Keep Your Distance

Nothing is worse for an artist than taking critiques personally. I know that for myself, when folks tell me I need to change some of my manuscript, I get these little squirmy worms in my chest that wiggle around. I don’t want to change anything. But then I sit back and think. Give it some time to sink in. That’s when I know that the changes will only make the writing stronger.

Think about those artists who were given total control. Few can deliver. For example, the reason why the first three Star Wars movies (IV, V, and VI) were so great was that Lucas had to answer to the producers. The greatest Han Solo line of all time (I know) was an ad lib. Lucas would have cut it, but the producers saw gold and kept it in. Yet when Lucas made the prequels (I, II, and III) they lacked the spontaneity of the older films. They were too controlled. Sure, they followed his vision, but had no spark.

Then there are the Beatles. I’ve a big fan and always find it obvious which songs were written mostly by Lennon and which were by McCartney. Yet the credits always say Lennon and McCartney. Even though one of them must have taken the lead, the other probably played the Devils advocate—critiquing and adding.Even by there last recorded album (Abbey Road) when they were pretty much working independently, the songs still have that collaborative effort. When they split, both John and Paul had their own hits, but none rose to the level of earlier Beatles songs. They had no alter-ego critiquing.

The message: Let people read and critique your work. Only make sure that these people are professionals. You can gain nothing by reading sour reviews. Don’t go there.

Tim Kane

A Love Hate Relationship with Feedback

Whenever people comment on my work (be it writing or the occasional artistic creation), I subconsciously want them to love it. I think we all do. And should said critic offer some helpful feedback, I instantly have the same knee-jerk reaction. “I put so much time into this. Why don’t you love it?”

As an artist, I know that change is good. I makes the art better. But it hurts. I’ve learned that the more it hurts, the better the ultimate project. Doesn’t mean it makes abiding by the criticism is any easier. It’s damn hard. I find that time helps me accept it better. If I try to take on the comments straight away, I get defensive and the work suffers. Yet if I give it a few days or a week, then I struggle through it.

That being said, some comments you need to ignore. Just because one person didn’t like something, doesn’t mean you have toss the bathwater (baby and all) out the window. I usually gauge my revisions as to how many people responded to it (another reason to have a good critique group). The more that thought something was off, then it’s probably off and should change. Only one person. Then keep it.

A great example of reaction to feedback is from the great sculptor Rodin. He had just finished the statue of Honore de Balzac. The figure had long robes with the hands poking out in front. It was four in the morning when he finished and he roused his students in order for them to appreciate his masterpiece. (Honestly, what sort of criticism could you expect from sleepy pupils?)

Each and every student loved the work. They went on and on about the hands. “What hands…Master. Only God could have created such hands. They are alive!”

Something snapped in Rodin (he was an artist, you know). He grabbed an axe. Horror stricken, the students threw themselves on him, trying to protect the statue. Rodin overpowered them and with one swing, he chopped off the magnificent hands.

He turned to his bewildered students and called them fools. “I was forced to destroy these hands because they had a life of their own. They didn’t belong to the rest of the composition. Remember this, and remember it well: no part is more important than the whole!”

Monument to Honoré de Balzac, first modeled 1897 by Rodin

I guess that’s one way to deal with criticism. I know one writing group that has a shredder in the room. Just in case. I’m not saying hack your work apart. Take some time. Otherwise your work will end up like Rodin’s statue. To this day, the statue of Honore de Balzac has no hands. The long sleeves appear to cover the hands, but we know what really happened.

Tim Kane

Force That Inner Whiner to Grow Up and Get Writing

No one likes a whiny writer.

Lately I’ve been struggling with my inner whiner. If you’re a writer of any consistency, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s the voice in your head that complains about critiques. It grouses about revising. Basically, it’s the one that holds you back.

I’ve learned to beat this inner whiner back, but it never stays down. Just recently I received feedback on the final revised chapters of my manuscript. In my mind, I was ready to send the novel out to agents. Get the ball moving. Etc.

But then the critiques came back. Not what you think. Mostly positive, confirming that the story was ready for an audience. Then, inches from the finish line, one writer saw that I didn’t have enough closure for a key character.

Then came my inner whiner. “Good enough,” it said. “Just ignore it and send the manuscript out.” But when a second critiquer nailed me on the same issue, I couldn’t ignore it. I either had to face up to the fact that I was willingly going to let this novel continue in a substandard state, or I had to get to work.

This got me thinking about the various ways your inner whiner tries to subvert you to produce less than astounding work. I came up with two versions.

The “I Wrote It So It Must Be Good” Syndrome
This inner writer tells you that everything you create is golden. It urges you to rush toward publication like a kid stuffing his hand in a Fritos bag. It doesn’t trifle with revisions and it cringes at the mere suggestion that the writing isn’t ready.

This was me for the better part of my writing career. I had few real writers to bounce ideas off of. No critique groups. It was just me and the computer screen. That, I think, is what breeds this syndrome. Isolation. After only a year with the San Diego Professional Writer’s group, these delusions were slapped out of me.

The “Good Enough” Writer
This is the next step up. Here your inner whiner accepts that you need to do some revision because that’s part of the writing bargain. But there are whispers, at the back of your head. “You’ve done enough. This writing hits all the marks. It’s ready.” It implores you to move on. Finish and submit.

I hate to admit, but this is where I’ve been the last few months. I struggle to resist the call to submit. Just end the constant revision and get the whole thing over with.

A great writing friend of mine, Crystal Allen, pointed out that critique groups aren’t just there to judge and improve your work. They should call you on your foibles. And push you.

There are two types of writing:

  • Good enough
  • The best I can do

The goal of a good critique group is to push the writer toward that second goal—the best possible writing you can accomplish.

The answer to silencing that pesky inner whiner is camaraderie. You need other people, professional writers, who will nail you when you’re being lazy. This requires a level of honesty and trust that is hard to come by. But you’ll need it to grow as a writer.

Tim Kane