The Writer’s Craft – Critical Critiques

(Silverdale, Washington; Nov. 12, 2020) – Writers must be able to handle critiques and criticism with a measure of grace, dignity, humility, and humor.

Anyone who has ever picked up a pen has horror stories of that one person who openly reveled in trying to tear them down.  These people exhibit a streak of cruelty usually only seen in slasher movies or on The View when Republicans do, well, anything.  Despite this, most of the people giving their opinions on a writer’s work (solicited or unsolicited) and generally decent folks who simply wish to be honest.  They might have all the grace and subtly of a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal, but they mean well.

In either case, it’s incumbent upon you as a writer to handle such encounters with a level of aplomb and humble interest.  You might be able to deflect cruelty and use that moment ever after as a great story (in other words, for the rest of the your life, the cruel person will be the butt of many jokes!), but you must be willing to listen to what your readers say (as apart from how the say it) if you wish to improve.

You see, the reading public is the final editor and arbiter of your success as a writer.

You ignore critiques and criticism at their peril.  You can’t please everyone, but if  trends emerge in the critiques you receive (be they positive or negative), that’s something you need to pay attention to, even if the trends trend negative.

Positive critiques are easy to hear and graciously accept.  Don’t we all love being told how great a job we did?  Doesn’t human nature long for positive reinforcement?  Beyond the obvious ego boost, positive reinforcement reassures us psychologically that we are valuable, accepted, and doing something worthwhile.  Positive critiques are the fuel encouraging us to keep pushing our boundaries.

The rubber meets the road when negative critiques come in.  A negative critique, even when given gracefully and tactfully, is not an easy thing to hear.  Negative critiques point out (gasp!) flaws and (oh, the horror!) imperfections in our writing.  The critique could be about lousy character development, undeveloped plot points, or writing that’s just plain boring.  The real measure of our personal character as writers is revealed in how we handle those moments.

Proud Lion, my first published novel, is a resounding success.  Sales are not soaring, but I’m a self-published author, so I don’t have the advertising resources of Madison Avenue boosting me.  I have a small social media platform to advertise on, but my primary advertising is through word-of-mouth.  Take all that into account, and I’m doing pretty good for a brand-new, self-published author.

That does not mean I’m perfect.

Robert Lassen is recently retired Royal Air Force officer my brother introduced me to.  Lassen published his first novel, Wrathful Skies, in 2013.  I met him and read his book last year.  Wrathful Skies is a World War II novel about vampires flying for the RAF against the Nazis.

Yep.  You read that right.  Vampires as fighter pilots in World War II.

I’m not a fan of the vampire genre.  I’m not putting it down; it’s just not my thing.  Despite my lack of interest in vampire stories, Lassen’s novel swept me off my proverbial feet.  His world is a richly drawn tapestry showcasing the secret culture of the Mullo (the, um, proper name for vampires in his world), a secret world coexisting with our own.  There’s prejudice, conflict, and competing priorities within the Mullo, and this turns them into such complex characters that I can’t wait until he publishes his second novel in the series.  (I can testify it’s very difficult to write books while on active duty; one’s writing really does speed up after retirement!).

Lassen encouraged me to self-publish, and his guidance helped me decide make that jump.  He also gave me a thorough critique of Proud Lion, noting that he loved the characters and plot twists.  He loved the concepts and dialogue, but he found the opening two chapters a bit plodding.  His key recommendation is to speed up my introductions.

One of my reviewers on Amazon said pretty much the same thing.  Three days ago, my own daughter told me she was reading Proud Lion and loved it…except the first two chapters were a bit slow.  Not slow enough to make her abandon the book at all, but she said she thought I should pick up my pacing.

Do you notice a trend emerging here?

I’m proud of what I did in Proud Lion.  I introduced a world in which an enlisted Navy public affairs specialist can believably get caught up in murder investigations.  Combining the “amateur detective” and the “military adventure/military mystery” genres is something I’ve never seen anyone else do.  I succeeded in creating such a world, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have room for improvement.

I’ll also man up and admit hearing my own daughter hit me with a negative critique stung.  However, the fact is that I’m seeing a very real trend, and I ignore it at my peril.  I’ve clearly nailed innovative world building, complex character development, intriguing adventures, and surprising plot twists.  Yay!  Go me!

I also clearly need to improve the pacing of my introductory chapters.  Much as my ego hates to admit it, I’m not perfect and can improve.

This is a challenge all of us face as writers.  Even a tactlessly delivered negative critique can be a blessing if you take a breath and allow yourself time to root out the information from the rudeness.  Writers must accept the bad with the good when it comes to critiques. Critiques are critical to the success of a writer and must not be ignored.

If a writer is unable or unwilling to accept negative critiques, they certainly will succeed…in writing for an audience of one.

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