Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Park your ego at the door

by Rick Blechta

Tom’s excellent post from yesterday got me thinking about something every author has to deal with and the importance of dealing with it correctly. A paraphrase of something Tom said should be on a sign mounted on the wall of every authors’ work area: Be Easy to Work With!

I doubt if you’d find any writer who enjoys having their work critiqued — assuming the reader doing the critiquing is looking at your finished product. The fact that someone is pointing out that you were wrong, or sloppy, or generally just messed up, is very hard to take. Someone is telling you your “baby” is ugly!

But to any writer who’s really serious about getting their work published, you have to be ready, willing, and able to listen and at least consider.

Yes, there are very successful authors who are notoriously difficult to work with, but they’re either certified geniuses or very, very successful, or probably both, so with big dollars on the line, publishers and agents are willing to put up with them.

For us mere mortals, we have to learn to roll with the punches.

I’m not saying that you have to listen to any criticism and take it as gospel, but you at least need to consider it. At the beginning, that can really be tough.

As a writer, I live by three rules:
  1. I want to be good, not right.
  2. Never dig in your heels right off the bat.
  3. If two or more people have a problem with the same thing, you likely have something wrong with your deathless prose.
Let me explain each.

When someone critiques my writing, they are giving me their viewpoint. Whether it’s valid or justified is immaterial. I have to consider it thoughtfully. Even though I might consider what they don’t like the best thing I’ve ever crafted, that is beside the point. It might very well not belong in my story.

Number 2…this was a hard-won lesson. Twice I dug in my little heels, stomped up and down and said, “NO!!!” right off the bat. In both cases I eventually realized the person was absolutely correct in what they told me. Now I was left having to repair the damage my little tantrum created. A far better response would have been: “Hmmm… I’m going to have thing about this for a bit. I’ll get back to you.” Enter Rule #2.

The last rule should be a no-brainer, but for some people I’ve spoken to, heard about, or in one case, worked with, they just weren’t willing to deal with finding out their work was not as good as they believed. As I said above, criticism is a subjective thing. If multiple people are identifying the same problem, you almost certainly have something that needs fixing. Ignoring that advice puts your creation in peril — especially if the critic is your agent or editor. If you feel very strongly, then utilizing Rule #2 is probably your best bet. Buy yourself some breathing room to consider the criticism carefully. In my experience it’s probably valid.

I once handed my primary reader (my darling wife) a newly-finished ms for a novel. She dutifully put on her glasses, picked up the first page, read for about 20 seconds, and then said, “Do you really want to begin your novel like this?” I was aghast. I mean I didn’t even last a full minute!

I ignored all three rules and had a relatively “polite” temper tantrum. I didn’t sleep that night and knew I’d upset her when she was only doing what I always expect from her, ie: “Hit me with your best shot!” But it was just so upsetting to hear I’d blown it right from the start, and that caused me to throw all sense right out the window. For her to comment that quickly instead of just making a note and moving on really threw me into a tailspin. I also thought my opening was really terrific.

She was 100% correct.

As I said, it’s tough being a writer.


Donis Casey said...

Your third rule is the one I teach as gospel to aspiring writers. Actually, all three of your rules could usefully be applied to most aspects of life.

Rick Blechta said...

I follow Rule #3 pretty well all the time with no thought. Rule #1 I'm pretty good at following. But Rule #2 is the one with which I can still have trouble. It's gotten me into trouble more than once.

I could also add a 4th Rule quite easily: A person who makes the same mistake over and over is a fool.

Judy Penz Sheluk said...

Great post, Rick, and so true. I'm pretty good at following all 3 rules ... NOW ... but it wasn't always that way. That said, I've been know to slip up! Shall share this one, sage advice.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks, Judy.

I was pretty used to being "criticized" because of my training as a musician. Lessons are most often almost entirely of being corrected, which is the whole point. You don't want your teacher to tell you all the things one is doing correctly -- which often can be a very small amount -- but what one needs to do to improve.

But there's something about having your writing criticized that is much more difficult to take for some reason.

Like you, I'm pretty good at all three of my rules, but sometimes… Let's just say it can be difficult to hear.