Monday, March 30, 2009

Wilson On Criticism

As part of an ongoing series, YA adventure author and fantasist N.D. Wilson details how honest criticism can buoy your writing and exactly how you shouldn't react to it. Excerpts:

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.
Read the whole thing. Especially helpful is Wilson’s suggestion of a third way, one that seeks cool-headed understanding rather than retreating into self-flagellation or outright aggression.

(Picture: CC 2005 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Nice. The only problem (I've found) is the trick of knowing when to shelve criticism wholesale. If what someone says gets in the way of doing anything with my story, and I can't get over it, an essential component is to just say "this story isn't for them." Even if they're right, if that's what it takes to finish (or improve) the story, that's what it takes.

But the main thing is to keep an eye out for people who want your story to do what you want it to do, and yet can see the holes (or possibilities) you can't. Some of the best best improvements came when someone said that something I was immensely proud of fell flat. Sometimes a quick fix was called for; sometimes it was just a case where I'd developed the story so that an earlier part was unnecessary.

And when that philosophy actually gets me to make money from fiction, I'll let you know how successful it is.

Loren Eaton said...

But the main thing is to keep an eye out for people who want your story to do what you want it to do, and yet can see the holes (or possibilities) you can't.

Bingo. It's always disheartening to listen to thirty-or-so minutes of blistering critique that is capped off with the phrase "I guess I just really don't like [insert genre you've been working in]." Yargh!

S.D. Smith said...

Thanks for this, Loren. You have a real gift for finding and displaying things that are helpful to all of us striving authors.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks, Sam, but I'm afraid I can't take credit for this one (which I rather like). A writing friend forwarded it to me via email. Since you seem something of a Tolkien fan, you might want to check Wilson out. I think he writes in that vein.