Criticism feels like the black abyss which is forever trying to suck me into oblivion – or nine to five, semi-detached existence with a cat and husband who compulsively smoothes his tie and makes jokes about how many shoes I own.
I don’t own a lot of shoes. I want to live on my own island when I grow up and cats are only cute as long as they belong to other people. All my current cats do.
To explain in case I’m being as obscure as usual, I’m afraid of criticism. I’m afraid it will demolish what little ego I have left. I’m afraid no one will understand what I am trying to do – but mostly I am afraid because its kind of essential, isn’t it? Monsters you can avoid are never as terrifying as the ones you have to pass on the way home.
I know a fellow writer about to self publish. They have recently gone ten rounds with a professional editor to knock their book into shape and I was really interested to see the results. They claim that the process has transformed their writing, the manuscript has been torn to pieces and built back up piece by painstaking piece. They should call themselves book whisperers. I’ll be honest I had problems with the book from day one, but given everything the author was now claiming they had done to it, I was really hopeful when I read the new first chapter.
I still have problems with the book. Exactly the same problems.
As much as I struggle with receiving criticism I struggle with giving it more. I don’t want to be the one telling you, you suck. Which, however well dressed, is what I feel I’m doing. Moreover what gives me the right? Opinion is always subjective. I know plenty who claim they would laugh poor, rich, old Dan Brown out of the bookstore. The only question is, do you sincerely believe your opinion can help?
Take my soon-to-self-publish friend – they have far too much confusing exposition opening the book. I don’t see why you can’t start with backstory or world setting, if it is compelling, drawing us into the story, creating a visceral atmosphere. This functions like a list of facts, far too many of them completely irrelevant at this stage, in fact they serve to confuse more than clarify matters. It feels as though they are still separating out the strands of story building – exposition, character development, world setting, action.. so on, yet I would say an author at the ready-to-publish stage should know that all these elements need to be woven together so that the joins don’t show. Exposition later on will feel natural because it answers the questions you have set up, after you have immersed us in your story.
Surely an Editor should have flagged this up?
Editor’s roles are changing with the advent of self publishing. Within the context of traditional publishing it involves telling an author when they don’t feel they have anything they can work with. The new independent editor relies on independent commissions to make money, and I have to wonder how this affects how they approach work. I suppose there have always been independent services, but they are becoming much more central and yet they remain uninvested. In the old paradigm your failure is their failure.
I admit with this particular author it would be a thanks but no, if I were the one they submitted too. And not just because I think they need more time to germinate, their voice and story don’t engage me on any level. If they were paying me, much like when I beta read, I would try to divorce my personal feelings from the work and consider what it is that I think they are trying to achieve. I have read enough across different genres that I feel I can do this to a reasonable extent, and good writing does transcend boundaries.
An editor should be able to do this far better than I. It is always possible they made recommendations and the writer chose to ignore them, but I didn’t get that impression. Significant changes have been made, just not the right ones. My opinion – but I genuinely believe they are not minor issues. Nor are they overly complex. So if the author was compliant, knowing they are accredited (if that is the right word) by the Alliance of Independent Authors, why did these basic issues not get addressed? Did they honestly not see them, did they see them and simply not mention them? And if so why? For fear of being too harsh and losing a commission? Was it too much work? Did they not know how to solve the issue and felt it would be expected of them?
Whether self publishing or submitting, the general advice for every writer is get feedback but it’s a minefield, one infested as much by other people’s ego’s as your own. With advice, I like to know who is giving it and why. I’ve received feedback which, while disappointing, didn’t sting, because the minute I heard it I thought, aye that’s true, I knew that wasn’t working. I’ve also had feedback that I still can’t make head nor tails of, unless the person was on drugs. I’ve seen embittered individuals rip holes in work based on sterling advice that any novice could offer after reading a couple of one star reviews on amazon. Sadly the good stuff is very hard to come by while the bad is prolific and I fear the damage it can do, especially on mass. Some of the best of mine came from my mammy.. including be more normal.. I’m trying. But this is generally the number one no-no, while paid editorial services and fellow writers are held up as the holy grail.
So… To return to my fellow writer about to self publish. They want to build a career, but right now I cannot see it happening. If I believe I can help, should I? Or, as they are about to publish, is it too late? Can I or anyone do anything except pour acid on their excitement? And will they even listen to me telling them what a supposed professional didn’t?