Five Stages of Grief (Critique Edition)


Most authors do it:  share our draft work with people, hoping to learn what we can do better.  Sometimes, we participate in critique groups.  Sometimes, we have “first readers.”  Or “beta readers.”  Or “critique partners.” Whatever we call it the process is the same:  Writer plunges in a knife, exposing her heart and all other vital bodily organs.  Critic(s) deliver(s) body blow after body blow after body blow, tearing apart the work in question.

Oh.  Maybe that’s just the way I see things.

When I first started writing seriously, I joined up with an online writers workshop, exchanging my work with fellow participants and collecting criticism through email.  That was the perfect medium for me — I could go through all five stages of grief in the privacy of my own home.

What?  You don’t apply the five stages of grief to critiques?  The five stages were originally defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist.  They are:

Denial:  You’re wrong about my novel.  I’ve written a brilliant 100,000 words.  They’re funny, insightful, sensitive, lyrical, pretty much a NYT bestseller, Pulitzer-Prize winner, and Hugo-and-Nebula-Award lock. 

Anger:  You, o critic, are short-sighted, biased, and humorless.  You wouldn’t recognize quality literature if it jumped onto your to-be-read pile.  I don’t even like what you write, and I can’t imagine why I ever wasted my time waiting for your critique of my work.

Depression:  I’m the worst author who ever set fingerpads to keyboard.  I might as well end my misery now — I’m never writing another word.  I think I’ll delete the entire novel from my computer.  With a book that stinks this bad, I might have to reformat the hard drive as well.  My hopes and dreams of writing are dashed forever.

Bargaining:  Well, I’ll make a couple of changes, to answer my critic’s complaints.  Maybe that character *was* a little inconsistent in his actions.  Maybe that middle *did* sag.  If I give up my favorite movie quotations, spouting from that character’s mouth, can I keep the Monty Python allusions throughout? 

Acceptance:  Okay.  The critique wasn’t one hundred percent on point (nothing ever is), but my novel isn’t perfect.  I need to rework the plot (or the characters, or the worldbuilding), I can make this a better book.  I *will* make this a better book, starting with edits today.

Sound familiar?  Does anyone else have these one-sided conversations as they read through critique notes?

For what it’s worth, I think that there are a few other emotions that Kubler-Ross doesn’t address directly with her five stages.  I’d add:

Fear (between Anger and Depression):  What if I really *can’t* write this book?  I’ve reached too far.  I’m attempting too much.  I’ll never have the talent of Author X, Y, or Z, and I’m terrified of exposing my incompetence to the world at large.
Envy (dripping over the entire collection of stages):  Why do Authors X, Y, and Z get their work published, when my clearly superior material is languishing?  Who do they know?  What secret handshake got them in the door?  How can I be expected to succeed when I don’t have the money to travel to conventions, or the personality traits that make it easy to meet people, or the [fill in the blank] thing that “everyone” else has?
There.  That’s my really unappetizing emotional landscape, when I live through receiving a critique.  In the end, I get to Acceptance.  Ultimately, I end up with a better book.  But man, oh, man, it can be rough getting to that point.
How about you?  How do you react to criticism?  (In my next post, I’m going to write about ways of *delivering* critiques, with hopes of making them less brutal for the recipients.)

17 comments to Five Stages of Grief (Critique Edition)

  • deborahblake

    HELL, yes. And you forgot the “chocolate and drinking” phase.

    Critiques used to decimate me. Now, mostly, I give myself a day to rant in my head, move through those five stages as quickly as possible, and then try to fix the damned thing.

    There was this fabulous editor once who showed me how to give critiques in the most constructive way I’d ever seen: first start with the “I loved this” bits, to soften the blow and ease the depression and fear stages a little. Then list the major issues, along with some concrete suggestions for possible fixes. Now what was that woman’s name…?

  • sagablessed

    Um, Mindy, how did you get inside my head so easily? Are you a telepathic stalker? Cuz, SHEESH! Hammer…nail…dead center.
    Seriously, does every writer go through this? And if so, how do distillers keep up with the demand? 😛

    Deborah: mix the two. Chocolate liquor. Kill two birds and all that. 😀

  • This. Oh my God, this. Yeah, I’ve been through every one of these, and man is it not pretty. GREAT post, Mindy.

  • With a book that stinks this bad, I might have to reformat the hard drive as well.

    For once, I was glad I’d already finished my coffee, ’cause this would have caused a serious kitten incident all over my keyboard.

    I once belonged to a wonderful critique group. We were together several years, and only ended because people moved away/got married/changed job schedules. I didn’t realize at the time how wonderful it was, because it was the only one I’d ever known. We were tough but caring, and the group ended up creating several published novelists. Last summer, I was invited to join another group, and after three meetings, I ran for the hills. I’m capable of taking criticism, but the suggestions I was getting were all things my editor had told me NOT to do. Point being, when you’re faced with criticism, sometimes the grief voices aren’t entirely wrong. You must get to know yourself so you can tell when it’s just you driving yourself batty. 🙂

  • I shed a few tears, Mindy, reading this. ‘Cause yeah. All this. For the last two books, when I get an editorial letter from my editor (like a critique, but more brutal), I read the broadm stroks part and take a day off to grieve. A whole day. Then I get to work. For me, the day of grief helps me deal with it

    Thanks for this.

  • Shesh. On hubby’s PC in RV. Spell check not working. Sorry.

  • Perfect explanation/adaptation! Sometimes I work my way through this whole process even before getting the critique. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to do anything to minimize the impact of the actual critique, just means I go through it twice.

  • I do all of this, but I think I’m getting faster at processing it. Sort of. The catch is that as much as I’m getting better at accepting feedback and the inevitable quash of the “What? But I crap gold!” feelings my ego insists on sharing with me, I sometimes need to read the feedback and take a break, like Faith, before getting to work. We all need time to process. I have definitely gotten better about not thinking negative feedback = death knell.

    One fun thing I’ve noticed: when doing revisions following my critique partner’s intense feedback, as I explained to her, I sometimes go through it with epithets, not directed at her, but at the feedback, usually in the “Dammit, she’s right” sense. Sometimes in the, “She’s making me work and I don’t wanna think about this!” sense. Yes, I’ll also stand my ground and have, “Oh hell no” moments, too, but mostly I think that a lot of this has to do with the balance (battle?) between the beauty I feel in creating and the realities I must face in order to properly share that beauty with the world.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    And the process is much the same for critiques of scientific papers, too. 😀 Although the anger can *really* linger with that. A lot, if not most, paper reviews are anonymous, which is good in that for some, if you *knew* who had said that you would be tempted to accost them at the next meeting and shake them into little bitty pieces, and bad in that the critique can be really caustic sometimes since the recipient *doesn’t* know who wrote it and can’t put a name to their complaints when talking with friends and colleagues. *Most* annoying is when your final response to a review is “this person is a total asshole, but they *are* right about A and B, and if they hadn’t pointed out C that would have been *really* embarrassing to end up in print.”

  • Hah! No one can be anywhere near as critical of my work as I am myself! Bring it on, badgers!

  • Ken

    Yes. This. All the way from start to finish. Although, wow, you’re much more polite in your anger stage 🙂

  • Deb – ::grin:: “That woman” will be giving examples in her next post 🙂 And I’m not that big on the drinking, but the *chocolate*?!? Yes, please, may I have another?

    sagablessed – I *do* think that most writers go through this. Sure, they use their own words for cursing, etc., but we all feel invested in our drafts, and we’re all wounded when we’re not perfect. One of the differences between professional writers and hobbyists is that the pro gets past the pain and returns to work.

    DavidBCoe – I’m living the life this week, let me tell you…

    Misty – So glad I’m not responsible for keyboard disasters! 🙂 When you find a great critique group, fight like hell to keep it.

    Faith Hunter – Aw, shucks. I didn’t wanna make you cry. (Oddly, the editorial letters don’t bother me as much — they’re *business*. The critiques from partners who are friends? Those sting more. Or maybe I just haven’t had a trad-publishing editorial letter in a while ::wry grin::)

    SiSi – I *try* not to go through it twice. Michael J. Fox was once asked if he worries about the progression of his Parkinson’s. He said, “No, because then I need to live it twice.” Sounded like an attitude to strive for, to me.

    Laura – I *do* get faster at processing it. But every once in a while, I can still really be knocked for a loop.

    Hepseba – The closest I’ve come to scientific papers is writing briefs in a law firm. Those critiques aren’t anonymous, but they carry a lot of ego. (And yes, it *is* annoying when you have a defense all strongly built against a critiquer, only to have to admit that they’re right on something 🙂 )

    Wolf – I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I have supreme confidence before I share my work with critiquers ::wry grin:: I can be as brutal to myself as the outsiders are, but I don’t take myself by surprise 🙂

    Ken – Naw. I was just writing for a family blog 🙂

  • Razziecat

    I haven’t posted on my online group for a while, but yeah, those points are all spot-on. I would add Disbelief/Indignation: “Are you kidding me??” 😉

    And maybe a sort of General Irritation: “You totally missed what I was trying to do there!”

    And, Wolf, your “Bring in on, badgers!” really made me laugh. Gotta remember that one!

  • Razziecat

    Duh, meant to say Bring IT on…long day *sigh*

  • quillet

    This! Too funny. And I’m another one for the chocolate phase. I was going to say it’s stage 6, but…it’s more of a stage 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 kind of thing.

    *wanders off in search of chocolate*

  • Razziecat – I think your Disbelief is part of my “Denial” — just the loud, public, guffawing part as I start to build my fort.

    Quillet – Chocolate isn’t a phase. It’s a way of life 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Pretty sure it was a character of Robert Holdstock’s who said, “Chocolate is a sacrament.” 🙂