Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Take my words, please!
This is another of those old columns I wrote for the chapter newsletter "Del CorAZón" when I was president of the Valley of the Sun RWA chapter in 1993.
The Behaving Badly Author is not a new phenomenon, by any means, and I had the great misfortune to deal with a couple of them back in the day. Fortunately, in some ways, the meltdowns were relatively private and didn't spill out into the greater discussions. Unfortunately, because they were private, no one came to my defense and the BBAs were able to take their case to others without challenge. I'm not sure I want to put too much blame on them for my decision to abandon my writing career, but they certainly didn't provide encouragement for me to stick it out.
Today, of course, the BBAs are able to bring all their drama to the review sites, their own blogs, and wherever else they can gain an audience. Their tantrums, however, are the same as they were 20 years ago. Or 30.
And so, slightly updated for the changes in the publishing landscape, here is what I wrote. . . then.
TAKE IT -- OR LEAVE IT
I don't usually make this column a personal soapbox, but I'm making an exception. I've been the shocked recipient of two rather unpleasant responses to manuscript evaluations I did earlier this year.
These evaluations were personally requested by authors who claimed they valued my honest opinion and my expertise. Both then expressed outrage and emotional devastation because I dared to find fault with their books. This isn't the first time; I tend to believe people when they say they want an honest evaluation. But I'm going to make sure it's the last time I take the blame for someone else's shattered ego.
So to all of you who have thought about asking for my personal evaluation of your manuscripts, I offer this warning:
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't expect rave reviews. Expect the critic not to like your work. Then you'll be pleasantly surprised by all the nice things he or she says and more willing to listen objectively to the unpleasant things.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't tell your critic you'd like some help tightening your style and then get defensive every time she suggests you delete some extraneous adjectives or trim some repetitive narrative. This is especially true if you tell your critic you don't know exactly what "tightening" means. Listen -- and learn.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't accuse your critic of ignorance. You're the one who admitted, by asking for guidance, that you don't know everything. Respect your critic's expertise -- and her opinion.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't take criticism personally. Learn to separate yourself from your work. Your critic is evaluating only words on paper, not the personal motives and emotions you've invested in those words. If the book is so much a part of you that any criticism of it becomes a criticism of yourself, you may be writing more for yourself than for any audience, even an audience of one.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't offer motivations and justifications to the critic who says she can't find those motivations and justifications in the manuscript, which is where they're supposed to be. You won't be there to explain them to an editor, and certainly not to a reader. Get them in the book, where they belong.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't rely on editors to buy your book and then fix its problems. They won't. They want proof you can do it on your own. Your book is competing against those of other authors who are willing to take criticism and do their own work. You've got to be able to do the same if you want to compete successfully. And if you think you can self-publish without the assistance of a professional editor, then you have to be prepared for the reactions. Maybe you can, but maybe you can't, and that's a risk you have to weigh.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't pin your hopes on editors or any other critics making gentle suggestions for improvement. Most of the responses you get from editors are likely to be the cruelest criticism of all -- rejection without explanation. If the helpful hints from a friend are more than your fragile ego can take, how will you survive the reality check of a form-letter rejection that tells you nothing except that the editor didn't like your work -- and didn't even like it enough to comment on it? And what will you do when readers who don't know you and don't care about you make negative comments?
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't expect to learn anything from gushing praise and warm fuzzies and smiley faces. They only tell you the things you don't need to work on. You can't correct your mistakes or strengthen your weaknesses unless you know what they are. Most of your family members and personal friends are not experts in writing techniques or story construction or grammar or proofreading. Their opinions do not count, not even if they are experts.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't put your book out there for anyone and everyone to read. You may have avoided the emotional devastation of an editor's form letter rejection, but now everyone who reads your book has the same platform for criticism as the editors and agents who might have rejected without comment. Free or at an inflated price, people may very well read it and some might not like it. Just as you're free to publish it, they're free to post reviews, make comments, express their opinion.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. Don't slap together the Word file of your beloved book and upload it to Amazon or Nook or Smashwords and forget it. If it doesn't look like a "real" published book, it's not going to read like a published book. Check the damned e-formatting for pagination, paragraphing, everything. Don't whine about Amazon screwing up -- yes, I've written about that, too -- just fix it. Whatever it takes, fix it and don't offer stupid excuses or worse, blame the reader.
If you can't take criticism, don't ask for it. And whatever you do, don't ask me, because I will tell you the truth.