Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

One Thing a Writer Can't Control

by Stephanie Black

Within the past week, I got two very different sets of feedback on one of my books. The first was a rather scathing review. Okay, the reviewer didn’t think everything about the book stunk, but some of her comments really stung, including criticism of the main characters, whom she found flat (she liked some of the secondary characters a bit better). The other feedback came in a very complimentary e-mail, in which, interestingly enough, the writer mentioned my avoidance of “superficial character development.” I figure that if she felt to mention that, I'm pretty safe in assuming that she didn't find my main characters flat.

I find this fascinating. Two readers read the exact same book, peopled with the exact same characters. They read the exact same words. Yet they walked away with very different impressions. Not just “I liked/didn’t like this book.” But one thought the main characters were Pancake City, and the other praised me for not making pancake people. How does that work? Who’s right? Are the characters flat or not?

I think the answer is that for one reader, they were flat. For the other—they weren’t. Cosmically weird, huh? But books are like that. I think it comes down to the fact that—and this is so startling that the government should give me a grant to study it—readers are different. And I don’t just mean different in their taste in books, but different in their life experiences, perceptions, preferences, expectations, and so on. So one person, given her perceptions and preferences, looks at the characters and they don’t work for her. Another person looks at the same characters and they do work.

I think this is inevitable. We don’t read in a mental vacuum. Everything we read will pass through filters in our minds. For example, unlike the vast majority of the universe's population, I’m not a Twilight fan. I have no issue with Stephenie Meyer’s writing—I think she’s a great storyteller—but given my background, preferences, opinions, convictions, etc., I simply don’t find the story romantic. I think we’re dealing with unhealthy obsession, not love. But if Meyer had tried to write a book that appealed both to me and to all the people who do love the Edward/Bella kind of story, how many books do you think she would have sold? Another example: I read a fantasy novel that I adored. Another reader, a woman I greatly respect, read it and found it appallingly violent. Given our backgrounds, life experiences, preferences, and so on, the same book struck us in very different ways.

Now, am I suggesting that my characters are perfect and need no improvement whatsoever? Of course not. I’m sure there are things I could have done better. But I do know that no matter what I do or don’t do, I won’t ever please everyone. As an author, one thing I’ll never be able to control is what a reader brings to the table.

That’s why it's awesome that there are so many different kinds of books stacked on that table.


At 3/03/2010 2:57 PM, Blogger Valerie Ipson said...

Speaking of books...I just received yours in the mail! THANKS!!! It will be fun to see if you win a Whitney again.

At 3/03/2010 3:08 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I just want to support you and say that the critical reader was just completely off-base. Probably dresses funny, too. =)

I guess it's true, though, that everybody appreciates art through their own set of lenses. Can't please all the people all the time. (Didn't Lincoln say something like that?)

At 3/03/2010 7:09 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

I think it's also important to note that we wear different lenses at different times. Sometimes a character feels lifeless to us but after our own life experiences, we have a deeper understanding and that same character (or book) can reach through to us and light us up in a whole new way.

At 3/03/2010 9:13 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

I've said it before and I believe it's true. The book a writer writes and the book the reader reads aren't the same book. As for whether or not your characters are flat, let me just say I'd like to see your heroines be stronger, but I certainly wouldn't call them flat. In fact you do better than most writers to develop your characters even though your book is strongly plot oriented.

At 3/03/2010 9:32 PM, Blogger Krista said...

I think anyone who has ever attended a book club has seen this firsthand. My current book club is so diverse, we have struggled to please everyone. We have worked it out, but there you have it. Different backgrounds, upbringings, and tastes. Sometimes when we meet, I silently wonder if I want everyone in the club to read my book when it comes out (but of course, they have decided they will)! Maybe I'll miss that month. Yikes!

At 3/04/2010 12:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...Or it could be that the reviewers used the wrong language to communicate their impressions of your book. What if one of the critiques was written by someone less familiar with the language of novel writing. And they mistakenly communicated to you that they characters were very well-developed, when actually they meant that they related well to the characters in your novel. A very different thing, but very easy to confuse for a reader who has less experience with the details of critical analysis.

It could be they were saying precisely the same thing.

Your characters were fascinating and worked very, very well with your plot. And they weren't well-developed, which is precisely what you're looking for in a novel that is adventure-based. Like Jennie said, your characters have a surprising amount of development given the genre.

So kudos to you.

At 3/04/2010 1:37 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Valerie, I'm glad the book arrived! I hope you enjoy it.

Jon, LT, and Jennie, thank you for your insights. And Jennie, I'm interested to find out what you think of my next heroine.

Krista, when is your book coming out? Tell us more!

Anon, sure, I might have read too much into the second reviewer's comment, but since she's an accomplished, multi-published novelist, I think she's familiar with the language of novel writing.

At 3/04/2010 9:55 AM, Anonymous Anna said...

I recently read a book that had me rolling my eyes in a few spots. Characters/family life just didn't feel real to me.

I went online to read other's reviews after I finished. Others really liked the book. Author's whose books I enjoyed, enjoyed this certain book.

You can't have everyone like everything you write. But this world would be boring if every book was very similiar. So I'm glad others enjoyed it, even if I did not.

At 3/04/2010 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I experienced this once during a RS lesson I gave. Afterwards, out in the hall I heard a woman giving her husband a quick "what was your lesson about" review and I wanted to jump up and say, "No, no, no. You got it wrong. That's not what the lesson was about!" But then I realized we all get out of lessons, books, movies, etc. what we are ready to hear or what we need.

Ironically enough the lesson I gave was on death and this very woman lost her mother just a few months later. I have thought a lot about that.

At 3/07/2010 8:17 PM, Blogger Karen Hoover said...

I am having to face this right now, so your blog is very timely for me. It's not easy, but I appreciate your perspective. It is true. All of us come to the table with something different and view life through different lenses. I'll remember that the next time a stinging review comes my way. You rock, Stephanie.

At 3/07/2010 11:15 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Anna and Anon, thanks for sharing your experiences.

Karen, I'm so glad the blog was timely for you. Thanks!

At 3/08/2010 3:18 AM, Blogger Sheila said...

This was a very insightful and true post. We all "see" things differently because of our life experiences. We all are looking for different things when we read a book. Some of us look for good plots in a story, where others look for books that are totally character driven. It does not mean that your book is good or bad. It all comes down to expectations of the reader when they pick up the book.

Personally, I LOVED Methods of Madness. I can't wait to read your next book. You keep churning great books and I will keep reading them! ;)

At 3/08/2010 9:24 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thank you, Sheila! You made my day!


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