The critic under your roof
Many of us here are married, or live with a long term partner. How do you deal with criticism on your art from your spouse or partner? Is it helpful? Did you and your other half have to work out ways to communicate what they mean better? (On art, specifically. We all have to work out communication on everything else, as well.)
Some artists use their spouse as their sounding board, to bounce ideas off and help them grow into full stories. Others use their spouse as their first reader, and some even as their first editor – in which case the spouse often puts extensive work into the formal language and technique of the craft, to help pinpoint what might want work and how to fix it. Others view their spouse as a great example of the public, and the very lack of training makes them much better at giving a target market response which the artist then has to figure out how to interpret, and what if anything to change.
And some artists have spouses whose tastes in art, entertainment, and literature are so different that their feedback is rarely helpful past a copyedit… because they don’t enjoy the subgenre / style, and aren’t the target market at all.
The last, by the way? Not as unusual as you think; it includes Peter and myself. Which shouldn’t be surprising when you look at our bookshelves. His includes British comedies from the 1920’s and British noir from the 1930’s, Louis L’amour, David Weber, David Drake, James Blish, H Rider Haggard, and tech-heavy thrillers and military histories…. mine includes CJ Cherryh, Lois Bujold, Patricia Briggs, Wen Spencer, wildcrafting books by biome, gardening, Jacques-Yves Cousteau on scuba diving and Sparky Imeson on mountain flying. He loves paintings with wide-open vistas dwarfing a guy on horseback, and I like WWII pinup art. He likes the Goon Show, and I like Deadpool.
Even so, as we’ve read each other’s books, we’ve found a few ground rules to help.
First, understand that feedback from your spouse is never going to come clean, clear, untangled with everything else going on in the relationship at the time, and it’s hard to take objectively. Understand it, and center on the fact that you love the person, they love you, and they’re not attacking you. They’re commenting on the art. The art is not you. The art is not your relationship. It’s only the art.
(This is hard. See also: why we get friends and professionals to teach us things instead of our spouses.)
Second: most artists actually appreciate the feedback, and wish they’d get more. (Even if a certain emotional cooling off period after getting it is needed).
Third: most of the clash comes from the manner of the feedback. (Communication issues – what did you mean? What did you say? What did they hear? What did they understand?)
Spouses with training in writing are much better to articulate the feedback, but spouses who enjoy the subgenre and aren’t trained are much closed to target market response. Either way, the writer and spouse are going to end up with miscommunications and raw feelings from lack of understanding – so writer, please work on feedback to your spouse on how the feedback helped, what you need in terms of feedback, and how best to communicate that to you.
Spend a lot of time focusing on the positive here! The aim being to build each other up, not tear each other down. Sometimes a partner is communicating poorly just because they don’t know what you need! Usually, that’s when you get “That was good” or a copyedit in return.
Also, keep in mind that just as what you need will change over time, from story to story, and over your career as a writer, you’ll want that to explain to your partner so the communication and critique will change, too. (Nobody here is a mind-reader.)
….but what do you do when you feel your spouse is wrong?
Well, first off, take a deep breath, let it out, and repeat until the initial emotional reaction is past. Know they they love you and have your best interest in mind. Then, considering that they’re talking about the art and not about you, is this a reaction other readers are likely to have? If so, what’s the root cause of it? (Remember: beta readers including spouses are often good at identifying a symptom, but often terrible at identifying the real cause.) If you still think they’re wrong or missing the point, (especially when your spouse doesn’t get the reader cookies for this subgenre), stay true to your story.
In the end, you have to write what makes you happy, and feels true to you – otherwise, this isn’t going to be fun anymore, and it’s not going to feel like your book with your voice.
(Last, but importantly, sometimes partners aren’t always operating with the artist’s best interests in mind. Sometimes their feedback comes out of jealousy, or fear, or anger at something unrelated motivating them to hurt. And sometimes their tastes are so incompatible they’re trying to help, but all their suggestions boil down to “make it something I’d like to read.” In the first case, it’s time to ignore their feedback on the piece, and spend some time with them working on the relationship itself… or ending it. In the second, it’s time to love them for who and what they are, but not to burden yourself or them with requests for feedback.)