Monday, August 25, 2008

Why You Should Only Listen to Bad Reviews

Every now and then I get an email from an aspiring author asking for advice, whether it's on writing, publishing, getting an agent, or just general inquiries. Every so often someone emails me their manuscript in the hopes I'll read and critique it. Though common sense says to ignore unsolicited manuscripts (on the off chance the sender will claim I stole from them), I'd be lying if I said I didn't open one or two out of curiosity. 

The other day I got an email from a man who wanted my advice. He'd published a novel through a vanity press (my words, not his). The press told him that they required he hire a freelance editor before they would accept his manuscript for "publication." He did just that, then when the freelancer's job was complete he paid the press for the right to publish his book as well. He told me that in a little over a year, he'd spent over a thousand dollars publishing his book and had not received a dime in compensation. In his own words, his book needed to begin paying him rather than the other way around.

I wrote back and gave him my honest thoughts on vanity presses (they're financial sinkholes, useful only if you want to see your book bound, not to make a living or attract publishers/agents), as well as advice on the publishing process, resources on how to find an agent, and the like. He told me he'd sent the book to many agents after realizing the vanity press wasn't the path to riches. He said the most common rejection he got was that the book was not edited thoroughly enough. He also told me that at this point he refused to edit the book any further because everyone who read it told him it was a "good book." It was the fault of the publishing establishment for failing to recognize the book's virtues. When I asked him who "everyone" was, he said 1) the freelancer he hired, and 2) the people at the vanity press.

That's when I opened the file he sent me. I didn't need to read past the first page to see what the agents were talking about. Plot and character aside, there were innumerable spelling errors. Grammatical mistakes. Changes of tense and voice. In short, unless things changed dramatically after page 1, this was not a "good book" and would not last five minutes on an agent or editor's desk.

This post is not to single out this guy (perhaps he's capable of writing a good book) but to point out the psychological fallacy of being complimented. As painful as bad reviews are--trust me, they're like a punch to the gut that lasts for hours--when it comes to honing your craft, they do far more for you than any positive review. The moment you start believing people who tell you that you do something well, you become complacent. Your work no longer needs the same diligence. When you once wrote six drafts, now you're writing three. 

Bad reviews can be harsh, but they often point things out that, if corrected, could make your work better. I've read a few negative reviews of my work that, despite that stomach punch feeling, were accurate in their criticisms. This is not to say that you should heed a review that states, "You suck and should never write again", but rather look at the reviews which contain constructive criticisms. Maybe a character's motivation wasn't as clear as it was in your mind. Maybe your research wasn't as comprehensive as you thought. Perhaps someone will let you know they thought a plot twist was unbelievable, or a section ran on too long. These kind of bad reviews will make your future works better. 

I appreciate every single person who's read and liked my books and cherish the letters from people who have taken the time to tell me that. Those letters can make your day and confirm that those hundreds and hundreds of hours spent hunched over a keyboard are worth it. But every author knows you can receive 99 letters from people who loved your book, yet it's the one person who lets you know they hated it that will really stick with you.

A bad review is like a rejection letter in many ways. It stings like hell, but it can also help you focus. Obviously this guy I'm talking about is an extreme example of this psychological fallacy. He was being buttered up by people he was literally paying, the very definition of "yes men." But most writers do not go to conferences, or read literary blogs, or have subscriptions to Publishers Marketplace. Once you're published you have no choice but to learn the tricks of the trade on the job. Before they're published, most authors simply don't know what questions to ask. 

I can't tell you how many times, as both an author and an editor, somebody told me they knew their book was good because either a friend or family member told them so. These days, with innumerable resources available to writers, I tell people there's no excuse to be ignorant either about the publishing process or the writing profession. Just like you don't build a house by grabbing kindling from your backyard, you shouldn't publish a book using only advice from those closest to you. Venture a little farther out, and you'll find wood for a much sturdier frame.

Every writer needs unbiased critiques. When you're published, your editor and agent will likely do that for you. Sometimes you'll get lucky and have a friend or relative who can do this, but not often. Your best bet is to find writing groups or critique partners. Or, best of all, edit your own stuff. If you have the tools to write, you have the tools to edit. Writing a book doesn't need to cost more than a pen and paper. Writing a good book, however, will cost a little pride. But if you want to be good, you'll swallow a healthy amount of it and ask for more.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Rob said...

But what's the magic secret to getting published? Come on. I know you know the handshake or code word that opens up the publishing world. Stop being so selfish with it. ;)

But seriously, whether you want to hear it or not, I enjoyed THE STOLEN very much. Keep up the good work.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Hey Rob - If I knew the handshake or secret password, I would have used it long before the dozens of rejections I got before selling THE MARK!

Trust me, I really appreciate the support and I'm thrilled you enjoyed the book.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Peter Jurmu - Creative Byline said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Peter Jurmu - Creative Byline said...

I notice that very frequently young writers--especially students in creative writing, which I am (currently between BA and MFA working as an intern in a startup trying to streamline the publishing process for authors)--hear nothing but praise for their work, or at best very timid criticism, from their classmates, who are, for the most part, the only critics they encounter throughout their education (apart from their professors). Moreover, many--I would say most--are given a hyper-dose of craft and not much instruction in the worlds of lit. agents or publishing, practical knowledge that would a) keep everyone realistic, and b) make the process much less like a bone-marrow transplant. I'm not sure of the background of the author you described, but it doesn't seem unlikely to me that his is a common error made by many young authors as well: no matter how many people tell you you're a wicked writer, the only people who really know what publishers want are...publishers. And occasionally experienced writers. Sometimes, of course, you really do have an amazing few pages to sell and have to shop your film adaptation Lord of the Rings around to studio after studio, but that is, unfortunately, extremely rare. Writers are constantly being humbled by the sharp observations of people more learned than they, yet have to retain a kind of incredulous amusement about everything. Otherwise there's nothing between one's ribs and the inevitable proverbial bullet but, at best, a copy of The Elements of Style in a breast pocket.

Jason, I've not read any of your novels, but after perusing your blog I think I'll pick one up and buy you a beer via your royalty check.

(Sorry about the double post! I made a rather embarrassing grammatical error and, well..)

12:13 PM  
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8:24 AM  

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