Writing is Madness

There’s always a new article/post/thread calling people out for either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and, although of course I’m biased, I find it’s especially true in writing circles. We’ve all heard the advice to “develop a thick skin” to get by in this world and not let every little thing faze us on one hand, and on the other how important it is to listen to other people’s experiences and take them to heart. These two imperatives seem paradoxical, but in general–specific cases vary wildly–the crux of the problem is both matter.

And this is my theory for why people pursuing creative endeavors are often a bit bonkers, at least when it comes to their creation. (Well. One reason why, anyway.) I’m going to talk about writing, because it’s what I know, and it goes like this:

There is the story you want to tell, and there’s the story you do tell. There are the words on the page, and there’s the story readers glean from them.

Bad news: they don’t match perfectly.

Good news: that’s one of the beautiful things about art, that we all take different things from it. Reading the same book at different times in our lives can make for vastly different experiences.

But for the author, it’s complicating. Because you want them to match as closely as they can. The story in your head is the asymptote the words on the page get infinitely closer to but never fully reach.

Because no two readers have the same experience. But how much of that is because of what the reader is bringing to the text versus what the author has put into it? How do you know when you’ve gotten it right?

You can’t, because there’s no such thing as right. There’s better. There’s the best you can do. It’s craft, which means you work and whittle and hone your skills. But there’s no such thing as perfection, because it’s also art.

The fact is that no one else can tell your story. As the creator, you have the strongest vision of your own work and what you’re trying to do.

But you don’t have the strongest sense of how it’s working outside your head. You need feedback to tell you when something you did on purpose failed, or something you did on accident is Very Bad.

But readers disagree. Periodically I see the advice to get good readers, but I’m here to tell you that intelligent, experienced, skilled critique-ers don’t all agree either. They never will, because people want and need different things from books.

Which is great in the scheme of things! It means there are markets for lots of different kinds of stories, which is lovely, because it means we have an incredible variety to choose from.

But it also makes it hard to determine, for any given project, whether feedback has more to do with the one person’s read or with the words on the page.

So you get lots of critiques to make sure you’re not just revising to one person’s tastes–unless you are, which simplifies things–but then you really can’t take all the feedback you’re given even if you wanted to, because that would make the book incredibly disjointed. Maybe if lots of people agree you pay special attention to those notes and disregard that one person’s particular bugbear–but maybe that person also caught something incredibly important that everyone else happened to miss.

Some critiques you’ll read and be like, YIKES you are absolutely right I can’t believe I did that THANK YOU for bringing this up so I can fix it O_O. And some you’ll look at and go …woooow this is super off base, wtf?

You’re not always going to agree. Sometimes the crit is right anyway. Sometimes it’s not.

Which means the author, although they need feedback to make their books better, shouldn’t take all critique to heart. Taking every piece of criticism given can be just as bad as taking none of it.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Every change will make the story better for some people and worse for others. It’s choice after choice with no objectively correct answer. So how do you choose which change that’s hard should be taken to heart, and which discarded?

IT DEPENDS.

*jazz hands*

You have to be able to be open to readers’ experiences in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to close off and hold on to what you want for the story in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to do both together, and this is why authors are bonkers.

 

(but at least we have help)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Critique and Target Audiences

I spent last weekend at Cascade Writers Workshop and had a blast. Thank you again to my critique group for being awesome and insightful. I have a solid idea of where to start editing not just in this section, but the broad strokes to keep in mind all through the novel and in other projects.

I love critiquing and reviewing, though the one should not be confused with the other. In critiquing, my goal is to help the author identify how they can edit to match their writing with the story they want to tell. Note, that is not the same as telling the author what they should or must do, nor is it fixing the story for them, nor is it recommending ways to change the story to one that I would like better.

In reviewing, my goal (and this differs greatly among reviewers) is to help readers find books they will like by promoting the novels, the particular aspects that worked for me or didn’t, and why. This is also not the same as writing what I think the author should have done or be doing with their story: it’s what works for me, and why.

That why is the critical bit. That’s what tells me what needs to change and how, if at all. For instance, if you don’t like the protagonist because they’re clearly a bad person, well, if that’s what the story needs I’m not going to change it. If you don’t like the protagonist because you don’t understand their motivations or stakes and thus don’t care about their character arc, that’s something I need to address.

In receiving feedback, it’s important for me to get multiple points of view, because often two people will totally disagree with each other’s assessments. If multiple people are pointing out problems in the same area, even if their “why”s are different, I know where to look for the bit that isn’t working properly.

For me, the very best kind of critique is when the reader is able to understand what I’m trying to do (without any direction from me outside of the text) and can tell me whether it worked. If they say, I see what you’re going for, but it’s not quite there, because of x reason, that is THE MOST HELPFUL THING. This is why I usually request feedback from fellow writers, to help me identify the “why”s when something is off with the craft.

My second-favorite kind of critique is from people who are not my target audience.

I get the impression that’s not common? And I understand that there are some forms of feedback that I’ll take with grains of salt from, for instance, non-genre readers, because it may be a trope or tone issue throwing them out that’s totally fine. But it might also be something that I haven’t explained sufficiently. It might be a world-building issue or plot hole that a genre reader will gloss over but that causes the non-genre reader to cease suspension of disbelief.

Target audience, though, can be complicated, because it goes beyond subgenre. In fact, writing with a group of other reviewers at Fantasy Book Critic has been an object lesson in target audiences for me. My reading tastes overlap with several of our reviewers: a few of us will often read the same epic and high fantasy, or the same urban fantasy, or the same YA books, even if our thoughts aren’t all posted on the site.

And yet the three of us can read the same book, write a joint review, and have COMPLETELY different opinions on why it worked or didn’t.

(This has actually come to be a recommendation marker for me: if two of us actually agree on a book, I tend to trust that assessment, because it’s very much not the default. Mihir and Liviu’s joint review got me to pick up The Thousand Names, for instance.)

Just because we’re readers of the same subgenre doesn’t mean we’re looking for the same things in our stories. Target audience is more complicated than whether someone wants or hates vampires in their stories. It’s about the kind of story and how it’s told.

It’s also why I think it’s important in reviewing to isolate that I’m talking about “why”s, because even within the genre reader tastes vary. Huge amounts of expository detail, for instance, are not my thing. There are only so many trees and hills you can describe before my eyes glaze over (I’m looking at you, Tolkien).

Some readers LIVE for that sort of detail, and that’s fabulous for them! But when I write my review, I will mention that for me it slowed pacing down, but I won’t call it a bad book, or say that the author doesn’t know how to write exposition. I don’t think my role is to judge; it’s to analyze and isolate parts that will help readers decide whether a book is a good fit.

And in critique, I will point out concerns, issues to consider, places that don’t work for me, and why, so the author can judge for themselves how much weight to assign to any piece of feedback. Awareness, for me, is the key. Maybe the author is dead, but their stories are alive in the hearts and minds of readers.

They’re different animals, reviewing and critiquing, but I love them both and I hope people find my feedback helpful. It makes me appreciate even more when people are willing to take the time to consider artistic work carefully and thoroughly, because I think it helps us all as a community to push ourselves to be better, to expect better. And especially, thank you again to all who have critiqued or given me beta feedback. You’re the best =).