Learning to Take Criticism, a.k.a That Doesn’t Look Like Madonna

3 minutes to read

As an experiment, I sent my short story That Time We Played Spin The Bottle to a beta reader. A beta reader is not a professional editor. They’re someone who enjoys reading and can give unbiased feedback on written work. Although beta reading is often an unpaid exchange, I decided to hire a professional beta reading company to speed things up.

A week after sending in my story, I received an in-depth survey that discussed the highs and lows of my story. It pointed out flaws, inconsistencies, problems with story flow, narrative, and overall voice. Because I’m a little on the OCD side, I made a pros and cons list of the feedback I received in hopes the good outweighed the bad. They do, but just barely.

On the negative side, the overall feeling was that the voice was flat, the characters need to be richer and the story felt rushed. On the good side, my details are solid, it’s free of information dumps, begins in the right place, relationships and dialog are believable and despite my voice feeling flat, it reminded the reader of Stephen King – which is easily the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten in my entire life. There are loads more notes, but those are the high and lowlights.

After processing the data I thought, this is good. I can learn a lot from this. I took a moment to appreciate that I didn’t collapse into a puddle of tears or shout at my laptop screen that the beta reader was clearly out of their mind. No, I took it in stride and felt good. Knowing where my story falls flat means that I can make it better. It needs work. Responding proactively to a lukewarm critique for my blood, sweat, and tears means I’ve grown as a person.

When I was young I loved to draw. One day, a classmate named Art told me my portrait of Madonna didn’t look like Madonna. It was 1990 and I was 15 years old. A guy named Art criticized my art. That’s so meta. Even so, I was crushed. I wanted to cry right there in class but sucked it up. That dumb kid’s comment about my work ruined drawing for me. I still drew, but not as passionately.

I used to look at criticism as a massive failure on my part. Instead of seeing it for what it was: Someone’s opinion. When it came to my portrait of Madonna, I also didn’t consider the source: A pompous 15-year-old boy who thought he was God’s gift. He was pretty cute as I recall. As you can see from the photo above, it really doesn’t look like Madonna, but if I’d kept at it, my work would have improved.

There would be many criticisms over the years that lead me to tears and ultimately stood in the way of my growing as an artist. I had difficulty growing that thick outer skin all artists must develop. It’s taken a long time, but as I read how my characters are one dimensional, I had a revelation: I can make them better. And no, this beta reader’s opinion isn’t the end all be all. It’s one person’s opinion that I will weigh as part of the process. It’s all a process. Writing, like drawing, is something we fine-tune over the years. Not even Mark Twain was Mark Twain when he first started writing. I’m a good writer. I know I am. I can be better and I will be.

As part of my learning and development, I’ve decided to do a re-write of That Time We Played Spin the Bottle. Mostly it’s for my own amusement, but I will post the finished product when it’s done. In the meantime, if you want to read the original version before it’s swapped out, it’s here. Maybe you’ll let me know what you think. I promise…I won’t cry if you hate it. I can only do this because I’m a total unknown and only four people read the original version. Annominity is a gift. It allows me to fail in front of a smaller audience. Who knows, maybe those four people will read it again and get something new out of it. I feel all grown up and stuff.

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