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You Disagree With Your Intelligent Critic. Uh-oh . . .
Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 8:30 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

De gustibus non est disputandum: In matters of taste there can be no dispute.

But there are, aren’t there? Spirited discussions with friends, family and co-workers over the artistic excellence (or lack thereof) of a particular movie, record album or book.

As a writer this is especially problematic for us: We know that our art will not speak to all people but rather to our ideal or model reader. Having said that, however, how do you judge whether or not the failure of any given text you’ve composed is due to deficiencies in the reader or your own talent?

And if interrogated as to what you thought you were doing with any given text do you respond with as detailed and complete an explanation as possible, or smile Sphinx-like and refrain from commenting?

Umberto Eco advises the latter: “I think that a narrator, as well as a poet, should never provide interpretations of his own work. A text is a machine conceived for eliciting interpretations. When one has a text to question, it is irrelevant to ask the author. . . . The Model Reader of a story is not the Empirical Reader. The empirical reader is you, me, anyone, when we read a text. Empirical readers can read in many ways, and there is no law which tells them how to read, because they often use the text as a container for their own passions, which may come from outside the text, or which the text may arouse by chance.”

Well, that’s the easy way out, certainly. And yet some of the most fascinating writing I’ve ever read has been writers talking about and interpreting their own writing. Eco—quoted above—made his statement in a 1996 lecture (at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America) while commenting on his own work.

So here’s the thing: How detailed a response do you give those reviewers of your work you feel have misread, misinterpreted or otherwise marginalized and maligned your text? Understand that I feel as most of you do: If you have to provide an explanation for your text the story has already failed. But with that particular reader or in toto? Writers as renowned, accomplished and different as Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison and Lovecraft all had their work attacked, misread and dismissed by divers critics at different times. If it happened to them it’s going to happen to you. How will you respond when it does?

Note: I’m not talking about criticism that you recognize as valid and correct or criticism that you’re unsure about. I refer here only to that criticism that you feel is unwarranted, unnecessarily proscriptive or otherwise questionable and problematic. Too heated and extended a response looks argumentative and self-defensive; a refusal to respond at all reads as seething anger and contempt; too casual and flippant a response and you come off sounding like a jerk.

Responding to your critics over this “third-category” kind of criticism is a very tricky business. And I think we all know why, don’t we? Your critic may be absolutely right and you dead wrong. 

Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:11 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Additional note: This is not about any one particular person or story. The place to discuss those specifics is under the story proper; what I'm seeking to do here is ask a far broader question. I hope to garner a range of thoughtful responses that will be of interest to all writers who aren't oscillating between equally crippling and delusional extremes: cock-sure arrogance and narcissistic self-regard on the one hand, mouse-like timidity and uncertainty on the other.   
GD Deckard
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 11:50 AM
It can be a fine line, but I listen to the critic who can make what I'm trying to say clearer and I ignore the criticism that tells me what to say. The latter is my story.
Harper Wade
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 1:12 PM
Joined: 2/25/2012
Posts: 20

I have this problem: if I don't watch myself, I tend to take criticism of my work (whether it's in writing or a job or housecleaning) as a personal attack, and I'll fly into a frenzy of "buts" and "you just didn't notice this here" and then, sometimes, fall into self-loathing: "Oh, you're right...I guess I should abandon all hope..." I fit the stereotypical Gemini, what can I say?

Since this is already the case, I have to make myself take a very deliberate step back anytime I get criticism and spend time deciding if it's warranted, uninformed (which is it's own set of problems), whether my style is just never going to appeal to this particular audience anyway, or if it's flat out abusive. It only gets trickier depending on how well I know the person doing the criticizing.

I have to keep in mind that by virtue of my intent to be an author, I am trying to reach an audience. If the audience rebels, there's probably something to that, even if the criticism itself is vague or harshly delivered. That said, I have to remind myself everyday that I can't please everyone, and sweep some critiques under the rug.

Pretty fine line, and I'm sure I walk it like a poet on payday.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 2:27 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

How do you feel about matching the length of your response to your critiquer's original posting? That is to say, if the reviewer writes a couple of sentences (or paragraphs) I'll respond with a couple of sentences (or paragraphs). The danger, I think, is in replying to pages of critique with pages of response. Easy to do when you're replying point-by-point (and elaborating on things as you go) but always, I think, a bit of over-kill and a mistake.  
Atthys Gage
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 3:11 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

I do find myself scrambling into defensive mode, though I'm usually glad when I restrain myself.  If someone really thought your story was useless, then there isn't much room for discussion, and it probably wouldn't qualify as a particularly useful review.  One bad review shouldn't be enough to shake your confidence to that degree.  I try to be gracious and brief, pull myself together, and eventually reassemble the shattered bits of my ego into a more-or-less coherent whole. 

A more pointed critique will cause me to question, reexamine.  That's certainly valuable, but there's also the danger of spasmodically changing every detail that gets a negative remark.  The final product (if there ever is one) can end up looking like a hodge-podge with no unifying voice.  

So while I appreciate criticism, and consider it carefully, more often than not I do not rewrite to specifically address things that were criticized.  On the other hand, I do rewrite almost constantly, so who knows what subconscious strings have been pulled?  
Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 3:58 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

To be clear: I'm asking (a) how you differentiate between legitimate further discussion of a work and that which is merely knee-jerk defensive reaction, and (b) whether or not you match the length and detail of your posting to the length and detail of your critiquer's original posting. I have my own answers; I'm interested in the answers of others.

Atthys: absolutely right on all counts! I've seen highly-paid, best-selling, well-regarded authors respond with jaw-dropping rage and venom to the odd critical review you'd think they'd be used to getting by now. I always think to myself--really? Something must have struck home . . .

I take those moments as object lessons in how not to respond (in a way that makes your agent confess to their circle of professional associates: "Yep, my writer just self-destructed in public today. Sigh.") The problem, I think, is in the blood: Writers have a natural inclination and proclivity to respond to words with more words, and if the person you're corresponding with is also a writer, well . . . the "ascending spiral" can go on forever . . .        

PS. And then there's Isaac Asimov, who was once asked by a reviewer, "How do you respond to negative reviews?" -- "What are those?" asked impish Isaac with a straight face. -- The interviewer explained. -- "Ah!" said Isaac, "now I know what you mean. Unfortunately, I cannot answer. At the first hint of negativity in a review I stop reading and throw the thing away."
Atthys Gage
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 7:20 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Carl!  Love the Asimov!  The perfect solution!
Angela Martello
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 9:03 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394

If I think the review has value (and that includes negative reviews), then I'll respond/comment. If the review completely misses the mark and seems to offer nothing of value whatsoever, I tend not to comment. Basically, I don't know how to comment.

As for matching the length of my comments to the length of the review - I don't see the point to that unless the reviewer and I get into a good-natured, philosophical exchange about the work. To respond to each point (both the positives and negatives) to me seems counterproductive (and a monumental waste of time). And there is the tendency on my part, if I go down that road, to get overly defensive. I remind myself daily that the words I write are not etched in stone, so they can be changed. Nor are they me. If I let myself get too defensive about my writing, then I'm taking what the reviewer said too personally. I will, however, make a pointed response if the reviewer makes a statement that is obviously not true (because he/she misread something) or if they raise a question that I know is answered later in the work.

Also, because I work as an editor, I know that people can quibble over word choices for hours if you want to play that game (again, counterproductive). So, I'll graciously listen to what reviewers may have to say about particular words (some suggestions are actually quite wonderful), but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to open up my manuscript file and change everything. As Atthys pointed out, that can destroy the voice of the piece.

Carl, you're right, knowing how NOT to respond is an important skill to master.

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 9:07 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Carl,

First of all I don't believe that the difference between honest inquiry and knee-jerk defensiveness is discernable in the first 5 minutes after reading a review.  Doesn't mean that an immediate response is necessarily wrong-headed, just how can ya know?  So, I always try to let a questionable review sit.  The more upsetting it is, the longer I generally wait. 

And it absolutely never occurred to me to match the length of anything I have to say with the length of what I'm responding to.  First of all, I tend to write at length, because it comes naturally and because I want to make myself as clear as I can, give as much of my personal context as I can, in order to avoid misunderstanding in the misunderstanding-rich environment of the internet. 

I do think, however, there's a big difference between trying to forestall miscommunication by being as thorough and forthright as possible, and trying to do it by curtailing the length of my response to match the length of the post to which I'm responding.  Prolly better to focus on just speaking your mind, right?

I don't generally have a difficult time with reviews from complete strangers.  Where I run into trouble is with people with whom I already feel I have some rapport.  In that case I may trick myself into thinking I'm "only asking for clarification" when really, truly, I've been stung and I want redress.  Badly.

My two most damning reviews on this site come to mind.  One was from a writer I'd already had several conversations with, a writer whose book I'd critiqued very favorably and shared a pleasant back and forth in the comments section there of.  That same writer gave me a very negative review, full, it seemed to me, with matters of taste mascarading as truth. 

Now, if I'd been wiser, I'd have been more confident in that assessment and chalked up my disagreements with that review as a matter of conflicting taste.  The review even began with the caveat, "I don't usually like SF..."  I kinda believe that unless that sentence continues with "...but I really dug yours," it's prolly best not to review the book.  Nobody needs to be reminded that folks who don't generally like the genre you're writing in may very well not appreciate your efforts either.

But I felt hurt that this person I'd previously decided was sympatico, was so misunderstanding my writing.  I'd already allowed myself to hope that they would like my book, so I was stung and replied with a "please clarify" Trojan Horse packed with wounded ego ready to strike.

The other review came quite out of the blue from a writer I had no previous contact with.  And this review was extensively demeaning in tone, criticized my book for being a terrible example of a form I wasn't even writing in and came bundled with "helpful" URL's to sites and blogs written by a writer I consider to be an abject hack.

The funny thing is: I never found myself incorporating any of the comments from the first review into my MS.  But the second, this kinda horrendous review, had some points that definitely deserved to be taken seriously.  One section of that review expressed a desire for considerably more context on the front end, and I found in subsequent drafts that more context, more grounding description, improved the opening chapter greatly.

So, for me, all reviews are best taken seriously.  It's just that the true ones will stand the test of time, regardless of the critic's manner and the false ones will innevitably fade from memory, even some of the glowing ones.  And so it is with our replies: the truest ones will survive a couple days thinking it over, and our most knee-jerk ego-driven ones will fade as the wound heals.

Tom Wolosz
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:31 PM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Hello All,

    Well, let me start out by saying that communication via the written word is always a tricky thing.  What the writer sees as a frank statement can be viewed as venomous by the reader (especially if the reader is developing a wounded ego).  It almost makes one wish for telepathy (and isn’t that a scary thought!).

     But I don’t think Carl’s original question refers to harsh critiques, but those that seem way out there.  Unfortunately, the world is full of folks who misread (almost willfully at times) other people’s work.  Two examples that come to mind are not from the world of fiction writing.  A friend of mine had submitted a paper to a scientific journal.  It was a major opus, and he was coming up for a tenure decision, so very important to him.  I can still see the look on his face as I walked into his office – a mixture of sadness, disgust and anger.  He handed me the review (the paper had been rejected).  It started off: “As a mathematical model for the…..this paper fails utterly.”  I looked at him in disbelief. “Your paper has nothing to do with mathematical modeling.”  He shrugged and tossed the reviews into the wastebasket.  A bit closer to home – a few years ago I wrote a grant proposal to a federal agency requesting over $100,000 for some research equipment.  One of the reviewers angrily stated that the request should be rejected because he had acquired a similar piece of equipment a number of years before for a much lower price, so I must have been padding the request.  I had to assume that this fellow had never heard of inflation, but I did wonder if he thought that I had bribed or in some other way influenced the vendor in order to get an inflated price quote (since the letter from the company quoting the price was attached!). My point is simply that they are out there.

     Well okay, what do you do?  Years ago when I was young and stupid (now I’m no longer young) I once fired off an irate letter to an editor when I got what I felt to be a rather idiotic review (even now, years later I still think it was stupid).  What I learned was that this was totally counter productive – the editor and an assistant editor got angry at me.  So first of all – CALM DOWN.  Go for a walk.  Get drunk.  Eat a half-gallon of ice cream. Beat your cat (always an admirable endeavor).  Go back and read some glowing reviews your work has received.  Most important, do not respond.  Give yourself a few days – I’m sure you have more important things to do with your life.

     Now that a few days have passed, try to look at the review objectively.  If the reviewer has totally missed the point of your story examine their critique.  One problem I’ve noted with Book Country is that people take notes in the side boxes while reading – “at 33% your sentence makes no sense!”  they are multi-tasking which makes it easy to miss things (ask anyone who drives and texts – assuming they are still among the living). Good reviewers put a lot of time into a review (and there are a number of such on BC – you know who you are.  Thank you!)  I always read a story twice – the first time for the story and an overall evaluation, the 2nd time to make sure I did not miss something and to pick up fine details. 

     At this point you should be able to tell if the reviewer is thoughtful, or a quick skimmer.  If it appears that the reviewer has put time and effort into the review I will respond and try to open a dialogue. I might not reply point by point, maybe I’ll just ask a few questions, because I want to see if the reviewer is interested in a discussion. I see no point in investing a lot of time explaining myself if I’m not sure I’ll get a response, or if the reviewer will even read my response. If the reviewer appears to be a skimmer I will still respond, although not as thoroughly, because most times if you respond to a skimmer’s review, you will not get a response. However, I’m giving the person the benefit of the doubt, and truthfully, since they reviewed my work, it’s a way of saying ‘thank you’, which, no matter the review, is appropriate.  If a dialogue ensues – great!  Otherwise move on.

 Best wishes to all.   


Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:42 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Excellent responses, Angela, Kevin and Tom! Thoughtful, cogent, grounded in professional wisdom and personal insight.

@Angela: I take your point re: ". . .  if I go down that road [a pt.-by-pt. re-examination and response to everything the reviewer mentioned in his or her critique] that seems like a monumental waste of time . . . there is a tendency to get overly defensive." Indeed! Side note: I once said to a table of friends, "Now I don't like to argue, but--" and before I could get out another word I had to wait until the laughter died down. So meta-cognition (my perception of how others perceive me) may not match individualized, external realities; i.e., the ontology of me as experienced by the phenomenology others. But this is beginning to sound like the opening to a PKD novel . . .

@Kevin: Thank you for sharing from your personal experience. I think the more risky and "out there" our art the more defensive and self-justifying and overly-belabored the explanation as to just how and why we attempted what we did. I've noticed this especially with musicians and writers. When they try something new and it isn't particularly well-received they'll launch into a long-winded defense and justification of their "new direction", almost as if they were anticipating the criticism and rehearsing responses beforehand.  

And I had to chuckle at this gem: "Nobody needs to be reminded that folks who don't generally like the genre you're writing in may very well not appreciate your efforts either." Heh! The subtext there [of such an imagined review] cracks me up: "I don't like this genre and your writing reminded me yet again as to why I don't." Gee, thanks for checking in with me, hating-on-the-writer critic!

And the other example: maddening to be critiqued against a checklist or blueprint you're not working from, isn't it? As if you'd built a car in your garage and the reviewer starts off: "This boat will sink the minute you put it into the water." C.S. Lewis had a lot to say about readers like that in his brilliant On Criticism.  

On the other hand, yes, good things can come from those kinds of critiques as well. Sometimes you realize your "trail-blazing" or "new direction" isn't as bold and paradigm-shattering as you'd originally thought and the old rules still very much apply . . .  

@Tom: Glad you chimed in! My god, those anecdotes: they read like absurdist missives from It's a Mad, Mad World. Hard to be believe we function like this. But we do; as insider-novel after insider-novel proves there's no end to academic, corporatist or individual absurdities and contradictions.
Mimi Speike
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 5:35 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

I have not had many reviews, but I respect the opinions expressed in every one of them. If I disagree with anything that has been said, it is only by a matter of degree. Carl has directed that this discussion should concern criticism that is disputed completely. I cannot speak to that. I am of two minds, both for and against, every point made.

In general, I think that there are very few criticisms without real validity. The trick is to distance yourself from your work, a difficult thing to do. Decide on what particular issues you are willing to work on, and you will be surprised at how the list of acceptable exploratory alterations grows.

If you ultimately decide to retain the original approach, you will at least have a sounder basis for defending it. In the end, you must be the one to talk yourself out of a problematic strategy. Embrace advice, make it your own, or else thank one and all for their kind input, and withdraw. And be willing to take the consequences, possibly producing a work of very limited appeal.

Therefore, reread all advice, again and again, until it looses its sting and you can consider it open-mindedly. This applies to comments you feel are wholly unwarranted as well as to those you are uncertain about. Only then will you be able to make decisions that are in your best interest.

How do you differentiate between legitimate further discussion and a knee-jerk reaction? Why do you feel the need to convert a doubter? Take the comments to heart and debate yourself. You’re the one who has to make the final decision. Do you feel that you have been misunderstood? So what? It’s going to happen.

You may have been understood all too well. Keep in mind that you may be wrong. Proceed with caution every time you lay hands on the keyboard. This stuff doesn't go away.

Tom Wolosz
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 6:40 PM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Hello Mimi,

    In your next to last paragraph you simply need to replace “discussion” with “conversation”.  The difference between knee-jerk and legitimate is depth.  If someone simply says, “That doesn’t work”, with no elaboration, I’ll ask them why.  If I get a response and it makes no logical sense to me I’ll tell them my feeling on the matter and we end up having a conversation.  I’ve had this happen a few times.  End result: you win some, you lose some.  It’s not a matter of conversion.  It’s a matter of learning.  I’ve been through some of these things with Carl on a couple of stories.  After a few go-rounds, either the writer or the critic admits to seeing the validity of the other’s point of view, or they agree to disagree.  No matter the outcome both have benefited through a fuller understanding of the other’s point of view. That could result in both a better writer and a better critic. 

    I guess in sum I’d say that I can’t consider an unwarranted comment open mindedly without a better understanding of the though behind that comment.



Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 7:14 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Thanks for checking in on this issue, Mimi!

Let me address the question you asked: "Why do you feel the need to convert a doubter?"

I don't think you can. Amongst other reasons (to re-iterate): They may be right and you wrong.

Having said that, however, one of the questions I posed to other writers like yourself was: "How detailed a reply do you give to your reviewer?" (Do you honor their work by matching energy-for-energy: a couple of sentences or paras for a couple of sentences or paras; pages of response for pages of critique? We all seem to be in agreement that less is more here.)

One of the dilemmas I wrestle with is this: How to respond to criticism you disagree with--or have a slightly different take on--without coming across as self-defensive. I'm always a little disappointed with those writers (involved in the workshop process) who never defend their choices or respond intelligently to their critics, especially when it concerns criticisms like: “You wrote this; I wish you had written that,” and “the artist’s role is to _________.” Simply saying “Thank you for the read and review” in these instances reads—to me—like either sarcasm or cowardice.

There is also this: Everyone can learn something from a spirited yet respectful give-and-take between the writer and his (or her) critic; further learning and understanding that can take place when authorial intent and aesthetic values are interrogated and deconstructed in full view of your peers. Oftentimes these kinds of discussions don’t lead to dualistic or simple binary yes/no, right/wrong outcomes and answers but rather to important, eternally-relevant and controversial further questions like: “What is the function and purpose of art? A text? Authorial persona?"

I feel cheated when I read terse responses from writers to critics on these issues and wanted to know how others feel and think about these same issues.  

Atthys Gage
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 8:14 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Carl.  I admit there have been occasions where I have done detailed criticisms and the only response I've gotten was a "Thank you for your input.  It will be very helpful."  kind of answer.  As an oft-rejected writer, such a response is uncomfortably close to a form letter from a disinterest agent.  

There's no way of telling whether it's a polite brush-off ("I really do not agree with your opinion but I don't want to get into it") or whether I've jangled a sensitive nerve of self-doubt ("You are probably right but I don't want to get into it") or something else entirely ("I really wasn't interested in critiques so I'm just going to ignore this.")

As a raving ego-maniac, I want people to like my critical suggestions almost as much as I want them to like my own writings.  A detailed critique can involve a lot of labor, and I always hope that, even when I've been less than enthusiastic, that the writer will appreciate that I must have seen some thing that I felt worth the effort.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 8:27 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Indeed! That's exactly what I'm talking about, Atthys: that kind of five-word "thank you for your input" response seems too formulaic and non-communicative to me to be meaningful. Hell, I'd be far more insulted with that kind of brush-off than if you argued with me.

Typo alert: superfluous "that" eliminated in this corrected sentence: "There is also this: Everyone can learn something from a spirited yet respectful give-and-take between the writer and his (or her) critic; further learning and understanding can take place when authorial intent and aesthetic values are interrogated and deconstructed in full view of your peers."

Grrrrr! Typos. 

@Tom: Here-here! We've been on both sides of the fence: writer-responding-to-critic, critic-responding-to-writer. In each and every instance I've felt your commentary to be fair, on-target and cogent; thoughtfully-considered and considerate. You readily admit or acknowledge a called-out flaw in the writing if you agree with your critiquer's criticism, but are also willing to stand your ground and argue for the appropriateness and relevance of those authorial choices and compromises made in the service of creating an effective text. You are also bulldog-determined and relentless in your harrying and pursuit of a writer who won't admit an obvious error or weakness in their text. I enjoy that aspect of your reviewer personality as well, heh! No wilting-wallflower you.  

The larger, over-arching point is: It may very well take a bit of hotly-debated back-and-forth between writer and critic before the dialectical ideal of thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis results in a better, stronger text. But even if those instances where this laudatory ideal and outcome is not possible I would argue that there is still merit and value in having the argument itself; an argument you cheat yourself and your readers from experiencing (and learning from) if you refuse to have it.  


Mimi Speike
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 8:42 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

Tom, Carl, and Atthys,

You are all right. But if I give a short Thank you for your helpful advice reply to a reviewer, I do sincerely mean it, and I also mean, this is complex stuff that I have to mull over. I don't know what I think of it.

As time goes by, I may come to a conclusion, but feel that it's too late to speak, except in an independent discussion like this. And, to tell the truth, maybe even after a month or two, I still haven't made an irrevocable decision about an issue. This is my situation at present.

Doesn't anyone else have this problem? I can't be the only one.

Atthys Gage
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 8:57 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

It's a fair point, Mimi.  Although one could say precisely that.   "Hmm, I'm not sure I agree, but I need to think about it."  
Then, hopefully you do, and reopen the exchange when fresh thoughts have percolated to the surface.  I haven't noticed you being particularly shy about getting into a back-and-forth.  I don't think it's really ever too late to speak.  At any rate, what's to be lost by trying?
Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 8:59 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Nope, you're not wrong or the only one to feel this way, Mimi. And that's why we're having this discussion--this is one of those endless, perspective-warping round-and-rounds, like an Escher etching or a hypnotically-entwining Moebius strip. The further you get from your original starting point, the faster you're returned to the starting line. Heh!   

PS. Damn it; another typo! Shoud read: "But even in those instances where this laudatory ideal and outcome is not possible I would argue that there is still merit and value in having the argument itself; an argument you cheat yourself and your readers from experiencing (and learning from) if you refuse to have it."

And now I'm stealing away to do more work on a short story that's fighting back; the writing isn't going well on this one, I'm afraid . . .  

Mimi Speike
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 9:17 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

In response to my reviews, here's what I should have said: I am open to restructuring my story, but I cannot dump the history. It is the backbone of my tale, and I refer back to it again and again. And it's fun. And I adore it. 

I didn't dare to say this because I was afraid of appearing rigid and (horrors!) belligerent. 

I guess it's best just to spit it out. It comes out sooner or later anyway.

Tom Wolosz
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 9:24 PM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Hello Mimi,

     I think we are all tormented by the real world (my day job kept me off BC for a few weeks recently).  The important thing is just to say: “Thanks for the review, I really want to think about it when I have time.”  Or some such.  A good reviewer just wants to help.  Take your time.  They’ll understand.  I know I would rather wait a few weeks for a detailed response to a review (especially after putting the requisite time into it) then get something fired off in the heat, or exhaustion, of the moment.  It just helps to know that the review was appreciated. That makes you try even harder to help.


Atthys Gage
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 10:59 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

Mimi:  I fully respect your desire to keep the history in your story.  I'm sure it's good stuff that will add no end of richness to your completed novel.  The biggest problem I had was your tendency to serve it up in such thick slices (the letter, for instance, that takes up so much of the first chapter, was hard to slog through – not because it was poorly written but because I kept on wondering what it had to do with the story at hand, a story that seemed to be taking forever to get itself started.  
A similar thing happened to me in Flight of the Wren.  The agent who requested the full ms suggested that I needed to make cuts in order to keep the story moving (they're all about moving story, these agents), one in particular being a passage where one character tells another a whole lot about the history of enchanted silk and flying carpets.  I could, of course, see her point.  The passage did not, directly, advance the story (though, I insist, it did lay some important groundwork, and do so in what I thought was an engaging and entertaining way.)  Now understand, this is about six or seven pages we're talking about – mostly dialogue, and pretty breezy – so it's not exactly a mountain.  But still, it was bogging down my story. 

I admit, I'm still struggling with it.  The simplest path, simply excising the whole passage, doesn't sit well with me (and I have gotten positive comments on the passage).  My current solution is to keep it as spare and fast as I can and to move it to later in the story.  Really, once a reader gets caught up the plot and the characters, their tolerance for backstory and history lessons increases.  They may even enjoy them.  (Think about all of the endless pages of backstory legions of Harry Potter fans happily endured.)    BUT... you have to hook them in first.  

But enough.   I am planning to post a review on your new chapter some time soon, and we can get into it more at that time.  

Mimi Speike
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 11:05 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

I see now that I handled this badly in several ways.

The first mistake I made was, having just joined up, and reading the pleas for reviews (I've had my book up for months and I only have one taker, etc.) I made a decision to raise a ruckus, to be a bit flamboyant, to bang my drum. 

Thank God I never got around to posting a piece I'd prepared, entitled: Work it, kids! Advice to those who would get themselves noticed, from a former creator of stage costumes. Lucky for me, the reviews began, or I really would have made a fool of myself. 

Well, my machinations worked. In the space of two weeks I had six reviews. I had no time to reflect. It was exhausting. I shut down. 

I won't do that again.

Atthys, I just noticed your latest post. I realize that most folks were not objecting to the history per se, but one or two did, or seemed to, and it is to them that my comment is addressed.

I am very willing to break that material up, and I hope that you and everyone will be satisfied with the result. I won't get it done any time soon, I have other things on my mind, but I will eventually tackle it.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 11:58 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Mimi: see, this is exactly what I mean. You should have said that so your reviewer could counter-counter argue and the discussion continue. (Of course, at some point one of the two parties is going to check out. There’s only so much time one can devote to this kind of stuff, after all—and one of the reasons Harlan Ellison flatly refuses to engage with his readers in this manner. If you’re not careful all of your creative energy gets exhausted by interminable discussion and argument. But until that point is reached by either party . . .)

I'd hoped to keep this a more general discussion thread but that's okay; since you brought it up I'll comment further on your story-in-progress. But not directly, obliquely (at first). I know a very successful pulp fiction writer whom I shall not identify by name (if he chooses to identify himself and jump in here, fine; but I’m not going to out him) who turned in his first novel with page-after-page of densely foot-noted and recondite world-building background detail in every chapter. You read that right—extensive foot notes interrupting and expounding on the narrative in his fast-paced novel. So how did that turn out? He tells the tale himself in his trademark rueful, wry manner: (paraphrased, obviously, since I’m not he): “Yeah, so I says to my agent, ‘What do you think?’ He fixes me with an unblinking stare and says, ‘You’re insane. This can’t be published like this; not as a first novel in this genre.’ ” And it wasn’t. (But all of that background material was vital and useful; it allowed him to write that novel and many others that would follow.)

The novel is one thing; your world history is another. I agree with Atthys and others in this instance: Your novel doesn’t work as engaging novelistic narrative because it’s 80% history lesson and only 20% experiential imagining.

That doesn’t make us right. That makes us opinionated. (And hopefully we’ve provided some cogent and convincing reasons along with cited references to your own text to buttress our arguments). But you should feel free to object as strongly and vociferously as you like, so long as you don’t engage in ad hominem attacks, non sequiturs or frantic hand-waving to distract from focused discussion of relevant matters.

Mimi Speike
Posted: Monday, March 26, 2012 12:24 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

Thanks, Carl.

Once again, everyone has given me much to think about.

I didn't mean to drag the discussion away from the general. Honestly. But I welcome the input. I'm going to sleep on it. Nighty-night.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Monday, March 26, 2012 2:22 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

G'night, Mimi! And remember: regardless of individual skill level, peer recognition or monetary reward we're all members of the same contentious, combative tribe, "sifting through the madness for the word, the line, the way" as Charles Bukowski put it.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 8:25 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

I'm afraid I've given the 'thank you for your time!' response more than once. I mean every word of it, because I take every response seriously and add it to the pot when brewing up my revisions. That still doesn't make it come off any less flippantly.

In my case the habit started from the need to do respond to a few negative reviews on published work. I'd been informed of the reviews by the review site coordinator, and asked to comment on them. They were both fairly short, and both had the same type of negative comment: there wasn't enough world building. In one case the work reviewed was a short (3K words) Urban Fantasy, in the other case it was a short-ish novella (12K words). The short received a comment that I didn't explain a great deal of the magical system, the novella  got a comment that I didn't explicitly state the date.

At that point, since there weren't really any other comments, and my only real counter-comment would be an argumentative sounding 'I didn't want to bog the story down with exposition', I replied with a simplistic 'Thank you for taking the time to review my work; if you or any of your readers have any questions for me, I'd be glad to answer them.'

No questions were forthcoming, so...

At any rate, I tend to put critiques of WIPs in four categories.
1) Positive - these are great, but usually useless except as morale boosters.
2) Hypernegative / personal - these wander into name calling and such. Again, useless.
3)Negative / logical - These are the useful gems, the ones that call out every mistake.
4)Negative / wha?? - These are the ones I think you're talking about. The ones that make you say 'did he read *my* book'? These often take a bit more interpretation, but they show you a lot more about the book. Especially if you have a problem with being too obscure *cough*like me*cough*.

I'd say reply concisely to any critique, with one to three pertinent questions about the critique itself. Even on a good critique, you might ask 'was there any part you liked particularly? Any part you didn't like? Anything thqat I shouldn't change no matter what?

That will either start a conversation, or not.  If not, you don't use a lot of writing oomph on it. Just my 2c, YMMV. But then, that goes for all critiques.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2012 5:20 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

No, you didn't get "too crazy" here; [based on what you've said] you were honest in your response to criticism that swerved into personal attack territory. If anything I admire the fact that you endeavored to take something constructive away from a personal attack piece; that shows real emotional maturity and professional judgment on your part. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Samantha.

Granted, this thread is primarily about cogent, thought-provoking criticisms you receive from intelligent writers but I’m glad you checked in nonetheless; it’s good to see new faces and hear from new voices!

 Here's the thing: A good reviewer should never, ever say things like: “This shows you have no talent,” or “I believe you're not a writer.”

For one thing writing is an active process, not an accolade: you do it, and in the act of writing one becomes a writer. Period, the end. Simple and irrevocable and irrefutable as that—whether your enemies and harshest critics (oftentimes “friends” and family, eh?—they’re the ones who can hurt us the most) like it or not. Secondly, writing mechanics can be improved and polished over time. Everyone started somewhere and improved from their baseline. In fact, I would argue that it's impossible not to improve. (Here's a good self-test that should encourage you: Have you gone back and re-read older texts that you flinch from due to grammatical and syntactical flats and sharps committed in the writing as well as narrative clumsiness and/or inexactness of description and over-all muddiness of tone? Good! That means you improved since then and are continually improving; you’ve improved enough to be able to look back now and understand what you did wrong and should be able to appreciate just how far you’ve come.)

PS. Every 2-3 years I do a complete overhaul and re-write of my existing stories. I can’t help myself; as time passes I see all the myriad ways I can improve on the originals. When the time comes that I can’t see a way to improve a story I’ll know that I’m done; it’s time to stop writing. There is no stasis in nature: You are either improving every day or you’re experiencing accelerated senescence and early senility. So keep writing! (And what’s more important, keep reading.) Don’t let anyone ever take that away from you or in any way diminish your enthusiasm and passion for reading and writing.

PPS. Wouldn’t it be fun, at least once—albeit in a very sophomoric, knee-jerk infantile way—to respond to your un-intelligent critic the same way they wrote at [sic] you: “You know, I don’t think you’ve enough talent or experience to be a reviewer . . .” Heh!    

Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2012 2:37 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping this discussion up!

Lisa Hoekstra
Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 4:56 PM
Joined: 5/10/2011
Posts: 89

Thought I might voice an opinion on the subject! (and reemerge yet again into the world of BC... if only life weren't pulling me from my computer so very often!) 

Right so, the question, if I understand it correctly is: How detailed a response do you give those reviewers of your work you feel have misread, misinterpreted or otherwise marginalized and maligned your text? 

(just a warning, this response might be a novel in its own right)

I'm going to start with me as the criticer for a second... Atthys mentions (wow, 4 months ago... right, ok...) that "I want people to like my critical suggestions almost as much as I want them to like my own writings" and that is whole heartedly true for most people, I think. When I post a critic to someone's work, I spend as much time as I can afford making notes, typing them up, rereading things I had questions about at first when I started but were answered later and really considering the criticism I'm providing. When I look back and see that I don't even get a thumbs up (or worse, a thumbs down) let alone a response from the author, it hurts a little. Why? Because I've put all this effort into providing a constructive, organized criticism of a piece of work that I feel deserves it - not because it requires more work but because I see the sheer potential in it.

So, if I assume that most of the people on BC are like me, reviewing out of the desire to help others in their situation AND at the same time learn from the mistakes of those around them (don't deny it my BC friends, you know it's true!) then I would have to assume that everyone who posts a review desires some form of response that goes beyond the "thank you for your time."

So, to answer the original question, when I receive a review that makes me feel like I've been attacked.. I go for a walk (read grab a pillow and scream out all of my rage into its feathery softness) then I find the key points of the review that are troublesome to me and ask the reviewer questions in the hopes that a calm dialogue will result in which I can learn more about his or her's reading of my work. 

As Carl said - "It may very well take a bit of hotly-debated back-and-forth between writer and critic before the dialectical ideal of thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis results in a better, stronger text." And I strongly agree - some of the best "growing" I've done in and out of the writing sphere has been after I've been... broken? metaphorically speaking. But in a less drastic way. Hurt? Slightly bruised?

And I'm a stronger person for it.

To finished off this overly long response to a conversation that died off four months ago - if we ignore the things that upset us, we'll never truly grow. That doesn't mean that all of the things that upset us are correct, it just means that the confrontation of the cause is what will gives us the chance to figure out the truth of the matter.

The End.
Posted: Friday, August 17, 2012 12:14 PM
if we ignore the things that upset us, we'll never truly grow

this is true across the board - all through life.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Friday, August 17, 2012 11:55 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Lisa!

And is a still-posted discussion thread ever really dead on BC?

Lisa Hoekstra
Posted: Monday, August 20, 2012 11:55 AM
Joined: 5/10/2011
Posts: 89

MariAdkins -

"if we ignore the things that upset us, we'll never truly grow

this is true across the board - all through life. "

you're right, it is true through life. It's funny how the lessons we learn while working on our writing skills can be applied to the other parts of life! 

Carl - perhaps dead was the wrong term. Maybe "hibernating" would have been more appropriate! 
Dea Simon
Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2012 3:19 PM
Joined: 8/23/2012
Posts: 3

I tend to have a few people that I really listen to. If they've got negative things to say, I have to consider making changes. Most of the other people who read my stuff before it's ready either don't like what I've written and want to be "supportive" so they lie, or they don't like what I've written because they don't read in my genre, or would have written it differently if they did. I seldom offer myself up for critique until I know there is something wrong with the story, and I can't work out what it is. So if someone can point and say, "No, you should have done this" or "This dialogue isn't true to character." or something, and I can say, "Oh, you're right!" then I know to make a change. But even when that person is wrong, its still helpful, because I can go, "no but then this won't happen... did I not make that clear enough?" It can be really hard to find a critique who knows you well enough to know what you're capable of writing, even when you feel like the worst writer ever, but when you do it's absolutely worth it to consider everything they have to say, because even when you disagree with it, you can answer to it honestly, and not from the place of "Don't hurt my precious baby!!!"

GD Deckard
Posted: Monday, August 27, 2012 10:14 AM
Bookkus is running a short story contest. If interested, goto:
Posted: Sunday, November 24, 2013 2:08 PM
Carl: Ars artium omnium conservatrix. Printing: The art which preserves all arts. We must write as our passion demands. Furor scribendi. When we write for a perceived audience, we are selling our souls to the lowest bidder. If you write honestly, the content of your writing will withstand any criticism flung its way. Umberto Eco was right. He also said: "Will we be happier afterwards?  Or will we have lost the freshness of those who are privileged to experience art as real life, where we enter after the trumps have been played, and we leave without knowing who's going to win or lose the game?" Those who lack the courage to enter the arena, critics primarily, squawk the loudest when they summon the temerity to denigrate those who dare brandish the sword dipped in ink. Labor ipse voluptas.

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