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Listen to Your Critics

free-lemonsWait, what? No I didn’t typo the title of this blog.  I really do plan to talk about reasons you should listen to your critics.  Sure there are countless blogs posts about all the reasons you should ignore your critics.  I have even written one (or two).  There are lots of great posts on how bad reviews and the critics of your work should be ignored.  You can’t please everyone and you can’t win them all.  But, after careful consideration, I am not sure that is really the best tip to provide authors, or any artist for that matter.

Working in the art industry, and we can’t forget that writing is an art, attracts all kinds of people.  You have the people who love just about everything.  You have the people who hate just about everything.  Then you have the people who really don’t know what they like or hate.  And finally you have the ones who know what they like and why they like it (and they usually know why they don’t like something too).  One might argue that you can also attract the jealous artist.  The one who wants to do what you do (and probably could) but they never bothered to really work at it.

In the past two years I have written a ton of book reviews.  I realized that reviewing a book on Amazon and Goodreads really helped authors.  Soon I was writing them for Plasma Frequency, and now I am writing them for my own blog.  And in all those reviews, I used to feel guilty when I wrote something critical about a book.  I felt like maybe I was being a jerk.  And I knew how critical reviews bothered me sometimes.  But I’ve realized that I am only sharing my opinion.  Other readers, and the author, can take it or leave it.  It is just my opinion, and I am but one reader.

But over the past few weeks, especially after all the inspiration I got from WorldCon, I have realized that perhaps I am thinking about reviews the wrong way.  That ignoring the bad ones, and basking in the good ones, was not necessarily the best method.

First, we should get this out of the way.  There is one review that you can always ignore.  That is the review that just bashes your book to bash it.  There is no logic to the reviews.  That would be the “This book sucks because I said it sucks but I won’t tell you why it sucks” kind of review.  Any blog reviewer worth your time won’t publish a review like that.  But on Amazon and Goodreads you will see those from time to time.  When I say you should ignore those reviews, I mean just that.  Don’t bother with it.  Don’t waste your time getting it removed or asking all your friends to vote the review as being not helpful.  I just mean ignore it.  It isn’t worth the time you put into it.

Recently I have seen an explosion in sales and reviews for Dissolution of Peace.  I was lucky to sell five copies each month in the past six months.  And I thought five was a great month.  I also seemed stuck at 12 reviews for a long time.  But now, I find myself looking at my 18th review on Amazon.  And 28 text reviews on Goodreads, which is great in my opinion.  I’ve also sold an average of 1.75 books per day (not counting my free promotion earlier this month).

So things are going well right?  Yes, and no.  There are some critical elements in these reviews.

I’m consistently seeing reviewers that love the story line of my book.  There has been a sprinkle or two suggesting better character development, and another sprinkle or two that love the characters.  There have been a few that hate the ending.  There have been a few that love the ending.  But one critical comment has been consistent.  They don’t like the grammar and spelling.  They seem to find errors that I didn’t catch.

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am very self conciseness when it comes to grammar.  So my first step in dealing with this was to follow the advise we see across the blogging world.  I simply ignored it.  In fact, anything critical, I ignored.  Anything that people loved I relished in, I noted it for the sequel.  I even bragged about it.

But that is a disservice.  Not just to the reviewer, who took time to review the book (which we know many readers do not do), but it is also a disservice to yourself.

Every artist can grow.  And listening to your readers is a great way to learn where you might want to focus your growth.  It also tells you what you can fix to increase your sales.  For example, I’ve hired a new editor to review and fix the mistakes in Dissolution of Peace that I simply can’t catch.  Once she fixes those, I’ll update the book with a new version.

But grammar isn’t the only critique I have got.  I am looking into how I develop my characters and the way I end my novels.  I am looking into what it is that people really enjoy about the way I write stories.  I’m listening to my readers, even the critics.  Because that is how I will grow as a writer.  That is how I will become better.  And once you think you can’t get any better, you’ve become to arrogant and your readers will eventually notice there is no progression in your work and you will fade out.

So while critics are everywhere, they are also extremely helpful to the arts.  You, as the artists, may not take all their tips.  I am not saying you have to.  But I am saying you should at least listen.  You will benefit from that. If the majority of readers have a consistent complaint, I would suggest correcting that aspect of your writing.  Either in your current book, or in future works in progress.  For those more 50-50 splits, the choice is yours as an artist.  It could be something to change, or it could be that your style is not their style.

But if you want reviewers, you have to listen to them.  You can’t bash them and ignore them.  You can’t accept only the good.  You have to listen to your critics.

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Critiques

One of the most important parts of the writing process is the critiques.  I am talking about the step where you get trial readers to look over your work in progress so that they might catch things you missed.  You get a lot of valuable information from good critiques, but bad critiques can be useless.

Let me clarify that.  When I say good critiques I don’t mean positive feedback or five star reviews, I mean a critique that provides the author with feedback that useful (though not always positive).  And a bad critique provides the author with little help in their quest to polish the work in progress into a final draft.

I have had my share of bad critiques.  Some have just had useless comments that give me no help.  While others were just downright mean and hurtful.  I realized there are a few guides out there on how to properly critique another author’s work so that they get the most value from your reading.  After that, I will talk about how to accept the critique with an open mind.

How to be a better sample reader:

I prefer the term “sample reader” over critic, simply because it provides a more accurate description of what the real job is.  Your job is to provide your fellow author with the perspective of a reader.  For some reason, we authors tend to keep our author hats on when we read a draft copy of a manuscript.  We want to point out ways we would have written it differently, sometimes pointing out matters of style rather than structure.  Or worse, we want to provide our own rewrites.  Instead we need to put on our reader caps and try (as hard as it can be) to look over the manuscript as a reader.  We need to look it over as a reader would and find things that make a reader stumble.  Of course, we have advice to offer as an author and you can add it is correctly (I’ll get to that) but think like a reader first.

Well, shall we get started?  You have a draft manuscript one of the writers in your group has shared with you.  So where do you start?  First, read the Turkey City Lexicon.  I have read it at least ten times, and I continue to look it over as feel the need.  Not only does it help you learn what to avoid in your writing, it also helps you look out for these things when reading to help other authors.  Remember this:  Just because it is listed in the Turkey City Lexicon, doesn’t mean is necessarily always wrong.  I have read some really great stories that had one or two of these “no-nos” in them, but overall it worked for the story.  The author was right to keep them in there.

Start with the opening lines.  We call this “the hook” in my writers group.  This is the first thirteen lines of a manuscript (that is formatted at 12 point courier font with one inch margins all around).   On a short story that is usually what is seen on the first page of the manuscript.  Therefore, it has to be strong enough to get the editor to turn the page.  The bottom line here is, when you read these thirteen lines, are you ready to read on.  Is turning the page a must for you?  Is the pacing strong, does it establish a setting and a voice?

For longer works you will want to break the next steps into sections.  For novels, I suggest going a chapter at a time.  For short stories, I tend to be able to do it all at once.  Perhaps with Novellas you may want to break it down by significant scenes.  It is easier to manage your comments in smaller chunks rather than trying to comment on a whole novel in the end.

I use the comment feature on Word to make comments line by line as needed.  I don’t comment on every sentence, that would be tedious and useless to the other writer.  I only highlight areas I think are exceptionally strong, I had trouble understanding, or otherwise catch my attention.

Here are some things to add in your line by line comments:

  • Areas where you tripped up on reading.  This might be a confusing sentence, a long piece of exposition that loses you, or an area that just doesn’t seem right.  It is okay to simply put “This line tripped me up and I had to reread it, but I don’t know why it tripped me up.”  This at least lets the Author know you had a problem with it.  Other readers may have seen it to and can better put it into words.  But you would be doing a disservice if you didn’t mark a line because you didn’t know why it bothered you.
  • Areas that don’t seem to belong.  Perhaps you read a sentence and it just doesn’t seem to be part of the story.  A random mention of a character’s memory that seems to have no bearing on the story (in your opinion).  Or it could be something that seems to belong in another part of the story.
  • Pacing issues.  All stories have a pace and that pace changes as the story goes through.  But if you are reading a fight scene and the author stops to tell you about the scenery, that should be marked.  Or if you are reading an action scene and suddenly a sentence or two seems to be too long and disrupts the pace.  The reverse can also happen, a slow dramatic scene that is suddenly interrupted with bursts of short sentences.  The fact is, you will notice when the pacing of a story suddenly changes, and it will jar you from the reading.
  • Thrown into the real world.  Anytime you are reading a good story or book you will get wrapped up into it.  It is all you’re thinking about as you read it.  Your mind is pulled into the story and you are in its world.  Anything you read that jars you into the real world should be marked.  Did your mind wander at a particular section?  Did you suddenly become aware that you were reading?  Again, it is okay to tell an author that you don’t know why you were brought back to reality.
  • Inconsistencies.  The main character has blonde hair all story long, and suddenly there is a reference to his dark hair.  Or, the story seems to take place in one area and you read something that doesn’t fit the scene.  Anything you read that doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of the story should be pointed out.
  • Unrealistic.  This is a tough one in the Science Fiction world.  We like to write things that are just a tad bit unrealistic.  But, there are things that simply make you shout “OH COME ON!”   There are certainly unrealistic elements in the worlds we create.  So remember to look for things that are unrealistic it the world the story is told.
  • Don’t forget the good.  Did one particular line stand out as a real strong one?  Do you really identify with a character’s situation?  Was there a scene you found especially moving?  Mark those and let the author know.  Anything you think is really good; let them know you appreciate those points too.

You may have noticed I made no mention of punctuation in the list above.  All too often people confuse critiquing with proofreading.  The point of a good critique is to offer the author a perspective of a reader.  So, unless an author specifically asks for punctuation, I only point out the punctuation that confuses me as a reader.  Proofreading is best left for later.

After the line by line comments are put in, I always write an overall critique of the story as a whole (or of the chapter for novels).  This is my overall thoughts of the characters, the scene, and the tale.  This is where I put any thoughts that don’t fit in the line by line critiques.  Again, put the positive in there too.

Be polite and be nice.  All too often I have got critiques that were simply uncalled for.  Things like “this is terrible” and “you don’t know what you are doing.” will not help anyone get better.  It fact, it is just downright hateful.   That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be honest, but if you are not going to be constructive, leave it off.  There is no room for hate, or just being mean in the writing world.  Be constructive and be fair.  The overall goal of any critique is to make the writer’s work better.  Keep that is mind.

Accepting Critiques

So many authors cannot seem to accept critiques.  Perhaps it is our natural defense against being hurt, or perhaps it is the feeling that we know our own work best.  So here are some tips on accepting critiques from your fellow writers:

  • This is not an attack.  The goal of the critiques is to make your work the best it can be.  Not to attack you or your writing.
  • You want readers, right?  Remember you want people to enjoy your stories.  You didn’t write them just for you?  If you did you wouldn’t be looking into publishing them.  So remember these are readers too, open your mind to their ideas.  After all, if they are having trouble with something, chances are other readers will too.
  • Be receptive.  I have heard this a lot from writers.  “They want to change my style.”  or “That is just my style of writing.”  And most of the time I have heard that, they were not talking about style at all.  Style is the way you right, the type of narrative you use, ect.  The goal of any critique is not to change your writing style, but to strengthen it.  If your “style” is confusing it needs to be refined.  Most of the time “style” is used as a way of closing off to other people’s thoughts.  Be receptive to their ideas.  Chances are if people are pointing it out it needs changing (see below).
  • Don’t respond to a person’s critiques.  There is a need for us to defend ourselves.  When someone points out a flaw in our writing we want to tell them how wrong they are.  The problem is they are a reader expressing their opinion.  It can’t be wrong because it is what they thought.  And, chances are they are right… you just aren’t ready to see it.  And if you don’t want to change it, don’t.  But you don’t need to argue with them.
  • You are the Author.  This means you get final say in what you change and what you keep.  Just keep this in mind.  If the majority of your readers had trouble with something, it is likely something that needs a second look.  If even just one person has an issue with something, it needs a second look.  In fact, I can only think of two times I did not change something sample readers had an issue with.  Otherwise, I have addressed every concern as best I could.
  • Move on.  I haven’t ever gotten more sample readers on a piece after the first round.  It is my preference.  I move on to proofreading.  You may want to make the changes and have a second set of readers look at it.  If you do that, move on to a new set of readers.  Don’t use the same readers for the same work more than once.  The effectiveness is gone.

More tips for Authors:

If you want to get the most from your sample readers, ask them questions you want answered too.  Don’t just let them do all the work.  Do you wonder if a character is likeable?  Do you wonder if someone understands a particular concept?  When you send out your manuscript to the sample readers, give them a list of questions.

Some of you may know, I really took interest in the craft of writing after reading Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (among others).  It that book he talks about teaching your sample readers (I paraphrase but you get the point).  After reading that, I used some questions of his and added some of mine to create a list of questions I wanted answered by my readers.  Feel free to use some of these if you wish:

Questions about the story (or chapter).  Please answer these after your first reading of the draft.  Please put your first thoughts on these questions.

  1. Were you ever bored?  Did you ever find your mind wandering?  If so, can you tell me where it was you lost interest?
  2. Without looking back at the story, name some Characters from this story.  What do you think of them?  Did you like them, hate them, and why?  Did you confuse any characters or forget any?
  3. Is there anything a character did that seemed out of place for that character, against his/her nature?
  4. Did any dialogue seem excessive or not realistic for the situation or character?
  5. Is there any section you didn’t understand?  An area you had to reread? Did anything confuse you?
  6. Was there any time something happened you didn’t believe?  What was it?  Any time you thought “oh come on!”?  If so what was it?
  7. What do you think will happen next?  Is there anything you are still wondering about?
  8. What name might you give this story (or chapter)?
  9. Are there any other comments that can help?

In summary:

If you want to be a great writer, you will need sample readers to look over your works before you get them sent out to the editors.  But, you will also need to be a good sample reader.  I have learned more from the critiques I have given then the ones I have received.  That is why it is important the writer knows how to accept the critiques of his peers while also knowing how to effectively writing critiques of his own.

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