I Feel the Need, the Need for Feed...back
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Yes, Virginia, there are authors who seek criticism.
I am one of them.
I would like to stress—emphatically—that the desire for criticism does not equal an urge to have a novel butchered mercilessly and served up like one of Mrs. Lovett’s worst pies in London. Thankfully, that has not yet happened to The Sword and the Spark, but let’s be honest, it is only a matter of time before it does. I’m neither naïve enough nor arrogant enough to believe that it won’t. However, what I’d like to talk about is constructive criticism, which is an invaluable tool to any author who wants to improve and hone their craft.
I, for one, hunger for that feedback daily because The Sword and the Spark is my very first published novel. Prior to tacking the words "The End" onto my first draft, I had never written a novel-length narrative all the way through to its conclusion, and thus, I was immediately convinced that it was a total piece of garbage. The process of writing it, however, had been such a large and important part of my life that I felt I owed my narrative a chance to improve itself so that others might someday. . . maybe. . . possibly. . . eventually read it. I began the task of revising it, attempting to find the diamond in the rough, or even just cubic zirconia--I wasn't picky. I deleted, combined, rewrote, reorganized, and tightened chapters; I solidified the voices and nuances of the characters who remained in the story after the hack and slash process of cutting my 200K+ draft down to something a little more palatable; and once I had done this four times, I did the very thing I had been terrified of doing my entire life: I sent this fourth revised draft of my first complete novel off to a few fellow authors and some trusted and avid book readers within my acting community who are not shy about offering criticism, and I asked them for thorough critical feedback.
Ask, and ye shall receive. It's often said that you should never let people you know read and critique drafts of your book because they're not going to give you honest feedback. Obviously, those who say this don’t know the people I do--or they just don't have actor friends. I mean, for a bunch of people who play make-believe for a living, we tend to be pretty honest. Thus, I received notes. Lots of notes. I’m talking serious developmental editing notes. Not from everyone I sent it to, of course, but enough to make a huge impact and convince me that my novel was, in fact, still total garbage even after four revisions. These notes consisted of everything from simple opinions on character and story elements to glaring errors in prose. They drew attention to minor plot holes and made suggestions on pacing and structure. They asked world-building questions—questions that needed answers and that I, the author, had failed to provide. Despite such evidence that I was a failure, I doggedly pressed on, determined to turn my crude lump of clay into a decent sculpture, if only to make it my own personal Mt. Everest. In some cases, readers received multiple drafts week after week as I frantically continued my revisions based on the notes I was given. I took every criticism to heart, I was given the tools to make my novel better, and eventually, I sent revision number I-Totally-Lost-Count off to a professional for more of the same.
Yes, a professional. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, they are worth it.
One would think that after so many eyes, revisions, and edits, the final product would be pretty close to perfect, right? Well, in an ideal world, I would have churned out an undeniable masterpiece of literature—the greatest novel ever written. Alas, I am human, flawed, and fully cognizant of the fact that there are a multitude of factors that contribute to how a book is received. I’ve been fortunate in that my baby is doing fairly well for a debut novel in terms of the responses from the literary competitions I recklessly sent it off to in a desperate search for either simple validation or complete critical rejection. But despite the overwhelmingly positive feedback, I have only reached the finalist stage in those competitions. Why?
First and foremost, it's me. Hi. I'm the problem, it's me. You see, the final draft of a novel always comes down to the author, and there were a few suggestions that I chose not to heed because of. . . um. . . authorial vision and whatnot, I guess. Who knows? Whatever the reason, while some of my choices were the right ones, one critic had an issue with something that just so happened to have been mentioned by my final editor but was subsequently ignored by me. Okay, lesson learned. Score one for the Editor. “A hit, a very palpable hit.”
Second, literature is highly subjective. One critic praised the way I handled a key murder in the story because of the way it paid homage to “offstage” deaths in the Shakespearean and Greek tragedies which inspired the novel, while another saw it as a flaw in developmental editing and felt that the flow of the story would have been better had the scene been narrated by a witness as it happened. Whose opinion is right and valid? They both are. One opinion just so happens to belong to the person deciding if my work is worthy of recognition, which makes it pretty important in that particular instance. But what also matters a great deal are the opinions of those people who comprise the main audience of my book. If multiple readers share an opinion regarding a certain aspect of my writing, and that opinion happens to be critical, then I’m obviously going to address that criticism moving forward, especially if those same readers also happened to enjoy the book overall. The last thing I want is for people who enjoyed The Sword and the Spark to read my next book and encounter the very same element they had a problem with in the first one.
Except for character deaths. That’s not going to change. I will continue to rip my readers’ hearts out when it comes to characters meeting their untimely demises. My novels draw inspiration from tragedies with high body counts, so I'm afraid that’s non-negotiable.
But I digress. Criticism is crucial, and I will continue to ask those who have read my debut novel to express their opinions and offer criticism. I genuinely want it, so don’t be shy. Your opinions are valid, and truthfully, I might not necessarily agree with them—see above-mentioned story regarding my dismissal of one of my final editor’s notes—but my feelings are not going to be hurt by having the flaws in my writing presented to me so that I can hopefully improve.
Unless these flaws are presented in the form of a bloody, Sweeney Todd style pie. Or leave me feeling like the off-screen murder victim whose remains are described in gory, graphic detail later in the novel, because let’s face it, that’s just mean and hurtful. But constructive criticism is not mean and hurtful, or at least, it shouldn't be. Rather, it's the key to becoming a better writer.
And I will always strive to be a better writer.
To conclude, leave those reviews, dear readers. Go to Goodreads or the retailer site from which you purchased the book. Or utilize the contact form on this website to offer your feedback if you don't want it to do so publicly. This author would be eternally grateful.