No one likes criticism. No one wants to hear that the paper or story or script that they spent days, weeks, months, even years slaving over is no good. Or even that only parts of it are not good. “Sorry, you missed the mark, try again.”
Rejection hurts. Criticism hurts. It’s like watching someone sucker-punch your infant child while having your fingers amputated because you aren’t worthy to be a writer and then having salt and alcohol slathered over those gaping, bleeding wounds.
Okay, I don’t think I’ve felt quite that extreme a reaction to criticism, but it is a lot like amputation and birth contractions, coming in waves with occasional sharp pangs that make you want to crawl into a hole and hide your face from the world forever.
But like the pain of a birth or an amputation, criticism is necessary in order for us to grow.
Please note that when I say “criticism,” I mean CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Pardon my vulgarity, but opinions are like assholes: everybody has one. Anyone can walk up to you or post an anonymous review of your work saying, “u suck and should never EVER writ again, loser lol!” (People can also say the same thing in a more literate way, but someone who takes the time to insult you in a literate fashion is far more interesting and informative. At the very least, you’ll pick up a few interesting ways for your characters to throw insults at their rivals.) The point is that anyone can give an opinion or throw criticism around. The ones who articulate their opinions in a specific, literate manner are the ones you should pay attention to. The same principle applies to praise. Anyone can say, “Hey, that was good” or “You’re a great writer, can’t wait to see more! :-)” While this might stroke your ego, it doesn’t help your writing one bit. What was good, specifically? What did you like or not like about this part or this character? Did it flow, what was confusing, what wasn’t confusing, etc. Specifics in praise and criticism are a writer’s best friend because they tell you what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong.
STEP 1: ACKNOWLEDGE THE POINT OF WRITING AND PUBLISHING
Yes. There is a wrong way to write. I’m sure more than a few people reading this will be shocked and mortified by this statement. “But writing is art! You can’t go wrong in art! It’s all based on your preferences and individualistic style! How can personal expression be wrong, you elitist prick?!” So I’ll say it again: there is a wrong way to write.
If your story cannot be understood or appreciated by the majority of your target audience, then you are doing something wrong.
The point of writing is to communicate. The point of publishing is to share a story, a thought, an idea. I’m publishing right now with this weekly blog. The second you put any sentence, any word out where someone other than you can see it, then you are published as surely as if your manuscript was accepted by a major publishing company. Blogs, fan fiction, online journals, newspapers, forums, self- and mainstream-publishing, they all serve the same purpose: to get the thoughts and images in your mind out of your head and into someone else’s. It drives me nuts when I see in the author comments of fanfics, “This is just for me, so no flaming or critics plz!” Seriously, if you meant that statement, you wouldn’t have posted in on the net for other people to read. If a story really is just for you, then you wouldn’t post it. It would sit on your computer or in a notebook tucked away in a quiet drawer. Nothing from my diary ever makes it to the net. Why? Because it’s for me. My raw writer notes and scribbled scenes for The Mariner Sequence never make it onto the net. Why? Because, in that form, they are just for me. No one else needs to see them but me. (General rule of thumb: if you don’t want to world to see it, don’t put it on the net.) But if a story is published in any of the other myriad formats available to us today, the ultimate goal of that story is to be shared with as many people as possible, and that means receiving and acknowledging all kinds of feedback. This is especially true if one is trying to make a living as a writer, which has been a difficult task, no matter what age we live in.
STEP 2: IDENITFY YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE
So, how do you share a story? By making it accessible. How do you make it accessible? Well, first think about who are you writing the story for. If you answer, “People like me,” I will slap you and tell you to be more specific. Who are you like? What are your interests? What books do you like and what books are similar to your book? (And if you say, “My book is totally unique; there are no others like it” I will be very skeptical and be tempted to slap you. A truly unique story is very rare. Most are just very clever, inventive rehashes of what has gone before. That’s a fact, so the sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be.)
To give an example, with Mariner Sequence, my target audience is people, mostly females, in their late teens to late twenties who have read a lot of traditional high (swords and sorcery) fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien, Elizabeth Haydon, Mercedes Lackey, and C.S. Friedman. They don’t need to have read those authors specifically, but if they like the same kinds of stories those authors write, then chances are good that they’ll like Mariner Sequence because that’s the style of story I’m trying to tell. The more familiar with magical terms they are, the better off they’ll be. I’m also aiming at fantasy-reading women who like anime and manga. I think they would appreciate the melodrama and high emotions in Mariner Sequence and I’m sure other anime techniques and tropes have slipped in without my noticing. These hypothetical women also need at least a high school education, or, lacking that, they need to be fairly literate. I’m not saying that they need to be translating Greek at breakfast and read War and Peace for fun, but they need to be educated enough and intelligent enough to be able to understand the words I use and appreciate the sentence structure. They need to be able to read and love to read.
If you look at those criteria, you see that they pretty much make up “People like me,” but it’s far more specific. Instead of saying, “People like me,” I’m looking for “People, preferably women ages 16-30 who are fantasy bookworms with at least a high school education. Familiarity with anime and magic is helpful, but not required.” I’m a 23-year-old female fantasy bookworm and anime-geek who graduated college. See how much more descriptive your “Wanted ad”-style audience is than a generic “People like me”? I know it’s counter-intuitive, but being more specific with your audience actually broadens your horizons rather than shrinking them. After all, those authors that I named have (or had in Tolkien’s case) enough of a following among people with the same criteria I do that they CAN make a living off of writing and are still cranking out books to this day! Their style was successful, the stories they told were successful, they reached out to hundreds and hundreds of people and inspired me to become a writer so I could write like them and reach out to hundreds of people too. See how the cycle grows and continues and feeds itself? The cycle of inspiration. People outside your specified parameters might like your story too (it is possible that a 50-year-old male science-fiction buff who dislikes weabos could enjoy Mariner Sequence) but it’s less likely and you don’t want to wager your story or literary career on such a small percentile.
STEP 3: GET SPECIFIC FEEDBACK FROM YOUR BETA READERS
The only way you are going to know if you have made your story accessible to your target audience is by having some people read it, preferably people whose opinions you value and trust. If they are part of your target audience, that is great, but you want to start with trust and honesty first. You can always branch out later to letting acquaintances and strangers read the drafts for a further diversified opinion, but in the beginning, look to people you trust and tell them you want their honest opinion of your work.
And not just a generic, “That was good,” or “I didn’t like it,” but detailed, specific feedback. You want to make sure readers like who you want them to like, hate who you want them to hate, can understand and follow the action, don’t get bored, don’t find events unbelievable, and that they don’t get yanked out of the story. It’s best to have a list of what you want your beta readers to pay attention to or address in their critique. A lot of people are unsure what writers want to know and are afraid of being too intrusive or of hurting your feelings, especially if they are friends of yours. So give them a list of what to look for so they know you are genuinely interested in their honest opinion.
Now, as I said before, everyone has different tastes and opinions so you need to allow for that when you listen to the feedback. Just because someone tells you to change part of your story doesn’t mean you have to. This is, after all, your story and you can do what you want with it. But if eight or nine of the ten people you had read your story are saying, “This part confused me,” or “I can’t keep the characters straight,” then you should probably go back and fix it. It’s far too easy to get too close to your own work and overlook glaring problems that others can point out with ease since they aren’t as attached to it. Remember the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”? This is extremely applicable to writers. Accepting constructive criticism from others helps show us the places we are strong and the places we are weak. Areas of strength should be applauded and areas of weakness attended to so the story as a whole becomes more powerful and compelling. Sometimes that will mean rearranging scenes just when we thought everything was sorted out, or cutting scenes, even characters, we labored so long and hard over. We are loath to give them up, but we must for the sake of the story. And, as writers, don’t we all want our stories to be the best they can be?
STEP 4: LEARN TO MAKE COMPROMISES
Generalized specifics (wow, what an oxymoron) that help you find your target audience do have a downside: you need to make compromises with your writing. After all, like a politician, if you alienate your base, then they won’t vote for you again (or, in this case, they won’t read anything by you again and will strongly urge others to avoid you as well). This is especially true in the fantasy and sci-fi genres where a good portion of the sales are author-driven. Once I read a novel by Mercedes Lackey, I started reading everything of hers that I could. I always tell people that if her name is on the cover, then it’s good. Period. She turned me into a loyal fan and I will remain a loyal fan trying to get other people to become loyal fans for the rest of my life. By the same token, after reading the first Thomas Covenant book by Stephen R. Donaldson, I took to my heels and avoided everything by him since. I also tell everyone who asks to avoid at least the Thomas Covenant novels at all costs. (I don’t know if he’s written anything besides that series, but even if he has, I would probably think twice before picking it up.) Fantasy fans are very loyal, but we can be very hateful too. (Ask me about my love-hate relationship with George Lucas sometime.) The word of mouth is a powerful thing.
So, once you’ve found your target audience and hopefully beta readers from within that audience, you need to make sure your story does two things: A) the plot is not confusing (people can follow you from event A to event B without getting lost) and B) your presentation is not confusing (the story doesn’t get buried beneath poor or overly flowery prose. This includes spelling, grammar, syntax, word choice, sentence structure, etc.) You need to have a good, solid story and you need to tell in a way that is clear and makes sense. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to dumb down your story or your language to the level of “See the cat run. Cat likes to run,” but it shouldn’t send your readers running to the dictionary every other word because that breaks the flow of the story.
STEP 5: REMEMBER: THE STORY COMES FIRST…THEN YOUR READERS…AND THEN YOUR EGO
Writing is crafting an illusion. You are taking symbols on a piece of paper and trying to get them to create images so real inside the reader’s head that the reader forgets that they are reading a book. They forget that the characters they’re reading about are just constructs of your twisted little mind. They forget that the land, the dangers, the magic isn’t real. They best illusions make you think the illusion is reality. And that means the plot, characters, and the language itself all need to work together to convince people that they aren’t reading a book anymore but are actually witnessing a sliver of these people’s lives. THAT is what a GOOD book does. No breaking the fourth wall allowed.
And let’s face it; you’re asking strangers to take several hours or even days out of their busy schedule to sit down and read something that you wrote. You’re even asking them to give you money in order to read it! Would you just go up to random people on the street shove a book in their face and say, “Hey! Read this! Oh but before you do, you have to give me $20, just for the privilege!” How rude and egotistical can you get? So, if you want to convince perfect strangers to fork over $20 bills, you had better have something worth their time and money. Because if you squander than, if you trample on their good faith, they will never, ever trust you again. The next time they see you walking towards them with a book, they’ll go running in the other direction, or punch you out, or even call the cops. So be very polite and courteous to your readers because you are asking a lot of them.
This is why getting constructive criticism is so important. It gives you new insights into your story and provides you with opportunities to improve it. Just remember that the final call is always yours. You do not have to incorporate every suggestion someone makes into your story. At the same time, refusing all negative criticism smacks of an egotistical amateur, and your story will be the one to suffer for it. Put your pride aside, ask for help, and always use your common sense and good judgment. Look at constructive criticism as a gift and a tool to help you forge your rough haft of steel into a razor-edged sword blade. It takes blood, sweat, and tears, but the final product will be well worth it.