Constructive Criticism & Incandescent Rage

by Michelle Gagnon

The first time I heard Lee Child speak, he discussed how he reacts to his editor’s comments on each manuscript. Lee claims to initially go “incandescent with rage.” He closes the email, fumes for a bit, then goes back and reads it again a day or so later. And the second time, he sees some of what the editor is talking about.

I think this is a common reaction of writers everywhere. How dare someone criticize your baby? Clearly they just didn’t get it. But I’ll tell you what- the difference between an author who gets published, and one who doesn’t ever sell that manuscript, frequently correlates directly to how that author processes and responds to constructive criticism.

Which is not to say that the editor is always right. I generally retool the manuscript based on approximately three-quarters of my editor’s comments. It’s one of the reasons I use up to ten beta readers for each book. If one person says something, and it doesn’t strike a chord with you, it might be just their impression (one example: for my upcoming novel KIDNAP AND RANSOM, my editor noted that the book, “doesn’t depict Mexico in a very favorable light.” And she’s right- it doesn’t, mainly because the bulk of it is set in the poorest slums in Mexico City. So that one I dismissed outright).

But if more than one beta reader reacts to something, that usually means it necessitates a change. For the same book, the majority of my readers (among them, my esteemed fellow bloggers) thought that there was a coincidence in the book that was just too darn convenient. And going back through it, I realized they were right. There had to be a better way to move the plot forward. In the end, I rewrote over two-thirds of the book based on feedback. And the end product was a stronger, more believable storyline (I hope).

This came up recently when I reviewed a manuscript for a friend from a local writing group who is struggling to get their first book published. I sent a detailed assessment of what I thought the strengths and weaknesses of the story were, bearing in mind what I know from experience editors respond negatively to. The writer’s reaction surprised me (particularly since I had more positive than negative comments). I received detailed responses to each negative note, arguments for why this scene and that character had to be in there.

Now, it’s this author’s choice to keep or discard whatever they like- after all, it is their book, and their name on the cover if it ever gets published. Sadly, unless at least a few of those changes are made, I suspect it will continue to garner rejections.

What I realized early on was that when an agent responded to a submission with a rejection, but also provided a response detailing why they rejected it, it was important to take note. A form letter rejection is one thing. If they bother to let you know what in particular prevented them from signing you, it means that you’re actually very close. I see the same thing in my critique group. When someone writes something that is a hot mess, few people say anything. The author invariably (and wrongly) takes this as proof that what they’re holding in their hands is perfect. The truth is, people say less when something is unsalvageable. When a heated debate begins, or everyone agrees on the salient strengths and weaknesses, the author has come close to hitting their mark.

So, going back to Jim’s “before you submit” post…before you send out that first stream of submissions, pass the manuscript along to people you trust. Aim for folks who you know will be hard on it (sometimes that means avoiding friends and family). Listen to what they say. Feel free to go incandescent with rage for a few days, then sit back down and read their responses more closely. And make those changes: kill those darlings, cut that exposition, come up with better ways for events to transpire. No manuscript ever suffered from revision-the more you change it, in general, the better it will become.


16 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism & Incandescent Rage

  1. Great advice, Michelle. Lynn Sholes and I rely heavily on a small group of beta readers who have saved our ass many times in the past. No matter how good a writer anyone is, at some point they only see what they want to see. A new set of eyes is the key.

  2. That’s a good point about people saying little about terrible manuscripts. Sometimes when I look at someone’s work I quickly realize that it isn’t fixable. They need to throw it away and start over or do as Mark Twain suggested and become a lumberjack instead. But there’s not much point in telling them that because they’ll never believe that there’s no hope that they can ever be a writer.

  3. Right on, Michelle. In my experience, the more successful the author becomes, the fewer number of people are likely to make suggestions that enrage or upset the author and that means editors as well. The result is often a downhill slide in the quality of the subsequent books. Too many times the more successful an author, the less likely they are to change anything. The result is often a mess and eventually their fans become less interested in that next book. When I read a book recently the author used the same line more than once and whole sections should have been cut but remained.

    My experience has been (with the editors I’ve had–luckily) has been that their suggestions have been 95% spot on. I’ve never had an editor who demanded I make a change, but offered ways to make something stronger. I overwrite, and I almost always make their cut or sentence restructuring as more than mere suggestions and just make those without discussion.

    If I can’t defend something in a MS to myself, I can’t argue to retain it. Once a line editor said the New Orleans mafia has never been like the NYC or Chicago mafias and I new better and told her to check out a book on Carlos Marcello. That changed her mind and I received an apology and it remained as I’d written it.

    The truth is, (in most cases) the more you trust the professionals and listen without standing on your ego, the better the book becomes.

    Just my opinion.

  4. Writing for kids (boys in particular) has made finding Beta readers a struggle for me. I know plenty of mystery, thriller & romance writers but they, understandably, stick to those genre groups. Can’t blame them – I wouldn’t want to read or crit a romance MS. Had some help from a fellow Florida writer (YA) on my first effort, her critique was positive & suggestions helpful, but she’s busy promoting her award winning books & speaking at conferences & I don’t want to impose. Guess I sound like a whiner, but it’s frustrating. Hell, criticism wouldn’t bother me, I’ve got an open mind & skin as thick as a gator. Dave

  5. Excellent points, both in the post and in John Ramsey Miller’s comment. When constructive criticism comes from someone with the experience and expertise to back up their words, it behooves us to at least listen. Or, put another way, “you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself.”

  6. Agree one hundred percent and the ability to consider and make changes based on group feedback is essential – as is the ability to react well to editors. Synthesizing comments and working out what to take on board or not is critical – but not always that easy!

  7. We have a rule in my critique group–the person whose piece is being critiqued can’t defend or argue a point. You can see some of ’em shift in their seats, just dying to explain why the critique is off point. We also have a rule that there has to be some positive comments mixed in with the negative ones. Overall, it seems to work. Over time, however, I’ve been disappointed that even though the group makes the same types of criticisms over and over for a particular writer, and I know that person is trying to address the issues, the writing hasn’t improved measurably. That’s when I shrug and say, “Writing is hard.” And it is.

  8. This is spot on. When I started writing, I refused to let anyone see my work. I knew it wasn’t ready, but I also didn’t know how to fix what was broken – or even knew IF the writing fell short.

    When I did gain favors enough to have someone else critique my work, I had raging moments. I had to defend my story, my characters, and my perfectly logical plot.

    I’m much better than I used to be, but critique can still make my skin crawl. Along the way, I discovered something important. Often, the issue turned out to be not that I didn’t have my facts, plot, or character motivations right – I failed to let the reader know that one essential, missing detail which made the premise work. I found that the story often worked very well in my own head – but the reader didn’t get it because I didn’t tell them what they needed to know. That was profound for me. I still miss details (because you CAN have to many of them, I’ve discovered), but I also find critique easier to swallow when I ask: Why didn’t they understand that particular part of the story?

  9. So true, JRM- in fact, I know one NY Times bestselling author who outsources his own editing now because of that.

    Dave- there must be online critique groups for YA novels- if not, maybe try to find people who are also writing YA even if it is more genre. Conferences are always a great source of beta readers. I believe there’s even a beta reader site somewhere that links up writers and readers- anyone know the link?

    That’s a great rule, Thriller Librarian-and Richard, I agree, criticism always stings to some degree. But you’re right, accidentally omitted details are frequently the problem.

  10. Great post!!!! (comforting to know the 3-day rule is not just me…)

    For me the hardest part was learning that when someone has an issue with something, they can reliably report the issue and where they noticed it, but *I* have to figure out where the problem really started.

    Sometimes a problem with the last 30 pages is something I failed to set up in the first 30 pages.

    We had a rule for critiques, if you can’t find three substantive things to praise about a piece, you weren’t reading carefully enough. Always start with at least those three, and always cite *specific examples in the text*. This helps focus the critique on what the writer wrote, not what the critiquer wish the writer had written.

    My husband and I can finally critique each others’ work. It took several years to work out the right approach 🙂

  11. I agree 110%. If you can’t take criticism, you’re seriously handicapped as a writer.

    Here is perhaps the harshest piece of criticism I received from one of my first readers:

    “Here it is. Right here. I hate this moment more than all the rest of your book put together. It epitomizes everything I dislike about character 1, and everything about it feels horribly, horribly wrong.

    “I recognize that you kind of want character 1 to make a selfless sacrifice and everything, but the way this situation is set up robs this of any meaning. Throughout the story, character 1 hasn’t successfully made a single choice. All she’s done is follow other people’s leads, typically contrary to her own motivations and desires. Character 2 has been fun, but character 1’s idiocy here pretty much invalidates his entire portion of the book. At this point, I, as a reader and a friend, wanted to launch myself into the air and sail across space and time to the moment and place you wrote this scene, simply for the pleasure of kicking you in the head.”

    His criticisms went on like that for another page. While it really hurt to hear him say this, it hurt because he was RIGHT. Instead of arguing with him, I thanked him for his comments, did my best to internalize them, and completely rewrote the book to make character 1 a much stronger, more sympathetic character. The result result (I hope) was a much better book.

    As a writer, I would much rather have my ego shattered and get published than keep my ego intact and never break in. An overgrown ego is more of a liability than an asset anyway.

  12. Yikes, one lower light- I think that sort of criticism might have made me more than incandescent ;). I do think it’s important to be candid while still maintaining respect for the fact that this is a very personal experience for an author- I’m always careful with how I couch that critique, even for friends (or especially for them).

  13. “The truth is, people say less when something is unsalvageable. When a heated debate begins, or everyone agrees on the salient strengths and weaknesses, the author has come close to hitting their mark.”

    I sure wish I could have brought you to some meetings of a writers group I used to belong to. Truer words were never spoken, yet we lost more than one member because they were upset over the enthusiasm of the discussions their work provoked, when we let something they thought was much worse pass without comment, never realizing the lack of comment could be translated as, “where to start?”

    (Word verification = vastalca, a soothing powder used to comfort men after a particular delicate procedure.)

  14. Hey Michelle – this is great advice. I tend to get ragey and sad – questioning my abilities as a writer. I have to read the notes. Leave them for a day so I can hash them over. When I return, nine times out of ten I’m grateful for the edits my critque group has given me.

  15. Great stuff.
    Any thoughts on at what point in your novel’s evolution you solicit the betas?
    New to the game but i have noted some people work things to the nines before seeking other’s input and others are seeking feedback as they lay out the skeleton of their tale.
    Thoughts? suggestions? Personally successful approaches?
    Great topic.

  16. OneLowerLight: That sample crit you gave is very much along the lines of my crit style (minus the bit about wanting to kick people in the head! LOL!) when I am very interested in someone’s story and want to see it be the best it can be. If I’m lukewarm about the story, I don’t spend that much time with crit comments.


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