The Business Rusch: Perfection
Last week, I mentioned the blog post I had started, but decided not to publish in the midst of a busy workshop. Here it is:
At every craft workshop I teach, I make at least one writer cry. This week, I’m teaching a short story workshop for professional writers. These are workshop-hardened folk, people who have been eviscerated by the best of them, people who come to my workshops having heard that I make writers cry, expecting me to be the most vicious critiquer of all.
How do I bring writers to tears? Usually by saying this:
I loved this story. It’s wonderful. Mail it.
That’s my entire critique.
Is the story perfect? Of course not. No story is. Not a one. No matter how many times it’s “polished” and “fixed” and “improved.” No one can write a perfect story.
If such a thing existed, then we would all read the same books and enjoy them equally. We would watch the same movies and need reviewers to tell us only which movie is perfect and which one isn’t. We would buy the same comics, again, going only for the comic that is perfect, and ignoring all the others.
Am I telling people to write crap? No. Because the choice isn’t between crap and perfection. Those are false choices.
I learned this lesson long ago. Dean Wesley Smith and I were visitors at a writing workshop taught by science fiction writer and editor Algis Budrys. One of the early volumes of Writers of the Future, which he had edited, had just appeared, and he asked the students to read one of the stories in the volume.
Then, without telling Dean and I what he was doing, he asked us to comment on the story.
Here’s what I remember of the piece: It was 2,000 words long. I think we spoke more than 2,000 words in our elegant, impressive critiques.
Algis looked at both of us sadly. Then he said, “Ignore them. The story is wonderful—or at least it is to this editor.”
He had expected us to praise the story, thinking we all had the same taste. Instead, Dean and I both had gone after the story in critique mode. When a reader critiques something, he goes after it by searching for what is wrong.
And he will find something. Something is always wrong. From an infelicitous turn of phrase to a plot point that could have been stronger, something about the story does not work.
As I’m teaching this concept to my workshop-experienced students, I always begin by asking them this, “What’s wrong with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
Well, we’re all raised to believe that Shakespeare is a god who never could do anything wrong. Had he done anything wrong, had his stories been less-than-perfect, we wouldn’t be reading them? Right?
If William Shakespeare—professional writer—had turned A Midsummer Night’s Dream in at a workshop I taught, I would have told him this:
“Bill, lose at least two of your endings. The main story of the play ends in Act IV, Scene 2—and then you go on for two more scenes. All of these endings would work. Pick one.”
Bill Shakespeare, dutiful workshopper that he is, would nod sadly, go back to his room, and delete one of the most favorite and quoted scenes in all of English literature. Puck turns to the audience and says,
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
I would have said to Bill, “Lovely. Thematically significant. Beautifully written. Lose it. You can do the same thing elsewhere.”
Yeah, right. My harsh words, spoken with authority, and Workshopper Bill’s insecurity would have stolen 400 years of enjoyment from audiences all over the world.
Anything can be critiqued. Criticizing something is easy. It makes the critiquer feel smart, and just a little bit superior to the writer.
But that kind of critique serves no real purpose, because that kind of critique is wrong from the moment the critiquer picks up the story or the manuscript or the 400-year-old play.
Readers read for enjoyment. They vote for what they like with their hard cold cash. Traditional publishers who recently ventured into the world of free online e-book promotions were stunned to realize that people who receive a book for free are more apt to write a vicious, nasty review of that book than people who paid money for the same book.
There are a few reasons for that. One is that people see no value in something they get for free. Dean’s discussing that bit on his blog right now.
But the one reason that’s relevant to this essay is this: If people have paid a little for a book, they have a vested interest in it. They take a small bit of the blame if the reading experience didn’t turn out exactly like they hoped. They should have looked at the cover more closely, perhaps, or read a snippet of the opening. But they didn’t. So they got a book they didn’t like. It was an accident. They’ll do better next time.
Readers are more realistic than writers. Readers understand that many, many, many books out there in the universe won’t be to their taste. All sorts of marketing tools have sprung up over the centuries to help readers find works that will be to their taste. From cover art to genre categories to back cover blurbs, all these things exist to help a reader choose the right book for them—a book they won’t regret purchasing. A book they will enjoy.
When a reader samples an e-book, she gets a small portion of the novel. If it’s to her taste, she will then decide whether or not to purchase. But if the book is really, really good, the reader will punch that “buy” button just to see what happens next regardless of price. (That’s how a lot of e-books priced over $10 sell to people who swear they’ll never pay more than $9.99 for an e-book. The reader samples, gets hooked, and buys, without checking price at all.)
What does that have to do with critique? Simple. Critiquers get the manuscript for free and they’re asked to criticize it. Of course, they will find something wrong with it. In that circumstance, we all will.
So I change my students’ mindset to a reader/editor mindset. How do I do it? By giving them only three valid responses to something they’ve read:
1. I liked what I read.
2. I quit on page [insert number here].
3. I liked what I read and I would have bought this.
Book and magazine editors don’t have time to read every manuscript that crosses their desks, and certainly don’t have time to critique them. Editors want to find something the readers will enjoy. Better yet, the editors want those people to return for a second bite from the apple. So they want the readers to enjoy the first book, and come back for the second by the same author. In fact, the editors want readers to return to the publishing house again and again, which is why imprints exist. (If you liked this book by Suzy Q. Writer, then try this book by Jane X. Author, published under the same imprint.)
In other words, editors also read for enjoyment. And if they’re not enjoying a book on page 2, they’ll jettison that book. The only time they use their editing superpowers on that book is if they bought it sight unseen from a professional writer and can’t reject it for cause. Then they try to help the writer “improve” that book, when really, if the editor were an average reader, he would have simply tossed the book aside and asked for another book (maybe even by somebody else).
Harsh? Not really. Not compared to a thirty-minute critique of a romance novel by a hard-science fiction writer forced to read said romance novel as part of a workshop. You ain’t heard harsh until then.
But I’m sure all you writers out there have heard just such a critique. And many of you have taken it to heart. I know dozens of writers who quit writing because they couldn’t stand the pain they received from their peer-level writing workshop. That’s a tragedy. How many stories have we lost? How many Bill Shakespeares have dumped the “unnecessary” second and third endings from their immensely enjoyable stories because some idiot told them to?
I don’t let students drone on and on about a story, especially if they don’t like it. I will occasionally give the student something to improve the story, but before I do, I remind the student that 1) I am no longer editing, so my word has equal weight to every other reader’s word in the room; 2) I can be wrong; and 3) ignore everything I say if you disagree with me.
I go last, after I’ve heard the rest of the workshop. If anyone “buys” the manuscript at all and I didn’t like the manuscript or had found “flaws,” I remind the writer that someone already loved it and was willing to spend cold, hard cash on it.
Often, I tell writers this: Do not touch this story. Mail it. Everyone in the room liked it but me. Therefore what I have to say is irrelevant.
In other words, I never tell a student to make a story perfect. I often tell a student that the story is really good and needs to get out into the world where readers can find it.
I also teach writers bits and pieces of craft, things they might not be aware of. I don’t want them to create my perfect story. I want them to write stories that only they can tell.
So many writers table perfectly good stories because someone—often someone with power (an editor, a writer with a few novels under her belt, a well-published nonfiction writer)—will nitpick the story to death. Or suggest revisions that will alter the story dramatically. If the story already works, who cares if it has three endings? Those of us who don’t like the story don’t know if the people who loved the story loved it because of those three endings, not in spite of them.
When I became an editor, I learned just how important taste is. The difference between the short stories in Analog and Asimov’s, two of the science fiction digest magazines (that now have e-book editions each month if you haven’t seen them before), isn’t that there is such thing as an Analog story or an Asimov’s story that I as a long-time reader can tell you about. The difference is in the taste of their editors. Stanley A. Schmidt of Analog likes different kinds of stories than Sheila Williams of Asimov’s does. Occasionally their tastes overlap. Most often, they do not.
If there were such a thing as a perfect sf story, then both editors would always buy the same stories, and you couldn’t tell the magazines apart.
As readers, you all know this. As writers, you forget it.
And when you forget it, you make the weirdest decisions.
You give control of your product to the wrong people. You submit romance novels to science fiction markets (and wonder why the editor didn’t read your manuscript—was it the passive sentence on page 32?). You try to revise to please everyone in your peer-level writing group.
You self-publish your novel, make sure it’s edited and copyedited, add a fantastic cover, and then revise to address concerns posted by reviewers who gave your book one star. That’s complete and utter idiocy. Seriously.
Some nutty brand new writer, with one or two novels to her name, posted a blog on Digital Book World espousing just that. She says writers should always address their critics’ concerns.
I read that and nearly snorted my tea all over my iPad. If I even tried to address all the nasty reviews I’ve gotten over the years, I’d never write anything new. If I tried to address all the somewhat valid criticisms I’ve gotten on my books, I’d still spend forever revising.
Only a writer with one or two publications to her credit would have time to even think such a thing is viable.
Her blog post has gone viral, and I’ve seen new writers everywhere wring their hands over the fact that they now have to pay attention to their one-star reviews and constantly revise.
I’m here to tell you this: If you want a career as a writer, ignore your critics.
When the book is finished, when the book is published for heaven’s sake, then it’s done. Irrevocably done. Mistakes and all.
And there will be mistakes. Lots of them.
One of my copy editors has been comparing my final manuscripts to the previously published editions of my novels as a final prep for the books’ reissues. She’s done that for two years now, and she’s found many things that copy editors missed. (Failing to capitalize Diet Coke in a novel published by Dell, for instance.) We’re fixing those tiny copyediting things because WMG Publishing is reissuing the books. Reissues always need proofs as they go into a new format because the format itself can introduce errors.
But she’s been having fits over one of the latest two Grayson novels, which will be reissued this summer. She complained in person to me about it. I frowned and said that I seemed to recall a bad copyedit on one of the Grayson books.
She wrote an e-mail to me later saying, “You really did have a horrible [copy] editor on this one. S/he/it (and yes, that really does say a lot about it) faithfully reproduced nearly every misspelled word, and introduced some errors…in the ms. Yeesh!”
In other words, the entire book was riddled with typos—and yes, we’re fixing them. But am I taking the opportunity to revise the book? No, I’m not. The book stands as it did when I originally wrote it. Readers loved those books. I’m not going to try to invalidate their reading experience by “improving” on it. I might take out the thing that they love.
A writer whose work I adore has revised my favorite novel of hers twice, publishing each revision as a new edition, neither of which I will not buy. I loved that first edition of that book. I don’t care how much better she’s gotten as a craftsperson. That book didn’t need a word changed, in my opinion.
At the workshop, one of the students pre-critiqued his own manuscript right after I called his name. We were well into the workshop by then; the writers knew the drill. We’d talk about the manuscript and then the author could speak. But he picked up the manuscript and volunteered to throw it away before we could comment on it.
Another student turned on him and growled, “I loved this story.” Then everyone else piled on. Yep, most of us had loved that story and all of us who had loved it were deeply offended that he thought it flawed.
When you learn a new bit of craft, when your skills have improved, when a reader points out a valid storytelling mistake in your published book that would take a complete revision of that book, what should you do?
Leave the book alone.
Incorporate what you’ve learned into the next book. You’ll learn something new on that book that you can then incorporate into the next book. Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving. But for god’s sake, don’t look backwards. Those books are done.
How do you know when a manuscript is done? That’s trickier. I think you should trust the process, fix the nits, and move to the next book. Writing is a subconscious art, not a conscious one. You heard your first story before you could speak, so your subconscious knows a lot more about writing than your conscious brain ever will.
Many writers don’t believe what I just wrote, and that’s fine. You need to define it for yourself. Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit. (My book must be done in August, no matter what.) Then release your book on the unsuspecting public.
The book will never be perfect. Take the advice that those of us who’ve worked in broadcasting learned long ago. I think it was best expressed by Tina Fey in Bossy Pants: The show doesn’t go on when it’s finished; it goes on because it’s 11:30.
Exactly. At some point, you must simply let go of that book or story or play and move to the next.
If our workshopping friend Bill Shakespeare strove for perfection, we would never have heard of him. We wouldn’t have gotten all of that marvelous writing, all of those wonderful—flawed—plays. (You don’t think A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the only one riddled with possible workshop-identifiable errors, do you? Think of Romeo and Juliet. Why didn’t those crazy lovesick kids just move to another town????)
With so many publishing options, it’s harder now for a writer to believe in her work. Does she go to traditional publishing and ask them to validate her book? Does she self-publish and hope for the best?
I understand that. I also think that writers need to understand that they’re not writing for one editor or agent or for a small subset of people like a critique group. Writers write for readers.
And it’s up to the writer as to how to find those readers. As Sarah Hoyt said in last week’s comments, ask yourself, “How will this book best reach its audience?” The key words here are “book,” “reach,” and “audience.”
Not “How do I impress Editor A?” or “How do I get an agent?” But how does this book best reach its audience? Sometimes that answer is through traditional publishing. Sometimes that answer is to become an indie writer.
The question should never ever be, “How do I write the perfect novel?” because the perfect novel or short story or play or article or essay does not exist.
A better question is, “How do I make the book the best it can be?” That you have to answer for yourself. Me, I make sure I have outside help—a dedicated first reader or two or three before my book goes to my editor in traditional publishing or to the editor I hire when I self-publish. A copy editor in both cases to make sure that my dyslexia doesn’t make my books impossible to read. A “stet” stamp so that I can disagree with said copy editor when I wanted a particular misspelling or poorly constructed sentence to stand for story reasons. (Allyson Longueira has a great post on this very topic.)
The best possible cover. The best possible interior design.
Sometimes I get a say in those last two things. Sometimes I don’t.
I also don’t always get a say in how the books get distributed either. Remember, my goal is to find my audience, and when my traditional publishers choose not to pursue every distribution option open to them (because it’s too much work or there’s “too little return”), I get angry.
My readership varies from book to book, series to series, genre to genre. I never know who will like something I wrote. I just have to give that person the opportunity to find what I did.
Sometimes readers like my work. Sometimes they don’t. Once the book is released into the wilds of publishing, however, it’s done. Finished. I will not revise a published book.
Is my craft better than it was twenty years ago when I published my first novel? Oh, hell, yes. But my craft is so much better that I could never have written that novel now. Because there’s something in the middle of it that no established writer, steeped in craft, would ever attempt. At the time I wrote the book, I didn’t know you couldn’t do that thing, so I did it.
Had I workshopped that novel, more experienced writers would have told me to remove that thing. Yet that thing is what readers remark on the most about that novel.
When you strive for perfection in your writing, you’re dooming yourself to perpetual failure. When you strive to be the best you can be, you will have a fulfilling life.
Writers who are always improving, always learning, move forward. They are secure in the knowledge that the book they wrote ten years ago is the best book it could have been given their level of craft and their understanding of the art of writing at the time they finished the book. They’re better now, so they write new things, explore new pathways.
They also realize that they have a career, not a novel. The people who tell you to endlessly revise, the people who tell you not to try something new until you’ve mastered the old, the people who believe that you should make every word perfect before you move onto a new project, those people don’t have writing careers. They might have things that seem like writing careers, like a few published stories, one or two novels.
But they don’t make their living from their craft (in other words, publishing their writing). They also approach storytelling from the point of view of perfection, not the point of view of enjoyment.
If a flawed novel entertains, it has done its job.
How do you know if a novel entertains? Talk to its fans. Look at its sales figures. See how many people recommend it to their friends.
How do you learn to be the best writer you can be? Step one: Read other people’s work for enjoyment. Stop critiquing manuscripts. Stop thinking everything can be perfect.
Then write a lot. Practice, practice, practice. Find your audience—and respect them.
After all, they’re forking out their hard-earned cash to pay for one of your stories. If they buy more of your work, then you’re doing something right.
Perfection in publishing—like perfection in life—does not exist.
So why do people cry in my craft workshops? Essentially because I tell them they don’t have to be perfect. They just need to have fun. They need to share that fun with their readers. Writers understand that. We all do. We like to share our work—the best work we can do—with other people. Not perfect work. The best. Even if it has two additional unnecessary endings.
See why I didn’t publish this last week when I had no time? I knew this one was going to cause a firestorm of comments, and I knew a bunch of you would ask for clarification. By the way, if you can’t be polite in the comments, you’re not going to get your comment published.
Someone once suggested that I shut off the comments to save time, but I value them. I value the e-mails and the links you send as well. I also value the donations, which keep me going on the nonfiction portion of my career. This nonfiction blog will continue as long as the readers support it financially. When that stops, I stop, because I have a lot of fiction stories to tell, and this blog takes some of that fiction time.
Thanks to everyone who has contributed in the past to keep this blog going. I appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: “Perfection,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
You realize, of course, that the minions over at Absolute Write will be feverishly burning your effigies as soon as they read this.
I expected some effigy burning here as well. So far, nada. (Are they afraid I’ll tell them their effigies are okay to mail?)
LOL — no, the problem is that the effigies they’ve built need some revisions. They’ll burn them all right when they’ve got them perfected….
Tearful thanks, Kris, as one of the eleven who was there.
I had two or three break-through moments last week. Two stories that I had convinced myself were the defining central concept of crap got good support from your experienced evaluation and from a goodly number of my fellow workshoppers. Which underscores another point that you teach, but which takes some of us longer to internalize than others. That point: A writer is a poor judge of the quality of his/her own work.
Stepping off from that: too much input from other novice writers (without strong editorial credentials) can so easily and wrongly feed the down-sucking whirlpool of one’s own doubt. When I came home this week I pulled out a pile of old manuscripts that I have been handwringing about reworking after workshopping them Milford style among other writers. The manuscripts are all lined up on the floor now, with only MY purple pen, to make minor touch ups before I trot them off to market, with renewed faith in the process.
I hope my fellow writers/critiquers (creative artists and wonderful friends all) write “those other stories” that they suggested I write when they citiqued mine. Publishing “a” story or “a-nother story” is not my goal. That approach would defeat my spirit if I let it become my goal. Publishing “my” story or “my-nother” story is why I write in the first place.
Thanks again for such a magnificent post to and for those of us still working our way up the hill.
This is such good news, Bob. Yay! Bob-work out there! Yay! Love the “my-nother” story. Great.
In other words, writing workshops are not a democracy; they’re a benevolent dictatorship of the author.
Only if you let them be. I count myself sort of fortunate that no one in the workshop I went to reads my genre. It meant I could focus on the actual craft comments–pacing, hook, etc–and not worry about a lot of the other stuff that didn’t really help my book.
Thank you, Kris.
Fellow writers, I *HIGHLY* recommend doing everything you can for the opportunity to attend one of Kris’s workshops. It just might change your life. 😉
Thanks, Anthea. 🙂
Excellent essay. It can be all too easy for a writer to get mired in a seemingly endless circle of re-writes. One can only do one’s best to bring a story to a good enough point i.e. a point where it works. After appropriate subbing and an edit one simply has to let go.
Kris, I think this is quite possibly your best post. I have a few boards that I’ll check in on from time to time where newer writers frequent and it annoys me to see all the perfectionistic talk. I’ve been referring people here and tweeting the heck out of this. So, I’m off to write and you can deal with them. =)
Awesome, Kris! I agree with you 100% on this.
I hope you and Dean are doing well. I keep you both in my prayers.
I agree about not endlessly revising. SOmetimes you have to call it a day and move on to your next story. I call it the George Lucas Effect. You may very well “ruin” someone’s “childhood” by over revising.
Oh and look. I’ve made some spelling errors in my first post. I am tempted to revise, but I won’t. 😉
I forgot about Lucas. Yeah, I was not happy with that…
This may not be what you’re talking about, but:
Someday I’m going to publish a book, then turn around an promptly publish a “special edition” of said book. 🙂
Oh, that’s a very good example.
I think it was Stephen R. Donaldson whom I once heard answering a fan’s question about what he would change if he could revise and republish his early books. His answer was to this effect: ‘Nothing. I’m not the person I was when I wrote those books, and that person deserves to have his say.’
Thanks for writing this. It’s just what I needed, right when I needed it.
Well, I don’t need any further explanation but that’s because it’s what my number one reader and supporter has been telling me for a long time. 🙂 Maybe now I will believe him. I did believe him enough to put all the good parts back in (the more I followed the critique advice, the less the praise the piece got) and self-publish. But you’re right, it’s harder than ever now for a writer to know when something is ready. And self-publishing by no means gives immediate validation.
I think you just have to trust yourself, ES. Finish the book and move on to the next project. (And seriously, the validation must come from within or it’ll just drive you crazy.)
(You think that’s going to ignite a firestorm of comments? Here’s how you ignite a firestorm of comments!)
Great post, Kris. Loved it. Changed my view of my very first traditionally pubbed novel, which I got the rights back to and now I’m going to re-publish a lot sooner than otherwise. Thanks!
Oh, and by the way, when you’re talking to Shakespeare, his first name wasn’t Bill. It was Ed.
(Steps back to watch the Stratfordians have aneurysms while the Oxfordians chuckle.)
Oooooo, this could be fun! I see your Edward De Vere and raise you a Walter Sickert! =)
Oh, no, TK. I’ve been calling a student by the wrong name for the whole class. [blushes] LOL!
Oh, no. You had his name right. These other students just like picking on him because he’s poor.
Shakespeare was one of your students??? Wow, Kris, you’ve aged really well.
Thanks, Sarah. I like to think so. 🙂
Five hundred years from now, I wonder if we’ll be having the same arguments over the authorship of Jane Austen.
Thank you for this article. I am going to link this to EVERYONE I KNOW WHO HAS A BOOK-IN-PROGRESS. Everyone! No one is safe! Because I have seen some of these stories and okay, maybe there are flaws or whatever but I really liked them. (Dangit, people-I-know, don’t make me tell my kid that she must steal your stories from your heirs and secretly publish them after your deaths!)
LOL. I’ve threatened students with stealing the manuscript from their hands so that it’ll get published as is. I understand the impulse. 🙂
A few years ago I saw a panel at a con, and one of the panelists mentioned she was in the middle of updating one of her novels. The novel had been near-future SF but published 15 years ago or more, and the novel didn’t have cell phones in it so she was rewriting it to match reality.
I was aghast. I had just finished re-reading Neuromancer. I had to point out that Gibson’s masterpiece also had anachronisms. Case’s deck gets stolen for its 256k of RAM, for instance–a freakish amount of memory in 1984, and all but worthless now. So what? You just look at the copyright date and assume it’s an alternate timeline that split off in 1984. No biggie. It doesn’t need fixing, because the novel still works. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bank of pay phones these days, but the scene where Wintermute makes each phone ring just once exactly as Case walks past it is still shiveringly creepy.
But someone apparently told this panelist author she needed to go back to that novel and “fix it.” I could tell by how she talked about it that she wasn’t excited about the prospect.
It’s published. Let it go.
Similarly, I went to DisneyWorld in the 1980s, and then went with my sister’s kids a couple years ago. I was really looking forward to the Carousel of Progress. I wanted to relive that 1970s vision of what the end of the century would be. Imagine my surprise when I discovered they’d updated it to bring it in line with reality. I was sooooo mad.
If your story works, it ain’t broken. Don’t fix it.
I love this.Thanks for the examples, Mercy.
Mercy, I’m reminded that when Ray Bradbury’s classic “The Martian Chronicles” was reprinted in 1997, the dates on the stories (they were part of the titles) were increased by 31 years, since by then the original dates on the stories had passed. I don’t know if that was Bradbury’s idea or his publisher’s. Personally, I have no problem reading the original s with dates like “1999” on them.
“How do you know when a manuscript is done?”
No creative work is ever finished, only abandoned. 🙂 My father, an artist, once visited my house and wanted me to go out and buy brushes and paint so he could “fix up” a painting of his that had been hanging on my wall for 25 years. I understood the impulse, but refused. One must move on.
However, there is the very real question: how does one get better, if one does not listen to critics? Of course the naysayers and the nitpickers are of only marginal value. But it is also true that sometimes another pair of eyes can see where you might have gone wrong, can pick out confusing inconsistencies and narrative dead ends. It’s all very well to dismiss workshops and critique groups — as a veteran of both Clarion and Turkey City, I am well aware of their flaws. But it’s also true that ALL writers, beginners as well as veterans, can use the eyes and insight of what you call a first reader. Certainly, we are free to dismiss certain critiques and hew to others — some reviewers will “get” what you’re trying to do, and some will not. But the writer who toils in solitary splendor, abjuring all outside input, is not only cutting herself off from valuable lessons but may also be cutting herself off from her own audience.
Apply the lessons to the next book, Sarah. I’m not saying don’t listen, just don’t revise according to those critiques. Since the writer has no idea what works, she might screw up what’s working to “fix” what’s “wrong.” So take the lesson, and write the next book. If you agree with the critiquer, of course. If you don’t then, just forget what they said and move on. 🙂
What a wonderful post, Kris! It makes my own “Hall of Fame” — all the posts that you and Dean write on writing attitude that keep me grounded and working hard. Thanks a million!
And one of the hardest things to do as an author.
Every new author reading through the manuscript, looking for every little plot thread that needs to be clipped, those lines of diolouge that needs tweeking and shading and making descriptions so right. Every new author tries to make their work perfect, neve realizing that there is no such thing as a perfectly written story.
I’m guility of this; I have two half-written Urban Fantasy novels on my HD, in part because of this attempt of perfection. But I am learning and I’m recarving the plot, and becoming more at ease that the best I can do is try to write the best story I can. It isn’t ewasy and it’s going to be quick, but I am learning….
“Why didn’t those crazy lovesick kids just move to another town????)”
Yes! Romeo and Juliet at the University of Bologna! She disguises herself as his cute younger brother, of course, until Romeo establishes himself in the city as an eventually wealthy bookseller; then “little brother” leaves town and Romeo’s betrothed (affianced in the cradle, my dears!) is escorted to Bologna by the couple’s faithful servant and man-of-business (’cause SOMEBODY has to be looking after these two dither-heads!) and then there’s a marriage and the curtain, and all’s well that ends well!
Love it, send me an outline!
LOL, Mary. Sounds like you have it. Time to write it. [Tossing the ball back in your court.] LOL
So Mary, did you ever wrote that? I would read it. 🙂
I just want to say thank you for posting this. I am gearing up for the world of publishing, whichever way I decide to go. There is a great temptation for every writer to keep on revising, keep redoing, keep sending it back out to readers, and even revising after its been published. But I like what you say. There is no perfection, only the best work you can create (at that time). As a perfectionist, I appreciate that immensely.
You’re welcome, Leah.
Great post! I agree with you 100%.
I touched on a bit of the this idea when I wrote a blog post several weeks back asking, “Are Ebooks Ever Done?” (http://jamigold.com/2012/05/are-ebooks-ever-done/) I’ve seen some of the same behavior as you when it comes to authors wanting to revise e-published books just because they can. No, please no. Copy edits for typos, yes, but revisions that *change* the story? No.
That leads to a book never being done, even after publication, and as you said, it invalidates the reading experience of those who read it before. I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one. 🙂
Good post, Jami. Thanks for sharing the link.
Having been both a writer who was lucky enough to sell some stories to you as an editor and also an editor who had to make buy / don’t buy decisions about others’ stories (back in my Aeon days), I love having this much tightly-packed wisdom in one place where I can send writers who need to learn these lessons the easy way.
Thank you for another wonderful column; you–and The Business Rusch–provide a real and valuable service to writers everywhere.
Thank you, Bridget.
Kristine, Thank you so much. This article helped me admit my WIP was done and it was time to move on to the next one. Thanks
Good. Have fun, Gary.
“I’ve seen new writers everywhere wring their hands over the fact that they now have to pay attention to their one-star reviews and constantly revise.”
This would be darned tricky. For one thing, I’d have to READ reader-reviews, and I almost never do. It creates too many voices in my head, and there are plenty there already, thanks. Plus, on ocacsions when I have seen my reader-reviews, the one-star ones are usually not something I can really address through revisions. One, for example, was very inarticulate, but did clearly accuse me of sleeping with editors. Apart from getting affadavits from every editor I’ve ever worked with verifying that I’ve never slept with any of them, how am I supposed to “address” THAT?
LOL, Laura. I glanced at some reviews earlier this week when I was looking for some information on my Grayson books on Amazon. Two one-star reviews made me laugh. They were back to back. One complained that the books did not have any sex. (Well, duh. They’re sweet romances.) Another complained that there was too much sex. (Apparently I didn’t fade to black soon enough for that reader.) If I were to rewrite that book, how would I fix it? Add sex? Remove it? Both???
Oh that is easy. You add sex then you remove it leaving the book just as it is. But add a note that you revised it to have more and less sex. 😀
I don’t know if I can fully agree with this or not. Before you jump on me, I’m absolutely not advocating that writers spend all their time rewriting based on customer reviews and things people say they don’t like. That’s just silly. You can’t please everyone with your writing, and you shouldn’t try.
This is a new world of publishing, though, and I think there is some merit in the idea of being able to go in and fix a broken novel. Unlike traditional publishing, where you push out a novel and if there’s something wrong with it sinks and in six months it’s gone without a ripple, our books are out there forever. They don’t have a shelf life.
In the days where traditional publishing was the only choice, fixing a flawed novel was essentially impossible. Or at least so cost-ineffective that you would only very, very rarely find a publishing house that would pay for it. It only took one or two flawed novels to kill a writing career – even if the fault was with the publisher. It didn’t sell because they hosed the cover, or the copyeditor completely changed a bunch of the text without telling you? Too bad, so sad. No more contracts for you.
And of course with publishing schedules and the time delays, it could be months before you got any feedback that there was anything wrong, and by that time it was over and done with. You had already started on your next project months or years ago.
But now we have the blessing/curse of instant gratification. If there are problems, you hear about them quickly and they are fixable. Cheaply and quickly fixable. Cover doesn’t work? Slap on a new one and re-upload it. Blurb doesn’t hit the right note? Write a new one and re-upload it. Why on earth would you not do the same for a novel with a fixable problem? Again, I’m not talking about “taste.” I’m talking about nuts and bolts problems which you as a writer know how to go in and fix.
I’ll grant you that for a short it’s probably not worth the effort, but a novel is a significant investment of time. If it has a weak beginning that’s hurting your sales, because the first thing people see is that beginning when they look at the sample, then why not go in and tighten it up? If you realize that you completely blew a section because of a continuity error, and it’s throwing people out of the story, why not clean it up?
I think this is part of the paradigm shift of moving to the new model of publishing. Again, I am not advocating that you perpetually rewrite based on customer reviews. I’m saying that as writers we now have the ability to go back and fix things that would have sunk a novel in the past, and as publishers we need to look at the bottom line and decide whether it is cost effective to do so.
My background is software development. You write the best program that you can, and then you release it. You find bugs. You always find bugs. If it’s cost-effective, you fix them. If it isn’t, you work on the next project and try not to make those same mistakes again. At some point you end-of-life the sucker and stop making changes.
I don’t see writing and publishing under the new system as being a whole lot different. It’s all about the bottom line – is it more cost-effective to fix a problem in an existing work so it will sell better, or to ignore it and go on to the next one? In a world where your work stays in print effectively forever, I think the answer may be very different than where a new release sits on a shelf for a few weeks then disappears.
Sawyer, you missed the point: How do you know a novel that you have written is flawed? If readers buy it and like it, they don’t think the book flawed. If they recommend it to their friends, they really don’t think it flawed. So you’re fixing something that doesn’t need to be fixed. A novel is not a software manual. It can’t be assembled or changed. It is what it is. Take a peek at the comment farther upstream about Neromancer. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
There is a difference between technical flaws in a story which can be corrected by the author to make it work as originally intended, and “feature requests” by readers to change the nature of the story.
Let’s take the Neuromancer example.
“Case’s deck gets stolen for its 256k of RAM, for instance–a freakish amount of memory in 1984, and all but worthless now.”
I’m not remotely suggesting that anyone go back and edit a novel written in 1984; at the time Gibson wrote it, it was perfectly reasonable. The story worked exactly as he intended. But if you wrote that today, perhaps meaning to use GB instead of KB and you didn’t catch it in the editing because you’re old like me and 256KB looks perfectly reasonable on the page, odds are the reviewers are going to pounce on it. It would certainly jolt me out of someone else’s story if I saw it.
So why not fix it? Changing it will not alter the substance of the story, but it will smooth out a bump in the road for your readers. Ever goof and change someone’s name halfway through a book? Or their hair color, or eye color, or the name of their cat? Readers notice. If it’s easily fixable, why not fix it?
If a bunch of reviewers are telling you that the pacing is off in your opening to the point where they can’t slog through the sample download, and sales are suffering as a result, maybe it’s worth taking some time to re-write the opening rather than just writing off the whole novel? You have the luxury of being able to do that, now.
This is where you put on your publisher hat and count beans, exactly the way that you would if you thought that you had a bad cover. “If I leave it the way that it is, will I at least break even? If I spend the money/time to rework the cover/opening, is there a good chance that sales will improve drastically? Or is it time to just write it off as a loss on the quarterlies?”
I absolutely do not think anyone should do rewrites because reviewers hated the ending, or thought that character A really should have hooked up with character B. Those are “feature requests”, not “bug reports,” and should quite rightfully be ignored. Bugs are problems introduced during the writing process that you can fix to make the product work as you originally intended. You *may* fix those at your discretion if your publisher half determines that there is sufficient benefit to doing so.
256kb vs 256GB is a bug, assuming you meant 256GB at the time. In cases like Neuromancer I like to think of them as artifacts. Artifacts teach me about what the world was like when the book was written.
But Neuromancer worked. It worked then, it works now. It doesn’t need to be fixed.
If your beginning was so slow that people can’t get through it, it probably never worked and it should have been fixed before production.
However, I decide what works in my writing and what doesn’t. Not my reviewers. I write highly ambiguous characters. I write them that way on purpose. Some people hate that. Those people aren’t my readers.
It’s probable I will look back at my first novel ten years from now and think, I can do better. (Gods, I hope so.) But I’m not going to go back and “fix” it, because when I pubbed it I was proud of it. It isn’t perfect, and I’ve fixed a few bugs in spelling/grammar as I’ve found them since. But I was satisfied with it.
Or maybe a better example, my story “White Knight, Black Horse.” (They messed up the title in the print version. Talk about bugs.) There is one paragraph in particular in it that, when I read it now, I think “Man, that is poorly written. It’s needlessly confusing. I wish I’d written it to be more clear.” Of everything I’ve published, that’s the one I still think about with a cringe. But if I had the rights to self-pub that story now, I probably would just leave it. Because that’s my only “professional” sale. Obviously, it was good enough.
Robert A. Heinlein — Was there a Robert B. Heinlein with whom he was confused? One wonders… — wrote in prefatory material for a collection that he revised “Blowups Happen” after the war to reflect technical advances since the original publication and it didn’t amount to a hill of beans. No one wrote that they noticed.
I took that lesson to heart.
You think people are going to disagree with this blog post of yours? Why would they do that? It has given me hope! I had my first 2 novels published as eBooks, but I pulled them because of all the soul destroying feedback I got from writers who I thought were my friends. I forgot that I had fun when writing my books. Because of your blog post I feel I can now get back to finishing my book series! So thank you. And I’ll be honestly surprised if someone disagrees with your article. It’s brilliant. You’re a star.
Thanks, Suz. I got fewer disagreements than I expected. I suspect there will be quite a few on other people’s blogs. 🙂 And yay! I’m happy you’re going back to your series. Have fun!
Kris, I finally hit the donate button. 😉 Thank you so much for writing this. It’s posts like this one that keep me going sometimes, when I get dispirited by the constant stream of “listen to everyone else and revise your work until it’s dead” that you hear on the net. The thing that baffles me is there’s almost a moralistic tone to a lot of it, like you’re a bad person if you don’t read all your reviews and take each and every criticism to heart. I’ve wondered if it’s simply the misguided search for perfection that drives that behavior, or if people think they somehow deserve to be smacked upside the head for daring to write something and imagine someone might want to read it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about ordinary readers vs reviewer/critiquers, and I think they go about the reading experience from opposite directions. The reader goes in expecting (or at least hoping) for a good experience, looking for what’s right about the work, whereas a critiquer goes in looking for what’s wrong. They’re not even experiencing the book or movie in the same way an ordinary reader or viewer would, because they go in with this nitpicking mindset. It distorts their experience and it distorts what they have to say about the story. That’s not to say they never have any valid points, but their perception of the story is warped by the way they approach it.
I remember reading Dean’s old Killing the Sacred Cows posts about this issue and feeling a huge sense of relief. Knowing that it’s okay to believe in my own stories and my own voice, imperfect though it is, made it possible for me to continue writing at a time when I’d lost faith in myself. I was so glad to read your take on it this morning.
Thanks for the donation, Tori.
I think people have a variety of reasons for perfectionism. Some are personal, and some simply come from fear. If you constantly “perfect” a work, it’s not finished, so you don’t make a “mistake” by publishing it. I understand it, but being a journalist cured me of that real fast.
I think that loss of faith in one’s self is the hardest thing an artist can go through. I’m glad you came through it.
WOW. WIsh I had read this post years ago when I kept listening to all the advice “workshoppers” offered. I finally scrapped the work that well-intentioned individuals admonished me to write, insisting I wrote the story a certain way to a certain market. Now, I write what I want to write. I am happy and working on book two.
I think a writer MUST develop a sense of their own worth as an artisan. Those who do not, flounder in the shallows tangled on other’s lines.
In no way does this mean I have such hubris that I do not revise or edit. I do, and willingly, under the condition that it makes the story work and answers questions from readers (like beta readers, agents, editors, etc.) But once it is done, I need to move on. It is simply not productive to keep circling the same fishing hole.
Thanks for the awesome post. I am sure it will help many writers.
Exactly, Lillian. You must trust your own artistic voice. That doesn’t mean you ignore the occasional help. It means you ignore the folks who want to turn you into someone else. There’s a line in a Pink song about the studio execs trying to turn her into “damn Brittany Spears” It didn’t work, because she wouldn’t let them do it. And now she has an amazing (empowering) career. Thanks for the comment.
So much of that is deciding what you like as a reader of your own fiction and throwing out any advice, any comments, anything at all that doesn’t help you achieve _that._ I’ll accept that if a reader doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about, I might want to clarify, but if they start messing with my voice, characters, or even point-of-view, I politely don’t. let. them.
Thank you very much for this. 🙂 It helps a lot. I’m working on my sixth novel right now and constantly worry. This is sort of a ‘don’t panic’ type of article for me.
I think the worry is part of being a writer, John. Now I promise myself I’ll fix it later. Then I never do. (Yes, I lie. To myself. All the time.)
Deadlines are wonderful for this. I’m doing a web serial on my blog — two episodes a week, with a header illustration. I am utterly blown away by what it is doing for me.
The episodes are super short (I’m trying to keep it to the 600 word “ideal” blog post length) but short is actually a challenge in itself, and they’ve got to be up on time. It’s far from perfect — I call it blog pulp — but it’s really forcing me to be creative. And I’m having a ball.
I will revise this when I do the ebook version — but only because reading a book is very different from reading a blog. But I’m going to do that rewrite the same way I do the serial in the first place: each chapter/episode will have a deadline.
Great point, Camille. That’s how I finished The Freelancer’s Guide. I never would have finished it without the blog and the deadlines. I did go back over it before putting it into a book, because I often repeat myself or remind people about “last week’s post,” which didn’t belong in the book.
I’m in awe of 600 words of fiction every week. 600 words is a tough length to do well, and you’re practicing it. Wow. Wonderful.
And it’s twice a week! But in some ways that’s easier, because when an episode starts running long, it’s almost always because I’m trying to sneak in an extra minor plot beat. I just have to pull it out and let it become its own separate episode.
Now that’s honing the craft. Soooo cool. (And inspiring.)
Thanks for this post.
I may not always agree with 100% of what you say, I agree with a least 95%.
Finding the perfect editor or agent who will publish you with a novel where it is can be tough.
I actually have one novel out on submission, I think I need to re-assess, simply because one beta reader tried to edit the voice out, hated one character, and I later found out didn’t like the genre. She couldn’t understand the sciency aspects of the story. It’s been a few months, and a decade of trauma since I looked at it, so I should be able to fix the most troublesome spots (and no, I didn’t write the hated character out of the book, as two others loved her!).
April, in cases like the one you mention, I always recommend going back to the original draft. Honestly, you’re doing something right when you anger a reader. You’re getting an emotion from them–and sometimes anger is the right emotion for that book. If you create good characters, then people will hate some of them–like they hate some people in real life. Took me a while to figure that one out too. Good luck with it!
“Honestly, you’re doing something right when you anger a reader. You’re getting an emotion from them”
I love this comment Kris (and the whole post and discussion).
I am slowly learning that it is important to evaluate beta reader feedback differently for each reader. Their reaction says something about your book, but also something about them.
Everyone’s feedback is ultimately subjective, but being able to sort it all out and take action that helps your story is very hard.
You have made me re-evaluate the way I look at my writing. Thank you.
Excellent post. Resonated with me on every level, sharing,
AMEN! I belong to an exceptionally good critique group. Two of our most competent and best writers will never publish their work because they are striving for perfection. And it’s a shame.
It is a shame. I think every critique group has those people. I woke up this morning thinking of two perfectionists who did get published about 15 years ago, and haven’t sold anything since. Makes me sad.
Excellent post. Just to add to your comment about editing books based on subjective points raised in one-star reviews: I’ve always wondered how those authors would justify that change to the readers who gave the same book four and five stars. Why in the world would you edit a book to please those who aren’t even your ideal (target) readers and, in the process, tell your target readers that they obviously don’t know good fiction when they read it?
I hadn’t thought of that, Evelyn, but you’re exactly right. The writers who do that are revising for someone who will never be satisfied, instead of for the people who already like their work.
You are so many kinds of awesome I can barely stand it.
You made me cry too. I’m sitting here with tears rolling down my cheeks while I grin like an idiot.
While I feel no need for validation from others (outside my amazing readers, that is), happily working away at my Indie lifestyle, seeing those words makes me incredibly joyful.
Thank you for the wonderful start to my day 🙂
You’re welcome, Patti. Thanks for the comment.
Thanks for this. WIth 7 billion people on the planet, I’m sure there will be plenty of readers who enjoy just the kind of storytelling I provide. It’s a freeing feeling to know I don’t have to please them all, and in fact cannot. (Besides, what type of person would I be if I could please Hitler and Mother Teresa at the same time? lol)
Oh, that’s an image, Lyn. Exactly. 🙂 (But it is hard to please dead people, you know. They’re notoriously unresponsive.)
For the last month (maybe longer) I’ve been beating myself up over the third novel in a series of mine. I’ve plotted, and re-plotted, and written and redrafted and tossed thousands of words, all in the name of making sure this book is…perfect. I’ve been critiquing this project before it’s barely begun. I have so many different versions of an outline for it, I’ve become more a professional outliner instead of a pro writer.
So I think this blog post has a lesson for me. (Duh!) Applying the lesson is the trick, huh?
Thanks for this.
Maybe putting a sign over your desk: It doesn’t have to be perfect. It does have to be finished.
Or my favorite: Have fun! (What you were doing doesn’t sound like fun.)
Or, as the old-time Hollywood producers used to tell the scriptwriters back when the studios cranked out movies by the week:
I don’t want it good.
I want it THURSDAY.
I forgot that quote, MaryA. I even used it as a basis for a story once. I love that quote. It’s so true.
Great freakin’ quote, Mary.
I need to install a bulletin board by by desk to start hanging these sayings on.
This is a wonderful post! Your so right about what you said. It makes me think of about 50 Shades and all the comments about the editing that it so badly needed. Readers didn’t seem to think so, they loved it and that made me think that it really is all about creating your own voice. Not everyone will love it and that is okay but there will be ones out there that will love it.
You have to write your stories for the love of them and not to revise them to death. I’m not very good at revisions, I’m still learning but I don’t want to spend a lot of time on that. I want to get on to the next story.
I liked it.
I’d buy it.
We all have our own definitions to better our work. You said once in this blog our critical eye was family related, and I believe you were right. I think I have a rather critical eye on my work because as you said the subconscious plays an important part.
In writing I feel as if my elder brother, an astrophysician researcher who has a sharp mind, was always looking above my shoulder. So I do a lot of editing, but now, I’m not looking for perfection itself rather than adequation with my voice and with the story.
I don’t totally agree with the “One is that people see no value in something they get for free” you said. I have a SF short story permanently free on the iTunes Store (and on Amazon and the others), Les Explorateurs. It has been downloaded more than 8000 times on Apple and have received 70 notes.
So that’s a ratio of less than one note for 100 readers. All the notes are not good, far from it. Still, I don’t think the readers would have cared to click on the noting tab if they thought the short story had no value at all.
None of my other short stories or novels have received so many notes. Notes don’t earn you a living. Still, it helps thinking you have been read. It’s good for the promotional side (even if you have to treat free stuff and promotional stuff with care).
It sounds to me, Alan, like you must kick your brother out of your office. He doesn’t belong on your shoulder. It might free you.
And you’re right: not all readers devalue free. Some use it as intended–a way to figure out if they want to read more of your work. But so many do hate what they get for free that it’s a cautionary tale. If you have the right attitude about that–and it seems that you do–then you can handle putting something up for free.
Thanks for the awesome post, Kris. This one was very relevant to me personally, because I was one of the writers who got a form rejection for my first quarter story to the 2012 Writers of the Future contest–a story that had been placed “on hold” when K.D. Wentworth passed away. The anti-climactic ending to an epic 6+ month wait took a lot of us by surprise, and reactions are all over the map, so it’s good to have a reminder that just because a story doesn’t appeal to some readers doesn’t mean that others won’t love it.
As writers, I think it’s very easy for us to look for validation in all the wrong places. We submit to the wrong markets or take a rejection too much to heart, or we ignore all the 5-star reviews and focus instead on the 1-stars. I admire David Drake, who said on a World Fantasy panel some years back that he writes for an audience of one: himself. We certainly need to respect our readers, but validation should come from someplace internal rather than external.
Me too, Joe. I write for me first, and if y’all like what I’ve done, then yay! But me first. (We writers are so egotistical.)
This is one my favourites of all your posts so far. I think the trickier bit lies in being skilled enough at this craft to identify when a piece is in fact ready to be out there; perhaps this can only come with experience? Do you think that, until a writer has sufficient experience (have no clue how to ‘measure’ such experience though), it might be better to keep revising? OR simply trunk your work? At least until you have the skills to distinguish between a story that isn’t working and one that is (despite not being perfect)… I always struggle with this one hmmmm…
I am not Kris (obviously), but I’d say that one “how do you know?” technique would be to… get some people to read your work. If they make happy noises at you afterward, then you know that you’ve got something (though it may yet need proofreading). If you have a twitchy feeling about the work, and your readers make waffly noises, you may need to revise, set it aside for a while and go on to the next idea, or find someone who has the Nurturing Editor skills to point out where something could be improved.
I wouldn’t trust a twitchy feeling alone or waffly readers alone, personally. (Though if a waffly reader points something out and you suddenly realize, “OH YES I CAN FIX THAT AND IT WILL ROCK,” that’s always a good sign. Or if there’s a “you know, X really isn’t plausible,” that might need fixing; I just got a powerful mini-scene after my spouse pointed out that someone really ought to be searched for weapons by his not-quite-captors…)
That works too. That’s trusting the process.
Is the story free of major errors, such as plot holes, unresolved conflicts, etc?
Is the story free of needless repetition?
Does the story keep moving forward?
Is every scene currently in your story necessary?
Does the story make sense?
Does the story entertain?
The last one is the important one. But if you can answer yes to those questions, stop messing with it and send it to your copyeditor.
Mercy, I’m sorry to say I disagree with most of this. You’re approaching your own story critically. That critical voice knows so much less than your storytelling voice that you might just be cutting out the good stuff.
When something comes to you as you write–oops! Needed a gun in the first scene–go back and add it. When you finish and think, “I need to revise that first scene to move it forward,” you’re probably working from critical and most likely will screw it all up.
Read. Figure out craft away from the keyboard. Then write and have fun. The more new stuff you write, the more you’ll practice what you’ve been reading–if you’ve been reading for enjjjoyment.
Forgot to add my standard YMMV.
I don’t think of this stuff as I write. This is all stuff I know I personally have problems with, and that I go back and fix in post. (And trust me. I needlessly repeat. NEEDLESSLY. As Abigail Hilton once said of her own work, “Oh, this is where the author was talking to herself.”) I usually end up cutting out several pages of me figuring out stuff and telling to myself, because I wrote it in much better somewhere else once I had it figured. The perils of being a pantser. 😉 But I know I do that, so I let myself repeat all I want on the first draft so I can leave it in the best possible place on the edit.
The new world of e-publishing allows you to publish all of it. If you’re afraid it’s no good, then publish under a secret pen name. You might be surprised.
But to answer your question in full, you’ll never know. I’m sorry to tell you that. I can discuss other writers’ work beautifully, but my own? I have not a clue. That’s why I have so many trusted first readers. And they all know the first question I’ll ask is, “Does this make sense?” because I write in pieces and then stitch them together. So sometimes my stuff (my brilliant work!) makes no sense at all.
So don’t try to be an expert. Just trust the process.
Oh, sure: Romeo & Juliet could have moved out of town, but they’d only have that apothecary to hang out with.
LOL, David. I’ve been thinking about that since you posted it. LOL
Another insidious source of trouble is to read reviews, and let that one-star keep you from writing the next story in the series, because now you’ve got their critical voices in your head and the story has to be “good” and “well-written” or “well-constructed”, and there you are, stuck in critical mode!
Wonderful installment, Kris, and filled with truth and wisdom. I’ve been needing to get out of my perfectionistic rut, and this is just what I needed to read. A reminder to write the story, ignore the critics and reviewers, and write the next story. And the next.
We as writers also need to recognize that the fan who wants the next book is infintely more valuable than the critic who hates the previous book. We so often ignore the good stuff and only focus on the bad “to improve.” And that’s not good for any of us.
This seems related: years ago, when I was about 14 years old, I wrote a letter to Isaac Asimov, having read that he always answered his mail. I asked him, “Dear Dr. Asimov, When do you know that a story is good enough to be published?” His answer, on a postcard, I’ve been quoting to writers ever since: “Dear Mr. Willett: When it is published.”
I absolutely agree that when a book is published, it’s done, and you should leave it alone and move on…although I do admit I have occasionally orally revised an infelicitous phrase during library or school readings. It makes me feel better and the audience will never know.
Edward, I love that quote. I just love it. No wonder Dr. Asimov wrote so much! 🙂
Thank you. I just self published a short story under a pen name yesterday and I’d partly come to think along the lines of what you wrote today by myself.
I do plan to go back and fiddle with a few things like text on the cover (now that I can see it at the right thumbnail size). I’ll also go back and fix any reported typo’s that made it through the editing but I couldn’t just sit there staring at it any more. But I’ve no plans to rewrite and rewrite it because as it stands its the best I can do as a writer at this point in time.
Beautiful post, Kris.
I always thought the hardest part of trying to be a professional writer is finding trusted readers. Critique groups have never worked for me. For 20 years a good friend read my drafts and was fabulous, but she hit some life crises and just doesn’t have the time, so I’ve had to train my husband to read for story and tell me when something stops him.
I always felt the most dangerous critics were those who had taken Creative Writing 101 and learned a few rules. The other dangerous ones are newbie agents who learn from comments in an editor’s rejections.
I have different trusted readers for different projects. And I have my science guys who can’t read my stuff, but can help me plot it. That helps too. (They can’t read it because they’ll spend days trying to figure out if my ships can survive a particular orbit–with math. I just want the ship to orbit a planet. They want it to orbit correctly). So having different readers helps, particularly when one hits a tough time in their life and can’t read as much.
Damn, I wish you’d written this twenty years ago.
I didn’t know it twenty years ago. 🙁
When I first started writing, I joined a critique circle. It’s a great place for people needing beta readers, especially early on. People help you with the big things and I learned a lot.
I also wasted two years.
My novel, Tranquility’s Blaze needed help when I first started. It was the first novel I’d written as an adult, when I decided to become serious about writing. The beta readers were able to give me some direction.
Then I decided to submit it even though I was told repeatedly that the book wasn’t ready, that no one ever sells their first novel, etc etc etc. Oh, and they hated my heroine.
Skip ahead. I wrote Road to Hell and starting putting it through the beta reading process there again and had a lot of bigotry towards my lesbian commander. So I stopped submitting it for reading, finished the book, and sent it off. Sold it. A few weeks later, sold Tranquility.
I still use beta readers, especially if I know there is a problem but can’t put my finger on the problem. But, no, I’m not going to sit on a manuscript for 2 years anymore while people line edit my work and ignore the plot holes, people tell me strong heroines don’t sell, people telling me I can’t start my novels with dialogue because agents don’t like it, etc etc etc (these are all direct quotes).
No thanks. I’d rather trust my own judgement.
(that came out longer than I’d meant – this topic makes me angry lol)
Exactly, Krista. Unless the critiquers are in the position to buy, their opinion doesn’t count. And editors/readers buy or don’t buy. They don’t spend time analyzing something that doesn’t work for them. Glad you figured it out and got your work out there!
I’ve learned this the hard way.
Five years ago I was married to someone who thought my writing was a joke. I was getting rejection slips which read, in general, ‘We like your ms but it isn’t suitable for our list/we can’t publish it because of the GFC/etc.’
Now I’m a single parent with nine stories published under two different names (not making much yet but each month is better than the last). I pay a manuscript assessor to pick out all the bits that don’t gel together. I fix them and publish the story.
I’m having the best fun!
I’d also like to thank you and Dean Wesley Smith. You two and Joe Konrath have changed my life in ways that seemed impossible five years ago. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
You’re welcome, Michelle, but you’re the one doing the work. The information is out here, and so many others aren’t taking the plunge. You are. Congrats on the success.
One of your best posts ever. If I’d listened to the online critiques on the first of the Cynster novels, or the eviscerating online reviews on my first US book, I would have stopped right then. Instead, I’m starting the 20th Cynster novel, the 40th since that first US book, and the last 28 releases have all been NYT bestsellers. And I still get excoriating reviews.
Readers rule. Always. But that’s readers en masse. And the mass are busy reading, not reviewing.
Thanks for making the case so eloquently.
Thanks, Stephanie. I appreciate the numbers and I love the “readers en masse” quote. Exactly.