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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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Death of a traditional dream?

At what point do we give up?

At what point is it no longer healthy for us to pursue a path that isn’t leading to the desired destination?

I ask this question because of something that happened to me last night.

After a long and fruitless search, late last year I decided that I would give myself till the end of 2011 to find an agent and/or editor for my book Marlowe and the Spacewoman. If I didn’t find a route through traditional publishing, then come 2012, I was going to self publish.

I made a huge final push to find an agent or editor. There has been some interest, but nothing definitive yet. And now, halfway through the year, I’m pretty much resigned to the idea of self-publishing.

(I know, I know, the indie publishing scene is thriving and growing. The stigma of self publication is fading. But it’s hard to make the adjustment to the idea of the self-publishing model when for years your dream has been of the traditional publishing model.)

Last night I got together with one my critique groups for the first time in almost a year. And when I mentioned this plan to self publish, one of the members shook her head and said, in effect, your book has something to it and you should be able find an agent.

(There it is, the self-publishing stigma.)

And suddenly I doubted my plan. The stigma of self publication seems to be receding a little bit, but that could merely be the self-serving perspective of the indie authors I hang out with and follow on twitter.

There are arguments for and against self-publishing. There is one more than one treatise on why self publication is actually better for an author who has any business savvy. (And a pre-existing huge fan base, by the way.)

There is a sense of optimism amongst the indie authors I know that things are changing.

But there’s also that stigma. I’m not saying there are no quality self published books out there. There are.

Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of crap.

So what do I do? I’m getting tired of trying to find an agent. I’ve queried well over 100 well over – I know 100 itself is a small number). I’ve done the research route, you know, making sure you find the right agent to query. I’ve done the dance, I’ve jumped through the hoops, and I’m about as far as I can go without a positive response.

I’m not saying that self-publishing is giving up. My question here is: at what point should I give up on traditional publishing? At least for this book?

Yes, I had a moment of doubt last night, but right now I’m still sticking with the plan. I have one nibble at this point that hasn’t played out yet. All my other queries have you resulted in outright rejection or, even more frustrating, silence.

So I’m sticking with my plan despite my fellow critique partner’s reservations.

I just wish it didn’t feel like giving up.

 
 

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