Get out the flak jacket, here come the big guns

I first wrote this post over the weekend, in, shall we say, the heat of the moment. I went back to it several times to make sure that it was more than just the cri de couer of a wounded author. After several edits, I think I have turned it into something reflective rather than reflexive.

Testing the authorial skin

I have a pretty thick skin, of necessity. I have collected scores of rejection letters; I regularly share my work in a critique group; and I had the unique and somewhat unsettling experience of sitting in on a book-club discussion about Dance of Souls.

This past weekend, however, I had to pull out the kevlar suit. My 87-year-old uncle called to tell me what he thought of Dance of Souls.

For 10 minutes, I listened to him enumerate, with no sugar-coating whatsoever, the novel’s flaws. (I suppose he comes from a generation that did not learn to give criticism by first doling out a compliment.)

Ooooffff.

Once I hung up the phone, got over my sobbing fit, and convinced myself that I shouldn’t abandon my writing career altogether, I realized something profound: He was right.

Where’s the evidence?

Literary criticism is not evidence-based science. We can’t design an experiment, holding all variables constant but one, to test whether our work is “good” or “bad.” One reader’s fatal flaw is another’s beautiful gem.

When I looked at his criticisms in that light, I felt much better. Here are the main things he didn’t like about the book. I can understand why he might not have liked them, but I also can see—and certainly hope—that others will find these very things appealing.

1) The book uses complex language and lots of similes.

Guilty as charged. But it is a purposeful guilt. I used language in the book the way I did because I believed it was integral to the story. There is a lot of discussion among writers about “voice.” This book was the first one I have ever written in which the voice presented itself to me as part of the story. Apparently it was not my uncle’s cup of tea. (See below for several excellent discussions of voice in fiction.)

2) The plot and the character’s motivations were not clear.

Guilty as charged. Dance of Souls is not plot-driven. Part of the point of the book is to leave the reader unsettled and wondering: What actually did happen? Which events were real and which were created in the character’s minds? I freely admit that using plot as a framework, rather than a driving force, is not to everyone’s liking.

3) I got my facts wrong.

On this, I must plead not guilty. What he cited as “facts” were actually authorial interpretations of facts. In particular, he noted my description of a fire as making a wall not look like a wall any longer but “black swiss cheese with orange holes.” Was that description a fact? No. Might the wall appear that way to one of my characters? I certainly thought so, especially if it looked anything like this:

Photo credit: Oregon Chapter of the Red Cross

He also pointed to a dog’s behavior at the end of the book as something “a dog would never do.” Perhaps a literal dog would not have done what the dog at the end did. However, see #2 above. Was it a literal dog or an allegorical dog? You’ll have to read the book and draw your own conclusion.

Note that I do believe in fact-checking for novels. A big, checkable gaffe (for example, the wrong kind of gun in a war or a character using a microwave oven before it was invented) is a legitimate turnoff—unless, of course, you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi and those “facts” are integral to the book.

What I learned from the bombardment

Well, I do feel better now, and never mind the irony that I have just given voice to negative comments about my book that would otherwise have remained safely within the four walls of my office.

Since my intention was not just to air my pain, I’d like to share what I learned from this—most of which is painfully obvious but is none-the-less easy to forget:

  1. One reader’s opinion is just that: one reader’s opinion.
  2. Do not give up your writing career based on the wounded heart you suffer from harshly delivered criticism.
  3. Don’t give your book to relatives to read. Tell them about it and let them buy a copy on their own if they’re interested.
  4. Cut your relatives a lot of slack if they’re over 85. Listen graciously, thank them, and move on.

Readers will need to decide for themselves if what my uncle saw as flaws are actually what gives the book its appeal. I am thankful that at least one reviewer so far has seen things that way.

If you’re a writer, what has been your experience in dealing with negative reactions to your work?

Writers on voice

8 thoughts on “Get out the flak jacket, here come the big guns

  1. Audrey, you show remarkable maturity with respect to the feedback process. The point of feedback is to tell people what is and what isn’t working for you as a reader and why. Sometimes people forget that they are just expressing their opinion. It’s a valued and appreciated opinion, but it is an opinion. I always look at what they pointed out and evaluate what improvements could be made.

    Bravo for taking that brutal tongue lashing and getting to the why so that you could determine what really needed work and was just subjective reactions.

    Don’t give up. Ever. Just evaluate. Alter and re-evaluate. 🙂

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  2. One of the hardest lessons to learn as a beginning author is which critique comments are relevant to your work and which aren’t. A former member of my critique group used to say things like “Your main character seems immature,” but would never articulate what in the text created that impression. After months of struggling to fix the “problem” he had identified, I finally realized, she’s *supposed* to seem that way. She’s twenty-seven and the baby of the family. She’s struggling with the fact that her sisters are starting their own families while she’s still single. It bums her out that she’s not as important to them as she used to be. So yeah, at the beginning of the novel, she’s kind of needy and self-centered. Those flaws show that she has room to grow, which every protagonist must have.

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  3. First of all, my hats off to you (sorry for the cliche) in writing this post. That takes guts.

    Second, everyone always says to not take the criticism personally, but how can you not? A novel is an extension of oneself–it is only human to perceive negative feedback as a personal assault. But, over time, one develops “thick skin” as you say, and learns to use the critique to his or her advantage. After submitting my manuscript for a professional critique years ago, I had to file the consultant’s comments away for 2 weeks before I could pick it up again. At first, I thought, not true–this works just fine. And then I realized, no, it doesn’t and was able to make changes absent my pride.

    Third, as you point out, not everyone has similar tastes. Your uncle prefers plot-driven novels. Hey, I like those too. In fact, my novel is one, because when I wrote it 8 years ago, plot is what I had to work with–my writing skills were not strong (and they still have a long way to go). But I, and countless others, also appreciate character-driven novels that transplant us into the character’s head–almost as a voyeur–and through the character, we experience similar feelings and wonder how we would react in the same situation.

    Fourth, I read your book and was quite literally blown away. I’m not sure if you self-published it or not, but if so, your novel is proof that self-published literature does produce some gems. I was jealous (in a good way) of your writing. How I long to create sentences like yours. Often I would stop to reread a sentence, so impressed with the syntax, the message, the word choice, you name it. Your characters were as real to me as those I encounter in real life, and the beginning was especially raw given I, like the character, have a 14 yo son.

    We can’t please everyone. I know my novel will produce eye rolls among the more literary. On the other hand, for those who just want a non-thinking, plot-driven read, they might enjoy it, as some early readers have.

    Sorry for the long-winded comment–I didn’t know I had it in me! On the other hand, I never like to apologize for passion, and I felt passionate about this–thus the tome. 🙂

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    • I wasn’t fishing for compliments–really I wasn’t :-)–but thank you for validating that my work does appeal to some segment of the population.

      It is good to be reminded of the fact that tastes differ. My mother used to say “De gustibus non disputandum” — there’s no arguing with taste, and in that she was certainly correct.

      Thanks for reading the book, continuing to read the blog, and for the vote of confidence!

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