My first critique came from none other than Dan Lazar. I didn't ask him to evaluate the manuscript, I asked him to represent it, but I was touched by the time he took to give me advice. Of course I incorporated none of that advice (later I would incorporate it all), because like most writers first setting out to sell their work, I thought my work was ready to sell.
I was a virgin. I didn't know how to assume the position.
Gradually, as other agents were generous with their advice, and as I began to see patterns in the criticism, I realized my stuff wasn't ready for the marketplace after all. I returned to the keyboard.
But not for long. One agent who was famous for negotiating multi-million dollar advances offered to represent my novel if I would cut two secondary figures from the narrative. I said no to both her and her horse. (I was polite to the horse.) As you might now guess, those two figures eventually relocated anyway to the Island of Discarded Characters, where they wait in vain, Christmas after Christmas, for a loving, caring manuscript to adopt them.
I learned to listen to criticism. It's rare anymore that I don't incorporate the critter's advice, because if she thinks something's wrong with the story, well, there are any number of possible reasons, but one of them is, there's something wrong with the story.
James N. Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, addresses the question of why it's so hard to critique our own work:
If you have never written a novel, think of how hard it could be and then multiply it by a hundred. For some it is harder to write a novel than to row a bathtub across the North Atlantic.
Naw, you say. Not if you're a genius. Not if you've got talent.
If you're a genius or have talent, it's even harder.
How come? you say.
It's because a writer has a damn hard time evaluating what he has written, and unless he knows the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript it will not be possible to turn a draft into a finished piece of work. So why is it so hard?
It has something to do with how the human mind works. When you read someone else's work, you see the faults, errors, and dead spots; poor characterizations, flawed metaphors, and so on, with no trouble at all. Read someone else's first draft; its faults will fly off the page at you. If a character is not well-motivated, you can sense it immediately—in someone else's book. You can tell when you're bored out of your mind—when you read someone else's book. Clichés abound in everyone else's work, but they will remain forever hidden in your own. And if you have a lot of talent, even if you are a genuine genius, it is even harder. Why is this? Only the Master of the Universe who made us knows, but it's true.
There are three kinds of writers: those who aren't interested in criticism; those who, when they ask for criticism, are really seeking validation; and those who incorporate criticism and improve their work. I make it clear ahead of time, when asked to read a manuscript, that I don't crit for writers of the second type. I say, if you want validation, let me know in advance; I'll praise your book and spare myself the bother of reading it. But they all answer, it's criticism I want, gosh darn it, not validation, truly. Then, if they're Type Two, they respond to the critique point-by-point, defending the flaws I pointed out, arguing that I just don't understand what they're trying to accomplish. They're right when they say "That's just your opinion, Steve." But I wonder then whose opinion they really wanted when they asked for mine.
The only proper response to a critique is "Thank you." You may also send cream-filled doughnuts. That's the quickest way to my heart. From the neck up, anyway. Pretentious, over-priced wine works in a pinch.
I've said elsewhere that no writer ever benefited from praise. Almost everyone disagreed with me. I haven't changed my mind. Praise is debilitating: tell me I have a gift, say, for dialogue (as many people have in fact told me), and how hard do you think I'll work to improve that part of my writing? Children need encouragement because their self-esteems are being built. Adults, if they need encouragement, are in the wrong business. Still, since pretty much everyone disagrees with me, I've adjusted the code accordingly.
The most valuable critiques are the ones that hurt the most. When Erica Orloff addresses me by my last name I know I'm about to get it you-know-where, without lubrication. Afterwards I go into the fetal position and suck my thumb. An hour or so later I snap out of it and direct my wrath at Erica herself. I picture scenes like this. The next day I recognize her honesty and courage, and I go about fixing the problems she pointed out. I write her a note. It contains two words: "Thank you."
Honesty and courage? Yes, because friendships are on the line. Tell me I stink and I'll get mad at first, but later I'll love you for it. Tell me I'm great and you'll give me a boner. For a while. Later I'll consider you inconsequential to my career.
Okay, enough talk, here's the code:
As a critter I will, to the best of my ability, help the writer improve his or her manuscript to publishable standards. This requires neither that I praise nor condemn, rather that I suggest alternate words, scenes, etc., when appropriate.
As a crittee I will listen to the suggestions of the critter, incorporate them to the extent I agree with them, and limit my response to "Thank you," accompanied, if international mail allows, by cream-filled doughnuts.
You gotta see this; I purloined it from Tena Russ: