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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Five: How to Take Criticism

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Five: How to Take Criticism


Key points: Insults are not criticism. Don't defend your work. You don't have to believe or accept reactions, and you don't have to change your work. But other people do have the right to their reactions. Watch out for the turd in the bowl of oatmeal. Rejection letters are trophies for submitting your work. Sometimes, you just have to give it a try and see.

[Howard] 15 minutes long because we are not that smart...
[Dan] And we don't like you very much.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Brandon] You stink.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And you're ugly.
[Dan] Nobody cares.
[Howard] I know that.

[Brandon] We want to talk about not just how to take criticism, but how we specifically have taken criticism on our pieces and used it to our advantage and made better works out of it.
[Howard] By the way, that wasn't criticism that we did at the beginning, that was just us being mean.
[Brandon] That was insults. There is a difference. Kirkus Reviews, insults. Writing group... I'm joking, Kirkus. I love... no, I don't. Let's do some broad general questions first. What do you do to steel yourself to take criticism? How do you deal with it? How do you... whether it be a bad review or whether you are giving a book to someone and hoping they love it and when they come back, they say, "I liked it, but..." How do you deal with the but?
[Dan] One of the things that we mentioned when we did our writing group podcast is that you should not defend your work in a writing group. I think that applies to pretty much any criticism you get. You cannot take it defensively. Someone who is giving you criticism... and again, we are not really talking about insults, we're talking about... although I guess you could apply this as well to insults. They are telling you their reaction to your work. You can take that or leave it. You don't have to believe it. You don't have to accept it or change what you are doing.
[Brandon] They cannot be wrong in their reaction. Meaning their emotions are their own and belong to them. You can disagree with their reaction, but they have a right to their reaction. I think approaching it that way is a very good mindset to be in.
[Dan] Their reaction does not demand or require that you change your work to please them.
[Brandon] Or even that you defend your work. I think I mentioned this before, but any time you're feeling bad that someone is criticizing your work, go pick a great work of literature -- whatever you count as one of the top 10 works -- go to Amazon and read the one stars. Because there will be one stars. There is someone who hates everything.
[Dan] I know that guy.
[Brandon] We have not yet found the universal story that will bring peace and hope to mankind simply by reading it. There is no one story that is going to work for everyone. Keep that in mind.

[Howard] I think when you are soliciting criticism from a writer's group, the way you steel yourself against the criticism is by saying, "I asked for their opinions so that I can make this better." I think that's completely different from an unsolicited review on Amazon where somebody says, "Oh, this Sanderson hack should just give it up before he ruins everything Jordan ever wrote." I don't know if that review has been written yet.
[Brandon] I'm sure it's been said a couple of thousand times.
[Howard] It's probably been said somewhere. I don't know how you steel yourself against that.
[Brandon] Not reading them. I'll tell you honestly I used to read all of my Amazon reviews. I used to do the whole thing where you Google yourself and go see what people are saying about you or things like this. I stopped doing it in 2007. Because every time I did, I either wanted to defend myself and felt that I was... it would ruin the day. Because if there were a 100 good reviews and one bad review, I wanted to take that one reviewer to task and explain how they were wrong and I am the font of all wisdom.
[Howard] I think it was Patrick Rothfuss who said in his blog that there will be... he was talking about turning in something late. He said, "20% of you will be supportive, 20% of you will kind of try to be supportive, a bunch of you will be sort of negative, and then one of you will just be awful. Absolutely awful. I can't read around that. That's the one I'm going to remember." He described it as a turd in his bowl of oatmeal, as I recall. You can't eat the oatmeal around the turd.
[Brandon] Wow, that's an image. Thanks, Pat.
[Howard] Can we still keep our clean rating for quoting Patrick Rothfuss?

[Brandon] I think we can. If they could do it in [garbled] you know what I mean. Let's bring this more specifically to our readers. How are they going to have to steel themselves? They are going to start collecting rejection letters. How do you deal with the rejection letters? Because you can't not read them, or not pay attention to getting them. How do you do that?
[Howard] Rejection letters come in three flavors. There's the form rejection letter that basically says we got your thing. We didn't have time to write your name on this piece of paper. But here's a piece of paper that says we got your thing and we don't want it. Then there's the personalized rejection letter where the editor actually said something to you about your story. Then there is the rejection letter that says this isn't what we are looking for, but several of us liked your writing, and we want you to submit something else to us.
[Brandon] Or kind of the here is a bunch of stuff that's wrong with it -- hint, hint -- fix it and we'll look at it again, but we won't tell you that because if we do then it implies a promise.
[Howard] Right. The point I'm making is that rejection letters are trophies. You get them for submitting your work. Period. You're going to get rejection letters.
[Brandon] That's easy for us to say, published and making money at this. How did you make that transition?
[Howard] I have only ever gotten rejection letters. I have not been published except by myself.
[Dan] For me, rejection letters were easy to deal with because of all the legendary, wonderful authors that have so many of them. Dune, Lord of the Rings -- both of those were rejected by person after person, every major publisher. Kevin Anderson has reached legendary status by winning The Author with No Future. He had more rejection letters by weight than anybody else at this convention he went to. Today he is one of the highest-paid authors in the world.
[Brandon] I've seen his award by the way. It's quite nice. It's like a bowling guy with his head torn off. It's one of those bowling posters. There's something... it's going to be different for every person, how you make this transition, but you're going to have to do it. You're going to have to get that thick skin. Whether it is that you have your spouse or your brother read your rejection letters and collect them -- I know people who do things like this. With the instructions just tell me if something gets accepted or if there's a personal, otherwise don't tell me. If you are really sensitive, you can set something like that up. Hopefully you won't have what happened to me where your family opens up your rejection letters without you asking, reads them, and sends them to you with a letter that says, "Bummer, Brandon. Sorry."
[Howard] Nice. That's really choice.
[Brandon] My dear mother. Let's break for a commercial.

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[Howard] And we're back.
[Brandon] Let's bring it personal to ourselves. Let's each talk about a time when we have gotten some feedback -- some constructive criticism on a piece -- and we have used it. Talk about why you decided to use it, why you ignored what you did ignore, and how it made your piece better. Howard, I know [garbled]
[Howard] We talked about in medias res last week. I started the in medias res story, and understand, I've kind of got this outlined through the end, but I'm still writing it. Somebody posts on the forums, "Oh, this is a disaster. This is the end of Schlock Mercenary. I have never seen this done well in webcomics. It can't work in a serial format. Mister Taylor, you should just give up now."
[Brandon] Wow. There is that one guy we were talking about.
[Howard] There's that one guy. I remember reading that and I responded. I said, "If you're willing to stick around, I'm willing to prove you wrong." The only thing that changed was my determination to see this through and to do it right. Because I had looked at web cartoonists who have done it wrong. I had looked at books that had done it wrong. I had decided I need to tell this story and I need to do it right. All he did was tighten me up.

[Brandon] The example I've got... I have the luxury now of working with professional editors which is pretty nice because they tend to know what they are talking about quite often. Occasionally we have still disagreed. One of the biggest battles that my editor and I had was over Warbreaker. Which, by the time this airs, will have just come out. Maybe we should do a Warbreaker ad in there? Anyway, my editor wanted it to be funnier. Now, this was an odd comment. Because it was quite amusing. People had already talked about -- on the forums, as I posted chapters -- how much they liked the humor in this book. It was rather witty, it was doing well. There was a character who was... everything was working, just fine. Then my editor came to me and said, "I think it could be funnier." I said, "But everyone likes it." He said, "Yeah, but I think it could be funnier." This is the sort of problem that you run into is the it's working well enough, do I want to try to make it even better?
[Howard] It's also a problem where you look at your editor and you start wondering, "Well, what's wrong with you? Everybody else seems to get it."
[Brandon] Everybody else... that's exactly it. In fact, I remember posting in my blog saying, "Hey, everybody, my editor hates this character -- well, you know I'm exaggerating -- what do you think?" Everyone was like, "Oh, we love him, we love him, we love him. Everything is great. Peachy." My editor is like, "I don't care. I think it can be funnier. I think you can do better. It's good, it can be better." We had to talk for a long time before he said, "Look, just give it a try." I sat down and gave it a try. He was right. I was able to bring it up a notch. I think for me what I learned in that was the concept of "Hey, let's give it a try." It did turn out better. I could make it funnier.
[Howard] We talked about that one in the humor podcast where you pointed out that the disconnect was that your humor was pushing things out of the story a little bit and by fixing it, it made it easier to laugh at.
[Brandon] Right. But I also stretched a little bit on some of my wordplays and searched a little bit better and took it up a notch. I was letting Alcatraz influence the a little too much, where I used non sequitur humor which is the whole point of the book. But I had to use a different type of humor. That's one example where I just had to give it a try. I had to sit down and say, "Well, let's see." Instead of just blindly rejecting it, I had to try it out. Dan, what do you have?

[Dan] We've talked in the past about how my endings tend to be horrible on the first draft. Brandon can back this up. Every book I have ever submitted to a writing group, we get to the end and invariably they will say, "Seriously, that's your ending? That's horrible." They just don't work. I've been trying to work on that. It has gotten to the point that in my writing groups when I submit the last chapters, I just brace myself and say, "I know they are going to hate it, but at least by the time they are done with it, it will be good." I'm pleased to say just today my writing group did the last... the ending of the third Serial Killer book and they loved it. So hooray, I finally got it right. On the flip side, I consider myself to be pretty good at beginnings. I think that I do those very well. There is one person in my writing group however that doesn't like my beginnings at all. Thinks they are too slow, thinks that the arc of the story and the arc of the character is not present enough in the beginning. I struggled with that for a long time, because I thought that I like the way this works. It's fast enough, even though it seems slow. Eventually what I realized is that this person and I just have very different styles, very different needs, very different ways of viewing writing.
[Brandon] And neither is wrong, because there are so many different types of writing and readers.
[Dan] It is perfectly fine now for me to say, "Well, yes, thank you." I'll write it down. Then I don't need to worry about it because we just think different ways.

[Brandon] I'll share another example, a more disastrous example. Something I don't think I've talked about in the podcasts before. There was a book I was working on called The Lyre of Artinell [sp?].  This is one of the books I was working on when the Wheel of Time mountain fell on me. I was putting it through my writing group. I had done this book very exploratorally. As soon as the Wheel of Time came along, I had to take all focus off of this book and start working on the Wheel of Time. Although I got a draft of it done, it was a pretty uneven, bad draft. I started going through the writing group. The writing group had all sorts of terrible things to say about this book. That just piled up on the book. Every week it was this stuff is still terrible, Brandon. The problem was I wasn't going back and fixing any of it, so of course it was still going to be terrible. It became such a distasteful experience that I eventually had to pull that book from the writing group. Eventually the writing group fell apart without me submitting and things like this because I couldn't submit The Wheel of Time. The whole reason behind that was that they were telling me things that I already knew. Which was very difficult to hear, which is stuff I already knew that I couldn't fix. What I really needed to do was get that book into better shape before I solicited criticism. If there are already problems with it that I'm already aware of, why make the writing group tell it to me? In that case, it was Brandon, what were you thinking? Why did you do it this way? Anyone else got any final words?
[Howard] Yeah, one thing. Remember that when people are criticizing your writing, they are criticizing your writing. It's a reaction against your writing, it's in a reaction against you. The moment anybody starts criticizing you for your writing, you are allowed to start ignoring them completely and utterly forever.

[Brandon] Writing prompt. I'm going to go ahead and do this one. Let's have you write a story about a critic who is the hero, instead of the villain. We always want to make the critic the villain. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: criticism, extreme dungeon mastery, rejection letters, writing excuses, writing group, xdm
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