Friday, January 21, 2022

How to Handle Muther-trucking Criticism - By Josh Stallings

 Q: Taking negative/critical feedback isn't often heralded as a skill but perhaps it should be. How do you handle it when it comes your way? 

A: You would think after years as a movie advertising trailer editor I would have gotten good at taking criticism. You’d be half right. What I got good at was separating negative feedback into categories. A) Things that will make the trailer better. B) Things that are unachievable with the film they shot. C) Things that have nothing to do with the trailer I cut, to achieve them I need to start from scratch. D) Ego notes, said to prove the note giver is worthy of their paycheck. These have little to do with the work, and are easily dealt with by agreeing, then saying you did them. They never checked. E) Good ideas, said poorly, that once I figured out what they really meant would make the trailer better. This last one is key, if I trust the note giver, it is better to assume they are smart, and I’m just not getting it.

This discernment process has helped my writing career immensely by keeping me from baulking at any and all suggested changes. My ego screams “Fk this, this first draft is perfect, what would you dare to fking change?” As a young man, I said exactly this, more than once and threw objects at walls to make sure everyone knew I was serious.  Now, I pause, remember what I really want is to write the best possible novel. To do that I will need some help. BUT, I need that help to come from people who understand my voice and point of view. Before I listen to any feedback, I need to figure out if the person gets the book I’m writing. Do they actually like it? If not then their notes won’t make it better. I am blessed with several writers, and an agent I trust to read early drafts. Before them comes my best critic, Erika, my wife and true collaborator. 

Some examples of notes that made the book better,

“Madsen is too empathetic too soon. He is too Josh, not enough cynical cop. He doesn’t know how to deal with an intellectually challenged person. We need to see slow learning here.” and “NAIL DOWN THE REDEMPTION THEME.” - Amy Moore-Benson (my agent.)

In an early draft I had envisioned Niels Madsen as a womanizer, a behavior he would have to come to grips with throughout the novel. Luckily, I got this note from the brilliant writer Jamie Mason, “The amount of trying to score, heavy flirtation, and reminiscence of sexual conquest is a bit weighing. The first seventy-six pages covers roughly thirteen hours and it's difficult to square our burgeoning allegiance with Niels with that much skirt-chasing and innuendo and stuff that's even bordering on harassment.” I was tired of alcoholism standing in for character, and I had just replaced it with a different character defect. Removing that I had to dig deeper. Give him real life complications. From that I got his grandfather Hem, who is living with dementia, and more.

My brother said he wanted to see more about the world the intellectually disabled characters navigate. And “When does Madsen have his ah-ha moment about not using the R word?”

All of these notes made it a much better book. After Chantelle Aimée Osman picked Tricky up for Agora/Polis, she said the first twenty pages is all most readers give a book, and Tricky’s first twenty pages are too clichéd police procedural. She kindly added that she saw I was setting the story up for a flip, but many readers wouldn’t stick with it until then. Honestly I didn’t like hearing that. But I kept my mouth shut and dug back in. Damned if she wasn’t correct.


Here are a few of Erika’s standard comments that I say I hate, but actually love:

“I know what you’re trying to say here, but I don’t think you’re saying it.”

“You can do better.”


“What are you trying to say here?… Yeah, that wasn’t clear.”

Good notes point out a problem, but don’t suggest a solve. I work with people who trust that I will come up with the best possible solution for a problem. That’s my job. It is also helpful to let me know what is working so I don’t lose great stuff in a blast of clear cutting.

Practical advice - How do I take criticism in stride? It took me a lot of years to learn to listen to negative criticism, smile and say, “Interesting, let me mull this over and get back to you.” To buy myself time to really think past the sting, see if there is something of value. 

So far I’ve been talking about pre-publication drafts. Post publication there is nothing I can do with negative comments about the writing, even if they are right, there is no action to be taken. That book is done. And yet, I still read reader’s reviews. I seldom comment on them, except for the positive ones. I have wanted to respond to negative reviews, but you can’t win an argument with someone who doesn’t like your writing.

I wish I was the type of person who never reads industry or professional reviews, but I’m not. Good, thoughtful reviews make my day/week/month. When someone really gets what I do, and digs it, I love that feeling. A bad review knocks the wind out of me. I have to shake it off and keep going.

To do what we do takes real self confidence. We stumble onto a blank page and create a world with words. Negative comments on past work or work that’s out on submission makes it damn hard to scape up the guts to do this job. When I’m in the early stages of dreaming up a new novel I need to stay away from other people’s opinion of my work. Cocoon myself away until I have enough of a piece that it can stand the slings and arrows of outrageous opinions. 

My most important trick, the one I forget and then remember and then forget again, is to keep my eyes focused on the road ahead, what I’m working on now. What the book critics and readers are talking about is behind me. Focusing on the rearview mirror will end in broken glass and crumpled fenders. 

Eyes front, fingers on keys is the only safe way to write.  


Catriona McPherson said...

I love your five categories. Now, how to tell which is which!

Josh Stallings said...

There is the rub. When in doubt I go with, I’m probably not understanding them. It beats breaking things.