When you make something, it is your baby. If it’s your business, it’s your baby. If it’s a new pot from potting class1, it’s your baby, and if it’s a new human, it’s way definitely your baby.
We don’t really like people dissing our babies. It makes us cranky, either because we feel something we love is under attack, or because we have conflated our sense of identity and believe the attack is personal. We react as anyone might in that situation—we defend, we become upset. We are sad, angry, or both.
In the past year or so, I’ve been fortunate enough to co-write a book with my friend and brilliant author AdriAnne (incidentally, check out her book series to get a sense of how great her writing is). We’ve fielded a flurry of questions since writing it, and were even generously invited to speak to the Alaska Writers Guild on the experience. Answering those questions has driven home what people are most curious about: how on earth did you write a book together?
It’s not at all uncommon—lots of awesome books have co-authors, but I don’t know how their process worked. From my perspective, the number one thing that made the effort work was: criticism.
So, in watching folks struggle with negative reviews and critiques, I thought I’d put down some strategies in the hope they will help. Or not, in which case at least perhaps they will be amusing and you can make fun of them.
- Collaboration is successful when there are new ideas. If the other person—co-author, agent, editor—doesn’t have a different idea from you somewhere, they are being functionally useless. If the idea is different in any way it will feel like a criticism of your current one, so be prepared.
- Pick who you listen to carefully. If you don’t filter, then you will get inundated with opinions, and trying to make them useful will be a Sisyphean task.
- Once you’ve decided who you have to trust, trust them. I can’t stress this enough. If you’ve ever taught a class you’ll know that students who do best are the ones who don’t consider themselves to be above the material—they do the exercises presented because they’ve chosen to trust the instructor and believe the process will yield results in the end. When the situation was reversed and I was receiving edits from an editor, there were multiple times my reaction to a suggestion was pfft, it’s fine the way it is. Upon changing it, based on an exercise of recognizing they are the editor and I am not, I would realize how much more compelling the scene would become.
- Only reject changes that alter the story in a fundamental manner. For that criteria to work, it means you need to have an honest assessment of what makes your story and characters unique, and what is just stuff you like. What changes character motivation versus what is a stylistic choice? With that in hand, you will be in a good position to open a dialogue with your writing partner or editor.
- Have a dialogue! I’m amazed at how often I see people stew on suggested changes, assuming they have to either accept or reject it fully. But you might not have gotten the concept across clearly, or been misconstrued; explaining the choices and why they are important shouldn’t end on therefore it must stay this way but how can we make that concept work?
- Be aware that your work has to change. I feel this is a difficult hurdle to cross, and I was fortunate because it was obvious in starting with a writing partner that none of my ideas would stay intact in their original form. This is incredibly liberating, and leads to the kind of brainstorming that is impossible from a defensive position. The bottom line is that if you intend to be published in a traditional manner, you will need to accept changes from an agent and an editor. If you’re going to co-write, the level of change is even greater.
A lot of this came to mind because I read a conversation between writers where one expressed the opinion that editors were simply there to ‘attack your work.’ This is a critical error in approach, although it’s an understandable interpretation. Allow me to suggest that criticism is only an ‘attack’ if you think your work is perfect. If you acknowledge that it’s not, and you can improve, then criticisms are suggestions for doing something even better, despite the current quality of the work. It’s no more an attack than re-painting the kitchen is an attack on your house.
I’d dilute it all to this—positive affirmation feels great, but affords you almost no opportunity for change. Praise is static, and the common thread between passionate artists is a desire to improve. Criticism from others is an incredible shortcut on the way to improvement, if you jettison the assumption that it’s a personal attack. None of this means it’s easy—it’s not like I don’t routinely receive suggestions that raise my hackles or make me scowl. But I do believe an important part of life is the base assumption we start an interaction from. Accept it as an exciting conversation on how to improve something you love, accept that change is inevitable and to be embraced, and the process will improve exponentially.2