Rolling With the Punches

Yesterday I was cleaning up the room we’ve been staying in in preparation for our move, when my daughter handed me a red plastic bowl. Inside of it was a dead spider, curled up and dried out. I cried out, “There’s a dead spider in here!” and she happily replied, “TA-DA!”

The day before I also posted an excerpt from a story I’ve been fiddling with [while I let volume #2 sit between edits] on a writing forum I frequent. It’s urban fantasy, and I’m not really a fan of it that I can tell, but the plot demanded nothing less than me going outside my comfort zone. I was having trouble with a supporting character and said as much, but I welcomed any critique people had to offer.

That morning, before my cleaning session, I hopped on to read the replies and received a huge shock–I had one review, and it tore the piece apart. This wouldn’t have been an issue, except that most of what it was tearing apart was based on incorrect information. My first instinct was to be insulted [which is pretty basic human nature] that the person couldn’t even take the time to read it without skimming. But, as I said, I frequent writing forums, and have been training to ‘take a punch’, so to speak.

I’ve been on both sides of critique before, and I know it can sting, so when I offer crit myself, I try to do due diligence; I carefully read the excerpt through once, then go back and read it again, taking notes the second time. If I don’t have time to sit and read the whole thing, I just don’t do it, because that isn’t fair to the author. Technical errors are one thing–they’re wrong because they break established grammar rules and it breaks concentration. Those jump out pretty quick, and are usually done because the person doesn’t know better. Go ahead and note those first. If you can tell me how to fix them–not just that something “seems wrong”–even better!

But then there is the content aspect of the story, and that becomes more difficult to critique; you have to ask yourself, “Can I give a truthful evaluation of this story, even if I do not like what it is about?” This means that if you normally read murder mysteries, can you read an epic fantasy story without telling the author they are doing it wrong because there aren’t enough serial killers for your taste? If you can’t be objective, you should stick to technical errors, preface it with, “I don’t read these types of stories normally, but…” or back away slowly. But sometimes when you put your work out there, you will get people who forge ahead anyway, because you asked for it.

And now we come to the content part. For starters, this person definitely skimmed because throughout the crit they kept demanding answers to questions that were already answered in the text that was posted. [Main character’s name, where the story started, etc. Strangely enough they started using the character’s name after they demanded to know it, which was odd in itself.] In the excerpt, the main character finds a book in her grandparent’s basement, and her grandmother tells her to take it with her when she goes to school . The person writing the critique demanded to know why she stole the book.

At this point, I really wanted to write off the whole crit because it was obvious that the person offering it did not read it all the way. I even asked my husband’s opinion, and he thought it was someone trolling me when I showed him. My husband hates my writing, and has no problem telling me when I am being too sensitive about anything, so clearly something was off.

I wanted to respond. Knee-jerk reaction: I wanted to point out all the things this person got wrong or missed. I wanted to be snarky, to be defensive, to point out how obnoxiously confusing it is when they tell me three sentences is too long to spend talking about the airport, but in the next statement tell me I should have described the chairs in the terminal more and made the character say/think something this character would not think or say. But the number one rule of being an author is that you don’t engage with negative reviews, and I felt that it could also apply in the case of weird, incorrect, semi-aggressive feedback. The only one who ends up looking bad in those kinds of situations is the authors. They look desperate, and defensive–even if they’re trying their hardest to not be.

In the end, I thanked the person for their feedback, and they thanked me for taking it so well. I didn’t expect them to respond–so that was a shock–but the part about me taking it well floored me. Part of me wondered if I was supposed to take it well at all. Most writers should take critique well, especially if they ask for it. Negative feedback regarding your story isn’t about you as a person, it’s about your writing. You can’t let your ego get in the way of improving your work.

Then they told me it was an interesting story, and to keep working on it. At that point the whole thing hit levels of absurdity I wasn’t prepared for.

After I packed/cleaned a bit and mulled it over, I took a shower and realized the spider story kind of applied to this. As writers, we put ourselves out there, delighted grins on our faces, dead spider in bowl. After seeing it that way I spun it around to the opposite view; the person offering the crit is just another person. When you put your work out into the world, be it art or prose, people will find it. Whether or not they like it is always a variable you can’t account for. What made this critique so weird, I finally realized, was that it was smothered in the personal opinions of the person writing it, and they wanted it to be a completely different story. Even critically-acclaimed authors get people who don’t find their work appealing. Did you hear about that guy who lambasted Terry Pratchett recently? Dear gods… I’m not even going to link it and drive traffic to the article, but it was cringe-tastic. It was so bad, it needed a portmanteau.

But even the harshest review can have seeds of truth in it, and this strange critique I received probably does too, once I figure out what is actually valid advice. So now when I return to it, I’m going to go over what I wrote and see if I can see what this person was seeing. In the meantime, I’m also waiting to see if anyone else gives feedback, so I can compare it to what this person said.

I’m still very confused by it as a whole though. So, so confused. [Like, why did they think she stole the book?!] But it does make me realize that I take my beta readers a for granted just a tiny bit. Thank you, guys, for always reading carefully and being concise with your feedback/suggestions. I appreciate it. I so do!

P.S: I’ll have Atlantis: TVC Volume #2 ready for your eyes after I move, I promise!

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