On the Importance of Maturing as an Author
I have a rule.
I don’t review friend’s books. Neither do I let them review mine. I’ve actually had to go out of my way, risking offense, to ask a friend to remove a review from the Amazon page of Children of the Halo, despite it having nearly nothing in the way of reviews.
Certainly my friend’s review was genuine and unsolicited, and he was without-a-doubt sincerely trying to help me out by doing me a favor, for which I am eternally appreciative. But in principle, I couldn’t allow it. I did not want to risk being seen as an author that solicits reviews, merely because the implication from critics is that the reviews are not genuine.
Additionally, it’s difficult to remain objective when reviewing a friend’s work for public consumption. Not that I would consciously choose to lie to readers about the quality of a book. However, I’m more inclined to dress it up in nicer language (mostly thanks to having spent several years in customer service,) which isn’t always crystal-clear. The last thing I want to do is scare potential readers away with a bad review, but I won’t lie either. For that confluence of reasons, I just won’t do it.
But when a friend asks me for feedback on a beta read, in a private email, I am quick to point out the numerous flaws and errors that I can spot.
The reason? Because I have faith that they can accept criticism on their work gracefully. Why? Because I credit my ability to accept criticism gracefully as the main reason I ever improved from writing half-baked
Ranma 1/2 fanfiction in the late 1990’s. It was then that I joined a mailing list full of writers passionate about improving their craft through writing fanfiction for popular anime at the time. It was there that I got my first taste of constructive criticism from someone who wasn’t a high school teacher.
Many of them were older than me by decades. But I soon found myself embedded in a close-knit community of writers, each of which were only too happy to take any opportunity to tell me I was a bad writer. Respectfully, of course. Not all criticisms are made equal, particularly when you’re dealing in a text-only environment.
I recall a poem I wrote once around that time that I’d posted onto a message board. The first two responses were compliments. The third was a several-paragraph long screed on how I must be a moron because the poem wasn’t just bad, it was utter trash and was an affront to his very senses. That anonymous poster all but ensured that I, still green under the gills, would not be continuing to work on that poem.
What’s worse is that there was very little in that comment in the way of actual criticism of my work, but more inferences on my mental health, my education level, and wild guesses about what kind of life I led. I do recall him particularly objecting to my use of the word “amidst.”
I wasn’t mature enough to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff at that time, and it was difficult for me to categorize the different types of criticism. I wasn’t able to make the distinction between constructive criticism, or anonymous posters just trying to get a rise out of me. Even today, Poe’s Law makes it difficult to understand.
But over time, and with the development of my frontal lobe, the lines because less blurry and more clear. I started to be able to see the line between criticizing me and criticizing my work. Today, I understand that those who criticize me are merely lashing out for reasons they may not even understand. I don’t believe you can criticize a person until you know them well enough to predict what they’ll say or do, and even then you should tread lightly. But a person’s work? That’s not just fair game, that’s ideally what you want.
These days, I’ve seen a number of rising indie authors who fail to grasp that difference. They make the mistake of thinking that because a reader admits to not liking their story, that they must be attacking a fundamental theme of their story, and in turn attacking some aspect of the author’s identity. This is especially common with, although not limited to, many of the millennial social media-savvy generation of authors. I recently observed a Facebook thread in which one such author proclaimed that criticism over the new Star Wars movies were therefore evidence of the critic holding ideas of white supremacy, homophobia and misogyny. I’m not kidding, the author used the words whitesplain, mansplain and straightsplain unironically at several points in her rant, all dedicated to the critics of the new Star Wars films.
There is a market for that sort of attitude. Many authors today understand the importance of building their brand in the face of an increasingly online world, and to be known as youngish curmudgeons is a huge selling point to the yas queen generation.
Thankfully there is a stronger market for maturity. Most of the bestselling authors alive today have passed the age of immaturity, although not all. And certainly there are some that have passed that age and yet still exhibit the self-importance of a young man of twenty.
The ability to accept genuine criticism is what helps authors grow. The author who cannot accept genuine criticism cannot, by definition, grow. Those who must be right 100% of the time will never learn anything new, and it’s practically a death sentence for authors. Certainly some might have some niche following, but they will always be limited in how large their readership grows.
And as any veteran author knows, growth is key.