Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Problem with Reviews

By Sariah S. Wilson

Which voice do you listen to?

I don’t mean the voices you hear in your head (and if you’re a writer, we all know you hear voices, but hopefully they’re not the boil-the-bunny kind). I mean the voices who critique your work.

My first readers are my mom and my sister. My sister usually just praises me. I know she’d tell me if she didn’t like something (and she was quite upset about some deaths in my second book), but mostly she’s my, “I loved this, send me the next chapter soon” person.

My mother, on the other hand, tries to find whatever she can that’s wrong with a chapter. She’s told me that she feels like I *want* her to find problem areas because I won’t “believe” her if she says she loves it. I don’t know how this got in her head, but it is now stuck there. When she really doesn’t like something it’s helpful - I’ve fleshed out/better explained certain scenes.

My other readers are a critique group that I have for my non-LDS romances, and they are wonderfully helpful, but I haven’t sent anything to them in a long time. Mostly because…criticisms are hard. Even when they’re helpful or dead on, they’re difficult to take. No one wants to hear that their writing isn’t perfect. They want the reader to swoon over the sheer greatness of it all. We want buildings erected in our name. Parades down Main Street. Barbra Streisand to give another “this is my absolutely, totally, last, final and I mean it this time” concert for us and our magnificent writing.

But alas, there is no ticker tape. No majorettes. No being subjected to Barbra’s “good side.”

Because whoever said you can’t please all of the people all of the time was right (shocking, I know). Sometimes really excellent authors can't even please a few people.

Not pleasing people is no fun. The only outside reviews I’ve received at this point have been from the anonymous reviewers at my publisher. There is one particular reviewer that I love (who I think reviewed my first book as well) and they seem to get me and my writing and have completely helpful suggestions and point out things that I’d missed. The other two, while still giving me very nice overall ratings, felt like red-hot pokers going through my chest.

But then I had to take a step back (much easier said than done) and remind myself what I said above - I can’t please everybody. One person thought my villain was weak and whiny. The other reviewer thought he was cutthroat and dangerous. One adored my heroine and admired her loyalty and intelligence, the other thought her annoying and a distraction to what they thought the focus of my story should have been on.

So again I ask - what voice do you listen to? Which opinion do you take?

The answer: your own.

You’re the writer. You get to decide what the story will be. Some people may not like it, and that’s okay. You write the best story you can. Listen to the opinions that are offered to you. Give more weight to the advice from professionals (like your editor) who want your book to succeed (while keeping in mind that sometimes, like poor Rob, you may have to cut your best joke because it doesn’t go with the rest of the story). But ultimately, remember, that it is your story and it is your opinion that matters most.

As for me, I’m ready for my parade and concert, thank you. I’ll take all the over inflated praise and adulation I can get.


At 10/07/2006 9:55 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Sariah, in defense of critics. A good critic tells you what you did right and helps you see where you can improve. Though various family members' criticism is sometimes helpful and necessary to our tender egos, relatives are often more fans than critics. Critique groups are helpful until you're published, then their helpfulness usually diminishes as your editor becomes the voice to listen to. You're right that ultimately, the writer must trust his/her own talent and instincts, but don't close your ears completely to either your critics or your fans.

At 10/08/2006 11:38 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

A good critic can tell you what works and what doesn't work. But not always why. I like to get as much quality feedback as possible before publishing. If several people point to one area as weak, I can review that area and figure out what didn't work.

If you look at the feedback as, "They didn't like my baby," it can be hard to take. But if you look at it like, "Oh good, I can fix that before it goes to the publisher/public." It can be a relief and a challenge.

When you have people read your book, give them a read pen and have them write a line in the margin where things don't seem to work. Then carefully reread those sections yourself and if you agree that your work isn't quite strong enough there, find a fix. If not, move on.

A couple of things to be aware of:

Just because one person doesn't like something, doesn't make it bad. My agent was very clear not to have me try and fix something an editor didn't like. Turns out she was right. Everyone liked and disliked different things. On the other hand, if you good feedback from sevral people on the same issue--focus on it and fix it.

The other thing is that the right critique group can make your work even better before it gets to the editor--giving the editor more time to focus on finer polishing. I'm fortunate to have a great critique group including Heather Moore and Annette Lyon. When we started I had only published one book and they hadn't published yet, but even though we are published we still meet every week.

At 10/08/2006 1:40 PM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

While I logically know that criticism can be valid and helpful, I have to get past my own pain over reading critiques before I can realize their value.

But...what one person loves another person may hate (which I talked about in my post). Someone can think your characterization is strong, another might think your characters are cookie cutter. It's hard to wade through such varying opinions to try and figure out what works best overall for the highest amount of people.

I agree with Jeff that if multiple people are telling you something's not working, then it's probably not working and you should take a second look at it. I think I was mostly trying to say that we shouldn't take every opinion and incorporate it into our story to try and please everyone. I won't close my ears to critics or fans (and never to my editor - he's very, very good at what he does), but I can't take every single opinion into account when I craft a story.

I personally do get caught up sometimes in "what will people think of this" or "will this get me nasty letters" but I have to tell those doubts to be quiet and not imagine what the reaction will be and just try to write the best story that I'm capable of writing.

At 10/09/2006 10:06 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

i read an article by Stephen King about this very thing, and I like his method. He sends out his manuscripts to six people, and then bases his corrections on percentages. If only one of the six has a certain complaint, then he'll dismiss it entirely, regardless of who the reviewer is. If two people have the complaint, then he'll consider a revision. And if three or more have the same complaint, then he'll make the change.

At 10/10/2006 2:36 PM, Blogger William Morris said...

I've thought about this a lot -- esp. in the context of Mormon letters. It's something I will continue to explore.

I have come to this preliminary conclusion:

I will probably continue to do reviews, and I think reviews are needed (as much as authors may not enjoy them). But what we need even more is criticism -- real literary criticism. And not lit crit that's all full of buzz words and grounded in the theory-heavy genre of criticism that is an afteraffect of post-structuralism. What I'm talking about is straight on close readings and examinations of plot, theme, style, charecterization, genre, etc.

Of course, I'm not sure I have the time to do any of that. But I'm thinking about it.


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