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During the Great Writing Crisis of 2009 (okay, it spilled into 2010, but let’s keep it simple) I learned a lot of lessons on writing and life. Let’s hope I learned them by heart and they stay with me long enough that the jealous gods of writing don’t feel compelled to teach me again.

On the off chance I might help somebody else avoid the same pitfalls, I’ll try to articulate my experience for the rest of you. The topic for the day is criticism. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t take criticism well. I need it, I seek it, and have been known to go to pieces under the weight of it. Yes, my mind clearly understands that it’s only opinion, and that I, as the author, have the final say. I know that some criticism should be ignored. I’m not very good at this. Some of my writing friends know all too well that I have a tendency to lash out in response. And when the last of the critiques came in on Swimming North, I found myself seriously doubting my ability to put two words together in a way that anybody would ever want to read.

Let me stop right here to thank my beta readers and crit partners, and any passing random bystanders who may have read or commented on the WIP. Your insights and comments have been invaluable. This little learning experience is not about you – it is all about me.

Criticism is like dynamite. It is an essential tool in the quest for polished and publishable writing, but should be handled with the utmost respect and only while wearing full protective gear.

  1. Make sure that the person you are handing your beloved manuscript to is a trained professional who understands the explosive nature of that little red stick, and exactly what happens when you put a match to the fuse.  Or at the very least, somebody who has experienced a few explosions of their own and has a healthy respect for the risks involved.
  2. Terrorists like dynamite. There are people out there who will blow your work to smithereens with great glee, in order to meet some twisted agenda (conscious or unconscious) of their own. Not everybody who wants to read your work has your best interests at heart.
  3. Don’t hand out the dynamite to too many people at once. You know that old adage about ‘too many cooks spoil the broth?’ Yep. It’s true. Everybody has an opinion. Some of them are awesome. And if you have a whole group of intelligent, perceptive readers, each with valid but highly conflicting opinions on what you’ve written, should be writing, or how any of this writing should or should not be done, it’s easy for the entire ms to get blasted into inchoate fragments.
  4. Don’t hand a stick of dynamite to somebody, fuse already lit, and expect that it won’t explode. Other writers are, for the most part, not going to just read your unpublished work and hand it back without comment. We can’t. We’re not wired that way.  H.G. Wells wrote, “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” I think there is some truth to this, and I’m not saying it is a bad thing. I’m just saying – be prepared. If you want that unadulterated rush of enthusiasm about how wonderful the ms is, give it to kind friends and family members. Don’t give it to me – I’ll want to help you make it better. And I’ll swear to my dying day that I gave you feedback with the best of intentions. And I’ll mean it.
  5. Wear protective gear. Explosions can be dangerous. Never start handing out the dynamite until you are aware of the risks. It’s possible the ms won’t (and shouldn’t) withstand the critique. It’s possible that the blast will knock out a major support or two, and you will have to do some serious structural repair. If you, the writer, are not prepared to engage in the work of cleaning up the mess, don’t facilitate the explosion.
  6. Give yourself time to grieve a little. Any time explosives are involved in a process of construction, something is going to dramatically change. There is loss here. Words, subplots, plots, characters can be blown out of existence by a well placed charge.  Take some time to let the dust settle before you make decisions about your course of action.

Well, that’s about it for my thoughts on critiques, except to remind you to be careful out there. Watch this site for the next post on The Ever Present Danger of The Green Eyed Monster, or alternately, focus on your own writing and your own goals if you don’t want to turn into a lunatic.

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Midlife crisis. Existential crisis. A crisis of faith. All well known, well defined states that don’t need much explanation.

But the Writer’s Crisis – that is another thing altogether. Finding yourself in that place where you doubt every word you have written or will ever write, where you are afraid to put a word on paper because it’s sure to be the wrong word, where your instincts are suspect, your skills impoverished, and there is no solid ground.

Yep. That’s where I’ve been.

Like all such crises, it was of course a learning opportunity, and once the scars are healed I think my writing will be stronger for it.

As I was flailing about in despair, I mentioned to a writer friend that I felt like I was climbing Mt. Everest without a guide. He heartlessly reminded me that many people have survived Everest, some of them in goatskin tents. He advised me to take up my goatskin shelter, stop blathering, and get back to writing.

I owe him a great deal for this sage advice.  The truth is, I am not alone in my predicament. Other writers have been in this place before me, others will follow. Hell, I’m pretty sure I’ll be here again.

But at the moment, I’m packing up the goatskin and moving on. The sky is blue, the air is balmy, and I see a clear path before me of where this story is heading. I even like what I see.

So I’m back to writing with confidence until I reach the edge of my vision and get lost again. But if and when that happens – I’ve got the goat skin tent and the experience of how to survive.