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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Criticism We Learn From

A recent encounter with an unusually critical book reviewer brought on the longest thread of discussion on my facebook fan page, to date. A few people commented that I, as the author, should walk away having learned from the reviewer’s criticism.

That is an interesting discussion and a question authors should ponder: Whose criticism should we listen to? And from whose criticism can we learn?

The answer to that is twofold (in my opinion) and here is why:

  • · Listen to fans’ criticism
    Some of you might disagree with me on this point because often readers disagree with the professional critics. However, I write for my readers and I am growing a following, so it is for this audience that I write. If you know your audience and, more importantly, are creating your own following, the stories you write are the kind of stories they will read. Ultimately it is your readers who decide if your book sells or fails.
  • · Learn from Peers’ criticism
    This includes editors, and published authors whose work has sold successfully. A good editor knows how to judge a manuscript because he/she has seen what works in writing, and what does not. Published authors have a working knowledge of writing. They’ve jumped through the proper hoops and been judged, and now their work is on the market.

On another vein, is there any criticism that we can not learn from, or that we should take with a grain of salt?

  • · Unpublished writers
    I was sitting in a class under Steven James and he advised aspiring authors not to join a critique group, unless that critique group was led by a published author. He also advised people to avoid taking college fiction writing courses, unless the course was taught by a published author. That was some of the best advice I ever heard given. How can you learn from someone who has not passed under the publishing industry’s scope? That would be like a guitarist learning from John Smith. “If you want to perform in Nashville you need to do this, this, and this…” when in fact John Smith has never made it to Nashville. If, on the other hand, you take advice from Johnny Cash (yes, I know he is dead, but I like his music so he’s my example) you will be on track to learn from his success.
  • · Blog book reviewers
    There are so many book reviewers out there today, most of them on blogs. Some are professional, some are amateurs. Don’t misunderstand me, I have found many good blog reviewers who have never been published. But these are not industry professionals and, as such, we should not take their harsh criticism to heart.

The most valued criticism comes from those who place great importance on reviewing in a charitable manner. If it is a Christian reviewer, I expect them to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. If they don’t like a book they should say so with honesty, but it should be in a spirit of encouragement and not a tearing down of that author’s style and craft.

I look forward to hearing what everyone thinks on my thoughts!


Kat Heckenbach said...

Oh, this is so true! I love that advice about critique groups. I've been to critique meetings that were the blind leading the blind, and it's almost comical. Fighting over things, spewing advice as though they are the experts--all the while not a one of them has managed to have a single bit of their writing published.

I do want to make one clarification: There is a difference between critique and suggestion. There's a girl in one of my crit groups who is a long way from being publishable, yet she's nailed the missing elements in a couple of my short stories (which later went on to be published). I take her word choice suggestions and such with a grain of salt, but I would have missed out on really improving those stories had I not listened to her.

But, yes, in general, learning craft and taking "advice" on "what it takes to get published" really needs to come from those with first-hand experience.

Scott Appleton said...

Great comment; it sounds like that girl has proved herself invaluable in spotting things that can use improvement.
Criticism is effective when given with charity (-:

Star-Dreamer said...

I agree with Kat. :D I'm part of several critique groups, but the one I've found the most helpful is at the sci-fi/fantasy forum over at I've been a member of that forum for 3 years and trust me when I say that before I joined that forum, my writing was a disaster. The members there are all kind and they critique and "suggest" honestly. Sometimes the critiques sound harsh at first, but like you and Kat both said, you have to learn to take it all in with a grain of salt. :) Some of the members have quite a few of their pieces published, and just recently there seems to have been an influx of publications by other members. The members on that forum are (of course) of mixed beliefs, but I've found some that are Christian too... and we work to encourage each other: sometimes just in writing and sometimes in our daily walks. (as iron sharpens iron, ya know? :D)

However, the one thing that really resonates with this group is the fact that if you become a member and stick around long enough, you become part of the “family”, so to speak. And if there is one thing I know for sure, it's that my writing has improved drastically since joining those forums. :D

Jake said...

I read about that conversation on Facebook. One of my friends commented on it, so I viewed and read the conversation.

It is helpful to realize where the reviewer is coming from. I know the reviewer you were speaking of, and I read the review: and I know exactly why the reviewer reviewed in that manner. There is a certain degree of preference in people to which we must pay attention. If a person is an atheist, will he or she appreciate a strong allegory? Probably not. However, Christians may rave about it.

In the same way, different people come from different backgrounds: thus, their preferences are different. Some people adore description. Some people do not. I love Lord of the Rings fiercely; but I know that some people groan at the endless detail and useless information.

So, in criticism, you have to look at where a critic is coming from. Why do critics do what he or she does? Some critics may not be in the same 'goal audience'.

Perhaps I strayed off topic a bit too much. Oops. :) Sorry 'bout that. Thoughts run wild, sometimes.


"Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones." -Proverbs 16:24

In a world where morality is forsaken and Christ neglected, wholesome books are uncommon. The themes of my writing are love, self-sacrifice, and honor.

I see my generation turning from God to the gods of this world. I see homes torn apart in the pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification. Children are murdered by the millions every year . . . without ever seeing the world outside their mothers' wombs. Through fiction I strive to encourage those who are willing, to stand against these things and be heroes and heroines; chivalrous, gentle, full of righteous indignation, and the fear and love of their Creator.