Monday, January 17, 2011

Thank you, sir, may I have another?

You know that scene in Animal House where Kevin Bacon has to grab his ankles while a cloaked sadist whacks him on the butt for a fraternity initiation?

Thank you, sir, may I have another? He grunts with every stroke of the paddle.

I can’t be the only author who thinks of it when feedback starts rolling in on a fresh-from-the-oven manuscript.

I’m at that stage now with LET IT BREATHE. I follow the same process each time, with critique partners nailing me from all sides before I polish and send the manuscript to the beta readers. After that, it goes to my agent, then my editor, and eventually off to copy editors.

Then there’s the stage I haven’t reached yet where readers and book reviewers start taking whacks at me. I swear my butt stings each time I see August 2011 on a calendar.

I have pretty thick skin, which is one reason I’ve built such a regimented critique process involving so many players. I want constructive criticism. It’s what I rely on to improve and grow as a writer.

But I’d be a lying sack of camel feces if I said it didn’t sting.

I’d also be lying if I told you I didn’t open a critique partner’s email Saturday night and wince at every splotch of red text on the page. My first instinct is to get defensive – clearly she misunderstood that scene or just didn’t "get" my heroine.

But even as those thoughts stew in the back of my mind, the first words I fire off in a reply email are always the same.

Thank you sooooooo much!

Then I follow up by saying what I found most helpful. I do this even as my backside stings from the paddle lashes and the snarly creature in the back of my brain pouts and sulks.

Several months ago, I judged a writing contest. Though judges were encouraged to write comments, I suspect the organizers didn’t expect the sea of ink I spewed onto some of the entries. I always balanced negative feedback with positive, but there was one entry in particular that took some hard hits. I debated whether to do it, but in the end, decided someone had to be straight with the writer about some big plot problems and issues with characterization.

I winced as I hit send, and then forgot about it until a month later when a contest organizer forwarded me a note from the writer. I braced myself for defensive anger.

What I got was thanks. Thanks for my time, my attention to detail, and my elaborate feedback.

The writer had nothing to gain from sending that note. Judges are anonymous, as are the contest entries. We could have sat naked together in the steam room at the gym and never recognized one another.

But that note made my week. Not only that, it made me a lot more likely to give thorough feedback the next time I judge a contest.

It’s easy for writers to get caught up in their own angst about feedback on our babies, but we have to remember the person offering it is putting herself out there, too. It’s nice to know your input has merit. It's nice to know your efforts mean something to someone.

Do you try to thank people for their feedback even if it’s not what you want to hear? Is it tough to type thank you even as your butt stings from the lashes? Please share.

I have to get ready for the next round of spanking.


Tabitha Bird said...

I think this is a great attitude and yes, I do thank others for feedback. Especially the hard to swallow honest kind. Some months back I sent one of those very hard to write emails in which I thanked an editor for his very honest and detailed feedback, even though he basically hated my main character. sigh. Not easy, but you know, the guy was right. The main character sucked and has since been changed.

Summer Frey said...

Absolutely. And I'm about to be facing this again, as I'm taking a fiction writing workshop at a local university. I've spewed all over the first story we've been given, and I'm already dreading sharing my thoughts. I don't like to be the harbinger of emotional death and destruction, but someone has to, right?

I just coat it as nicely as I can and keep in mind that it'll be my turn soon.

Danica Avet said...

I think when we all start out and put our book out there for people to look at, we cringe with those first critiques. But it makes you open your eyes because you're being forced to take a longer look at what you've done. It's a bit like looking in the mirror first thing in the morning. You wince, you glare,and then you go "Well, this needs to be fixed." It hurts the first few times you see your manuscript stripped bare, but after a while, you realize it isn't a bad thing after all.

Matthew MacNish said...

I always give thanks for feedback, even when it doesn't really resonate with me. Even if I disagree and feel that the critique was totally out of touch, the time and effort was put forth in an attempt to help, so thanks is due.

When it comes to your and your feedback I happen to know from experience that you have a keen eye. That writer was quite lucky to get your advice.

lora96 said...

When I ask for feedback I really want praise.

It's unrealistic, but that's my honest motivation.

The outcome, of course, is an eviscerating blur of red or blue comments which make the manuscript MUCH MUCH BETTER.

Ultimately I do want it to improve but I also want to cry a lot. I think that's normal.

So, yeah, I have to say thank you. There have been times I even emailed an apology--a sincere one, as in "thank you for reading that rubbish it has improved a crapton since you pointed out the issues for me"

Unknown said...

I welcome constructive feedback, but I have no patience for mean. Sometimes, people think the critique process gives them the right to be unkind or ruthless. I hate the word "brutal" in the critique process. Honest, constructive criticism is not brutal, nor does it have to be.

I've had some very good editors and agents and NYT bestselling writers read my work. I've received thorough and specific critiques. I've never felt beaten by any of it, but energized to make the work better.

I thank those people because their focus is on helping me make my writing better and that is invaluable to me.

Maybe this means I have a really thick skin. :-)

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I have used the "Thank you Sir, may I have another" line many many times in my life. I have learned to breathe through the pain. In writing criticism, like with anything (childbirth, excercise), I have learned that I can take it, and I always benefit in some way.

There are a few other lines from Animal House that have been relevant in my life, too...remember the scene with the devil on one shoulder, and the angel on the other? Remember what the devil says?

Sarah W said...

I agree with Jeannie Moon about brutality in feedback. I need to know if something knocks a reader out of a story, but I don't need to be beaten over the head with the "you suck" stick. Nor do I wield that stick myself when I beta.

But I try to thank everyone who offers commentary on my stuff, whether they liked it or not. I always learn something, even if I've occasionally learned more about the reader than my manuscript . . .

And thanking the brutal ones might gently remind them that their targets are human beings.

Hey, it could work.

Linda G. said...

It's tough not to flinch a little when I read negative feedback -- usually because I'm kind of embarrassed I didn't notice whatever the problem is myself. But I'm lucky enough to have CPs who point out what they like at least as often as what they think needs improvement. The hefty dose of sugar sure helps that medicine go down. ;)

Knowing exactly how much effort it takes to read and crit someone else's manuscript, I always make sure I thank whoever is kind enough to return the favor. Even if I don't agree with everything they say, I DO really appreciate the time they put into helping me.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah. Whenever I hit send on a MS or few chapters that I'm putting out there for critique my heart quivers.

I know I'm going to get direct, honest feedback, which means more rewrites.

But I welcome it. It makes me a stronger writer. And, in turn, helps me help other writers as well with each bit I learn.

I think we all need to keep a teachable spirit when it comes to writing. There's always something to learn. :)

So yes, I send thank yous to each and every person who critiques my novels. It's because of their time, honestly, and wisdom I continue to better my craft.

Cat Moleski said...

Thanks for the reminder and the encouragement to say thanks for criticism. It isn't easy to give or receive criticism and I am so grateful when anyone takes the time to think about my work. And even though I know I need it, it still stings a little when I see the red comments from my critique group. But I always take some time and go through them slowly which seems to help me not be defensive.

demery said...

I do pretty well with feedback as long as my CPs have at least tried to include some positive comments. I've found when it's all negative that I kind of shut down for a time - and it takes me awhile to be able to look at my work again. Luckily, I'm close enough to most of my CPs to be honest with them when I'm feeling inundated with negative, er constructive comments... I can squeak out a little "was there anything in it that worked?" and get some reassurance.

demery said...

p.s. I do always say thank you because I know those critiques come with every good intention and with the hope that we're all aiming for the goal of becoming great writers.

Christina Auret said...

While I have never really minded getting criticized (much) I am dead scared of dishing it out.

A part of the problem is that I am scared of giving bad advice, as I am a newbie writer. The larger part stems from self knowledge. I tend to be much to direct when I give criticism. If something sucks, I have a nasty habit of saying so, without cushioning my comments in compliments. I know this is a problem, especially as a lot of people do not distinguish between "your works sucks" and "you suck".

So while I think people who put their work out there for crits are terribly brave, I reserve most of my admiration for the people who manage to criticize in a constructive, helpful and uplifting manner.

Candyland said...

It does always sting...I do send thank-you's even when it hurts. And you're right. We can't grow as a writer without constructive crits.

Unknown said...

I always say thanks for feedback as I do actually appreciate it and often they have pointed out things that I would have never noticed and been mortified if no one had noticed them and sent it off for submission. Likewise when I give feedback I try to be helpful and explain my feedback as well as trying to give a balance of both negative and positive.

Elise said...

I'm totally with you, Tawna. Criticism from my (now ex-and needing to be re-assembled) writing group, my manager, and my editor can sting like crazy, but it makes my story better, and makes me a better writer. It's very similar to going to boot camp -- I curse the instructor while doing 50 box jumps, but I want to kiss him when I see the results.

Kadi Easley said...

I type or say thank you, but inside sometimes my inner writers is saying things like, I can't believe you didn't get that. I think it's universal. After I have time to sit on my work for a while I usually find that they are right.

Anonymous said...

This is a very timely post for me! I'm about to embark on the "new critique group" adventure and am nervous as hell about both sides of the equation.

However, regardless of where I am as a writer, I also have a new set of issues to my craftsmanship. While reading outside your genre is good, writing outside your genre can trip you up. It is good for story development to bring screenwriting and memoir skills to fiction. But it can be jarring to mix these writing styles.

Unknown said...

Can someone teach me to think that the critiquers are wrong? I whip my own back so hard that just a tad of "screw them, they're wrong" might nudge me a little closer to a reaction that doesn't include "I'm a writing disaster".

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I think lora96 scored a big fat bull's eye. Yeah, sure, we all want constructive criticism to help us improve as writers, but pathologically insecure creatures that we are, deep down inside, what most of us desperately crave is praise and validation. Don't we all go through that awful back-and-forth "I'm really good, wait, no, I suck" angst? ACK! Awful, isn't it? (So, tell me I'm GOOD, damn it!)

Nonetheless, being fed a constant diet of praise from those who can't seem to separate their love of US from the actual merit of our work, is meaningless. We must have true constructive criticism in order to grow. (Can't fix the blamed thing if we don't realize it's broken!)So yes, of course, we owe sincere thanks to those who offer us those valuable critiques.

Consider this, though. A magazine editor sent me a note, telling me how much she LOVED (underscored) my "sweet story", and actually thanked me for sending to her. Along with her note was a contract, which I happily signed and returned. In the contract, I gave the editor permission to edit my story as she saw fit. No problem, right? After all, damn it, she LOVED (did I mention that it was underscored??)my "sweet story", right? Well, the magazine with my story in it recently hit the newsstands, was published recently, and boy! the editor saw fit to do a heckuva lot of editing! Took out some stuff I really liked. Added some awkward phrases i really dislike. Still, there's my beautiful byline.

What to do, what to do? Guess I'll submit another story or two, and keep selling my artistic integrity in eight hundred dollar increments. (sigh) What a slut. (But, at least I'm not two-bit!)


Steph Schmidt said...

Critiques seem to be either a heaven or a hell for most writers and I'm stuck in purgatory.

I've never sat down with a list of comments with a cringe. I get to fix things! That's why the thank you comes easily for me, I'm thanking the betas for helping me be the best I can (and save face at the same time).

Mark Simpson said...

Most of the literary criticism I've been receiving lately has been from within. I love to berate myself with little motivators like, "Hey slacker, get off and write something dammit." Unfortunately my inherent issues with authority extend even to myself.

Abby Minard said...

Even though it scares me, I do thank my crit partners and the suggestions they have. Sometimes we can't see whats in front of our own faces because these manuscripts are our BABIES and we don't see the flaws.

Anonymous said...

Agreed - the knowledge that someone has scrutinised and considered one's writing feels wonderful. Even if, well, you know... they had quite a lot of constructive criticism.


Wow, great discussion, guys!

I have a multi-published author pal who structures her feedback loop so the first couple readers who see it only get to gush with praise. That's what she knows she needs at that stage, so she's picked readers who will give her that. Once her ego is bolstered for attack, she moves on to the readers who will be tougher on her. Seems like kind of a cool system, so I'm glad it works for her.

Thanks for reading, guys!