[Abstract: This is a really long post about the value of criticism. The point I'm getting at is that a) new authors should be open to it, and b) let's focus on writing really great books and less on what the Internet says. (This second point is somewhat obscure in the short treatise below, but it's good life advice—go write the book you want to write, not the book you think you should be writing. I think that's where real genius lies.)]
One of my favorite books of all time is William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I read it as a naive 17-year-old the first time and was captivated by it—the narrative voices of the characters especially. Then maybe five or six years later, I found the Norton Critical Edition for a couple of bucks at a used bookstore, so during a particularly boring temp job, I sat at my desk and read it again. (This was an example of the worst kind of nepotism; my dad got me a job at his company, but no one would train me or give me Internet access since I was only temping until they could hire someone more permanently, so I spent all day sitting at my desk reading books and occasionally answering the phone. For this I was paid $12/hour.) If you’ve never owned a Norton Critical Edition, they’re the fatter versions of classic novels, roughly half original text and half essays and historical documents giving the novel context. (I own a lot of these, thanks to my English degree.) There’s a letter in the back of The Sound and the Fury written by Faulkner in which he explains that he thinks the book is an inferior work, maybe his worst novel. This still astonishes me, because I think the opposite is true, and I’ve read enough Faulkner to judge.
I’ve been at this writing thing long enough to know that it’s hard to get perspective.
I took two creative writing classes in college. In the first, everyone was super nice, apparently afraid to every say anything too critical. In the second, there was a tremendous amount of talent, but each workshop became an exercise in how to tear each other down, and I often walked away feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. When I founded my own writers group many years later, my thought was that the most effective strategy would be something in the middle: definitely critical, because one can’t improve without criticism, but not mean.
I co-founded the group before I was published, before I was writing gay romance even, so probably 2006-ish. That it is still going is tremendous, although I attend less frequently than I once did. It’s been interesting to watch over the years. We’ve had success stories. We have members who don’t write much but attend regularly. We’ve had members who have quit the group after the first time their work was critiqued because they couldn’t handle it. We’ve had periods when the tone of the group did steer too much toward mean. (To be clear, by “mean,” I’m talking, “you’re stupid” not “this doesn’t work for me.”)
In addition to the writers group, I’ve got a small team of beta readers who rip my writing apart before I submit it to publication. I’m generally of the mind that a story should be as close to perfect as I can get it when I send it to the publisher. (My agent, in fact, encouraged me to keep using those beta readers to vet stuff before I send it to her.) The beta readers I use regularly are people I’ve known for years and trust and value their opinions, and they’re also people who are willing to say, “Ooh, girl, no” when I’ve done something that doesn’t work.
Here’s the thing with getting criticism: I think you do need to put some distance between yourself and your writing. A novel I’ve written is a product, and though a lot of my blood, sweat, and tears went into it, it’s not me and it’s not my baby. And probably once a year, one of my regular critique partners gives me a “kill your darlings” speech along the lines of, “I get that you love this part of the book, but no.” That’s hard to hear sometimes. It’s hard to hear that a character you love is unlikable, that a plot point you put a lot of thought into is implausible, that your writing falls flat in one section of the book or is too purple in another. But you’ll never improve if you don’t hear that, and you can’t fix a book’s flaws if no one points them out to you.
So criticism is absolutely crucial to the writing process. Actually, in the elementary school writing manual I edited at work a couple of years ago, there’s a whole section on peer review and how to do it effectively. (Again, not “you’re stupid” but “I don’t understand why this character acted this way.”) So that’s a fundamental.
(I think also sorting through criticism and deciding what’s valid and what you’re not willing to change is an art form that is incredibly hard to master. It’s good to listen to criticism and change what needs changing, but you can’t make every change or it’s not your book anymore.)
I will confess: yes, I do read reviews sometimes. I never comment, but I do read them. (Not all, and not when my self-esteem is fragile, but if I run into one, I’ll usually at least skim it.) Reviewers have said things that are so contrary to what I thought I was doing in a book that it highlights both that I have no perspective—perhaps what is on the page does not reflect my intentions—and that reading is highly subjective.
Sometimes I let it go, sometimes the criticism sticks with me. Readers seem less enamored with my more neurotic characters, for instance. (Examples: Seth in Kindling Fire with Snow, Jake in Four Corners, Dan in Show and Tell.) I always thought Adam in Four Corners was a harder character to like, but reviews have complained about Jake. One of my regular betas thought Show and Tell was among my best books, and I agreed, but reviews were more luke warm. Actually, one of my favorite negative reviews was of Save the Date; the reviewer found the whole premise unbelievable. I read it and then yelled, “IT HAPPENED TO ME!” at my computer. Sometimes you have to get that out of your system.
Here’s the thing with reviews, though. I’ve heard some authors say that they learn from them. I don’t know if I agree that’s the right approach. For one thing, reviewers are not betas and shouldn’t be treated that way. For another, once the book is out there, it can’t be changed. Critical reviews often respond to book-specific issues—plot holes or character inconsistencies or other things that don’t work—so it’s hard to apply that to other projects. The other thing with reviews is that there are some readers who will just never connect with your writing, and that’s fine, but that also means their reviews are not going to be helpful. (One of my other favorite negative reviews dinged Out in the Field for being a romance novel.)
(It helps to have a sense of humor about these things. Rather than freak that there would be a 2-star review on Amazon calling out the book for being a romance novel instead of whatever the reviewer thought he was buying, I found it funny, plus I figure having a range of ratings proves the reviews were written by real people and not sock puppets.)
And I’ll be honest, once a book is done, it’s usually not in my head anymore. (At GRL last year, someone came up to me and said she loved “the book with the rugby players” and I said “I wrote a book about rugby players?” because it took me way longer than it should have to remember that Tristan and his love interest in Save the Date had played rugby together in college.) It’s kind of like, once I’m done, I just shove it out to make space in my brain for other books. It’s why, until The Silence of the Stars, writing sequels was so impossible for me. So reliving the parts of the book that are less successful through a reviewer is not that useful an exercise to me. I mostly just want to gauge general reader reaction out of curiosity.
Anyway. What prompted me to say all this was a blog post I read about how many new authors are flooding the market, and it occurs to me that some things that are old hat to me because I’ve been writing since forever and have worked in publishing for almost twelve years are maybe not obvious to people just getting started. I work as an editor, as well, so I believe strongly that all authors should be open to changing their books to improve them. (When my first book went through edits, it was BRUTAL. I may have cried, a little. But the book was vastly improved by that process and I learned a lot. I’d like to hope most writers have that experience.)
The romance market is weird and it’s hard to figure out what’s driving it. If books start to feel same-y if you read too many in a row, is that because that’s what sells or is that what people are writing? If readers have general complaints about the genre, is that because they’ve fallen into a particular niche or are there just limitations on what’s out there?
I’ll admit, often when there’s a general complaint about the genre, I’m a little baffled. I get reader fatigue sometimes, but I’ve also become super selective about what I’ll buy, only trying new authors if a lot of reviewers whose opinions I generally agree with recommend the book.
I also struggle with myself, too, because on the one hand, I like straightforward contemporary romance and there are some bits in The Silence of the Stars that are sappy, but I wouldn’t change them because I like the book that way. But I also want to do something experimental, something no one has tried before. I’m never going to be the one writing the super dark books—that’s not my style, it’s not what I’m into—but I’ve got a novel out with my betas right now in which I played around with narrative structure and put in a couple of plot points that I think will be unpopular. My hope is that my writing will overcome that; this is the story as I wanted to tell it. The historical I’m currently shopping around is probably my darkest book yet—and it’s not that dark, really; there’s some violence, but it’s mild—plus it’s a historical, and that’s really different for me. I can’t keep writing the same book, and sometimes I think, “Fuck it, I’ll just write the book I want to write” and that’s actually usually when I come up with my best stuff.
I think there’s merit in trying something new. There’s merit in learning new things. I still buy craft books and attend workshops. I’m teaching such a workshop tomorrow, actually. (It’s on how to develop setting.) I read critically and pick books apart, analyzing what works for me and what doesn’t. I read reviews of other books both to get recommendations and because I’m interested to know what reviewers respond to. I want every one of my books to be better than the last, and I think I’ve become a much better writer in the four years I’ve been published. There will ALWAYS be room for improvement, no matter how gifted you are or how many books you’ve sold.
Anyway. I’m mostly writing all this because I’ve read a lot of books recently that read a little paint-by-numbers to me. One of my favorite things in romance is when someone takes an old trope and totally twists it. I love books that take old ideas or standard plots and do something different and interesting with them. That’s sort of the beauty of the genre—you know how the book is going to end (at least as far as the main couple getting together) but the journey is what makes the story interesting. So take that journey and do something different with it. Taking Chances is my mantra for this year.