Monday, February 25, 2013

Cope With Your Critique

This week the Rockville 8 welcomes Matthew Iden, author of the Marty Singer detective series. Matthew is here to talk about the invaluable necessity of working with an editor. Whether we as writers choose to publish traditionally or go the indie route, we all eventually feel the (loving) wrath of an editor's pen. In the end, a good editor is a book's best friend.

Welcome to the Rockville 8, Matthew! What can you tell us about making the most of our editor's work?

One of the first commitments I made to myself when I dove into the world of self-publishing was to work with a professional fiction editor who had experience in my genre, crime fiction. Despite the expense, I believed — and later confirmed — that hiring and working with an editor was often the benchmark that separated professional self-published writers from fly-by-nighters.

I've since worked with two different editors on three different manuscripts and my novels have been improved in every instance. But each time I get that editorial letter back — even though I know I'll eventually reap the rewards of working with a true pro in the field — I'm unprepared for the battery of criticism that gets leveled at my writing.

I know, I know, it's what I'm paying them for. Why am I so surprised? I asked them to find what's wrong with my novel, not what's right. Still, each time a critique comes in, I struggle to overcome the sense of doom that settles over me when I look at my book. 

What follows is a short hand strategy for coping with those feelings of anxiety. Better yet, I've found it actually helps me make better use of the critique my editors give me. Next time you get that letter, follow these guidelines and see if it doesn't help you make the most of what you've paid for.

1. Read the critique, then take a breath

When you get your editor's letter, it will completely leave your mind that, if they're doing their job, everything they can find wrong with your book will be condensed into one small, soul-crushing package. Plot holes, ridiculous inconsistencies, flat characters, unresolved endings, shallow story telling, not enough conflict, too much conflict…all of it is going to be wrapped up into this one, concentrated missive.

This will poison you if you let it. Remember that they are condensing things and that this is not a condemnation of every page of your novel…and is certainly not a judgment of your skill as a writer. Read the critique through once, twice, ten times if you have to, but remind yourself that the criticism of your manuscript is representative, not total. Relax. Whatever your editor found amiss can be examined and corrected. That's the point of the critique.

2. Make a plan

Unless your editor is exceedingly well organized (or even if they are), your edits may come as a mish-mash of small, medium, and large problems. Once you've read your critique and understand what's being discussed — even if you don't agree with all of the proposed changes — make your own prioritized list of issues before diving in.

You might be able to address some of the items on their own, without consideration for other parts of the manuscript. Others might be so intertwined with related plot elements that you'd better look at the work as a whole before you start typing or you could upset the apple cart of the book's logic.

Understand the consequences of following particular courses of action. Know which parts of your book you're tackling when…and why.

3. Write with care

If you used your coconut, there's a good chance that you mailed your editor the best manuscript you could. After all, why would you send your editor 80,000 sloppily written words when you have to pay for each one? You no doubt rewrote the book several times, maybe even had your beta readers go through it, before you sent it out for its professional going-over.

Bear that in mind as you work on the editorial suggestions. Even if there are whole swaths of the plot you have to rewrite to address the issues your editor found, you can't afford to treat these new elements as first draft corrections or they won't be up to the caliber of your (formerly) finished product. Choose your words and your new plot constructions carefully as you go about putting your creation back together. The throw-words-at-a-wall-and-see-what-sticks method probably isn't going to work here.

4. Work with your editor

Once your subjective self is over hating the ground your editor walks on, there's a good chance your objective self will sift through your critique and examine each suggestion on its own merit, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some don't come close, some will look right but can't be made to fit, and others will be spot-on perfect.

Give yourself permission to have a dissenting opinion, but commit to working with your editor to find out the whys and why-nots of particular disagreements. Assuming that you made sure before you engaged your editor that you can contact her or him for post-critique brainstorming, quick assessments, even additional reads (and I would suggest you not work with an editor who won't offer these things), take advantage of the working relationship. Clarify murky points, ask for suggestions, propose fixes and offer up a battle plan for your rewrites. Your editor likely wants your manuscript to be the best it can be as much as you do.


I hope you find this strategy helpful. An editorial critique should be a tool for producing your top work, not a cause for despair. Grab that letter, make a plan, and get to work. With it, you're about to write the best words of your life.

Matthew Iden writes fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers, crime fiction, and contemporary literary fiction with a psychological twist. His Marty Singer detective series debuted with A Reason to Live and continues with Blueblood. Signs, the third installment, will be out in early 2013.
You can find him on his website, his Facebook page and his Amazon author page.


  1. This is great advice, Matt. I especially appreciate your point about "taking a breath." So often my first reaction to criticism is to hit the "reject" button and move on. But nothing is more valuable than the impartial criticism of an experienced editor. It's good to have the reminder every now and then. :-) Thanks so much for your post!

  2. Thanks, Mish--and thanks for the opportunity to guest blog!

    "Taking a breath" was one of the first things I told myself to do (after all, we've had to face critics since we first started putting words down), yet have found it to be the hardest element of the process to master...and will probably have to re-learn it with every new edited manuscript.

    Even if you take criticism gracefully, it's very difficult not to internalize a dissenting opinion. That's why "having a plan" is so important: it helps me move past the endlessly recursive cycle of internalizing the criticism and forces me to get to work.

  3. This post is particularly welcome as I'm working my way through my editor's letter now. I should have gotten her agreement regarding post-critique clarifications, brainstorming, and re-reads, so I won't make that mistake again! I'm pretty sure she'll be open to hearing from me again, but next time I'll make sure I make that part of the package. Thanks, Matt!

  4. Matt - great wisdom! I had a boss who loved to say "everybody needs an editor." This phrase became a touchstone that has helped me not be so hung up on myself.

    It's not 100% perfect all the time, but I remind myself of it when I receive feedback that hits my ego square in the kisser. It helps.

  5. It was a real eye-opener the first time I worked with an editor. I discovered I actually enjoyed the process. I find myself using her expertise as I write new words on new stories, and that's invaluable to my overall writing experience.

  6. Great advice, Matthew. Thanks for bringing it to us here at the R8.

    I confess I allow myself to skim that letter the first time around. Then I say to myself, "See? It wasn't so bad, was it?" And then I tackle the edits chunk by chunk.

    I guess you could say I take the "hot bath" approach. When I skim the letter, I'm easing into the hot water. If I go slowly enough, it feels pretty good!

  7. Thank you so much for blogging with us, Matthew. I went to a writing conference last weekend and one of the seminars I attended talked about editing. Your post is timely. It is hard to take criticism so your tips are great for making it easier to deal with. Thank you again for spending time with us.