Here’s the thing. Feedback–real, honest feedback–is hard. Whether you’re giving it or receiving it, it can be a rough thing to do. But if you want to be a good author, and more, if you want to be a reader who experiences good authors, you can’t pull your punches when it comes to giving an honest opinion of someone’s work.
Quality doesn’t come easy–an idea that’s seemed to disappear in today’s day and age where everything is PC and God forbid you say anything that might offend someone. But it’s true. If you want to write quality work, and better yet, if you want to read quality work, you have to be brutally honest.
And here’s the thing about honesty: sometimes–often times–it hurts.
Let’s face it. None of us likes hearing that something we’ve put our heart and soul, time and effort into isn’t 100% amazing and fantabulous. (And yes, I’m aware that’s not a real word. But it rocks and is fun to say.) But that’s what’s wrong with the publishing world these days, specifically indie and self-publishing. John Doe writes a novel, sends it to his mother, his lover’s brother, and his best friend’s other friend and says, “Hey, what do you think of my book?” And because these people either a) love John Doe, b) may or may not have experience in reading a book with the intent of quality control, and/or c) don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, they tell John Doe it’s the best, most original thing they’ve ever read. So John Doe slaps a cover on it, professional or not, and sets it up on Amazon to sell. And it joins the never-ending quagmire of self-published “novels” that, frankly, suck, and does nothing more than add to the trepidation and hesitation that comes along with purchasing a self-published work. Making it that much harder for the rest of us.
There’s this idea that has permeated the human mindset that anybody can write a book. Technically, that’s true. Anybody who has the will and determination can type out 50,000+ words in this or that order and call it a story. They can then format it, upload it, and call it a book. But the hard truth is that not just anybody can write a good book. A successful book. Writing a good, successful book is a process that requires a recipe with multiple necessary ingredients. One of those is honest feedback. Constructive criticism. Just like when you don’t put the baking soda in your cookies, if you don’t utilize the honest opinions of others, even when they’re hard to take, your work is going to come out flat and lifeless.
Two scenarios for you, both personal:
Number 1: A peer of mine asked me to send him one of my stories. Didn’t matter which one, any story would do. He just wanted to get a sense of my writing. So I sent him a copy of “Phobia,” a short story I’d written based on two of my own personal fears. I was extremely proud of the piece (still am) and felt that it was probably one of, if not the, best representations of my work. I waited anxiously for his opinion on it, sure that it would get a grand review. But when he came back to me, his response was fairly lackluster. It wasn’t enough, he said. It was a solid piece of work, but it needed more. He didn’t connect with the main character. He didn’t feel her fear, didn’t feel her pain. He felt she was more of a caricature, rather than a true character. She didn’t come off real, and that was enough to not make the story.
I was more than a little deflated immediately afterwards. Disappointed. What I thought I had done so good of a job portraying, obviously hadn’t translated to the page. While it was tough to swallow, I also respected this peer’s opinion. I trust him. I’ve read some of his work and it’s damn good. So if he’s telling me my piece needs work, then it needs work. He didn’t say that to hurt my feelings. He told me that to make me better. To give me a better chance of succeeding in this dog-eat-dog world where we’re all trying to get ahead. Was the initial reaction painful? Sure. But if I’m serious about making it in this business, that’s what it’s going to take.
Number 2: Another peer asked me to read a short bit of a piece she’s working on. I read it, and my initial reaction was not a good one. I didn’t care for it. So I read it again to try and figure out why. And once I did that, I had to figure out how I was going to tell my peer. I won’t lie, I didn’t want to tell her I didn’t care for it. That it didn’t hook me. That it wasn’t drawing any real sense of emotion from me, though I knew exactly what emotions I was supposed to be feeling. But I did tell her. Because that’s my job as a reader. Because that’s what she asked me to do.
Did she feel some sense of disappointment at what I told her? I don’t know. But I would assume so. I would assume most of us do when we don’t get the reaction we were hoping for. Was she mad about it? She didn’t seem so. I asked her for more, so I could expand my context, and maybe give her a different opinion when I had a better idea of where she was going. She sent it. It’s currently in my inbox, and I’ll be reading it once I finish writing this blog.
Giving and receiving constructive criticism is a skill. A necessary one. And you’ve got to have both if you’re going to write in this world. Now, let’s not mistake constructive criticism with destructive. You can tell someone you don’t like something without being a jerk. You can offer suggestions on how to make something better, rather than simply saying “This sucks.” Like I said, it’s a skill.
That being said, if you can’t take an honest critique, knowing that some (or all) of it might be more negative than positive, you shouldn’t be in this business. And if you’re unable or unwilling to tell someone the things you don’t like about their work, then don’t offer yourself as a source of feedback. And if they ask you to, don’t hesitate to respectfully decline. No response is actually more helpful than a false positive, crazy as that sounds.
So, do you have the skills to be in the business? The good news is, even if you don’t now, just like any other skill, this too can be developed. Work at it. Get better. Go forth and conquer. Succeed. You can do it, if you’re willing to embrace all its necessary evils.
~~Briana Robertson, Author, Stitched Smile Publications~~
Briana Robertson is an emerging speculative fiction author, working primarily within the genres of horror and fantasy. Her love of authors such as Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Patrick Rothfuss, and J.K. Rowling has developed her own need to put pen to paper. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies, and broadcast on online podcasts. Her debut novel is in the works, set to release in 2017. She currently lives in the Midwest, with her husband, three daughters, and their Maine Coon, Bagheera. Be sure to visit her website, as well as follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,WordPress, and Pinterest.