Monday, December 21, 2009

The Author's Skin

It's got to be thick.  I'm thinking rhinoceros-like.  Maybe even armor-plated.  Constructive criticism can sting the ego, but it's a gift.  It gives you another perspective and forces you to make tough decisions that hopefully make your work better.

Unfortunately, some authors seem to be allergic to criticism of any kind.  They go into literary anaphylactic shock at the first hint of it.  I've got bad news, kids.  If you think my feedback is rough, wait 'til you come up against agents and editors that won't even read as much as I did.

Here are some of my ideas of appropriate and inappropriate responses.  Take note - considering feedback does not necessarily mean making changes.

Feedback: "This part is confusing."
Appropriate Reaction:  Assuming this person is within my target audience and thus has the requisite background knowledge, I'd better check that part.  Is something obvious to me because it's in my head, but it's not coming across clearly on the page?
Inappropriate Reaction:  This person obviously has no idea what they're talking about.  It's all there in black and white.  How can they miss it?

Feedback: "This formatting choice is distracting."
Appropriate Reaction:  Uh-oh.  Last thing I want is for my readers to be distracted by something like format.  Why did I choose to use italics/bold/double-quotes/single-quotes here?  Can my purpose be served by something less obtrusive?  It's only one person's opinion, so I'll keep this as a note to myself.  If others comment on it, I might want to rethink it.
Inappropriate ReactionThis is what makes me distinctive.  I don't want to look like every other book.  If they think my use of reverse-indentation is hard to read, then they're just missing out on my genius.

Feedback: "I had a hard time getting into this."
Appropriate Reaction:  Yikes.  Is this person part of my target audience?  If so, I need to figure out why I'm not drawing them in.  If not, I should still consider my hooks and pacing, because it'd be nice to have broader appeal.
Inappropriate Reaction:  How dare they attack the product of my blood, sweat, and tears?!  Everyone else who's ever read this (i.e., all my friends and family) say it's the greatest thing since [insert name of favorite author here].  This person is clearly just mean-spirited and jealous of my massive talent, because otherwise, they wouldn't be able to drag themselves away from my pièce de résistance.

For the record, I'm only mildly exaggerating.

Good luck in the publishing industry, kids.  See you around.

[ETA: Eight months after I posted this, Pete Morin blogged about rhinoceros hide.  Check it out.]



Kerstin said...

I completely agree...and this applies, I think, to a lot of different professions. Not just 'artist' professions (writing, singing, acting, photography, painting, etc...), but other every day professions as well. If some guy designed a building that he wanted to build and insisted on ignoring the advice (or 'constructive criticism') of - say - a structural engineer that has found possible flaws in the design, chances are that guy's going to have a building that's going to fall down around his head.

postcardsfromk said...

I don't know if the author needs to be thick skinned, they just need to be professional enough to realise it's not personal.

Not all critics are correct. But every opinion is worth weighing, then using or discarding as the author sees fit. The best response will always be 'thank you'.


L Anne Carrington said...

Excellent post. How can one go from writing a mediocre book to a GREAT one without some critiquing? I believe that if you haven't held a reader's attention by the first ten chapters, then the purpose of writing a book is defeated.

Exmoorjane said...

Oh GOD yes!!!! Every single negative comment I had on my book made me think. First reaction was always 'ouch' and moderately defensive. But then came worry....
The best comment I think I ever had said 'I didn't get past your pitch; didn't think it was for me'. THAT made me rethink my pitch.
Next best was 'your first chapter was too confusing. I didn't know what was happening."
Heck did I go back and edit.
I think if one can get that kind of honest feedback (from the POV of a reader) it is utterly invaluable. That, IMHO, is the Holy Grail of writing...and we, as writers, should be SO grateful for it.

R.C. Lewis said...

Jane, absolutely agree. One of my students read my book and did a critique of it for her English class. Priceless. She also gave me general feedback, and one comment was that she thought a character was being a bit harsh when he said something to the MC.

I was confused, then realized the line could be read two ways. So despite what the Dialogue Tag Police say, I needed a qualifier there to make it clear.

Of course, anytime my students don't understand something, I assume it's my fault. ;-)