This is kind of a sore subject for writers, I know. I feel it nagging just beneath my skin myself when I get a comment from someone about something they “didn’t like”. We put so much of ourselves into our work – so much energy, focus, love, frustration, and force – that it’s hard not to take the tiniest criticism as a reflection of who we are as a person. Really, though, comments are made on our writing, our choice of names, scenes, characters, and description, and have very little to do with us personally. But boy, does it ever feel personal.
I got a phone call from a client of mine last week to discuss this exact topic. She’d texted me that morning to ask if we could have a quick chat, and while she graciously agreed to give me an hour to wake up (I need it. Badly), I was a little hesitant about what to expect. I don’t normally enjoy phone calls (mostly because somehow I manage to make them rather awkward…or at least I think I do), but this client and I have fostered a beautiful little friendship since we started working together, and I couldn’t very well deny her. So I told her to call away.
It’s a good thing I did, because what she really wanted to talk about had been nagging at the back of her mind for a day or so, and I’m sure she lost a little bit of sleep over it. I could feel the tension, the horror, the gut-clenching dread in her voice.
One of her beta readers for a novel of hers I’d edited had come back at her with some “criticism”, and while I’m sure the intention wasn’t purely destructive, it rather had that effect. In this awesome YA Paranormal novel, my client had completely built her own world and made some modifications to a specific race therein. She gave them a new name (one I’d never personally heard before and found rather cool), described them beautifully, and nothing seemed out of place. This beta reader, however, found that the name my client used for this race was completely un-befitting of both the genre and the story, and assured her that it would only confuse readers and she needed to change it.
I’ve read plenty of books in this genre, and it never confused me. I also have never heard the term before, so it was a fresh, new, exciting take on the world. My client just about lost it.
We took some time to discuss the way I felt about her use of the term for her characters, how it worked perfectly within the story, and about all the research she had done (to the effect of not having found anything along the lines of what the beta reader had said). Finally, with a sigh of relief, my client giggled and thanked me for reassuring her that she didn’t need to completely change the term. It was pretty much a building block of her entire novel (and what will be the first in a really super series).
You may have heard me say before, a billion times and in just as many places, that I truly believe only 10% of fiction is made up of “rules”. Those rules follow the guidelines of punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Some things simply exist in black and white. The other 90%, however, is completely up to you, the author.
What do I mean when I say this? Exactly what I said. That encompasses everything – from sentence structure, rhythm, character names, scene delivery, pace, POV, narrative tense, description, dialogue, world-building, plot, single quotes, double quotes, internal dialogue, italicizing, bolding, sectioning paragraphs… The list goes on and on. Pretty much everything besides punctuation, grammar, and spelling are free game (and admittedly I’ll add that there are some exceptions, but that’s specific to each work). All these things are left up to the author’s preference (and their editor, but if your editor is bashing everything you do, you’re probably working with the wrong one).
Yes, as authors, of course we want to please the entire world and create the next brilliant work of fiction against which no literary mind can argue. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that will never happen. Books on the New York Times Best Seller List are not loved, adored, and fawned over by everyone. Even the classics have their critics. And that is a huge boon to your career as an author, and to your freedom to create whatever the heck you want.
Understanding and realizing that you will never make every single reader experience a life-changing metamorphosis after reading your book might just be the huge weight off your shoulders you’ve been looking for. For every one comment I receive about something in my writing “not working”, I get twenty more about how phenomenal it was. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten plenty of feedback from multiple people about something needing work, and that’s when I give weight to the opinion and look at it one more time from a different angle.
I know, that one piece of criticism, that one ‘I did not like it’, can definitely pack a lot more punch than the dozens of other positive comments. What’s wrong with this reader? How come my writing isn’t perfect for them? Do they really just not like me? Are they trying to ruin my life?
I always thank every reader and every reviewer for taking the time to enjoy (or not enjoy) my work and especially for taking even more time to share it with me. Don’t get me wrong, not all negative comments are just brushed aside and flushed down the toilet. I do keep a little page of all the things readers felt “could have been better”. If I hear it more than once, I take a look at it. If I hear it more than twice, I think it’s time to consider changing it around a bit. Hopefully, using beta readers, critique groups, and writing buddies will give you invaluable headway in making sure you fix those “more than once” instances before you publish your work.
The point is, there will always be someone who finds one teenie (or giant) thing they do not enjoy. Even outside the realm of your book. But that being said, I want you to remember that you are the author, you are the creator, and if you really, really, adamantly and with all your heart believe in what you’re doing, don’t let anybody stop you.
How do you take not-so-constructive criticism from your readers? What do you do to help yourself get over that “mountain in the road”? I always love to hear from you.
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