Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Who has the right to say you suck?

I hate to wreck the fantasy for those who believe debut romantic comedy authors spend their days rolling naked in piles of cash while cabana boys bring frozen grapes and fresh feather boas, but I should tell you I have a day job.

It’s a job I adore working part-time as the marketing & communications manager for my city’s tourism bureau, but it’s a day job nonetheless.

When I interviewed for the job a year ago, I took great pains to explain my author career. I figured if they had any reservations about hiring a risqué romance writer for a high-profile PR job, we all needed to figure that out up front.

As it turned out, this blog was one of the things that caught the CEO’s attention, and a post titled My hole got plugged so my jugs aren’t full was the first taste he had of my writing.

So everyone is well aware of my other life.

Shortly after the Chicago Tribune gave an unexpectedly glowing review of my book, I was in a meeting with the marketing director and the CEO. They had a few tweaks to some copy I’d written for a new program, and I jotted notes so I’d know what to change.

Suddenly, the CEO stopped talking. “I feel weird making changes to something written by a critically acclaimed, published author.”

You’re probably not supposed to laugh at your CEO, but I did.

When I stopped laughing, I shook my head. “Every writer at any level needs feedback from other people,” I told him. “And feedback is equally valid whether it’s coming from my editor in New York or my CEO in Oregon or the guy selling soup at the food cart on the corner.”

He probably thought I was kissing up, but it’s true.

And it’s something I think about every time I see writers doing that bizarre little dance over critiques. Can I criticize the work of an author who’s published when I don’t have a book deal yet? Should I join a critique group with authors who have less experience than I do?

Though everyone should make that decision for herself, here’s what I think: A book deal doesn’t make your own critiques more valid, nor does it mean you don’t need input from those without publishing contracts. Subjective, varied opinions are a crucial part of honing any piece of writing.

I work with three critique partners and three beta readers for every book I write. Of the three critique partners, one is multi-published, one has a debut novel coming out next year, and one isn’t published yet. None of my three beta readers is a writer.

But guess what? I value their input equally.

And there’s not a single fiber of my being that feels I’m somehow elevated above the feedback of someone who doesn’t happen to have a published book. On the contrary, the different perspectives and life experiences are precisely what I need from the critique process.

How do you feel about accepting writing feedback from people whose backgrounds are different from yours? Do you take criticism differently if it’s coming from an editor, a CEO, or the guy who drives your neighborhood garbage truck?

Please share!

I’ll be huddled in my office, waiting to hear if the CEO read this post.


Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

I SOOOO don't care what they do for a living... I need people who are honest with me about what they love and hate, who are willing to read crap from me, and then turn around and read a better draft.

Sure, none of my novels are published, but that doesn't matter. They won't ever be published if I don't have people willing to read my work and tell me what doesn't work (and encourage me to fix it).

I would have laughed at the CEO, too. I've had people say this sort of thing to me because I'm an English teacher. And I laugh. I so appreciate your good humor and humility. Thanks for being real!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

No, the writing credentials of my critique partners and beta readers have no bearing on our relationship. I recognize their feedback for what it is -- and how it affects my work. Some of them are talented in picking out minutia. Others go on alert over characters not reacting appropriately. Others have an eye for sweeping plot arcs. I know exactly what to listen to from each of them.

And sometimes I ignore specific feedback, because it's obviously a personal preference or a mis-reading on their part -- but only because I know so well how their critiques affect my work.

It does take time and a discerning eye, but every writer should find the right group of people to respond to their work -- and their writing credentials have little to do with it.

Linda G. said...

Amen, sistah. What you said. My CPs and beta readers all bring different things to the table. I work best with a smorgasbord of feedback.

Anonymous said...

It's my theory that you need to have a teachable spirit at all times. Even if multi-pubbed or not. The minute we, as writers, think we know all we need to know...well, we should just never think that.

I have two solid crit partners for each novel and two beta readers. I value what they have to say, too!!

Great post. :)

Patty Blount said...

I value feedback no matter its source. I am beyond thrilled when people not only take time out to read my work but help me improve it, and that's what feedback is - a desire to help us improve.

As the author, I frequently find I am too close to the work to see it objectively enough. In my eyes, it's either crap or it's gold - nothing in between - so I am always in a loop wanting to rewrite everything or nothing.

Feedback helps break that cycle.

Matthew MacNish said...

The best part about the group I work with is that we all have different levels of experience, and different strengths and weaknesses. You make a great point that every perspective has value, in fact as a YA writer, I even have my kids read my writing, once it gets to the point where it's ready for beta readers, at least.

On the other hand, I recently had a friend who is multi-published and very successful ask me to read a book he was writing. One that wasn't even finished yet.

I was terrified. He didn't exactly ask for a full critique, but he did want feedback. I was certain I had nothing to offer.

But I swallowed my doubt, read the partial, and sent him my thoughts.

Of course it turned out fine. He really appreciated my thoughts, and made basically the same points you did.

Sierra said...

I love to read other people's work, and I tend to have some comments. But I'm also terrified of talking about what I disliked or thought needed work because I don't want to hurt their feelings or offend them. I'd actually really love to be a beta reader for someone someday, but I need to get past that fear before I can actually be helpful.

Does anyone have any advice on that front?

Kristen Lamb said...

Other non-writers are some of the most valuable feedback we can get. In a way, it is almost asking a five-year-old if you're fat. Regular people tend to be unvarnished in their honesty in a way that is really refreshing. Don't get me wrong. I value what my writer friends have to say, but sometimes I think we have been at this craft so long that we lose a certain simplicity in our assessments.

Nancy Kelley said...

I have three critique partners: two writers, and one grammar fiend. In the first edits, I like to have someone with an eye for the mechanics reading for me.

I also have five beat readers. Some of them are writers, but mostly I chose smart people who read my genre. Their job is to flag any genre cliche, or anything that pulls them out of the story as a reader.

I value everyone's opinion equally. I could not do this without them.

Crystal Posey said...

I adore this post!

Stephanie said...

I think opinions from all poeple are important. I think each person has something different they can offer. Something may confuse one person, but another it doesn't. People enjoy different things. I like getting critique from other writers as well as readers who do not write. very different, yet both very valuable!

Kim Mullican said...

I accept criticism from anyone I can get my hands on...because not all readers are writers. Plain and simple...

If it sounds off, it is off. I even have my teenager read some of my less disturbing stuff. She really keeps me in check sometimes.

If we become snooty about who critiques our work, we may as well be snooty about who reads it - and who the hell wants that?

As always - awesome post.

Judy,Judy,Judy. said...

For the novel I just wrote I had two beta readers. One an unpublished writer and one who wasn't a writer at all.
I think they both greatly improved my manuscript.

lora96 said...

I'm just an amateur here but my take is this:

Feedback on writing comes from readers. So, if you can read and you choose to read what I right, I welcome your feedback...just use your manners or i'll probably cry a lot.

TheLabRat said...

I think it's really important to get feedback specifically from people who aren't writers. They read differently than writers (of any level of fame) do. It's sort of like how a theatre geek will notice technical details in a film or TV show that regular old watchers won't notice. That's all fine and good but regular old watchers may focus on different elements that could use improvement.

Anne-Mhairi Simpson said...

Sometimes (many times?) I would rather have non-writers as beta readers, or at least as some of my beta readers. It's great to have writers as readers because they can use helpful language to point out errors, but you don't always get a straight, from-the-gut reaction from them. Readers will tell you if they liked it or not and why. If they've been reading for a while they can even be specific about why. Sometimes I feel like I'm missing my target audience when it comes to betas.

Unknown said...

Very valid points. In-truth all opinions are valid and very subjective. When we receive similar feedback across the board we make changes but sometimes you also hit a wall with a specific critic, you'll never address their issues and you need to learn to just let go of it and hopefully gain some insight from them.