A Crushing Blow for the Protagonist (Me)

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Approximately two weeks ago, I, along with my classmates, turned in the first 25,000 words of our novels. Thursday, we received grades and critiques. Convinced I had written an almost perfect blend of action, romance, and comedy, I excitedly began to read my professor’s comments. I did find it odd that her comments consisted of two typed pages stapled together — how could it take someone two pages to say, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read!”

One of the first comments that jumped out at me read, “You might consider deleting chapter two.”

Reading criticism of your work is hard, hard, hard. I don’t think anybody likes hearing that something they created isn’t perfect (or in some cases, even good). If you Google writing how to handle criticism you get 141 million hits, one of which is this article I wrote a couple of months ago on this very blog. In my post, I suggested take a breath, not taking it personal, and asking for clarifications. Did I do any of those things? No. Instead my face turned red, I got mad, I got my feelings hurt, and I met up with some of my classmates and drank a bunch of beer.

None of that helped anything, of course, but it made me feel a little better.

One of the suggestions I wrote in my last article about criticism was to consider the source. In this case, the source was my professor, who has not only published more than 40 novels, but has literally written the book (or at least one book) on writing fiction. And, along with the source, you have to consider the motive — again, in this case, it’s our writing professor who wants us to become successful writers. I’d say this is a case of a qualified source with good intentions offering sound advice.

I took a couple of days (and a couple of beers) to read and process all of my professor’s feedback. Mentally, I’ve sorted them into three categories:

01. Grammar/Spelling Issues: I have no defense or excuse for these — just a case of not proofreading things well enough.

02. Things I didn’t do, on accident: Examples of this would be a scene in which I glossed over a character’s emotional reaction to something he had just seen. In my head I knew the character was upset, and I may have mentioned it in a single sentence, but this is the type of thing that needs to be expanded. So I guess I would categorize these errors as things I left out or omitted accidentally.

03. Things I didn’t do, on purpose: Different than above, these would be choices I made intentionally that, apparently, were not good ones. For example, in chapter one our protagonist Skip learns that he is being hunted, and in chapter three he meets the hunter, so in chapter two I have him pacing and hiding in an attempt to build anticipation for the first meeting between the two characters. I did this intentionally, but the feedback I got was that it brings the story to a crawl and kills the pace. These are a bit harder to deal with. At least the ones that were accidents, I can see what I did and correct it. With the intentional decisions, not only do you have to fix the problem, but you have to admit that you made some bad choices.

I’m not going to lie. Every time I read something negative about my writing, in my mind I flip my desk over and send papers flying everywhere. I’m a thin-skinned person, something that doesn’t necessarily go well with receiving negative feedback. But I’m also a smart person, and know enough to know when someone’s trying to help me.

And so, after the sting of the feedback has worn off and after the affects of the hangover have subsided, it’s time to revisit the adventures of Skip and start fixing things.

Writers write.

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2 comments to A Crushing Blow for the Protagonist (Me)

  • As an artist, my work gets critiqued constantly. People I never asked, don’t know and may be mentally deranged, have no problem glancing at my art and saying ‘This sucks’.

    And that sucks because I take all that very personal. At least initially.

    The temptation is to rationalize why they are wrong, that they don’t get your vision. Or maybe they are unqualified to judge your masterpiece.

    (You don’t get to tell yourself this because this is your professor making the critique. They should have the ‘tools’ to judge your work objectively.)

    I used to work of a newspaper and when the owner/editor/head writer hired me to do layouts, he told me ‘Sometimes you are going to do work I don’t like and I’ll have you redo it. This doesn’t mean I don’t like you. And it doesn’t mean you can’t do the job. It just means this layout didn’t work.

    I’ve always remembered that because I’ve gotten a ton of rejection over the years and I’ve always tried to keep it in that perspective. To get really good at something (and you have to be really good to get people to pay you for entertainment) you have to go through a lot of this.

    So I have learned that these sort of things are actually helping me and its actually a kind thing to get an honest critique.

    At least that’s how I feel after going through the stages of anger, denial and grieving!

    Hang in there!
    Scott Sackett

  • Hey Rob,

    Thank you for sharing this. It is rather inspirational to see you take this negative feedback in stride. I am unfortunately the kind of writer/person that rather than subject myself to any potential negative criticism… I simply do nothing.

    I let even the slightest possibility that I will receive a negative review or even a silly “thumbs down” actually stop me from writing… and I’m just an idiot on the internet, I’m not receiving any sort of academic feedback.

    At the end of all this you will not only have built a great novel, but also a lot of writer-flavored character. I’m currently a college senior, who needs a few electives to graduate… through following along, I’m now actively considering a creative writing class. It might force me to “get over myself”!

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