Recently, a good friend of mine posted a line of criticism on Facebook which he received from an editor. The gist of it was that the premise of his novel was good, but his prose couldn’t sustain the idea or compete with similar titles. It’s a devastating comment to receive, because it’s at once so casual and so broad. The subtext is: “You have a good idea, but not the skills to convey it.” It’s a criticism of the writer, not just the novel. I know for a fact that my friend does have a fertile imagination as well as the skills as a writer to communicate his ideas. My advice to him—as well as the advice of many others—was to ignore the comment and move on.
But that made me think: If I were in his shoes, sending my novel out and waiting for responses (which in the fall, I will be), would I listen to my own advice. The truth is it’s very difficult to know how to take criticism. On one hand, you want to be open to criticism, because there is the potential to learn something valuable about how to edit or view your own writing. Three years ago, when I sent my first novel out to prospective agents, I received a lot of encouraging and decisive feedback and even a phone call which helped me decide not only what I needed to do with my manuscript, but also how I needed to proceed as a writer. If I had been in protect-my-fragile-writer’s-ego-mode, I wouldn’t have heard what those readers had to say. I would’ve missed out on a valuable experience.
However, in the case of the comment that my friend received, being open may be the wrong to move to make. A few days ago, a friend put me in touch with Judy Appelbaum, who wrote the well known guide for writers, How to Get Happily Published. She offered me some advice on taking criticism from editors. She suggested that you should only listen to what resonates with you and ignore the rest. She also reminded me how idiosyncratic editors can be. All good advice.
Of course, there is no clear way of determining what resonates as true and what is simply pricking our insecurities. Those feelings can be very similar. So, I think you have to return to the usefulness of the comment to determine whether or not to listen to it. For me it comes down to this: if it’s broad or flip—whether it’s good or bad—it should be ignored. If it’s specific, then, and only then, should you consider it and weigh its resonance.
That’s my advice to my friend—and let’s face it, to myself. I hope I’ll heed it when the time comes.