On Dealing With Critiques and Reviews – The Road to Self-Publishing

This article is part of my ongoing Wannabe Pride Self-Publishing blog series in preparation for publishing my novel, QUEEN HENRY, in July of 2014. Proceeds from this novel will go to the Harvey Milk Foundation.

49 Weeks Until Publication

It’s never easy dealing with critiques and reviews, but I’ve developed a system for both. And yes, there is a distinction between a critique and a review. A critique is when you actively seek out criticism, either via paid editors or unpaid volunteer beta readers. A critique is supposed to tell you what you need to fix before you publish or submit anywhere. A review is when readers provide a critique of what’s already completed and published.  Both critiques and reviews can be difficult to deal with and each require different coping mechanisms. At least for me they do.

When getting a critique, it’s important to remember that you are the only one who is going to see this review of your work. Unless you blog about it like I am wont to do from time to time…. With a critique, no matter how bad it is, there’s still time to fix what’s wrong with your work. That’s the whole point. Isn’t it better to be told that your slip is showing or you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe BEFORE you make your grand entrance to the party?

Anyway, critiques and reviews can suck. Sure, they can also be good, but do you really need my advice on how to deal with a good review? Didn’t think so.  Okay. I have a simple three-step  process for dealing with critiques. A critique is something that you actually asked for, so you’re at least somewhat prepared because you know its coming. The first step is to read the review as quickly as possible. The first time I read it is always the scariest. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not. For me, it’s an awful moment when I see that the critique has popped up in my inbox. It’s that heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping moment of pure liquid fear. It’s the “Hi, this is your doctor calling and I have your test results back” moment. Even if it’s good news, it’s gonna take a while for that initial terror to dissipate. I skim the critique as fast as humanly possible. This is the “Okay, how bad is it?” read.

My initial response is usually defensiveness. No way! That’s not right! That’s not what I was saying! She doesn’t get me at all!

Guess what? If your editor or beta guru doesn’t get it, your readers probably won’t either. This is what you paid an editor and/or harassed your writer friend to do. You wanted them to tell the truth.

After my breathing calms down a bit, then I read the review again. This second step is known as the “Okay, what is this review really saying?” step. The critique is usually not as bad as I feared it would be. On the second read, I can start to get the gist of what the reviewer is really saying about what’s right and wrong with the work. What are the major flaws and how bad are they really?

The three read is actually kind of fun. By the third time, I’ve chilled out considerably. By that read, my mind is already spinning with ideas on how to fix what’s wrong with the manuscript. For me, writing is hard work but it’s also fun. Once I start putting a plan into action on how to incorporate these changes, I feel better. I’m back in my comfort zone. I’m a writer. I got this.

I usually do the three reads all at once. I mean, like immediately. BAM-BAM-BAM. It always reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer believes he’s dying and goes through the stages of coping in rapid succession, from anger to fear to bargaining to acceptance. He starts by yelling at the doctor and ends up reasoning that we all have to go sometimes. It takes about fifteen seconds.

This whole coping-with-critique deal probably takes about 10-15 minutes, but it’s an awfully stressful quarter of an hour. As I write this, I’m still waiting on the critique for my manuscript. It stresses me out just thinking about it, but I have to remind myself that, unlike a Few Good Men, I CAN handle the truth. I WANT the truth. I NEED the truth. This is not a game to me. I’m really going to publish this book and I need it to be the best it can possibly be. This is my favorite story that I’ve ever written. First as a screenplay and then as a novel that I tried to get traditionally published, the rejections for QUEEN HENRY always hurt more than for anything else I’ve ever written.  I waited a week to send QUEEN HENRY to the editors after my last edit because I knew I was way too close to the story to handle a critique right away. I had just read through the whole book making minor edits myself. I’m so close to these characters that I swear I feel like I’ve experienced everything they went through. Right after reading it, I am at my most vulnerable and least objective. I told myself not to listen to any of the usual songs I listen to while working on this novel while I waited for the critique. I needed to give myself some emotional space, some distance from it, before it gets torn apart by the critique.

But I didn’t follow my own advice and I’ve still been listening to my own personal QUEEN HENRY soundtrack as usual when I’m out for my daily walk. There’s really no protecting my heart when it comes to this story. My heart’s been broken by critiques of it before and I suppose it might be again.

But I know that it’s worth it. When you love something so much, it’s called passion. Great passion brings both incredible joy and intense sorrow. That whole better-than-not-having-loved-at-all kind of deal. I know the risks and I know they’re worth taking.

So that’s my philosophy on dealing with critiques.

Reviews can hurt just as much but the process for dealing with them is less complicated. Reviews come after the project is a done deal. The book is already published or the movie has already been released. It’s too late for changes and hindsight is always crystal clear. My plan for dealing with reviews after publication is as follows: for the good ones, I will print them out and save them in a binder. I’ll probably read them so often that I’ll be able to quote them verbatim. As for the bad ones, I’ll read them once for the “how bad is it?” read and then I’ll read it a second time to see what they’re really saying. I don’t want to totally ignore them altogether because there could be something I could learn for future use. For bad reviews, two times is enough. If it’s especially nasty, one time is enough. The truth is, some people are just jerks. It’s never worth dwelling on the negative, even if you can learn something. Learn, then move on as much as you can.

I guess passion in writing is kind of like passion in marriage. You really do have to take it for better or for worse.

It really is better than no passion at all.

Wish me luck. The critique is coming any day.

– Linda Fausnet

Terror at 308 Pages – The Road to Self-Publishing

This article is part of my ongoing Wannabe Pride Self-Publishing blog series in preparation for publishing my novel, QUEEN HENRY, in July of 2014. Proceeds from this novel will go to the Harvey Milk Foundation.

 50 Weeks Until Publication

Forget monsters, zombies and vampires. The only true terror writers face is sending their work out for editing critiques. It is by far the worst, scariest, most awful part of being a writer. And that’s why so many writers simply skip that step. It is absolutely the hardest part of being a writer, but it’s also the most important.

I’ll say that again, people.

Getting your work critiqued is the most important part of being a writer. It is quite simply the difference between possible success and certain failure.

No one can guarantee a successful book because it’s always a crapshoot to figure out what’s going to catch on and be popular. However, I can guarantee your book won’t sell if you don’t bother to have anybody critique before you publish it.

You are always far too close to your own material to be able to judge it accurately.  What’s in your mind and heart does not always translate to the page. You know what you mean to say and how you want your characters to be, but that doesn’t mean your work will necessarily come across that way. In earlier drafts, my main character was coming across as too mean, which is not what I wanted at all. His “tragic flaw” was his homophobia, but other than he was a pretty swell guy. After a critique, I had to soften him up a bit in the first chapter so readers would be able to root for him.

If I had just one piece of advice for all the Wannabes out there, it would be to seek out criticism. It’s not just a cliché to say that you will learn more from failure than you will ever learn from success. You will learn more from having someone knowledgeable look over your work and point out the flaws than you could learn from a million how-to books, blogs, or any other source. It’s the actual DOING of the work and seeing where you went wrong that helps you learn.  I can promise you that if you are willing to take that incredibly difficult step of putting your work out there to be torn apart, thus giving you a chance to fix it before you publish, you will be LEAPS AND BOUNDS above other writers. I am constantly amazed at the self-published work that I see that has such great potential, but clearly was never seen by an editor. There could be a great story there somewhere, but it gets lost in a sea of grammatical errors, too much exposition/backstory, repetitive paragraphs, and stilted dialogue. One self-published writer told me how brave she thought I was for sending my work to literary agents since I was trying to get traditionally published. She told me she would be too scared to ever do that.

But she PUBLISHED her book.

She wouldn’t send her work to be critiqued privately, but instead, she PUBLISHED it for the whole world to see. It was a shame, too, because I truly believe her work had potential. Had she had it edited, it might have sold much better and gotten better reviews. If you publish work that you think is good but no one else has read, the best-case scenario is that you’ll sell a few copies of your work to family, friends, and other writers but you’ll never break out into the general reading public. The worst-case scenario is that you will get public reviews from readers who will tell you the truth about your work. The painful truth that a paid editor would have told you in private.

You MUST go through the difficult process of having your work critiqued if you truly want a chance at success. HEAR IT, LEARN IT, LIVE IT.

It won’t be easy. My motto is – Don’t Be Fearless, Be Brave.  Fearless is the absence of fear. Brave means you’re scared and you do it anyway.

I sent my novel, my baby, my favorite piece of writing that I’ve ever done, to two editors this week. I want them to tell me the truth about what’s wrong with it so I can fix it.

And I’m really scared.

But I’m being brave.

QUEEN HENRY has already gone through a LOT of changes over the years in screenplay form. When I first wrote it, I loved the story. And it was awful. But I didn’t know it. I sent it through Triggerstreet, which was a peer-sharing script site where other writers review your work. It got a bad review. I ignored it. I thought he was wrong. It got another bad review. I thought that one was wrong, too. Then I got a third one. It was bad, too. I’ll never forget it. I had the stomach flu and was horribly queasy and felt terrible, and then in comes this third bad review. I just did not have the physical or emotional strength to cope with it. It was terrible.

That was the most painful moment I’d ever endured as a writer. I’ve never, ever thought about quitting but I very clearly remember thinking, “If I wasn’t a writer, I wouldn’t be in this pain right now.”

In that moment, though, I actually had the maturity and foresight to realize how important these reviews were. It was definitely an Oprah-esque A-HA moment. Prior to this script, I don’t think I’d ever sent anything out for review before. I was like the writers I complain about now. I lived in my own happy world where all my characters and stories were perfect so long as nobody critiqued them. After these reviews, I knew I was at a crossroads. I could give up on this story that I loved but was clearly awful, or I could work harder than I ever had in my life to make it right. I chose the latter. I loved that story. I still love that story. So I fixed it. After LOTS of rewrites, I started getting good reviews and QUEEN HENRY ended up being a finalist in a small but national contest.

There’s no way to describe how amazing that feeling was. Seeing the title QUEEN HENRY in that list of Finalists. It was neat to see my name next it I guess, but seeing the title in print was way cooler.

That never, ever, could have happened without those critiques and the pain I endured. Rejections of this story ALWAYS hurt more because I love it so much. That’s not gonna change now. I’ve fixed so much with this story that I hope it works well in novel form, but I’m leaving nothing to chance. That’s why I’m paying for the opportunity to have my heart broken if these editors tell me it’s awful.

If that happens, then I’ll just have to work as hard as I can to make it right.

I still love this story far too much to do anything less.


The Scary Part of Writing

Getting reviews is no doubt the scariest part of being a writer, at least for me. The main reason I started this support group for Wannabes is to have other Wannabes share their experiences on the rough road to success, like facing scary reviews of the work that they slaved over.

Sadly, no one is doing this.

The message boards were designed for actors to post about auditions they go on – vent went they don’t go well and celebrate when they do. Musicians could post about their frustrations in not getting good gigs and brag when they finally get a good one. Other writers were supposed to write about their own experiences with getting reviews.

The idea was for me to reach out to other Wannabes to find out I’m not alone in this.

Turns out, I guess I am alone. Of course, there must be thousands of people going through what I’m going through. I just can’t find them. I don’t know where you all are. I’ve gotten hundreds of comments on my blogs so far. ALL of them, save for less than 5, are spam. This is hard for me to accept, because it’s just another form of rejection.

I’m expecting to get one review on my script this week – possibly two. It’s times like this that I really wish I knew someone – anyone –even a stranger – who really, truly understand how hard it is to wait for a review. This review will come from a contest called Script Savvy. This is a script I wrote about two years or so ago. It went through many reviews back then, but I’m sending it for another review now because I plan to write the same story as a novel when I finish the current script I’m working on.

The script – called QUEEN HENRY- is my very favorite. I feel it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I’ve written about the script on my blog before – it got HORRIBLE reviews at first and I worked on it until it was good enough to be a Finalist in a small contest in 2007. It’s one of the few scripts that makes me feel good every time I go back to read it. I’m proud of it. I just have this gut feeling when I read it – this one is good.

Which is what makes it so hard went it doesn’t get a good review. The most recent draft has gotten mixed reviews – it was a Finalist in one contest. A producer was not impressed, saying it didn’t “dazzle” him. Another contest reviewer said it should have been a drama. It’s gay-themed, and he felt it should be written as a serious issue. He actually said it was not something to make light of.

I’ll repeat that, people. He said I should not make light of the issue of being gay….

Seriously, if it’s one group of people who know how to poke fun of themselves and their own struggle – it’s gay people!! Jewish people, too, for that matter.

Anyway, after not sending the script out for years, I entered it in a contest – reviews to be sent out Tuesday, August 31. Then on Friday, August 27, I get this email from a production company, out of the blue:

“I received a query letter from you a few years ago regarding QUEEN HENRY and for some reason, I couldn’t throw it away. To be fair, I don’t think there’s even a slight chance that I will get the film made, but I’m still interested in reading the screenplay as a writing sample.”

Odd, to say the least. Does he mean he personally does not have the power to make the film because he works in the mailroom? Or does he mean, given the subject matter, he doubts he could get it made? I did once have a producer chastise me for writing something like this because it is no longer “relevant”. He asked if I had a gay son or something, because he said no one cares if you’re gay anymore…

This man probably lives two streets away from San Francisco and has not watched the news for the last decade, given the white-hot button issue of gay marriage and DADT, and the fact that the entire country is split down the middle when it comes to gays…

Sorry for the rant (says the blog writer to the gaping, empty hole in cyberspace…though I will give a shout-out to the two people I know who read the blog – Hi Debbie and Zann!!!), but as you can see, reviews of Queen Henry have been all over the map. It just figures that, after all these years of no reviews on the script, on the one week that I’m expecting a contest review, a production company pops out of the woodwork asking for the damn thing.

This could be an exciting week or a hell of a downer. Either way, I will tell you the truth about the reviews. Stay tuned.