try to help you, so even if they aren't helpful, they still deserve your thanks.

(2) Think about the criticism before you disregard it. Really think about it. Really. Maybe what the person has said isn't exactly what they mean. Maybe the solution they propose for the problem is wrong-headed, but the problem is there anyways. Maybe--and I know this is a crazy one--but maybe, just maybe, they're right and you're wrong. I know! But it happens.

So here's what I do when I receive criticism:

1. I do not explain. Unless the critiquer has a specific question, I do not try to respond to the criticism they offer. Even if I totally disagree, that doesn't matter. I'm not there to win an argument, I am there to listen.

2. I write everything down. If someone has a problem with a line, I mark it. If someone doesn't think the dialogue is realistic, I mark it. If someone has a question about the way a character is behaving, I mark it. This does two things: (a) it allows me to remember what was said, so I don't forget things, and (b) it short circuits the impulse to defend my work. I'm too busy writing to respond.

3. I ask questions. If I'm not sure what they mean or what issues they're pointing out, I'll say "I'm not sure what you mean" to get them to elaborate. This is important, because people, when they are critiquing writing, sometimes aren't sure what they are reacting to. They may think it's one thing, but in the course of talking about it discover that it's another.

4. I spin out the consequences of following the advice in my mind. Obviously, I don't do this in the critique session, but later, when I'm considering revisions. I ask myself "what would happen if I took this advice?" And I'm not allowed to give any crap answers like "Oh, the book will fall apart and SUCK." I have to really think about it.

For example, recently one of my readers suggested that a main character of one of the projects I'm working on needs to be older. Initially, I rejected this advice--my character was the age she was for a reason that I had thought about and decided on consciously. But then I thought about it. What would happen if I made her older? What impact would that have on the story? And I concluded that it wouldn't have a lot of effect at all. Yes, I had made the decision for a reason; yes, it was a good reason; but, no, changing that detail would not be the end of the story, and, in fact, wouldn't have a whole lot of impact on it at all.

Like I said, I don't know where I got this process from, or whether it will work for anyone else, but it works for me, and allows me to hear what other people have to say when they take time to say things about my stuff.


* I hope. I try to be, at least.

**Obvs, I'm basing this opinion on Maya's account. I haven't seen the actual critique, or the writer's actual response. You've been warned.

***In the circular file or in a regular file, whatever. I keep mine, because you never know when something that seemed WAY off base will suddenly turn out to be right on.


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