Criticism: It only hurts for a little while (like a root canal)
Feedback, direct or indirect
At some point in the writing process, you’re going to have to accept some criticism, either direct or indirect. By direct I mean from your writing group or beta readers (if you have them), your editor (if you’ve hired one), your agent (if you’re good enough that one takes you on), or the editors at your publishing house (if you can get in the door).
You don’t have to go through that process at all, of course—after all, mainstream publishing is now represented by merely a handful of gatekeepers, and they’re not looking out for your best interests, right? Or so the self-publishing mavens say. So self-publish, get your book out there, and skip all these steps. Then wait for the sales and rave reviews to pour in. And wait. And wait.
Stranger things have happened
I’m not going to say it has never happened that someone had a bestseller that they edited themselves and didn’t show to anyone before publishing. I can certainly think of a few bestsellers that seemed to have no editing at all. But in my humble opinion it’s not wise to publish without several reviews of your work and a thorough edit.
Criticism can sting. A few months ago I presented a first chapter of a book I was working on to a writing group. Group members, nearly all of whom had completed one or more novels, felt my writing was good, but they questioned the tone of the book. A scene that I felt was humorous left the main character looking like a bad guy, one writer in the group said. Another group member said yes, you might want to work on that scene—he seems unlikable there. I considered their advice and began the painful process of revision. These are potential readers. If more than one of them felt that way, there was likely some truth in it.
But writing groups are not made up of experts by any means. You may be working with a group of people who have never published at all. And even if they’ve published several books, they may not be familiar with your genre, and everything is subjective anyway. You don’t have to take anyone’s advice. But on the other hand it’s free and usually gently delivered. If you’re not sure you agree with it, take your work home and revisit it. Maybe they were wrong. Or maybe they were dead on.
You still need editing
Writing groups are not substitutes for editors. But if your group says, “You should make your tenses consistent and clean up the spelling and punctuation,” the book needs more work. You may disagree with every criticism. I have met writers who believe their story will sell itself, and then the publisher will provide an editor to clean up all the fussy details that creative folks shouldn’t be worrying about.
That’s what I mean by indirect criticism: the kind you never hear at all. A publisher or agent won’t accept a book with that many mistakes. And if you self-publish, you will look bad and lose sales—and risk bad reviews. Clean up the spelling and grammar. That’s the bare minimum a writer must do. (As an aside, I’m not saying every writer has to be a good speller or know all the rules of grammar. I’m saying know your strengths and weaknesses and get the help you need on your not-so-strong areas.)
Humbly ask for help
If you feel brave enough to publish a book, be brave enough to put it through the wringer first. Join a writing group and ask for a critique (you’ll have to return the favor and offer critiques of others’ work as well). Listen to their suggestion and fine-tune the work. Then hire an editor and/or proofreader. If you honestly feel your budget is too tight for that, recruit three or four good friends who know what they are doing.
You’ll have a better book than when you started, and maybe that’ll lead to more sales.
Photo by Seth Sawyers via flickr