If you call yourself a writer, chances are your goal is to be read by someone other than a friend or family member. Chances are you’d like your book to be published, and well received when it is. And if we’re going to dream big here, how about a best seller?
I’m a realist, and if I’m being honest, slightly pessimistic. That means the last big dream feels very much like an impossible feat. But does that mean I’ve stopped trying? Absolutely not.
But it does mean that I frequently suffer from a crisis of confidence. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has self-esteem issues. We live in a highly critical society after all. Surrounded by images and ideals that sometimes feel designed to make you feel like you don’t quite measure up.
So how can I know that what I’m writing is any good? I don’t know about you, but I’ve read some pretty horrible books that were published. Some amazingly bad plot lines. Some practically nonexistent examples of editing. And some horrifyingly corny, over the top love scenes (throbbing purple-headed warrior anyone?)
Heck, go on Amazon and pick a ninety-nine cent e-book in the romance category. I dare you to read three or four of the novellas that come up and not find at least one that makes you wonder if they’d ever heard of proofreading and beta editing. Don’t believe me, try the step-brother romance category. Seriously… (Yes, I admit to reading a few of these myself. I’m a book omnivore so long as it’s fiction.)
So how do I know that I’m not one of these people? How do I know that I’m any better than the author of the second-chance-stepbrother’s best friend-billionare-alpha-werewolf-meets-ridiculously gorgeous and doesn’t know it virgin-smut fest that I am embarrassed to admit I read last night? The trope filled horror show that kept me reading only because I couldn’t believe that any book was that bad… And somehow still managed to get fifteen four star reviews, not to mention published? (I checked, it wasn’t a self-pub.)
Betas. Crit partners. And workshop groups. That’s how I’ll know I don’t suck.
There are many sites out there that let you join, connect, and share with other authors. I’m a member of a few such sites. In one of them I’ve met people through a message board system that I interact with outside of the site. And in the other I post my work for general commentary and am involved with three critique groups. Other writers, some published and others not, read and comment on my work. They are what will keep me from being that cliché filled ridiculousness. They will hopefully help me fine tune my work into something that has a chance at being good.
But not everyone agrees on what makes a story good. Not everyone reads or likes the same things.
Here’s where growing a thick skin comes in handy—something I’m still working on.
Recently I posted a review request for a contemporary romance that was inspired by Facebook. I was looking at a profile for someone I used to know and thinking about how easy it is to “check up on someone” now. So I wrote the first few paragraphs…
*** Language warning***
Facebook was not my friend. It made it way too easy to see the life I almost had. The one that she stole. The bitch.
And I just couldn’t seem to stop myself.
“Damnit, you promised yourself you’d quit doing this shit.” June Bug, my cat, looked up at me from her spot on the arm of the couch, probably wondered who the hell I was talking to. I forced myself to close the browser and open up the spreadsheet of invoices I’d been working on when boredom, dangerous thing that it was, made me type her name into that little search box.
His profile was private. Not even a picture, just the logo for his favorite football team. But hers… With hers I could see too much. The beautiful house they just bought. The freaking puppy they adopted with its stupid little pink bow. The vacation pictures full of white sandy beaches and them, looking like the perfect fucking couple.
And of course the ring. The obnoxiously large ring that had almost been mine.
I’d dumped the asshole because he was a cheating bastard. I needed to remind myself of that. It was my decision. Mine.
And of course that scene flashed in my mind’s eye. The moment I’d walked in on them in our bed just in time to see him pull his dick out of her and paint her stomach. Not only was he a cheater, he hadn’t even had the decency to bag that shit.
Facebook was my inspiration, my origin, but it was just my springboard. I mention it in the first line but it never comes back up. In fact, the relationship my main character is so upset about, the guy she’s stalking online, isn’t even a big part of the story going forward. But I received a review that told me, because I mentioned Facebook, the story was too technology focused and my reviewer couldn’t even make it past the first couple pages. So sorry.
I had another reviewer of the same work tell me she thought my main character’s voice was too bitter and she stopped reading. So sorry.
Another one wasn’t even that nice and just told me it was crap and I should scrap it entirely. Yeah, they weren’t sorry.
Now this chapter has a total of seven reviews and is averaging four stars out of five so overall, most people are liking this. Does that make the three naysayers any easier to hear?
Absolutely not. Every negative comment, every criticism is difficult to hear. And that’s normal.
As a writer I invest a lot of myself into my story. They take an enormous amount of time. I get to know my characters extremely well during the writing process. So well that when I had to break a character’s heart in one of my stories, I cried and felt guilty. This is normal too. I swear.
So it is completely natural that when someone criticizes my work it feels a little like a personal attack—and in some rare cases it is. But that’s the extreme minority. Most people are honestly trying to help. Especially on these sites, most are there for the same reason so they understand how hard it is, how much of yourself goes into your work.
It is a complement to you that they took the time to comment. It is a complement that they took the time to rate. Even if they say a lot of negative things, even if the bad outweighs the good by leaps and bounds…
They could have just passed it by. Read a few lines, a few paragraphs and moved on. They didn’t have to devote any time to reading you, reviewing you, rating you. They did it because they ultimately liked something they saw. They did it because they saw potential and they were trying to help.
It is only polite to thank them. Even if you agreed with nothing they said. Thank them for their time. Be polite and remember what Momma always said, “treat others as you would like to be treated.” There were doing you a favor. Chances are they could have been working on their own writing, playing with their kids, reading a book, or just doing something a lot more fun than critiquing… for free… for a stranger. Thank them. Seriously.
Now, I only mentioned three out of seven reviews. The four remaining reviews for that same chapter, three of them had criticisms. Only one of them saw nothing wrong with what I wrote. And I have to say, that’s the one I doubt the most.
No writer is perfect. Just as nothing written is perfect. Especially right out of the gate. Pick your favorite book, in any genre, by any author, I guarantee they revised it. Probably more than once. It takes work, revision, patience, and open-mindedness to improve.
That last one is super important.
You have to be willing to improve. You have to be willing to listen to criticism and be willing to change your vision. So before you venture into crit groups and beta partnerships, sit down and realize that your work is not complete. Your work is not perfect. Your work will not cure cancer, solve world hunger, or create lasting peace on the planet. Don’t be that arrogant.
You will have to change; but it’s up to you to decide how much, how far, and how it impacts your work in the long run.
I had one critique that suggested I describe the male love interest in detail in chapter one. I didn’t. I won’t make that change. Why? Because the way it’s written now, you see that love interest through the female main characters eyes in the very next chapter, as she sees him for the first time. The first chapter is all about shock and awe. She hasn’t seen this guy in four years and there he is, so in the next chapter I take the reader back in time to where it all started.
It makes more sense to me to do it this way. I have the big picture in front of me. Is that to say that I would never change my mind? No, if overwhelming numbers said they needed that description in the first, after they’d read the second too, I would make the change. I’d swallow my pride and change. Because my goal is to write a book that will get published. A book that people will like.
Some crits will not sit well with you. Some you will disagree with. In those cases you can choose to ignore it—thank them and move on—but I caution you, if you receive multiple pieces of feedback about the same thing, you need to realize that you’re the one who’s wrong. If nine people tell you the sky is grey and you say it’s blue, who’s right? The group of nine, that’s who. There’s a tornado outside so of course the sky is grey, you just have your head too far into your story to see it. Open your eyes and see the storm.
Some things will resonate right away, ring with truth or even a “oh my gosh, how could I miss that!” Those will be the easy ones. It’s those others that you’ll need to find a way to look at objectively. Step away from the investment you’ve made into your piece and characters and see if what they’re saying makes sense.
And that’s the real dilemma, because you will have conflicting opinions. Which brings us full circle, back to the title of this post, “Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one.”
In the end, it will be your job to find balance between taking things to heart too much and letting them damage your confidence, and being obstinately oblivious and ignoring your criticisms. It’s a balance I’m working on myself.
A piece of advice that was given to me is to sit on it; take that advice that you don’t necessarily see eye to eye with, and set it aside. Let it stew a little, roll it around in your mind. Maybe even try rewriting that chapter/section/sentence/idea using the suggestion and see how it feels. Only you know what will work for your story. You just have to have an open mind and be willing to go beyond your comfort zone.