Taking it and liking it
Over the years since my first novel was published, I’ve had various friends, and friends of friends, and acquaintances of cousins of friends of friends of friends ask me if I would read their work and give them my ‘honest opinion’.
It’s flattering to be asked, of course. And I like to try to be helpful, even though reading a manuscript and commenting is *far* more time-consuming than simply reading for pleasure and… if your novel is in a place where it badly needs the editorial eye of someone you vaguely know it’s unlikely to be a pleasurable read anyway.
There’s loads to be said about how to critique, what to look for when you are critiquing and what stage in your project to show your work to a professional writer your uncle once met in synagogue, but that’s not what I’m going to address here. What I’m going to address is: how to respond when someone gives you critique.
It’s really simple. You say: “thank you.” If you want to be more of a mensch, you say “thank you so much. I realise your time is very valuable and I’m grateful that you’ve given me the benefit of your opinions. I’ll think hard about what you’ve said.” That’s it. You can cut-and-paste that if you like.
Here’s what you don’t do: you don’t argue. You don’t say “no no no, but you’ve failed to grasp the significance of the rose dropped into the cake batter on page 35”. You don’t say “if you’d only read all 800 pages of my book you’d see that the character of Isprahim is eventually redeemed when he grabs the sacred stone from out of the Mire of Neblath and *that’s* why he currently only talks in incomprehensible, ungrammatical English.”
And the reason you don’t argue is not because all professional writers know better than you, that’s absolutely not the case. The reason you don’t argue is: it’s your book. You don’t have to take on a word of the advice given to you by the person critiquing. If you disagree with everything that they’ve said, that’s fine. Never show anything to them again. I’ll say it again: it’s your book. You get to decide what’s right and wrong with it. You’ve asked someone else for their opinion, they’ve taken time to give it to you, you say thank you and then you can ignore every word they said.
It took me a while to work this out. When I was doing the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia, workshops started off feeling so raw and personal, like someone criticising my child, or my own self. Like someone looking me up and down and going “there’s nothing about you I like” or maybe “I disagree with everything you believe in.” But slowly I learned… critiques aren’t opinions, they’re taste. You can’t argue with them. Even if you are the next Dickens/Rowling/Shakespeare/Plath not everyone will love your work. You may have shown your book to a reader who wouldn’t go for your style even if you were literally the greatest practitioner of it in world history.
What you’re looking for is someone who really seems to get what you’re trying to do, and when they criticise something you go, internally “shit, I knew that wasn’t working, but I hoped I’d got away with it”. That is a reader who’ll really sharpen your work. When you find one of those you do more than thank them. Buy them flowers, send them cards, offer to make dinner for them in exchange for reading the next three chapters. As for the others, just say ‘thank you’ and move on.
[BTW. If you have asked me for critique in the past year, please do not start assuming this post is about you. Many people who’ve asked have been extremely gracious and well-mannered. I’ve chatted about this to other writers, and we’ve all had at least one or two rather ungracious responders. If we’re still friends, go ahead and assume you weren’t one of them. 😉 ]