The Difference of Giving Joy and Avoiding Reproach

Now I know that a good portion of people believe that writers shouldn’t want for anything. Of course they wouldn’t put it that way, but if the writer’s forums and my friends’ arguments are any indication, trying to write a good book is not what an author is supposed to be doing. According to some (angry) sources, a real writer doesn’t want to get published, be liked, have respect, or anything else that most people would want. He is supposed to maintain the purity of the art form by being different than the commonly motivated masses.

I’ll begin now by saying, “Bull crap.” With my belief that overcoming subjectivity requires goals, the thought that writing shouldn’t be logically tackled and that people either are or aren’t good authors (end-of-story) doesn’t work.

So yes the difference of making people like a book and making them unable to criticize the book doesn’t matter to some. For those who have sought out improvement however, it can mean the difference between sobbing on the couch and a good laugh.

I like to read one-star reviews on Goodreads. Many people snort when I say that. But I like them. I like them for the passion, their ability to go on and on about the subject, the full-blown analysis that is rarely available in a positive review, and getting a summary of a book in an opinionated way.

That being said, there’s a problem.

The readers there are our readers. While we can say that the masses on Goodreads aren’t necessarily well read (and aren’t necessarily poorly read) and that people on the internet tend to be stupid, it doesn’t change the fact that these are true opinions that people believe they believe. Yes, they are not necessarily indicative of the “real” quality of the book (whatever that means), and the issue of their contradictions and nitpickiness is an example of that, but it still begs the question if authors should be listening.

One person will say the book is “atrocious” due to its “purple prose.” The next will bitch that its simplified language dumbed it down far too much to be interesting. Of course the positive and negative reviews are going to disagree about the likability of the protagonist, but it’s when the rants can’t keep it straight that I get suspicious of their motivation.

The problem? Our minds work in hindsight. We judge something and then find evidence to support that judgment. Sure, we might change our minds, but once it has taken a negative slant, it’s going to snowball pretty quickly.

This means that the “haters” decided they hated it for whatever reason, and now are searching for things up to compensate for the unknown cause. This is problematic for any author because it means, rather than them pointing out ways for writers to improve, they’re just pointing out what they noticed—which is anything that deviates from the generic. And while that deviation might be distracting and jarring it also may be what makes it creative and interesting.

This is irrelevant to Goodreads, because the point is to review for other readers. It’s not the critics’ jobs to tell the author how to improve. But this is the same issue that comes up in any sort of feedback session. Peer critiques and even professional editing sessions can go this way. They decide they don’t like it (partially due to the author’s current reputation) and then try to find reasons behind it. Sometimes accurately and sometimes not.

I find myself victim to the “Why do you care?” form of confusion. This is when someone complains about a “choice” I made in which I can’t begin to understand why it bothers them so much. Most recently I have been privy to people’s annoyance  in not using the character’s name in the first sentence, saying things like, “The girl laid bleeding in the grass,” instead of “Lilt laid bleeding in the grass.”

This is my definition of a pet peeve. It has come up in several different contexts, often not even directed towards me. A reviewer will complain she couldn’t possibly figure out that Jimmy is the “hottest boy in school” Susie is dating from “When Jimmy gets caught cheating on her…” and I’m sitting there, completely unrelated to the project, thinking, “I didn’t even question it until you freaked out.”

It just bothers people. But really, it seems to only bother people looking for it. When I ask Huge Readers what they think, they say, “What are you talking about?”

It’s fairly common to get nitpicky criticism over any big criticism, whether it be one-on-one sessions or big reviews. No one wants to talk about the problem—that’s the rude part. So instead of saying, “It was boring,” we’ll say something like, “Maybe add another character,” and the writer will be like, “What?”

Yet the little details do attribute to the larger judgment. A semicolon here, a big word there, all of the sudden the reader decides he’s being talked down to. Because it is so common for him to not recognize what he’s feeling or why he felt that way, he’ll take a random stab, and a reader can be off not only by what made him think a certain way, but what his thought was at all. He might think that he didn’t like a character, but what he really didn’t like was how other people reacted to her. He might believe it is due to her anger issues, but it’s really because she never had any ramifications for being such a bitch. He might think that it is her reactions to things in her world, but it is really that he doesn’t like the setting at all.

A criticism might be a terrible solution to a problem, or it might be a great solution to the wrong problem. Worse, it might be completely dead on. The author has no way of knowing. It could be addressing a real and important problem, or just confirming what they wanted to believe in the first place.

So the author will get a piece of advice, and then has decide if he wants to take the advice or not.

If the problem if obvious, then the decision is easy: “I can’t picture this.” This is pretty straightforward that most authors will agree they don’t want that. While they can argue if it’s just that reader or most readers is a different issue, but it’s not the question of, “Do I care?” which is something I deal with a lot.

Instead of saying, “I can’t picture this,” they say things like, “You usually furrow your brows, not your mouth.”

Now it could be that they can’t picture it, or it might be that they just noticed it for its unusualness. They might be distracted by the image, picturing a brow over someone’s mouth, or think that the author is trying to be clever and are put off by it. If, however, it’s just them looking for something to say, or worse, looking for some obvious evidence to prove their judgment, then it might not be something the author should change or should want to. After all, he took out everything unusual, the story would become generic.

People tell me to follow my gut. So, I say, “Gut? What do you think?” And it goes, “This is so beneath my radar, I can’t even begin to have an opinion on it.”

Then my advisors think that the solution is easy. “If you don’t care, then why don’t you just change it?”

Because effort is still effort, and changing something, no matter how small, is still work, and it adds up. Because if I don’t understand the problem, I won’t be solving it. Because if I fix everything that people noticed, it would suck all the color from it. Because just accepting nitpicky advice would mean watering it down to the common denominator, remove any uniqueness and creativity from it, and can very often come off as mechanical. Because if I try to avoid reproach, taking something out that people complained just because they complained, they will find something else to whine about; anyone can criticize anything.

It was after years of dealing with unsatisfactory criticism sessions, years of eternalizing seemingly inane but possibly useful advice, and an eternity of trying to not do what others are criticized for before I came to terms with the most relieving epiphany: It’s about people liking the book, not being unable to criticize it.

I had long made the connection between nitpicking and setting a book down—which is still true. When thinking about what you want to read next, you’re unlikely to commit to something with a typo in the beginning. When trying to find the next best thing, it’s probably not going to be one of the thousands of books that starts with the character waking up. When I want to prove to myself I am a great writer, better than all the other hacks out there, I can be reassured by their use of an adverb. Nitpickiness, and irrational nitpickiness, is alive and strong, and will screw over even the best of authors. But nothing can be done about that.

The goal is to get people to enjoy the story. When receiving a criticism we disagree with, or worse, don’t know if we agree with, looking at it for the big picture will help give us an answer. It’s about influencing the judgment, not the argument. In my life, I would constantly link the two, but they are independent of each other. But by recognizing the judgment (which, I will admit is not all that easy), then we can determine if the argument would benefit us.

So when someone says don’t use a semicolon or an adverb, by considering what their perception of the work is, we can determine whether or not the argument is valid. If there is a possibility that story feels condescending to them, I might consider it. If, however, there doesn’t seem to be an underlying theme to their criticism (they don’t like adverbs and semicolons and passive-sentences and the use of the word said), I can in all likeliness, ignore them. This is even easier said than it looks. We have our own idea of what our book looks like, and it is usually pretty accurate. We’re often in denial about it, sure, but the idea is still there. So, by taking what we think their judgment of us and the book is and what our judgment of what the book is in its current form, we can then see if the advice fixes that.

What does using an adverb do? Create a distracting pattern in sentence structure, indicate an insecure tone in the writing, remove atmosphere for the sake of clarity. Do I think my work has any of these problems? Leaning towards no? Then no. Leaning towards yes? Then change it. Leaning towards sometimes? Then ask a friend for their opinion on it. Ignore what they say and focus on what you wanted them to say. (Yes, I really believe that.) Wait until you come across a section that you don’t like and tackle this problem first.

With so many unspoken assumptions, alterative motives and agendas, dumb people and hidden geniuses, powerful details mixed in with inane ones, and a thin line between being creative and trying to be creative, understanding feedback is a hard road. For any author who is trying to balance out being different with being successful, figuring out how to deal with advice is a necessary step. As soon as he starts to recognize that he will be criticized no matter what, he can understand what he wants to be criticized for better.

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