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Are You Critiquing My Novel, Or Do You Just Hate Me?

Here’s a question for all you writers out there who are or have been members of critique groups. How do you critique the books you read?

I ask because I thought I knew how, but a recent experience has made me question that certainty.

When I first started writing, I was excruciatingly nervous about what other people would think of my work. To the point that I often revised the work to the third or fourth draft stage before I would show it to anyone. And, I’m ashamed to admit, in the very early days I did not react at all well to negative feedback.

As I grew into my craft, I learned a lot. A lot about writing and a lot about criticism.

I learned that yes, negative feedback is hard to hear, but it is also extremely valuable. It gives me glimpses into how people not close to the work and not intimately familiar with its creation react when they read it. It shows me the flaws I cannot see myself.

(This is much like parents’ inability to recognize that they have produced an exceedingly ugly child. They need friends (and strangers!) to walk up to them and say, over the vomiting, “Oh my God, that is a hideous child! Did you spray acid on its face right before you clubbed it with an oversize cheese grater?” You’re performing a public service: the parents learn never to take the child out without a paper bag over its head, and everyone else is spared having to look at a really ugly baby.)

My critiques evolved the same way. Very tentative, gentle, and for the most part, useless in the beginning. Over time, as I gained more experience and learned the value of honesty, I was more honest and less worried about offending.

So until this recent experience, I adhered to the philosophy, “Be honest. Be brutally honest. Do not lie, hold back, gloss over, or otherwise let any issue or flaw you see skate by. To do so is intellectually dishonest and a disservice to the author, the intended readership, and the craft.”

Given the level of impersonal rejection that an author faces when attempting to find someone to publish their book, you need to have a pretty thick skin to succeed in this racket. Thick enough to endure that rejection, and thick enough to not only face down this sort of critique, but to say ‘Thank you!’ afterwards, even if you’re choking on your own bile as you say it.

(And yes, I have experienced the delectable flavor of my own up-chuck while saying ‘Thank you!’ to a reader who found a lot to dislike in something I’d written.)

However, there is a risk to this approach. You risk so upsetting the author over a few serious issues that they completely reject the entirety of your critique, and they take away nothing from the time and effort you spent on their book.

Now the seasoned authors I’ve worked with, including one who will be having his third book published by a major house in the near future, have received and handled critiques that, at times, were devastating in their frankness.  And said ‘Thank you!’ after it was over.

But I’ve also dealt with writers who took the critiques very personally. Their response was to be defensive, histrionic, and so busy trying to refute my feedback that they didn’t listen to it.

(I know, I know, how can you refute something if you aren’t listening? I don’t understand it either, but I’ve seen it happen more than once – usually in Congress.)

Honestly, my view is these writers aren’t ready for prime time. If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen, right?

Wrong.

We now live in the age of easy access to print-on-demand self-publishing where the cost of entry to the author, aside from the time spent writing, is zero.

Think about that. You can write a 1000 page book that consists of nothing but the phrase ‘Mmm, pie!” typed over and over again, upload it to Amazon, pick a generic freebie cover with the words, ‘Mmm, pie!’ on it in a large, friendly font, and put it up for sale. I bet I could do it in less than ten minutes. (Well, get it to the proof approval stage in less than ten minutes, anyway. And I’m guessing Amazon wouldn’t refuse to offer that book for sale as long as the formatting met their standards.)

I know agents and editors at publishing houses like to tout themselves as ‘gatekeepers’ of quality. While I think the traditional publishing system makes it a little too hard to break in due to economies of scale (X agents, X times 1 billion writers), there is some truth to that argument.

But now anyone can go on CreateSpace, Lulu, and a host of other sites to arrange for their books to be printed on-demand, or use free software like Calibre to create their own e-books, all of which can be sold on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Which means authors going the self-publishing route can entirely bypass the editing process.

Now I’m not knocking self-publishing. At the end of this year, that’s exactly the route I’m going to be pursuing for one of my books. So I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.

What I am saying is, if self-publishing is ever going to completely lose the stigma associated with it, we need a very high ratio of polished manuscripts to poorly rendered rough drafts.

Which takes us back to critiquing. If I’m working with people who are self-publishing, and I give honest but brutal critiques that trigger tantrums rather than thoughtful contemplation, I’m not just not doing any good, I’m actually making things worse for the self-publishing scene. Because now that author has decided I hate their book, I don’t get their book, I’m a complete idiot, or some combination of all three. And that means they will disregard everything I say, even the points that would normally be considered non-controversial.

So what should I do? Should I scale back the intensity of my critiques? Should I try to get to know each individual I’ll be critiquing before I read their book, so I can gauge just how much honesty I can get away with? Should I try to cushion the blows with excessive praise and compliments elsewhere, even if it isn’t fully deserved? Because I’d rather do some small amount of good than no good at all.

(It would also be nice not to be considered ‘the villain’ of a cohort because I give the ‘meanest’ reviews.)

So writers out there, what do you think? How can I save the legacy of English-language publishing in the 21st century, one critique of the time?

(No pressure.)

 

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Daddy, where do ideas come from?

I must look like some sort of Idea Man, because strangers keep coming up to me and asking where I get my ideas. (On the other hand, people who know me or have read my work tend to back away slowly when they see me. Except for my children, but only because I keep them on leashes.)

But back to the question: Where do I get my ideas?

I used to buy them, but now I steal them.

It’s a dirty little secret in the book world that all ideas these days are bought and sold. Idea futures (seems dumb now, but might have merit later), idea derivatives (this is where sequels and cheap Chinese knock-offs of Harry Potter come from), idea mutual funds (a well-balanced mix of good and great ideas, with minimal exposure risk to stupid ideas), and idea investment trusts (don’t ask me, even my lawyer can’t explain those to me).

It’s complicated. And, it turns out, expensive.

The problem is pricing. You can get ideas really cheap, but those are the crappy ideas. The lame rehashes. The eye-rolling clichés. Or the just plain dumb. The better the idea, the higher the price. Yes, that’s right, ideas have a price scale.

Best Seller grade ideas are at the top, often commanding six or seven figures (the Harry Potter idea, I’ve heard from someone who failed to put in the top bid, was into eight figures and, with hindsight, worth every cent). There are various levels of Career Sustaining ideas found in the middle of the scale, the sort of concepts that will cost you the equivalent of a new car, and keep your career, while not exactly thriving, humming along well enough to pay the bills. Of course, at the bottom of the scale is the Airport grade, for those who can’t afford anything else (named Airport grade because these ideas are for books only people trapped on the secure side of an airport terminal would be desperate enough to buy).

Like most things in life, this means only the rich can afford to get the ideas that will make them richer. It’s not about what you can do, or even who you know, for that matter. It’s about how much idea you can buy. That said, who you know can help get a loan approved, increasing the amount of idea you can obtain.

I poured tens and tens of dollars down the drain buying used (yes, there is a used market) Airport grade ideas, because that was all I could afford. What did it get me? A stack of form rejection letters and my car repossessed.

Then one day, my once modest bank account drained completely dry by the Big Idea Industrial Complex, I couldn’t take it any more. Still a complete unknown, now I couldn’t buy any ideas, brilliant or crap. I found myself in that most untenable of situations: forced to think for myself. This was an exceedingly uncomfortable period of my life, but I soldiered on until I had my very own, moderately brilliant idea.

Why pay for ideas when you can steal them?

You’ll be amazed by the lack of security savvy you’ll find amongst the larger, Fortune Five Hundred idea repositories. It’s like they’ve never heard of the internet and its tubes, script-kiddies, or Anonymous. I didn’t even have to try very hard to hack into them. A little ftp’ing here, some social engineering there, and boom, I was in. The sheer scale of idea storage is breathtaking, and let me tell you, based on the volume of Best Seller grade ideas I found, prices should be a lot lower. There is definitely some market manipulation going on here.

So I grabbed them all. Every single idea at Career Sustaining Level III and above (including the idea for this article). The best part of all? I’m untouchable. These giant idea brokers can’t afford the negative publicity that acknowledging a break-in would generate. Sellers would flee. More people would hack them, and a black market in stolen ideas would begin to flourish, undercutting their monopoly. So they stay silent about my electronic trespass and thievery, and since I have the ideas now, they won’t (and can’t, due to the terms of their warranty) sell them to anyone else.

These ideas are mine now. Carefully stored away in a locked filing cabinet in a secure vault at an undisclosed location. Whenever I need an idea, I pay a visit and flip through the pages, looking for an idea that catches my eye. And then I come home and start writing.

I think I have enough ideas to write comfortably for the next decade at least, with enough ideas left over that I could sell them for extra income. And I’m not talking Airport grade, if you know what I mean.

Anyone want to buy an idea?

 
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Posted by on 12 May 2011 in Other Blogs

 

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