Critical Condition

I’ve been busy this week working on some critiques. If you’re not familiar with critiquing, it’s the process in which a writer’s work is dissected, examined under a microscope, and returned with flashing neon signs attached every flaw. It is also the process in which writers realize we are not the beneficent creator gods that we believed ourselves to be, breathing life into perfectly formed characters and worlds. Instead, we learn that we’re flawed humans who write flawed plots and flawed characters.

Or at least how it can feel when you’re on the receiving end of a critique. Whatever you do in your life, having a spotlight shined on the flaws in your work can be difficult. No one wants to hear that their pet project has flaws and imperfections. Our instinct is to go on the defensive. We try to explain away the criticisms.

He just doesn’t understand my vision.

She’s getting payback for that time I criticized her new hairstyle.

They’re a bunch of jerks trying to make me look bad.

Whatever your current project is – writing a novel, raising a child, breeding rare orchids – you will encounter someone with a different opinion about how to do it. The criticism might be cruel or kind, helpful or destructive. Whatever form it takes, you might be tempted to dismiss it. If you do, you’ll avoid the pain of criticism, but you’ll also throw away a chance to improve your work.

If the knee-jerk reaction to criticism sounds familiar (it certainly does to me), I want to challenge you to look at things differently the next time you’re faced with a critic. I invite you to give the steps below a try and see if it changes how you feel about criticism. Explaining the process takes longer than doing it, so hang in there to the end.


How often do you find yourself formulating your response before someone else has finished speaking? I know that I’m guilty of this. Sometimes it’s a case of just being impatient. Or it might be that I’m rehearsing my response so that I don’t forget an important point. Resist the urge to do this when someone begins to criticize your work.

Stop and listen to every word they say. Take notice of their tone and body language. Listen as fully as you can. As tempting as it might be, don’t interrupt or walk away. As long as the person is not being abusive or making personal attacks, hang in there until they’ve finished.

Active listening gets easier with practice, but the first few times, you’ll probably fail. That’s ok, just keep trying.

Acknowledge and Understand

You’ve listened and now you’re ready with some snappy comebacks. Don’t. Remember that the idea is to see – and do – things differently.

Let the person know that you’ve heard them. Paraphrase their criticism and repeat it back to them to confirm that you’ve understood it. Ask questions if you need to clarify anything. Listen to their answers.

This is a good time to check for any underlying issues that are motivating the criticism. When your great-aunt Gertie tells you she doesn’t like your homemade meatballs, it might be that she doesn’t like the garlic. Or it could be that she’s comparing them to the meals that she ate on her honeymoon in Italy. Or she could be jealous that you’ve just usurped her position as the best cook in the family. Knowing the motivation can help to take the sting out the criticism.

Thank the person for sharing their thoughts – no, really, thank them. You might think they’re a complete jerk, but do your best to respond with a sincere thanks. Remind yourself that criticism of your work is not a judgment of you as a person.

Assess the Criticism

You’ll need to decide what to do with criticism, but first, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the person have knowledge or expertise in the subject?
  • Does the person have a stake in your success?
  • Does the criticism reflect your doubts or concerns?
  • Have you received the same criticism from other people?
  • Did the critic provide advice that you can act upon?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to take the criticism under consideration. Going back to those meatballs: What if great aunt Gertie is an award-winning chef known as the “Meatball Queen of the East Side”? What if Gertie has loaned you $10,000 to start your own catering business? What if you were already worried that you put in too much garlic into the mix? Worse yet, what if the entire family agrees that the meatballs just weren’t all that good?

Act (or Not)

If you answered no to all the questions in the last section, you’re done. Enjoy your day knowing the criticism is already fading into history.

If you decide the criticism has some merit, use it as an opportunity to improve your pet project. You don’t necessarily need to make every change that is suggested – nor should you try. Make those changes that you feel are the most beneficial.

Dismissing the criticism is an option at this point. If you know that you accidentally doubled the garlic in that meatball recipe, there’s nothing to be done. The criticism may be valid, but you can’t change the dish after it’s cooked. The best you can do is remember the lesson the next time.

Look at you, handling that criticism like a pro. If you’ve decided to try this little challenge, leave a comment or send me a message to let me know how it went.

Until next time!

Work In Progress: Rifted

I have a confession: I am far better at starting projects than at finishing. One of my greatest joys – and woes – in life is that there is so much out there to explore, see, and do. Friends have likened me to a magpie that loses focus when I spot something shiny and new. Kinder friends have mentioned that I let my curiosity steer me to new things. Both analogies are accurate.

This approach extends to my writing as well. I rarely get past the first draft of longer works before starting the next one. There are too many worlds, characters, and ideas to explore. And I have a sizeable stack of unfinished and first drafts to prove it. Having a lot of ideas isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s the failure to follow through that presents a problem.

So what to do about this bad habit? I am actively working to be more mindful and methodical in my writing process. Holding myself accountable is much easier when other people are following my progress. It becomes harder to set aside a project when someone else is invested in it, even if that investment only goes as far as asking how the project is progressing.

I am also learning to love self-imposed deadlines. They provide a sense of urgency that helps me to stay focused. When I launched this site, I set a two-week deadline to introduce my current work in progress, a novel with the working title Rifted. Being a master in the art of procrastination, I’ve waited until the day before the deadline to write the post. So without further ado, a quick intro to the story:

Forfeiting his birthright and his place in a powerful ruling class family, Dai Meredin creates a quiet life in the Riftlands, a frontier territory on the boundaries of opposing worlds. When the daughter of a war criminal arrives in the Riftlands wounded by an outlawed spell, the search to find her attacker forces Dai to confront his family’s past and the future of his adopted community.

(Rifted, blurb)

The seeds of Rifted were planted with my 2016 NaNoWriMo project. That year’s story, The Heirs of Winter, was my first and only attempt at a novel-length fanfic. Set at Hogwart’s ten years after the Harry Potter series, it told the story of one minor character from the original series and two new characters. While I enjoyed writing the rough draft, I realized that it was not the story that I needed to tell about the two added characters… nor the right fictional world to tell their stories.

For NaNo 2018, I revisited the central theme of the fanfic – what shape does post-war life take for those who were not aligned with the winning side? I kept the essential core of the two characters I’d invented – their personalities, the effects of war on their lives, and their attempts to reconcile themselves to post-war life. The story moved from the Harry Potter universe to a unique world with its own history and culture. The resulting NaNo project was the first draft of Rifted.

I’m working now through the second draft. To return to the analogy from my last post, I am no longer shoveling sand, but attempting to build the castle. Want to see how the castle turns out? Follow my progress here on the blog. I’ll post more about the characters, their world, and the side stories that have happened along the way.

Until next time, read, imagine, and be safe.

First, Shovel Sand

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

-Susan Hale

Beginning a new project can be daunting. Whether building a sandcastle or writing a story, we tend to begin with a vision of the final product. And isn’t it such a flawless result, shining and sparkling like a diamond in the shimmering sun? Cue the oohs and aahs of the onlookers. Hear the polite applause for a job so wonderfully done. Imagine the headlines and accolades praising your work. You’ve succeeded before you’ve even begun. Your spirits soar above this perfect vision you’ve created.

Or maybe you’re the person who envisions a thousand ways that the project will be flawed. You know that every mistake will be gleaming and glinting like broken glass in the mid-day glare. Instead of accolades, you picture the critiques and jeers. You sink into the depths, knowing that it will never be as wonderful as it is in your head.

Whatever your mindset, you will eventually stop daydreaming and crash-land into reality. A reality in which you have only thought about what you want to do. Your vision of the project – perfect or flawed – doesn’t exist here. Neither do the imagined praise or criticism. Here, in no-nonsense reality, you must do something more than envision your result. There is work to do. A lot of work.

I keep the quote from Susan Hale tacked to the bulletin board above my writing desk. When I’m staring at a blank page, it serves as a reminder that I have to pick up that shovel and move some sand. A first draft is the moment when an idea moves from a daydream into the external world. It is a declaration that you’re willing to invest in your own ideas. Look here, world, the first draft shouts, I intend to do this thing.

As Hale implies, the first draft is not the time to focus on the finer details. Don’t worry if the main character doesn’t have a name yet. Don’t fuss if you can’t remember what the antagonist should say in chapter four. Above all, don’t be concerned about mechanics and grammar. Misspelled words? Write now, spell-check later. Proper punctuation? Forget about it. Plot holes that you could sail a ship through? Aye captain, full steam ahead!

Perhaps writing isn’t your thing. Maybe you’re into the visual arts or music. Or your big idea is a new business, a family reunion, or a charity fund-raiser. Whatever project you have in mind, I want to encourage you to pick up the shovel and move some sand. Don’t let the fear of failure – or of success – keep you from making the attempt. Focus on your idea and let go of the imagined responses.

Don’t be surprised if you end up with a shapeless pile of sand that doesn’t resemble your original vision. Shoveling the sand doesn’t produce a finished product. It produces a foundation. There will be time later to sculpt out the towers and turrets. Trust the process and yourself. You’ll build that magnificent sandcastle.

But first, you must shovel that sand.