The worst part of writing is by far the criticism. It hurts so bad hearing someone talk trash on your baby, your blood, sweat, and tears. But if you can’t take criticism, honestly, you’ll never be a good writer. And you’re in the wrong field, flat out.
Writing is weird in that, being a good reader doesn’t make you a good writer. Being a good editor doesn’t make you a good writer. Because when you write, you’re in a whirlwind of creativity, and you lose all perspective. Sure, you have the background to understand what makes a great book, but it’s hard to apply that knowledge to your own book. You really need someone else to tell you what’s working and what’s not. What really makes you a good writer is being a good criticism-taker.
The biggest complaint people in the electronic publishing industry have against self-published writers is that self-pubs can’t take criticism. That’s why they self-pub instead of polishing, rewriting, and resubmitting, ’cause they’re big babies who hear a word of criticism and and can’t take it. I don’t agree, being self-pubbed myself. When I was working on my book, I did a massive rewrite based on publishers’ comments, adding 20k words to it, adding a major character, and adding an entire subplot. And I was excited to do it! I wasn’t at all insulted — they were helping me make my book better.
Now, some comments were less than useful. We got two rejections the same day, one saying the plot was a little thin but the writing was great, the other saying I wasn’t a great writer, but the plot was wonderful. Sigh.
So what is constructive criticism? You’d be surprised. It depends on how you look at it.
— Your characters are cardboard cutouts. That means they’re interchangeable. You need to add details and backstory to make your characters unique to your book. And don’t rely strictly on quirks. A character being clumsy is not character development.
— Your dialog is weak. Read it out loud. Does it sound like something you’ve heard real people say? In fact, read it out loud for someone else and check for the cringe factor.
— It’s boring. It would be nice to have a little more detail, so ask someone you trust to read it. Does it just start too slow? Remember, most people stop reading after the first three chapters unless you knock their socks off. But don’t polish the first three chapters and quit. You might also have saggy-middle disease, or you might end with a whimper. You know you have a weakness somewhere in the book; find it.
— Too derivative. We all tend to jump on bandwagons, but if you hear this, you need to ask yourself, what can I do to make this plot different from all the rest? What would be completely unexpected? Am I relying too heavily on time-worn myths? Are my characters too much like a character in a famous book?
— It drags. If you hear this, you probably have a lot extraneous detail. You love that section about the character’s childhood, but does it move the plot forward? Does it really support the characterization? Is it interesting but just too long? When someone tells you to prune, get out your shears and check your ego at the door. As much as you love a section, if it doesn’t help the book at large, you have to cut it. Even if you feel like you’re cutting yourself.
If you’ve received any of these comments, count yourself lucky. The fact is, most rejections are purposely vague: “Not for me,” “not a good fit.” Publishers/agents don’t have time to tell you what’s wrong with your book. They reject tons of books every day. If they tried to really get personal with each one, they’d never do anything else. Almost anything short of “This just sucks” can help you improve your book. So take what looks like a tough critique as a gift, and make your book better.