Sunday, July 8, 2012

How (Read: WHEN) to Handle Critics

Lemme tell ya something: you are never going to make everyone happy.

Criticism is full of scary things - scary authoritarian disapproval, scarier I'm-not-good-enough vibes, scarier yet 'this will never sell and you are crazy and also you suck' thoughts. We know (or at least, we've been told a thousand-plus-one-times) that we need healthy criticism if we're going to be good writers/artists.

Well, that's true. Sort of. There also comes a time when we need to stop paying attention to those critics.

It's a hard balance to find, and it requires real self-discipline. I'm going to share a few tricks that will hopefully help you find it, and spare you some grief if and when you create.

1. During the baby stages of your masterpiece (book, art, song, whatever it is), DO NOT share it with the world.

There are very few people who can look at a sketch and see the potential bubbling through it. Maybe you're fortunate enough to have the kind of friend/family who can see a bunch of scratchy lines (or hear you babble about some plot-holey dream you had) and say, "WOW, yes! Work on that! It's going to be great!" More likely, though, your viewer will look at the burgeoning baby piece of your soul and deliver some variation on, "I don't get it."

This does not mean your idea sucks. It just means the person you're showing it to doesn't have the ability to read your freaking mind. When your piece is in baby stages, keep it to yourself, or ONLY show people you know you can trust not to kill it. It's too fragile to take real criticism at this stage, and it could die.

2. When you have a completed first draft (a complete sketch, a full song-verse, etc.), then it's time to start getting light feedback. 

Note, I said LIGHT. First drafts simply aren't ready for line-by-line scrutiny, but when they're this filled out, usually others can finally see the potential in where it's going. This is the time to take it to your writers' group, your artists' community, and get general ideas on the feel of it, the overall impact, and whether your point is coming across.

3. Second draft on: it's war. 

Once you've done a complete comb-through of this thing, to the point that it's looking and feeling pretty polished, it's ready for the wolves. Now, when you get criticism, you need to listen to it.

This doesn't mean every piece of criticism is helpful. Don't just accept everything you're told – but LISTEN to everything. If a character fails to move your readers, you need to try to figure out why. If a major plot point doesn't seem to make sense, you need to dig in and find the cause.

Side note: nine times out of ten, when trusted critics tell me something doesn't work, they actually don't know the reason. They just know it doesn't work, and their guesses as to why are often completely mistaken. Listen to them, but try to figure out for yourself why an aspect of your creation failed to come through.

3. Semi-final draft: takes a licking, keeps on ticking.

 This is the stage where your creation can take the most criticism and the most tweaking – and in fact, it needs it. Now is when every typo counts, every errant phrase  or misplaced word matters. Now is the time you really need trusted critics to help you clean those pores.

Sometimes, this can be traumatic. More than once, I've discovered a gaping plot hole in this stage that seemed overwhelming, but it is WORTH battering your way through. No plot-hole is too big to overcome. No chapter is so messed up that it cannot be fixed, even if this means ripping out the original chapter and writing it over from scratch.

Just always remember to save a copy of that painted hand/chapter/chorus that didn't work. You never know when you'll need to refer to it later.

4. Final Draft: STOP LISTENING.

Yeah, I know how crazy that sounds. But here's the thing: every work of art can still be improved. It's not as if we'd ever come to the end of tweaking/changing/painting/writing any piece if real perfection is the goal. Perfection is not the goal; people are not perfect, and neither are the flawed but magnificent things they produce. The goal, instead, is to realize when the piece is "good enough."

Good enough still needs to be excellent. It still needs to be the absolute best you can make it at that time, with the knowledge and skills you have. But good enough really is good enough – and that's the point when you need to stop listening to critics.

When your work is good enough, it's ready to go out into the world and be known – and YOU are ready to start work on another piece. Critics will still come out of nowhere, mind you. There will always be things in your work you could have done differently (note I did not say "better"). That doesn't mean you should still change things around.

Good enough means best-you-can-make-it means time to move on and create more. Without fear. Without regret.

Critics at that stage often do not know how much work you have put into this thing, or can even be envious that you have completed an artistic thing. At this stage, you should rejoice. Be proud of yourself. KNOW you can create more. And be delighted when you meet other like-minded people who not only "get" what you were trying to do, but can rejoice with you over it.

Your critics can go pound sand.

THE SUNDERED – now available from Amazon:

A young man must decide who survives –
humanity, or the humanity's broken slaves.

Trade Paperback || Kindle || Read chapter one here!

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