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The Shy Writer’s Guide To Dealing With Constructive Criticism

September 26th, 2014 3 comments

Plenty of people have decried the softening of our society. How every kid gets a star and a trophy and a medal and a pony just for finishing the one mile fun run. But the truth is, there is still plenty of criticism in the world, and despite our backpacks full of trophies and ribbons and our massive armies of ponies, most of us run into criticism on a fairly regular basis.

Let me just throw this revolutionary observation out there – criticism sucks. Especially constructive criticism. Plain old criticism can usually be dismissed, but constructive criticism is your friends and family actually trying to help you by pointing out that you really shouldn’t be wearing those jeans, or keeping all your ponies indoors has made your home an inhospitable sty that everyone loathes to visit.

Constructive criticism, at least the kind that comes from those who really care, is especially cutting because it’s usually true and it comes from someone that actually matters to you.

I’m pretty sure that everyone has trouble with criticism, but for shy people it’s even worse. We tend to ever so slightly blow things out of proportion.

A boyfriend will say, “I’d appreciate it if you could clean your dirty dishes” and what you hear is, “Your failure to clean your own dishes bespeaks a fundamental flaw in your personality. You disgust me, and I disavow you as a human being. Please leave and find a family of gorillas to live with. You’ll be among your own people then.”

Unfortunately for those of us who are thin-skinned, we actually need constructive criticism in order to grow and improve. Think of it this way, if you get something caught in your teeth, wouldn’t you want a good friend to take you aside and mention it? Sure, it makes you a little embarrassed, but it’s so much better than coming home after a dinner party and seeing your entire salad in the mirror when you smile.

As a writer, I need feedback to improve my stories and novels. Flattery and compliments are awesome. Really, really awesome. But constructive feedback is even better. I need to know if a reader gets confused anywhere in the book. I want to know if they have a strong negative reaction where I wasn’t intending. It’s important for my critique partners and beta readers to let me know if they are interpreting a character’s actions, personality, or motivation in a way that I did not foresee.

It’s not fun to hear that one of my critique partners hated my character or thought a chapter was really bland, but I know my critique partner has my best interests at heart. If she finds issues in my writing, chances are future readers are going to stumble at the same places, and they won’t be so forgiving or supportive.

At some point, you need to accept constructive criticism, even invite it.

Now the caveats.

You’ll notice that I’ve been using the term “constructive criticism.” Constructive as in “meant to help” not “beat the living crap out of your self-esteem.” Bear in mind that not all constructive criticism is equal. People who outright criticize are usually bullies. Most bullies aren’t that smart, successful, or generally happy with their lives. Pay them no heed.

There are, however, some smart bullies. These are the ones you need to watch out for. They get their kicks by cloaking their attack in the form of constructive criticism. By claiming they have your best interests at heart, they then give themselves free reign to unleash criticism which may be cruel, unfair, and definitely unhelpful.

There are even those who are truly trying to help, but who are flat out wrong. Remember that everyone has a bias, and we all tend to skew toward the status quo of their upbringing, religious beliefs, and what feels “safe” to us. They may not like the way you dress because it’s not the way they would dress, or they may not like your romance book because they hate all things romance.

When seeking constructive criticism, choose your sources wisely. Let these people guide you and help you along your life’s journey. Try and ignore all the rest. If you ever have doubts about anyone, try to figure out their motivation. If they feed off of human tears, then they are probably not the best people to be taking advice from.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to let criticism get to us, especially us shy people.  Which is why we need to learn to deal with criticism. So, I’ve come up with a few better tactics, though crying is always on the table as a last result:

Vet Your Sources

I’ve made it a policy to only care about criticism and opinions that come from carefully vetted sources. These are people who have shown that they are not insane, not mean hearted and who usually take up to 3+ seconds to think before opening their mouths.

I have a carefully guarded inner circle. Membership is somewhat tough to get, but once you’re in, you’re in. This distinction makes it easier for me to turn off all the noise outside. It’s not always easy, but put up velvet ropes around your self-esteem. Create a guest list. Put some beefy, mean-looking body guards at the door and don’t let in any party crashers.

Play nice

I try to be respectful and nice to others. I find that if you aren’t a total jack ass all the time, most people will give you a fair shake. There are always exceptions, but, for the most part, you get out what you put in. Stand up to the bullies, but play nice with everyone else. You don’t have to point out people’s flaws unless they ask or unless you really think they’re hurting themselves.

You know that golden rule thing? It’s gold for a reason.

Know Your Flaws

A little introspection can go a looooong way towards protecting yourself from the outside world. Take a look at yourself and recognize those things you still need to work on or those things that you just plain suck at.

I am terrible at directions. Terrible. It’s practically a handicap. I know this about myself. I grudgingly accept it (not hard when I get lost almost every day). Once you accept a flaw, you disempower those who would wield it against you.

If you accept that you’re overweight or have acne or happen to get lost going to a place you’ve been at least ten times (I was coming from a different direction!), then when people point this out to you, you’re already prepared.

Get A Little Love

Nothing salves criticism like a little positive reinforcement. Make sure you have a supportive circle of family and friends around you and a supportive spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend. These need to be people who will accept you even if your feet smell on occasion, you get fired from your job, or lock your keys in your car. Just knowing that you are loved and accepted unconditionally will give you untold strength.

I’m not sure that it is possible to stress this enough. Besides your soul/you-ness and those innate passions and talents that give you bliss, your relationships are the most valuable asset you have in your life. They are more important than money, than success, than winning the “greatest person in the known universe” award.

Keep good people around you. Period. They protect you. They bandage your little internal hurts. Hugs heal self-esteem.

Cry

Yeah, go ahead and cry when you get an especially hard jab, but I highly recommend crying privately in the comfort of your own home. Crying in public makes everything worse, hurts your reputation as a person who is not a total sissy, and makes lots of people really uncomfortable. Excuse yourself politely and then weep soulfully into your pillow. It will help in the short term, but start building up your walls, coating your skin with some layers of sealant, and then consider where the criticism is coming from.

Also, never let the fear of criticism stop you from taking a risk. This is so much easier said than done, but it’s still good advice. If you let fear of criticism stop you from doing that amazing thing you’ve been dreaming of, you’ll regret it forever and ever.

Publishing my first novel was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. So was telling my friends and family about it. But I did it. Now I have three books and a handful of short stories out on the public market — poor, vulnerable little eggs that anyone with an Amazon account can smash to pieces. It’s scary as hell, but I’ve got my velvet ropes up, my body guards in place, and a big fluffy pillow to cry into if need be.

Bring it on.

Categories: Essay, Shyness, Taking Risks Tags:

The Dread Monster Comes Again – The Fear Of Starting Something New

July 5th, 2014 1 comment
Young girl, scared

This is kind of what I feel like every time I start writing a new book.

The laptop is open in front of me, the page white and fresh. It’s time to start the first draft of the fourth book in my Girl With Broken Wings series. I want to feel excited. I want to feel plump with possibility like a perfectly ripe grape that bursts between your teeth. I want my fingers to be humming with anticipation.

But what I feel is a deep, dark, shapeless dread.

The old worries whisper through my mind. I won’t be able to finish this book. My writing will come out stale and mildewed on the page. My characters will spout vapid dialogue and be as colorful, as deep as shadows.

It doesn’t matter that these worries are pointless. I’ve already completed three full books in the series as well as one novella. A second novella is on its second draft. I know I can finish this book. I know my talent won’t shrivel up and fade like some mystical, short-lived flower.

So why is it so hard to get started on this book and all the previous books? Why are my first, faltering words always overshadowed by a big, snarling Dread Monster?

The more I think about this, the more I realize that the Dread Monster has always been stalking at my heels. I remember my stomach flip flopping, my throat tight on the ride over to gymnastic meets when I was ten. Later, in high school, my whole body would be tight with fear as the last hour of the day ticked down before a tennis match. We had matches three or four times a week during tennis season and that I enthusiastically made the team all four years, and yet I could never quell the Dread Monster. I could never run fast enough to leave him behind or find a sword to pierce his hide.

Is it just nervousness about starting something new? I don’t think so.

Nervousness is that fluttery feeling on a first date when you don’t know what to do with your hands and words become slippery like butter.

This is dread. A dismal sense of emotional pain, of unstoppable worry and anxiety. It is a growling, slobbery monster that eats light, goodness, and positive mantras for breakfast.

Maybe you’ve felt this way too. Maybe not, and I’m just a freak who gets off on self-sabotage. I wonder if there are other people out there with monsters walking behind them. Maybe some of you have found ways of facing your Dread Monster, of starting new things without worries or an endless pit of doubt opening up beneath you. I have not, but I have found a weapon that works against my Dread Monster.

I ignore him.

I write.

When I look at the white page, while the worries spin so fast in my brain they make me dizzy, I put my fingers on the keys and make them move. The words come, slow at first but then faster and easier. I’ll hit hard parts, and my writing will be as graceful, as smooth as running through sand, but I will buff and polish these areas to a high shine in the editing process. The dread will shrink little by litter and the love of writing, which has always been inside of me, will begin to softly beat inside of me like a second heart.

One day I hope that I can approach a new book, a new project, a competition, or a big life choice with enthusiasm, eagerness, and confidence. But until then I’ll elbow past my Dread Monster and start writing, one word at a time.

Public Relations – The Worst Job A Shy Person Can Ever Have And Why I’m Glad I Did it

April 29th, 2012 1 comment

Okay, public relations probably isn’t the worst job an overly shy person can have – but it’s pretty damn close.

Public relations is all about trying to persuade strangers in the media to take interest in your client’s product and write about it. This usually involves hassling them by all means necessary – email, phone, in person – repeatedly until they give in or invest in a restraining order. Public relations also involves high concentrations of flirting and schmoozing, which are both effectively Kryptonite to shy people.

People + Social Setting = Shy Person Kryptonite

So what the hell was I doing in Los Angeles as a public relations coordinator?

That Cliff’s Notes are that I wanted to get to California, public relations fit my college degree, and I somehow convinced myself that doing something that I would likely be terrible at was a great way to overcome my shyness.

The company I worked for specialized in promoting video games. My vast video game resume included playing Mario Brothers and King Kong on my Nintendo when I was seven. Luckily, the company’s hiring policy was “take the first person who walks through the door and is breathing.” After demonstrating my impressive breathing skills, I was golden.

 

Over the next couple of months, it became more and more apparent that public relations was the exact opposite of everything that I was good at. For instance, I am great at not talking to people and not going to parties and not impressing crowds with my wit and candor.

The worst part was the phone.

Da dun...

It would always happen the same way. Our client would make some sort of announcement, maybe new screenshots or a game trailer. We’d send out an email to our vast list of media sources asking them to write about it. 99.9% of all these emails were ignored, and so we would turn to our next weapon of choice: phone.

Da Dun...Da Dun

I would print the list of contacts out, sometimes hundreds of names, and call them one by one, pitching them the story and using all of my non-existent charm, wiles. It took me all of one day to develop a deeply-seeded complex about the phone. I loathed it. I woke up in the morning and felt the weight of all the calls I’d have to make that day pressing crushing me.

Da Dun...Da Dun... DA DUN, DA DUN-DA DUN-DA-DUN!

In other words, it sucked royally. I should just add here that I hardly ever actually played the video games that I was pitching and did not, in fact, own a single gaming system – not even a Game Boy.

Each day of work became harder. I started taking the stairs instead of the elevator just to forestall the inevitable calling for a few extra precious seconds.

 

And then there were the events my company threw on behalf of our clients. We were not only expected to attend but also to come off as mildly interesting. My memories are a blur of crowded bars filled with fashionably dressed strangers. For the most part, people were very nice, but I had a lot of trouble with the “at least be mildly interesting” instructions I was given.

 

My coping mechanisms at these events included fiddling with a drink, wandering aimlessly from one side of the bar to the other and texting my sister to call me so I could step outside and regroup for a couple of minutes.

Sound like a nightmare? It was.

I was a terrible fit for the position and left after less than a year. Yet, for all that stress – all those dreaded climbs up the stairs to a list of names I needed to call – I’m glad for my public relations experience.

Why?

Simple – I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be a bright, blossoming social butterfly.

I'll never be a social butterfly

The more I struggle to force myself into the wrong mold, the more miserable I’ll be. When we concentrate on improving weaknesses, we may be able to reach a level of mediocrity if we’re lucky. If we concentrate on improving our strengths, we may just be able to become great.

When I started focusing on the things I was good at – mainly, writing – my confidence grew, and I noticed my shyness backing off. There’s no self-esteem booster like being good at something and knowing it.

Now, as a part of my copywriting and copyediting business, I’m on the phone almost every day. I also have to network and meet potential clients – sometimes complete strangers – to pitch them. In essence, I’m doing a lot of the same things that used to give me hives in my PR days, yet I don’t feel the same nearly-terminal level anxiety.

The reason’s pretty obvious. I’m not pitching video games I don’t care about, and I’m not thrown into a situation I have no control over. I’m pitching myself and my writing skills – two things I truly believe in. That makes all the difference.

The moral of this story is to do what you’re good at. Be proud of your skills and use that confidence to keep your shyness at bay. This may seem like a really simple lesson, but it took me nearly a year of hell to figure it out.