Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Walking the Dark Side of the Moon

You’ve all been there. Not literally, of course, because it’s inaccessible. You’ve heard Pink Floyd sing about it on their magnum opus album of the same name. Books bear the title. Video games do too. Songwriters refer to it and even Sherrilyn Kenyon used it as the title of a recent novel.

You’ve wondered if the dark side’s a mere reflection of the moon face we see regularly, or something different. Unique. Special. Maybe sinister. It is the DARK side, is it not? Didn’t George Lucas make a bazillion dollars turning the concept of ‘the dark side’ into unforgettable conflict?

We mere mortals tend to see things in shades of light/dark, good/bad, strong/weak, etc. We label and classify in a process that offers us more control.

We like control.

Maybe that’s why criticism hurts so much. It knives that control, it pierces our resolve, it threatens our equanimity because we don’t measure up to someone, somewhere. Myra blogged the other day about how criticism dogs us long after compliments leave us. We perseverate on it. Dwell on it. Let it eat at us, nipping the heels of our enthusiasm and talent.

Whaaaaaa! Whaaaaaaaaa! Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!!

Let’s go one step further. Let’s suppose God granted us two hands, ten fingers, two eyes and a brain to take that criticism and turn it into a better song, a more resourceful child, a deeper spirituality and yes, a stronger manuscript or book.

Yup, you’ve got it. I’m telling you to use the gifts God gave you to be the parent you can be, the Christian you ought to be and the writer you should be, all by using what you’ve already been given.

It’s easy to complain. So easy. And I’m ridiculously guilty of that weakness, but not proud of it because quite often there’s a glimmer or more of hard truth in criticism.

And what do we do?

Jump to the defensive. Rally the troops. Become enraged. Doubt the critic’s or judge’s or editor/agent’s intelligence and wonder if they might be the unclaimed child of an African primate that swings from trees.

What is the matter with us? Why do we raise our hackles instantly when someone takes a jab, well meaning or otherwise? Are we that insecure? That uncertain? Or is it that we’re too certain, ready to assume that if someone disagrees with our work, our stand, our opinion, they’re wrong?

As authors and Christians we tend to forget the big “H”. Humility. Oh we talk about it, but few of us practice it, despite Biblical teachings and Christ’s examples. We become obsessed with the quality we see in ourselves or our family or our work or our home, and resist examining things through the eyes of others, refusing to recognize the acuity of their vantage point.

Sometimes outsiders see us more clearly than we see ourselves because they view without emotional baggage or self-interest. This clarity should be viewed as a gift, an offering, and yet we often fail to seize that opportunity to improve ourselves or our writing because we feel wronged.

I love what Richard Mabry said on Tuesday, when he referred to a past rejection. The agent apologized and said Richard’s work wasn’t up to his standards, and how Richard later realized the original work wasn’t up to his standards, either. It takes guts to admit that and true courage to redouble your efforts and improve your situation.

Excuses are easy. Everybody has stress, time constraints, pressure, sick kids, aging parents, car repairs, leaky roofs, running toilets, and too many bills. Are ya’ kiddin’ me?

Despite that, it’s our job to be rodeo writers. Grab the criticism bull by the horns and rassle him to the ground. Take charge. Rope it in. Way too often that criticism isn’t someone having a bad day (a common excuse we use to make us feel better about ourselves), but a glimmer of something we know we could improve on. We just don’t like that someone saw fit to call us on it.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “Carpe Diem is a stupid concept.”

Right, Einstein.

Refusing to seize the day, the opportunities, the moments God offers to improve ourselves… Now that’s a stupid concept.



Ruth Logan Herne said...

Good morning, Seekerville!


Brought the coffee. It's goooood. I figured I better bring good food too since I just lectured the whole world in typical Ruthy fashion.

So, there's a whole platter of strawberry and cheese crepes, fresh fruit, a hot pot filled with scrambled eggs (dry, I don't like 'em raw), sausage, bacon (the nice thick kind I get at Sam's Club) and croissants. Build yourself a breakfast sandwich, grab a crepe, smother it with extra topping and whipped cream (real, not aerosol) and have a seat while you tell me all about the mean, naughty, no good critics in your life.



Walt M said...

Sometimes I feel it's best to sleep on criticism. In the reviews I received for a recent contest, I felt like one of the judges was insulting the amount of research I had done for my book. (It's a historical.) She based her comments on movies she had seen.

I was initially upset because one of the movies the judge cited occurred three hundred years after my book. After I slept on it, I realized I hadn't done a good enough job of presenting my story and that this was the reason the judge had chosen a movie in her fill in the blanks.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Walt, good morning!

Ah, kiddo, you made a great point. Periods of history vary greatly and we tend to be visual learners so if we 'see' it in a movie, it resonates when we read it in a book, regardless of time frame.

But I really like what you said about sleeping on it, letting it veg. Great advice. Usually our knee-jerk reaction gets us (and by us I mean 'me') into BIG trouble, when later on we see that the problem could be cleared up by a couple of clear, concise, well-placed sentences.

Hey, pass the creamer, would you, Walt?



Janet Dean said...

Ruthy, you so hit the proverbial nail on the head. But just because we go defensive doesn't mean we have to keep that stance. It's a natural first reaction, but our brains will take over once we shove our emotions aside. Then we can make use of judges' comments, harsh reviews or reader letters. And learn.

Not that every critic is right. Sometimes criticism is motivated by jealousy, someone's agenda or perhaps personal taste. If we're teachable, once we step back and take a deep breath, we'll know intuitively if the criticism is valid.

The breakfast hit my hungry spot this morning. Thanks, Ruthy! I love your offerings.


Walt M said...

Done. You can keep the creamer. I'm taking my coffee black this morning. It's perfct that way with a strawberry and cheese crepe.

Tina M. Russo said...

What is with this theme this week? You and Myra unwittingly touched on the same ham bone.

It must be in the air.

Walt, good to see you.

Who ate all the bacon??????

I still say, once again, that success is the best revenge.

Debra E Marvin said...

Oh dear. Yes it's knowing that there's a bit of truth in those comments that hurts. Ouch!

And why should we be surprised, annoyed, hurt or angry when someone points out something that can possibly/probably be improved? (Okay, because it hurts, duh)

I know that every time I think my WIP is pretty good, I have been able to go back and improve it based on feedback I got from a contest judge or a critique partner. Judges in particular mess with our heads. They're subjective. How do we know what gives them the right or the knowledge to point out things they think should be improved? We don't, but after the initial sting, and the passage of time--I agree--they usually have a good point. We learn something even when they are wrong!

Thanks Sister Ruth. I promise to keep telling myself this, when those next comments come in. If not, you can rap my knuckles with your wooden ruler.

And thanks to my critique partners, Connie and Pat, who take the time to both put balm on my wounds AND offer helpful suggestions!

Edwina Cowgill said...


I truly appreciate your blog this morning. I am new at this writing business and have yet to receive critical comments, but I know they are coming. This will help me to be prepared!

Thanks for breakfast - yumm-o!!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Walt, thanks for the creamer, bud. Appreciate it. And I'm glad you like the crepes. Amazing blend of flavors, strawberries and cheese. Oh mylanta, loving it.


Eileen Astels Watson said...

Sitting on those comments for a few nights really does help to settle the blood. Then you're ready to learn from them and hopefully fix the problems. I'm finding this journey a never ending learning experience. It's tough, but I'm growing from it. Thanks for the truth!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Whoa, Ruthy's using the big words today! You go, girl. And great point. Don't wallow, get to work. Or something like that.

Julie Lessman said...

Ouch ... thanks for the rap on the knuckles, Ruthy, along with the strawberry and cheese crepes (which, I guarantee, went down more smoothly than the bulls-eye aim of your blog! :)).

Uh, I'm guessing the "big H" doesn't stand for "hacked," and boy, how I wish it did.

You said, "Way too often that criticism isn’t someone having a bad day (a common excuse we use to make us feel better about ourselves), but a glimmer of something we know we could improve on."

I honestly DO believe that there is a grain of truth in every piece of criticism, no matter how small, but I don't always agree with how that criticism is delivered. For instance, the reviewer who called my work "smut" wounded me to the core ... she could have easily have said what she wanted to say in a far less hurtful way ... especially since we are talking about "Christian" novels here.

But your blog makes me wonder ... would I have heard the "grain of truth" if it had been any less vicious? Now that awful comment is rolling around in my head, forcing me to confront it, ponder it. And I would like nothing more than to assume that reviewer has "issues," because that would make me feel soooo much better, which is really shocking. Why would I WANT her to have issues?? That's a no-brainer -- so I can feel that she is wrong and I am right. But it's not always that easy, I'm afraid, as your very pointed blog so deftly pointed out.

The "dark side of the moon" ... uh, I'd rather have a sunny beach in the Bahamas ... :)

Ruth Logan Herne said...


You sage woman, you.

I know how criticism stings, bites and generally is unappreciated by us, especially at first.

In Mary's case, I think that ages-old "1" in the GH has burned permanent scarring into her normally tough hide.

This post came to me as I mused Myra's post and the responses, and our conversations this week in Seekerville, because we've all had a taste of criticism, rejection, rough reviews and/or judge's scorn.

And then I thought of the stone the builders rejected, and how important it is to use those stones we'd rather reject.

Studies show that only one in ten people will actually complain when dissatisfied with their shopping experience. Nine customers will just quietly choose another place to shop, book to read, or restaurant to frequent. That's huge. That statistic tells me it's important to read between the lines, to constantly pay attention to criticism (even when it scorches our behinds) because nine other people are thinking what one person had the guts to say.

And people talk to each other, if not to you, right?

Word of mouth is HUGE in this industry. Bigger than huge. People that love, love, love a book share it with strict instructions to give it back when done. If someone is disappointed in our efforts, they don't share the book, they share their negative feelings. Big ouch.

If our next work is better, stronger, more evocative, stronger-paced or more thought-provoking because one person had the guts to call us out, then we're better for it, right?

And should I add more sugar to the berries or are they just right?



Ruth Logan Herne said...

Tina, word guru extraordinaire, didn't you get the memo Myra and i sent out?



Hey, I brought more bacon and some chocolate raspberry coffee from the corner shop. Oh my stars, it's so good with a splash of Italian Creme creamer or French Vanilla.

How European!


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Deb, good morning!

Yup, I've got the wooden ruler hanging nearby just in case you get out of line, kid!

You know in all my years of Catholic schooling, I never saw anyone brandish a ruler to a kid, and we're talking the sixties.

But my older brothers and sisters talk about it, so it could be that decade made a difference in experience.

Glad you stopped in, kiddo, and shared your wisdom. Always welcome in Seekerville and on the Island.

Which reminds me, I do have lots more space since Myra and Glynna moved to the mainland, so there are fringe benefits to Island life.



Ruth Logan Herne said...

Edwina, good morning!!!

Your name was used by Deborah Smith in my all-time favorite book Sweet Hush.

The president's wife was Edwina. One tough, go-get-'em lady, one of the book's main characters and definitely a Hillary Clinton type gal.

And Edwina, those early critiques, contest reviews/results, etc. all help prepare us for the cold reality that not everyone is going to love, love, love our work and cherish it forever.

Ah, well. Good fodder to live and learn, huh?

Hey, Edwina is Cowgill an old English name? It sounds like it.


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Eileen, good morning Sweetums!

Yup, a bit of breathing space is a good thing in this business, and I find that's true regardless of age or stage of writing. And you are tough. Hang in there.

I also find it's good to ask questions, though, let others throw out ideas when we get nipped by a critique. See what they have to say. Brainstorm. Why wouldn't you want to avoid the same problem in the next manuscript/book/picture/song, whatever?


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Mel, I use the big words to annoy Mary. She carries her Webster's pocket dictionary with her whenever I post.



Ruth Logan Herne said...

Jules, we'd all prefer the sunny side of the Bahamas, wouldn't we????

With SPF 30, of course. And a frozen strawberry daquiri. :)

You know, your reader was part of my thought process this week, among a slew of others.

We've chatted about damning with faint praise, hurtful reviews, rudely worded critiques or reader letters, but the crux of it comes to this:

Do we push limits because it adds to the integrity of the plot or because we can?

That's a huge difference that can upset the balance of an otherwise evocative story, and that's a big responsibility for you because your publisher allows more leeway and sensuality. Using that leeway becomes a litmus test without the easy-read PH-sensitive paper. How much is too much?

Wendy Lawton made a good point when she advised us that writing within constraints can improve our writing skills. Balance is a delicate thing.

Which is why I set the bathroom scale to -5. That kind of balance is okay to jigger with.


Melanie Dickerson said...

Julie, you can't please everybody. What will minister to one person will make another person angry and outraged. Apparently. You can't make everybody happy, and God doesn't ask us to make everybody happy. Sometimes God calls us to shake things up, even make some people angry. Not that I'm saying that's what He's calling you to do, 'cause I don't know. Just sayin'.

Hugs and love to ya!

Audra Harders said...

Gotta love them cowboys! Great job, Ruthy!!

Aren't we funny creatures? We enter contests to get feedback, yet if that feedback isn't what we were expecting, hackles of indignation rise. I raise my hand in guilt admitting to poor thoughts over the compentence of the judge.

But the whole 24 hour pity party we Seekers are entitled to makes the pill easier to swallow -- dare I say even easier to examine our work and incorporate said comments and advice.

I wouldn't be writing today if trusted friends and writing partners weren't honest with me (yes, Ruthy herself has threatened to slap me silly if I didn't change my ways).

God has chosen us to be a part of His hometeam. Go writers, Go!

BTW -- loved the monkey, too : )

Cup of strong coffee to go, please! I'll be back for afternoon cheesecake, hint hint.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Mel, you're right, brat.

There's no pleasing everyone, for sure, but I love, love, love having a difficult customer in the bakery that I can schmooze into becoming a regular visitor/consumer because it makes me happy to smooth their way.

Which was one of my initial writing problems (among the myriads). I was always trying to fix things too soon. For a snark, I have people pleasing tendencies.

So I know we won't please everyone, but I think we always need to guard against being too defensive or sure of ourselves because those early truth nuggets can come back to haunt us.

See that ghost behind me? :)

He represents no small number of early, stupid mistakes.

Ruthy (who doesn't believe in ghosts, but loves angels and leprechauns and fairies. And dryads. And tree sprites)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Audra-kins, cheesecake is cooling. I'll refrigerate it and slice it later, with choice of toppings.

And I made fresh coffee and sweet tea.

Oklahomans and Mid-staters:

SO sorry about that chain of storms. Yowza, you guys got stomped.

Praying for all of you affected.

Audra, how's that cowboy stuff coming????

Time's a'wastin', darlin'.



Mary Connealy said...

Well, first of all I am



Having set that aside, I could also tell the story, that I've told too often here about the contest critique where the judge said, "Your story doesn't start until page 19."

I could NOT wrap my head around that at the time. Later, much later, I reread the story and she was absolutely right. FIVE of the first six pages were all backstory.

That book is, "The Husband Tree" releasing in February 2010. I promise you that book now starts right on page one.

All make a new comment....

Tina Pinson said...

Oh sure, Ruthy,

Remind us again how we're supposed to take all the negatives from criticism in and grow from them. Let them mold us and strengthen our resolve.

Not to mention turtlefy my back. I kind of wanted to keep my soft shelled skin.

I was getting all prepared for a pity party for my next rejection. I was going to wahhhh it up big time.

Now, I have to take spiritual inventory and ask God what he wants me to learn from it all.

Now, I can't send out the invites...

And I bought such nice hats, streamers, kazoos, kleenex and everything


Mary Connealy said...

Right now I'm going through The Husband Tree again -- I absolutely adore this story. I'm so pathetically in love with these characters. The book is do soon so once more through...and what do I find?

Passive voice.
Backstory dumps.

Not as MUCH as I used to do, but it's there. It's sooooooo there. I'm fixing all of that and I just know, if I went through it one MORE time, I'd find more.

So criticism...well...for some reason it's so much easier to see it in other people's work but not your own. That's why contest critiques are so great. Yes, sometimes they hurt. Sometimes they're wrong.

But so often they are right on target. And when they are wrong, we need to ask ourselves WHY did this judge get it wrong. What can I DO to make sure the next judge DOESN'T get it even when we're right and the judges are wrong it's STILL our responsibility.

Anyway, it's a never ending job to get better, learn more, tighten the writing, raise the stakes. There is no end to that.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. Yes, even criticism that at first sight just puts you down still holds a grain of truth that might grow into better writing if you water it.

PatriciaW said...

Is it that time of the month, when Ruthie slaps us around and gets everyone back in line? :-)

I love it. I try to be open to criticism, but it never hurts to be reminded of the need to be open, and then moreover, to take the criticism and do something wonderful with it.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Connealy, I know you've put that infamous '1' behind you honey.

After six rounds of therapeutic intervention, LOL!

And I love that you're still finding backstory dump, passive voice, etc. this time around. We're always striving to tighten, improve and engage the reader, right? When we stop?

We turn into one of those boring, predictable published authors that shall remain nameless evermore.


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Tina P, you crack me up.

My children assure you that's not hard since I'm close to certifiable anyway.

Yes, woman, put the party hats away. Criticism and rejection get you a 24 hour reprieve from cheerfulness, then the Seekers lower the boom en masse, kick your sorry booty and herd you back to the front lines.

It's like Band of Sisters without the arsenal of guns.

Although I love a good party. Let's celebrate that first contract instead, 'kay?


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Mare, I love what you said about 'why the judge got it wrong...'

That goes back to a discussion we've had in Seekerville about one or two well-placed sentences that cement the conflict or the inner conflict or the resolution or the stilted relationships...

So often what we have in our head as an author needs to be concisely revealed to the reader so they follow our train of thought. Sometimes we think ourselves into oblivion because it's obvious to us WHY someone does or chooses their actions, but not to the reader.

Although going to the extreme of Tina R's former critique partner who wanted to know "WHY" about everything is just plain annoying, making me want to say, "Well read two more sentences and figure it out, braniac."

But the new and improved me would simply smile and nod, then never critique with her again.


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Sheila, I love that turn of phrase!

Welcome aboard, and just so you know, there's cheesecake with strawberry, blueberry and/or pineapple topping available at the back table beneath the daffodil floral arrangement.


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Patricia, darling, yes. It's smackdown time. Shape up, bite your lip or your tongue, get back to work and quit the whining.


The best thing about my therapeutic smackdowns is that they're primarily self-aimed to keep me focused and targeted. I really don't give a rat's patootie what the rest of you people do.

Especially if you intend to beat me in an upcoming contest!!! Maybe if I'm snarky enough y'all will step out and let me take the glory prize. Win that spot on a savvy editor's desk!

Good to have you here, Sweetums. Did you get some tea? Cheesecake?


Gina Welborn said...

Interesting topic, Ruthy.

Last night I had a dream that I went to a reception/open house/party at RWA nationals in DC. When I entered the room, all ceased talking and looked at me. Eventually the chatter resumed. As I was talking two an editor and another lady, I noticed someone I knew looking at me and waved. She promptly frowned.

Ever read a regency where the hero/heroine was "cut" by another member of the ton?

Well, that's how I felt in my dream.

Non-verbal criticism.

Pretty soon, a vast majority of those in the room followed that woman's lead.

So I asked one of the gals I'd been talking to if they knew what was I had done. They didn't know. I walked to the center of the room, grabbed the microphone that had suddenly appeared because things tend to do that in dreams, and asked the crowd what I'd done.

*insert chirping crickets here*

Finally the queen bee (first author to snub me) left the room with a vast majority following like zombies.

Criticism is tolerable when you can see some basis for it. But when a contest judge or editor or agent responses with "writing not strong enough for what we publish," then who can blame the writers for wanting specifics.

Is it my hero/heroine?
Are my secondaries lifeless?
Does my opening meander?
Are the GMCs not layered in enough?

Tell me exactly what I did wrong or what it was that didn't engage you so that I know where I need to focus fixing.

And if you're gonna shun me, have the maturity to at least tell me why. ;-) Or get out of my dreams.

Ann said...

I hope I am not too late for breakfast.

Great coffee this morning!

I think I'm getting a little, teeny, tiny, eentsy-weentsy bit wiser about contest results ... 24 hours to complain, then figure out where the judge is probably justified in their comments.

My WF is "dismayst." Must be the King James version ;-)

Tina Pinson said...


Why can't we have the guns? That might make rejections kind of spiffy.

We can draw bullseyes on our stories and have target practice.


Okay, I'll think about a party when I get the ol' contract.

If things are true to form, it could take awhile.

You remember me don't you the woman who had a four hour flight to Tennesee for a conference and managed to eke out twenty four plus just for the over all fun of it.

No, no, I can't say that it will take forever. I've been psyching myself out that it will happen this year.

See I don't need my booty kicked, not at all.

Of course the Genesis contest results aren't back yet either.


Mary Connealy said...

Honestly, Ruthy it was the electric shock therapy you recommended that really helped me get past that


Stephanie Newton said...

I love this post, Ruthy! I have a process that goes like this...I get a critique back, get really mad, ramble on for hours about all the reasons my cp was wrong, and then about two hours (or two days depending how long I need to let it stew) later, I call her and say, "Okay, how do we fix it?"

Fortunately, she's used to the process and doesn't let it get to her, LOL.

Myra Johnson said...

So sorry I didn't swing by the blog yesterday, but I was, um, otherwise occupied. One of those yearly things we women of a certain age must endure. And then I had way too much to catch up with after I got home.

Great post, Ruthy, as always. Snarky enough to remind us to put on our big-girl panties but with plenty of the compassion and empathy we are famous for here in Seekerville.

And such an important reminder that there is usually at least a tiny grain of truth in every sampling of criticism. Hard to take, but we know it's true.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Stephanie, thanks for dropping by! I had to head to the job that pays the bills, so I missed your post on Thursday...

Steph, that's so me. The ranting and raving (I blame my fireball Irish heritage or some weird, as-yet-unnamed psychotic disorder)the stomping, the pout, and then the shift in the big girl panties and get back to work phase.

All of which simply means God blessed us with creative and chaotic minds which only add to our writing allure.

Or so I keep telling myself!


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Myra, I know we both love criticism about as much as that yearly exam.

But we're better off in the end, right?

That's what I tell the least uns when they have to head to the doctor's office for shots...

It hurts, but it's worth it. If only I took my own advice as casually as I hand it out, LOL!


Pam Hillman said...

Great blog, Ruthy. I've been swamped this week, but this post certainly hit home. Thanks for the smackdown!