One of the things you have to learn to deal with as a writer is criticism. I’m not talking about those who can’t do the job, so they make a career out of tearing authors down. I’m talking about the kind of criticism you get in a good writing group, or from friends you trust to give you an honest opinion about your work. In my mind, criticism from fellow writers is better than the other kind—at least you know they’re familiar with what it is to spend several months composing your Great American Novel. By the same token, however, in a way their criticism is harsher than a critic’s.
Let me explain what I mean.
Critics look for abstract things like theme and whether or not you measure up to whomever they consider the greatest author of all time—whether it be Shakespeare or Chaucer, Koontz or King. Fellow writers, on the other hand, help you correct your story. Not only do they help point out typos (you can never spot them all yourself. Give it up), they also help you develop your writing in all kinds of ways: improving dialogue, tightening sentences, getting rid of unnecessary words, the list goes on and on. I have the good luck, among other things, to have a woman who spent her career writing newspaper articles, not to mention a published Western author.
(In case you’re interested, that author, Dusty Richards, was just named Greatest Living Western Writer. Not bad.)
In other words, what other authors (hopefully) help you with is stuff they’ve learned in the trenches. They give you an objective opinion about your work and make suggestions for its improvement.
Not a bad deal.
Learning to take this criticism isn’t easy, and it seems to be an ongoing process. There are still times when I have to bite my tongue and remind myself that they’re not attacking me personally, that what they’re saying is meant to help me. It’s a human reaction, because we all want to think we put out superior product on our first try, no matter how much the evidence says otherwise. You have to develop skin that’s thick enough the criticism doesn’t hurt, but thin enough that what they’re saying actually gets through to you as it’s meant to.
I had some prior practice when I joined my group: a friend I’ve known since I was around eleven years old. We grew up swapping sf and fantasy books back and forth, and he’s very good at playing devil’s advocate with my writing. Sometimes I think he’s too good, in a way. I don’t know if there’s a book that’s ever been published that met with his wholehearted approval: they all fall short in one way or another, and usually in more than one. When he finishes a book, the overall impression he tends to give is that he’s had yet another disappointment.
And he’s not so…diplomatic about his criticisms as most of those in my group are, so I’ve learned to bite my tongue very well. Sometimes I’m surprised callous hasn’t built up on it. I don’t always agree with what he says, and I believe some of his convictions about first-time authors are just wrong. For instance, he seems of the opinion that, in order to get published, you need to dampen down your voice to a degree so that it’s not too individual. I am of the opinion that it’s that unique voice that gets you noticed in the first place. It’s what makes you stand out from the herd.
This week, though, I’m having to figure out how to deal with the opposite kind of criticism: the kind that can go to your head.
Don’t get me wrong: the opinions given in my group aren’t all negative. Even if very few people come out and say anything, a lack of marks on returned manuscript pages is tacit approval of what you’ve written. And, there are often other comments written there as well. Since I’ve started reading Pipeline, I’ve had the good fortune to have at least one person, and usually more, comment on how they like the voice I use in that novel. For me, it’s positive reinforcement and helps to build up my confidence in my writing. I think I’m pretty good, but I’m also wise enough to know that everybody thinks they’re good. It takes others telling us that to make us fully believe it, though. At least it does in my case.
This past week, however, there were a couple of comments that, as much as I appreciate them, I have to take with a grain of salt, so to speak. Not because I think they’re lying to me, but because if I believe them too much, I’m afraid I might let them go to my head. And that’s the last thing I want to do.
Here’s one of those comments: Dynamite voice! I’d buy this book in a heartbeat & I don’t usually read crime! The other one that got me was: Your voice is absolutely fantastic. This is an instant bestseller!
Pretty heady stuff.
I hope you realize I’m not bringing these up as a way to brag. Sure, I’m proud to have gotten comments like this, as well as a general reaction from most of the group that they look forward to Lyle’s adventures. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t feel good, ’cause it does. It validates that I’m not wasting my time with this writing stuff, that maybe it’s not just a pipe dream.
There’s a point to this: not resting on your laurels. It’s good to get comments like this, especially for me. I’m coming into this writing thing a little late in life compared to most authors: I’m closing in on 50 years old. When I compare this to my daughter, who’s been writing since she was in kindergarten, I feel like the slow kid in class. So when I get these kinds of comments, it makes me feel like I’ve got a chance anyway, despite being older. Besides, I wouldn’t be the first one to start a writing career later in life.
But when any person gets too many of these kinds of comments, they have to guard against ego. And since I know that I often come across as egotistic when I don’t mean to be, I really have to watch it.
Right now, it’s easy to keep from getting a big head. All I have to do is look at some of my past works. I do that, and my feet come right back down to earth in a hurry. I realize part of that is that I was learning my art—Louis L’Amour comment toward the end of his life that he felt he was just beginning to truly learn his craft. Writing is a never-ending process of learning and improving, or so it’s hoped. It’s my sincere desire that I can look back on Pipeline and see how I’ve improved since I wrote it.
Maybe that’s the key: keep an eye on what you’ve done and compare it to your present work. You’ve heard me mention Don Winslow in this blog, and I’m betting that, although he’s proud of his early published work, he may be even more proud of his recent stuff. I’m about to start his 2010 book Savages, which Oliver Stone is making into a movie starring, among others, Benicio Del Toro. There are some other big-name actors in it as well, but I’ve only seen the cast list once, so their names escape my mind.
The thing is, if you read Mr. Winslow’s early work and compare it with what he’s doing now, you’d think you were reading two different authors. His prose, once thick and writerly, is now sparse and tight. He’s been a major inspiration for my altering my voice, and it shows even more in my work-in-progress Spree.
Another influence, Robert Crais, said that if you were new to his work, he’d prefer you read his new novels and not worry about reading his Elvis Cole series in order. Yes, there’s an ongoing life there, and if you deprive yourself of L.A. Requiem when you’re reading his work, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Mr. Crais says he’d prefer you read his newer books because they’re more representative of him and what he’s doing now. He has a good point. As well-written as the early Cole novels are, his latest ones, including the new Joe Pike series (Pike is Elvis’s partner in their detective agency), are solidly rooted in crime but also show great flexibility in straying outside the conventions of the genre. They’re satisfying books, and while Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are some tough hombres, they have an inner life that makes you wish you could go have a drink with them.
I hope I can keep improving that way. I tried to put some of those elements in Pipeline by making Lyle the kind of character most people can identify with, even if he’s introduced to you when he’s busted for cooking meth. Most of us wouldn’t do that, but we can understand why he’s doing it, maybe even see ourselves in his shoes if circumstances were bad enough.
But more, I hope I always realize deep in my heart that I can stand to improve. I think that’ll be one of the best defenses against comments like those quoted above.
I also hope I stay good enough to keep getting those kinds of comments.