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Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Everyone's A Critic

Courtesy of NoShoes
You've finished your book. Yay! And you've either found an agent and landed a publishing deal, were accepted by a small press, or decided to pursue self-publishing.

Congratulations! Now you're a published author.

Remember all that stomach churning anxiety as you first wrote your book? The doubts and fears that told you the plot was trite, the characters cardboard, and this whole enterprise stupid? Or receiving comments back from your beta readers that illuminated the book's flaws and sometimes contradicted each other?

It's about to get a lot harder.

Reviews can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, they allow your readers to discuss and share your work. On the other, they only highlight the fact that not everyone who meets your book is going to love--or even like--it.

I was reading a post by Seth Godin on What Are Professional Reviews For? and I agreed with a lot of what he said.

Once your book is out there in the wild, it's going to run into critics. The key is figuring out which critics to listen to and which to ignore. I've separated the types of critics into three separate categories as they pertain in relation to the author (you).

Professional Critics

These are the critics that appear in the newspapers, magazines, etc. Critics whose organizations have gained the authority to offer criticism--both positive and negative--for the books they read.

These can be helpful, especially if they bring up a strength or weakness you may not have considered before, but they can also be less than helpful sometimes. To the best of my knowledge, professional reviews that represent an organization like Kirkus, rather than a specific book reviewer who might have a column, are listed by the organization's name, leaving the person who actually read and reviewed the book anonymous. This can make it harder to determine the context the reviewer was reading in--which will have a lot of weight in how the reviewer perceives your story.

My opinion: when in doubt, don't give it space to worry you. Professional critics are not always perfectly matched with books that will resonate with them, and you have no control over this. Besides, there are plenty of other things that will be ulcer-inducing. Don't let this one be one of those.

Not Your Audience Critics

In a perfect world, readers would be perfectly matched to the books they loved. They would never come across books they didn't or genres they don't care for, so there would no longer be reviews of this sort. Authors and avid readers rejoice.

Unfortunately, the world is far from perfect.

The Not Your Audience Critics (hereafter to be known as NYACs), can fall into three camps:

  1. People who came to your book with certain expectations. They could have formed these expectations from your cover, the title, the blurb, chatter about your book, or recommendations from friends. The thing is, for one reason or another, they came to your book expecting pumpkin pie and found chocolate mousse instead.
  2. People who don't usually read your genre, but were enticed by all of the things in the first group, or maybe they got your book as a gift or for a good deal. Either way, they like apple pie, and can't stand strawberry, but decided to give yours a try anyway. Predictably, they really don't like strawberry pie.
  3. People, who, well . . . demand tolls for bridge crossings and have some major beef with certain Billy Goats Gruff. I believe this is the smallest group, but it doesn't make their words hurt any less--especially if your confidence is already shaky.
In all of these cases, while the reviews have merits for other possible readers, you're not going to be able to take much from these reviews by way of constructive criticism, because if you're serving a strawberry chocolate mousse pie, you're serving a strawberry chocolate mousse pie. The key here is to find the readers who really love that flavor.

Your Audience Critics

These are your fans. People who love the type of pie you're serving. If ever you were to listen to a group of people, these would be the ones to listen to. They understand the tropes and themes common to your genre. They come to your book wanting to like it, and hoping to love it.

They want you to succeed.

Are you going to please everyone in this group? Happy dream that this is, probably not. Books can be broken down into so many smaller parts (genre, sub-genre, style, age level, etc.), that it would be virtually impossible to hit the sweet spot in each of them for everyone--especially as some will favor spare prose while others prefer their prose to be nice and lush. You would need to take individual taste into account, but for the most part, these are the ones who are more closely aligned with where you're coming from and where you hope to go.

(There is a fourth critic, your inner critic, but I'm focusing on external critics for this post. :D)

So what does this all mean?

Pretty much, once you release your book into the wilds of publishing, the ones who read, judge, and review your story is going to be out of your hands. I would suggest that making peace with this and coming up with coping strategies to deal with reviews will lighten the publishing load a little and make it not seem quite so heavy.

There is another way to handle reviews, and that not to read them at all. :D
That is also my favorite method of keeping myself sane and centered. The people for whom I take a closer, more critical look at my own work are those that read my story *before* publication. Beta readers, editors, proofreaders, and--in the end, my own gut.

After that, I try to make peace with the little doubts that creep onto my shoulders and into my ears by reminding myself that I honestly wrote the very best book I had the power to write, and that, for me, has to be enough.

Danyelle Leafty| @danyelleleafty writes YA and MG fantasy. She is the author of The Fairy Godmother Dilemma series (CatspellFirespellApplespell, and Frogspell),  Slippers of Pearl, andBitten: A Novel of Faerie, and can be found on her blog. She can also be found on Wattpad.


Unknown said...

I am hoping my work will be published of course. In the meantime, I want to learn as much of the business as I can. This is an aspect I had not thought much about yet. Thanks for sharing and breaking it down.

Brenda Gayle said...

The timing of this post couldn't be better. I've been trying to reconcile the great reviews I've always received from professional reviewers to the not-so-great ones coming as a result of free downloads of my books. I think I've decided to not read reviews anymore and just focus on doing my best work, seeking feedback from my critique partners, beta readers and editors. Thanks.

docstar said...

Reviews are for readers, not writers. If someone loves your book, great. If they don't - it's unlikely they're going to give an actual critique (ie, comments that are meant to help the writer). The book's out there. Move on to the next.

Mart Ramirez said...

This is an AWESOME post, Danyelle! Thank you. Storing it away for when the time comes.

BTW LOVE how you spell your name.

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

If reviews start to hurt your feelings, it's good to leave them alone for a while. And the best books ever are going to have detractors, so one's expectation should never be that a book will only get good reviews.

But once one can get over the hurt, reviews--even horrible ones--can be truly helpful. Was there a scene that faltered? A character that didn't shape out well? An ending that left readers dissatisfied? An even that simply wasn't plausible enough? Any given review can have these lovely bits of feedback in it... and such feedback is fantastic as one works on future books. I have found too many authors all too willing to ignore reviews completely--and many of these do not learn from one book to the next, but instead commit the same mistakes over and over, losing readers each time and gaining none.

Danyelle L. said...

You're welcome, Debra--and good luck!

Best of luck, Brenda. :D

I agree, docstar. I see a lot of authors obsessing over reviews, and to a point, I understand why. But when it comes down to it, the review is really for the readers--past and future.

Thanks, Martha! :)

I see where you're coming from, Shakespeare, and if you've found something that works for you, that's great. :) The point I was trying to make is that as authors, we shouldn't obsess over things that are completely out of our control. Also, it's not always easy to tell from the review if the reviewer is someone who likes apple pie or someone who has tried it for the first time and found it lacking. Regardless, the experience was the reality for the reader, but I don't personally think it wise for the author to make changes based on something that might be a stylistic, genre trope/themes, etc. difference--especially when the author doesn't have the full context of the opinion. I agree that authors should continue to learn and improve, I just don't believe that reading their reviews is the most efficient way to do that.