As a member of various online communities, I have been critiquing the work of other writers for the past three years or so. Receiving critiques as well, of course – most of us are seeking feedback on a book of our own, so the idea is that it's a reciprocal relationship (not that it always works that way). Now I've decided to retire my red pen for a while and concentrate on actually writing the stuff, but before I go I thought I'd share some of what I've learnt about how to behave when you're playing the critting game.
Say you've put an excerpt from your book up for comment. You're trundling along nicely, garnering vague positive comments from people who hope you'll give them vague positive comments back*, then all of a sudden BAM! You're slapped in the face with a critique that strikes you as disproportionately negative. What do you do?
My answer would be, first of all, sleep on it. To begin with every word will feel like a stab in the heart, especially if you're used to uncritical praise. When you've calmed down a bit and no longer want to garotte the commenter with a metal wire, read the critique again. If it's specific and detailed and you actually see that they might have a point, hurrah! You've gained something valuable from the process. Edit your book, thank the commenter nicely and move on. If you still disagree completely with what they've said, but they've clearly made an effort to engage with the text, fine. Part of the process is learning that opinions vary and you can't please everybody. Thank the commenter nicely and move on.
In fact, the only time it's acceptable not to thank the commenter is if they've left a short, purely subjective comment – something like 'This book is a load of rubbish'. In that case, it might be reasonable just to ignore it. (Though I would argue that 'This book is amazing!!!' is equally useless, but for some reason no-one has the impulse to ignore that.) Personally I'd suggest thanking the commenter anyway, but with no obligation to read his/her book in return. Courtesy costs nothing; spending your time on someone who couldn't be bothered to do the same for you does.
What you really shouldn't do is argue with the commenter. If they didn't like a particular aspect of your book, it's not as if pointing out why they're wrong is going to change their mind. Sure, if they asked a specific question then go ahead and answer it. But don't get personal, don't leave a revenge review, and please don't throw a hissy fit whilst at the same time making some or all of the changes they suggested. You can't have it both ways. Either the critique was useful or it wasn't. Using it and complaining about it just makes you look like a hypocrite.
Essentially, all of the above behaviours come across as deeply unprofessional. And although you may be on an amateur site, it's still important to behave in a professional way. If someone is upset by a comment I've left on a critique site then I'm happy to take it down – I have no wish to upset people – but I have to admit that I lose all respect for them as a writer after that. After all, what are they going to do if their book is published and a critic reviews it unfavourably on a blog or a customer leaves a less-than-five-star comment on Amazon? Writers who start arguing against negative feedback are laughed at; if they keep at it then they become a liability to any sensible agent or publisher. No matter how you feel about someone's critique, they spent time and effort writing it. Get over yourself, and thank them. No book is perfect.
Finally, a note for anyone who's commenting. My view is that honesty is better than prevarication, but it's also really important to be specific. Always use examples from the text to illustrate what you're saying. Keep subjective opinion to a minimum, and flag it clearly where it does appear. Never be personal, and always present your thoughts as suggestions – you don't know the text as well as the author does, so you may be wrong. And if the recipient does react badly, resist the temptation to get into an argument. Just shrug and walk away. If nothing else, you'll have learned something from the exchange.
This will be my last blog post of 2011, since next Sunday I will be busy trying to look jolly in a paper hat. See you all in 2012, and in the meantime I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.
* I have never understood the value of this. But then, I've never understood the value of celebrity gossip magazines, sushi, or push taps that don't quite stay on long enough to rinse the soap from your hands. Clearly I'm not cut out to understand some things.
Imagine a character whose defining feature is overwhelming niceness. He's polite, soft-spoken, never pushy. He makes an effort to get on well with others, even if he's tired or really hacked off at how his day has gone. He doesn't act cocky to cover up his insecurities or jump into a fistfight without trying to talk through the issues first. He always sees the other person's point of view. And in his spare time, he helps old ladies cross the street.
Want to read about this fine upstanding model of a man? I didn't think so.
See, as character traits go, niceness is probably the least prized. Because nice people are boring. They're bland. They're like semolina. We want our characters to come with a dash of arrogance and a sprinkling of bad temper. In fact, we want them to be more like our grumpy, sarky, prickly selves.
Or maybe that's just me.
Still, there's no denying that it's hard to relate to a person who's always nice. There's nothing to get a grip on, no handle to catch hold of. Part of this is our desire for realism, of course – few people can be nice all the time, and someone who is can feel uncomfortably like a saint rather than a real person. But it's more than that. We don't admire niceness. We admire the cutting retort and the clever one-liner. We admire people who break the rules and dare to do what we wouldn't. We want the characters we read about to be confident, witty, occasionally mean, sometimes selfish – and niceness doesn't come into it.
On the face of it, that seems a shame. After all, most of us appreciate it when someone is nice to us in real life. We wouldn't get very far if everyone we met went out of their way to be unpleasant. But the truth is that when we read, we're not thinking about how we'd like other people to behave towards us. We're thinking about how we'd like to behave ourselves. And I suspect that secretly, many of us would like to be a little more aggressive and a little less placatory than we really are. Hence the fascination of the antihero, the maverick, the rebel. In them we catch a glimpse of how we fondly imagine our own lives could be, if only we weren't so darn well-behaved.
And maybe there's a lesson to be learned here on a personal level. I've always worried about what other people think of me. Various experiences during my teenage years convinced me that being good at anything only gets you negative attention. And so, by the time I was an adult, I was stuck with the mindset that being pushy or showing others what I was capable of would somehow mean I wasn't a nice person.
But guess what? No-one likes nice.
So perhaps it's time for me to dust off my own trumpet and start blowing it again.
Hi everyone. Sorry I'm a little late … er, a day late. Something urgent came up, and then there was a traffic jam and, well, you know how it is. I hope you weren't too uncomfortable here overnight. And look! I brought eclairs!
Anyway. Let's pretend for a moment that it's Sunday, and get down to business.
Every December, my Christmas shopping always includes several books. Many of my family and friends like to read, and in the past I used to speculatively pick books that were in the right sort of genre for the recipient and that I fancied reading myself (because it's always good to have something you can pick up in idle moments when you're staying at someone else's house).
But not any more.
The last couple of years, I've been much more specific with my gift-buying. I've been buying books for people that I already own myself. That never would have happened in the past, because if I owned the book then I'd just lend it to whoever I thought would enjoy it. The difference now is, I do a lot of my reading on Kindle.* And any books I really love, I buy again in printed form to give to people as gifts. The authors I admire most are essentially selling me their work twice.
Now, you may say that this is hardly an indication of a thriving book market. All I'm doing is limiting the number of different authors who benefit from my custom, by buying my friends books I already know rather than books I'm unfamiliar with. But here's the thing: since I was given my Kindle, I've been buying way, way more books than I used to. Because ebooks are wonderful things. They don't take up any space (which until I get my own library is a pretty big selling point). They're instant – it only has to cross my mind that I fancy a particular type of book and there it is, without me even having to get up from my armchair. They're cheaper to produce, and therefore often cheaper to buy. And I can carry hundreds of them around with me.
So how does the printed book fit into this idyllic picture? I hear you cry. You're meant to be talking about the harmonious relationship between books and ebooks, and instead you've launched into a hymn of praise for the Kindle. Stick to the topic, dammit.
Well, yes. I won't deny that I love my Kindle. But it has its limitations. I miss the beauty of a well-designed cover, which even on a colour ebook reader is never quite the same as the real thing. I miss holding a book in my hands and knowing just from the feel how far I am through it. I miss the way you can walk into a person's house and browse their bookcases and discover shared joys and hidden treasures. And yet … and yet I don't miss those things. Because I still buy printed books, and not just as gifts. My favourite author collections are added to on a regular basis. I wander into bookshops if I happen to be passing, then re-emerge an hour or so later with a new find or a second-hand bargain. My overloaded shelves sag ever lower with the growing weight of words. To me, a house isn't a home unless its walls are lined with coloured spines.
See, the point is that books and ebooks fulfil different purposes in life. Ebooks are for experimenting, for discovering unfamiliar genres, for convenience and the quick fix. Books are for giving, for sharing, for revisiting favourite passages that have been read so often that the spine has a permanent crease at that location – for loving, in a way that it's impossible to love an ebook. The two of them together make my reading life richer and fuller than either did alone. And so I can't help feeling that despite the predictions of doom in certain quarters, the outlook is a bright one. Sales of books may fall a little, sales of ebooks may rise, but there is still a need for both. More importantly, the huge variety of ways that it's possible to read now make it easier than ever for people to pick up a book, whether literally or electronically, and get lost in it – which can only be a good thing.
* Other ebook readers are available, and all that.