Category: News

Mind Over Criticism

Criticism is to writers what rubbing alcohol is to a flesh wound: sometimes necessary but painful. I don’t just mean random, directionless criticism, comments such as, “This makes no sense” or “This is boring,” which may also be painful and oh-so-unhelpful. Best to tie a heavy stone to that type and toss it down a bottomless well. I’m referring to constructive criticism that may guide the author to improvement and ultimately a higher quality read. Criticism of any kind is hard to swallow after months or years spent cultivating characters and plots. A lot of blood, sweat and tears pour into that first manuscript. We may feel offended at being critiqued. The same feelings arise when facing criticism’s close and equally unappealing sister, rejection.

Authors may be rejected by editors, publishers, reviewers, bookstores, libraries and other gatekeepers. And then there’s the public, equally available to reject or criticize. We authors are not alone. Entrepreneurs and business people face rejection and criticism by partners, investors, customers. And the list goes on and on. So what’s the best way to handle these irritating, nearly identical twins, Criticism and Rejection? I use a little story:

An ambitious student went to a Greek philosopher and asked to be his disciple. “I want to learn and to acquire all the wisdom I can,” said the young man.
“Good,” said the philosopher. “But first you must go live in the city for three years. Any time any one offends you, either through word or action, you must pay them. Take some coins and say, ‘Thank you. Kindly accept this money from me.'”

For three years, the young student faithfully fulfilled his teacher’s orders. The philosopher was pleased and told the youngster, “Now you may go to Athens, and the great masters will teach you wisdom.”

So the young man went to Athens and found, sitting at the entry gates, an old man who scolded and offended everyone going in and out of the city. When the elder man laid eyes on the young seeker, he hurled insults nonstop. The student burst out laughing. This enraged the old man who yelled, “Why do you laugh in the face of such abuse?” “Because,” the young man said. “For three years I had to pay people who offended me. Now you’re abusing me and I don’t have to pay you for it.” “Young man,” said the gatekeeper. “Come in. You are ripe to receive wisdom.”

Every time I feel even mildly offended by a remark or action directed at me or my book or my anything, any time I’m rattled, in my mind, I set a price and ask myself if I really want to pay the offender for the insult. And the answer is always no. In the beginning, I kept a written running tally of how much I’d have to pay based on just how offended I felt. Sometimes it ran on the high side. This practice was amusing enough to keep me from dwelling on the offense. I learned I’d rather keep my “coins” to spend on something worthwhile and enjoyable. It takes a little practice, but turning one’s focus to things that really matter and that promote progress is far more gratifying than pondering perceived offenses, don’t you think?

Rustling Up Characters

I’m often asked where I find my characters. Are they based on people I know? Nope. But they are based on people I don’t know. For instance, in a subplot, heroine Corrie Locke is hired by basketball superstar, Ty Calvin, to find his missing lucky charm. I’ve never known any professional sports stars. But I did have a brief encounter, a brush with one. It was enough for me to want to base a character on him.

A few years ago, I waited on the first tee of a local golf course with my junior golfer child. Superstar Alonzo Mourning approached us from behind and asked if he could play through. In golf speak, that’s, “Mind if I go first? I’m in a little bit of a rush.” He asked so politely, so kindly, that he left me with a lasting impression. Of someone who treated others well, of an animal lover, a gentle role model, one who was bent on doing the right thing. I have no idea what Mr. Mourning is really like. But I had a strong notion of what my basketball player creation would be like. Kind, thoughtful, generous, and yes, an animal lover who would go to great lengths for his animal and human friends. Would I have created the character without that brief encounter? Probably not.

In another brief meet-up, I had a brush with an actor that inspired me to create Corrie’s best friend and possible love interest, Michael. This actor was one I already admired. Meeting him in person only solidified that admiration.

I was in Westwood Village, home to my alma mater UCLA and Stan’s donuts (my favorite donut shop and Corrie’s as well). I spotted Zachary Levi going into a coffee store. I hopped out of the car and struck up a conversation with Mr. Levi. I can’t remember the content, but let’s just say he was marvelous, and again, the impression was unforgettable. Of an intelligent, personable, and energetic individual with a ready smile. And yes, he too was kindly. He made a point of introducing his companions and, well, for those of you who’ve read my book, you know what Michael is like. Many readers have listed him as their favorite character. Every time I wrote the Michael parts, I thought of Zachary Levi.

Not all of my characters are based on brief encounters. But they are based on impressions. From real life and photos…in magazines. My favorite photos appear in the French publication, Point de Vue, because they feature European royalty, well dressed and expressive. I can almost hear them speaking. The perfect ingredients to conjuring up characters.

Inserting Slices of Real Life in Fiction

Writers do this. I know I do. We slip in little bits of real, everyday life into our works of fiction. Just a sliver really. Here’s one example: there’s a scene where heroine/amateur sleuth/newly minted entertainment attorney, Corrie Locke, is touring a bigger, better office space with a movie studio boss…and possible murder suspect. Corrie accompanies the handsome, sometimes oddly mysterious executive vice president to inspect the new building. They are alone in the uninhabited office, which makes her feel a wee bit nervous. Especially because her gun is in her car. Here’s the scene snippet as it occurs in the book:

He leaned down toward my head, practically burying his nose in my hair.
“Do you mind?” I squirmed.
“You smell good.”
“So does hot chocolate, but you don’t nosedive into that, do you?”
“I might, I love hot chocolate.”

I crafted this scene after a brief encounter I had in my local grocery store while I waited in line to make my purchase. My back was to those waiting behind me. I was closing in on the cashier when I heard loud, shallow breaths in even tempo, close to my ear. Then I felt a slight jab, a vague push. I turned my head around. Behind me stood a man, so close that if I leaned forward just a bit, we’d bump noses. His chin was practically buried in my hair.

I think it’s fair to state that most of us do not like people, outside of those personally invited, to enter a diameter of say, two feet, within our physical presence. Even one foot is acceptable when standing in line. I move forward when I get crowded from behind. Quite often, so does the person behind me, even if there’s no need to do so. Most grocery stores have ample space. I’ve learned to carry a large handbag and place it between me and any personal zone violators. This helps maintain a respectable distance.

This tiny encounter impacted me enough for me to recall it years later and insert it into my novel. Mostly because I chuckled about it…afterward. It’s easy to laugh off slightly annoying brief encounters, and insert them into a work of fiction to share with others, who can laugh along with you.