What to Do When the Critics Disagree

One of the more common questions from my post on when your critics are right was what to do when the critics disagree. When one person says your sad ending should be happy, but another says it's not sad enough, who's right?

A little background: Air Pirates is written with two POVs--the main storyline in Hagai's perspective and backstory told in Sam's past. I've gotten all kinds of comments on this.

(For the record, ALL of my beta readers are awesome people who get it. Not a single jerk has read this novel. They just differed in their opinions of where it should go.)

  • "I love the two storylines. It never gets boring."
  • "I like both Sam and Hagai, but switching back and forth like this is hard. What if you took out Sam's story and made it it's own novel, like a prequel?"
  • "Sam is awesome, but I thought Hagai was annoying. Can it just be about Sam?"
  • "I LOVE Hagai, but Sam is too much. Can it just be about Hagai?"

If I were to follow this advice, I would simultaneously have to: (1) remove Hagai's story, (2) remove Sam's story, (3) write a novel each for Hagai and Sam, and (4) change nothing.

You can see where that might be difficult.

But the purpose of critiques is not to fix the novel for you. Critiques give you an idea of how people are responding to your novel. It's up to you how you address that. To the tips!
  1. FOLLOW YOUR GUT. You know your story best, and you can usually tell which comments resonate with you and which don't. When it was suggested I split the novel in two, I debated it a lot, but ultimately decided it would turn the story into something I didn't want to write. That freed me to focus on what I would change.
  2. LOOK AT THE ROOT OF THE COMMENT. Even though their advice was contradictory, all of my beta readers were correct. I just had to go deeper than the advice and look at the reason behind it. Hagai was annoying sometimes, and Sam was sometimes too much, but removing one or the other as a main character wasn't an answer I liked. Knowing the root cause, however, I could fix the real issue: make Hagai more proactive; make Sam less of a Mary Sue.
  3. LOOK FOR THE TRUTH IN EVERY COMMENT. So I ignored the suggestion of splitting the novel in two, but did I ignore the comment entirely? Heck, no. There was something that reader didn't like about switching back and forth, and it was my job to figure out what it was. Realizing that made me take a cold, hard look at both storylines to figure out what made "switching" difficult for some people. I shortened some chapters, deleted others, and focused the tension so each storyline could stand on its own, resulting in a far less boring story overall.
It looks cut and dried, but believe me, it wasn't at the time. Analyzing critiques is hard work (and a good reason to limit how many beta readers you have at one time), but Air Pirates is a lot better for it. Good enough? Heck, I don't know. But definitely better.

What do you do when critics disagree?

10 Ways to Tell a Critic Doesn't Get It

On Monday, I said your critics are usually right. But there are times when you get someone who just doesn't get it. How can you tell the difference? Here are some guidelines.

  1. They get your characters' names wrong. Repeatedly.
  2. They hate your favorite part. Not some clever bit of dialog, but the part where the whole story's about an ex-smuggler who works for an assassin and hopes to find his daughter before his boss does. THAT part.
  3. You write a story where evil isn't all black and white, with good guys and villains who are varying shades of gray, and they say, "Your characters seemed to have both good and bad qualities, so that I couldn't identify with any of them."*
  4. They suggest you change the vampires because "vampires that drink blood are cliche."
  5. The best thing they have to say for your story is, "It didn't make me throw up."
  6. They think your epic fantasy is "too unrealistic. Who really believes in dragons anyway?"
  7. Their favorite part is the maid with no name and one line of dialog--the one you deleted in the revisions you did while waiting for this critique.
  8. Their idea to improve your zombie story is to get rid of the zombies.
  9. They end their critique by saying, "I suspect that no matter what I say, you're going to continue trying to write."
  10. They send you a link to their self-published novel as "an example of how to do it right."
* Actual quote.

Got anymore?

The Kitchen-Sink Story VS. The Rule of Cool

The Kitchen-Sink Story: A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it.

The Rule of Cool: Most readers are willing to suspend their disbelief for something that is totally awesome.
-- TV Tropes (intentionally unlinked because I care about you)

Yesterday I posted this on Twitter and Facebook:

Most of the responses were combinations. Steampunk ninjas. Jumper elves. The most common response, though, was all six: elven ninjas with Jumper powers, driving steampunk mecha in a genetically perfect waterworld (possibly fighting dragons).

It sounds great, largely due to the Rule of Cool stated above. Take two cool things, slap them together, and nobody cares how impossible the outcome is BECAUSE IT IS AWESOME!

But the fear, then (well, my fear), is being accused of writing a Kitchen-Sink Story. "You're just throwing in ninjas because you think they're trendy, not because they add anything to the work!" "Mecha don't make sense anyway, but in a world covered entirely in water?!"

At first glance, it sounds like these are two different sets of people: the SF geeks (who love ninjas) vs. the erudite literary heads who Take Fiction Seriously. But the SF geeks who find all this stuff awesome are also the folks who will nitpick your story to death. They want the cool stuff and a world they can dig deeply into (I know, I'm one of them).

Fortunately folks like me are willing to accept any explanation you can give them, provided it's consistent. So I think I'll do what I always do. You can feel free to follow suit:
  1. Ignore those who Take Fiction Seriously. Much as I'd love to win a Hugo, those guys aren't my target audience.
  2. Pick the elements I want, figure out why it makes sense later. It worked with Air Pirates, after all.
  3. Apply the Rule of Cool where necessary. Giant mecha don't make sense, neither tactically nor physically, but who the heck cares? They're awesome.
  4. Ensure whatever I make up follows its own rules. Sufficiently strange technology, or elements that don't exist in the real world, is treated like magic. State the rules, then follow them.
I don't know what I'll actually decide (depends on the story, I guess), but I'm definitely going to lean on the Rule of Cool rather than be afraid of the Kitchen-Sink Story. What do you think?

Oo, KRAKEN! Those are definitely going in the waterworld.

When Your Critics are Right

"Originally we tried to find a publisher, but each had their reason why THE SHACK was not a book they wanted, or they asked for substantive changes that we felt diminished the story." -- William P. Young, author of THE SHACK

When I first read the above quote, I laughed a little. I'd just finished reading THE SHACK, and while a lot of the ideas in it are frigging fantastic, the story and the prose grated on me the whole way through. I don't know what "substantive changes" were suggested, but at the time I was thinking, "Yeah, like make the story good!"

It may be that Young's potential publishers really would've diminished the things THE SHACK did well. I don't know. I do know that most writers have a vision, an idea of what their story is. And when a critiquer tells them why something isn't working for them, the tendency is to believe the critic is wrong--that the changes they suggest would change the fundamental vision of the story.

Sometimes this is true. Mostly, I think, it isn't.

Most of the time, your critics are right. Even if they don't know writing, they know what they like and what's not working for them. And chances are they represent a significant percentage of your potential readership.

One of my very first beta readers said a certain scene wasn't working for them. He said the prose was too florid, looked like I was trying too hard. I did nothing about it at the time, because I had a "vision" for the scene. It was supposed to be florid, like the narration of someone who thought too much of themselves.

As it turned out, the narrator who thought too much of themselves was me. One year and four major revisions later, I read that scene again and wrote in the margin: "This IS over the top."

All that time, I thought I was being "true to my vision," but after a year's worth of learning the craft, I discovered my friend--who had never written a novel in his life--was 100% correct.

That's today's lesson: Trust your critics. When someone says something isn't working, nine times out of ten, they're right. The people who don't get it are the exceptions.

Blog Growth

I want to take a look at how a blog grows, what does and does not affect it, what you can do to...

Okay, that's a lie. I just want to geek out about statistics.

This blog has been running since May 2008. Other than the spikes, you can see that it has had a pretty steady growth. Let's take a look at the spikes, the dips, and things I think should've affected this growth but didn't.

Both spikes were a direct result of someone linking to a post (this one in Oct 2009 and this one a year later,  though I think that first spike is a fluke ... as I recall, most of those visitors came from Google looking for this picture). Although I definitely gained readers both times, there was no significant, long term change in the blog's readership, no matter how big the spike. This is almost certainly due to the lack of swearing, drinking, and scantily-clad women on my blog needed to keep people coming back.

MORAL: Swear more, dammit.

The dips are usually when I posted less, like last August when I disappeared for two weeks. Makes sense in a graph that shows monthly readership as opposed to per post.

MORAL: Post more often to artificially boost my number of readers per month.

In Nov 2008, I started posting blog links on Facebook and Twitter. There's a little growth, but not what I'd call significant.

In Sep 2009, I started posting on a regular schedule. Again, there's growth, but that's more easily explained by the fact I went to 13 posts/month instead of 8 (see moral to THE DIPS, above).

In Apr 2010, I got published and ran a contest. I got a few extra page loads that month (usually indicative of new people checking out old posts), but otherwise no big change.

MORAL: Nothing matters. Give up.

I don't really believe nothing matters. The graph obviously shows growth, but it also shows there's no single event to magically boost your readers (at least not this side of being agented). I'd say the growth correlates more with me getting better at social media than anything else--commenting on blogs, interacting on Twitter/Facebook, stuff like that.

Not that I'm awesome (I'm SO not), but I try to figure out what people do and do not like to read, and then give them that while still being me. And I'm slowly learning how to actually talk to people, even if it's just over the internet. Honestly, this is stuff anyone can do.

So do you keep track of your readership stats? Have you noticed any trends in what works or doesn't?

A Simple Fix: -ing Verbs

I love Dr. Seuss, but there's one of his books I always edit as I read. Bartholomew and the Oobleck just has an overabundance of passive -ing verbs. Example:

       With an angry roar, the oobleck was suddenly hitting the palace harder. It was battering and spattering against the walls as big as greenish buckets full of gooey asparagus soup!
       Like a sinking sailboat, the whole palace was springing leaks. The oobleck was ripping the windows right off their hinges.
       It was dripping through the ceilings. It was rolling down the chimneys. It was coming in everywhere ... even through the keyholes!

There's a lot of good stuff here. Strong verbs. Apt comparisons. Colorful imagery. But the past progressive (which is what we call -ing verbs used this way) kills me every time.

It seems accurate. I mean, the oobleck didn't hit the palace just once. It was hitting it. Continuously. But this construction is passive, and in fiction it slows things down. Compare the above passage with this one.

       With an angry roar, the oobleck suddenly hit the palace harder. It battered and spattered against the walls as big as greenish buckets full of gooey asparagus soup!
       Like a sinking sailboat, the whole palace sprung leaks. The oobleck ripped the windows right off their hinges.
       It dripped through the ceilings. It rolled down the chimneys. It came in everywhere ... even through the keyholes!

I don't know about you, but the new passage feels a lot more tense to me. And at no point am I confused as to whether the oobleck hit or was hitting. The scene it paints is perfectly clear.

Fortunately this is an easy, if somewhat tedious, fix. Search for "ing", and examine each one to see if it can be removed. (Of course you'll find a lot of gerunds too--verbs turned into nouns via -ing--which is what makes it so tedious).

Or you can do it the lazy way, like me. Learn the rule, and hope you catch them on your own read through. With practice, you can actually catch a lot, though probably not all of them. It is called the lazy way for a reason, after all.

Never Tell Me the Odds

Three years ago, I thought all you needed to get published was a half-decent book.

Most of you are laughing now.

The thing is if I knew, when I started writing Travelers, that it would take eight years and three novels to get to the place where agents said, "I like your writing, but...", I think I would've given up from the start. I'm glad I didn't know how hard this road would be when I started it.

But there are a few things I wish I had known, and I'll share these with you:
  1. Critiquing other stories can help you get better faster than writing them. You can critique dozens of short stories in the time it takes to craft one, and as I've said it's easier to see problems in other stories.
  2. In terms of learning technique, short stories are equivalent to novels, but with a quicker turn-around time. You can write dozens of short stories, and have them critiqued and revised, in the time it takes you to write a novel.
  3. A story must have tension at all times. Tension is what keeps the reader reading. They're either afraid something will happen or they want to learn the mystery behind it all.
  4. Nathan Bransford's blog is a gold mine. There are many, many good resources out on this internet, but if I could only point to one, I'd say read EVERY POST in Publishing Essentials on the sidebar.
  5. Backup your stuff. Remember that time you had to retype a month's-worth of work? Yeah. Backup your stuff.
Of course, I wouldn't have believed #'s 2 and 5. For that matter, I wouldn't have believed it would take this long to get where I am, even if someone told me. I had a lot of hope and an overdeveloped sense of I Might Be The Exception. So I guess it's okay if you tell me the odds. I just won't listen.

What do you wish you had known starting out?

What's DRM Good For?

Wednesday's post garnered some very awesome comments, making good points for both sides: paper and e-books. A couple of them got me thinking about DRM, and what makes it bad or good. That's what we're talking about today.

First, a definition. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. Once upon a time, media was produced as physical objects. You had to have a printing press or a recording studio or a pinball parts factory to copy your favorite book/song/game for your friends. Today, software, music, movies, games, and books exist as strings of 1's and 0's, on machines designed to copy those strings at ridiculous speeds, all connected to each other via networks that send 1's and 0's at the speed of light.

Point is, it's easy to copy stuff, and DRM is the software that makes it harder.

The best argument against DRM is that it can always be cracked. There is no such thing as the perfect security system, so why bother having that system at all? Especially when DRM hurts consumers more than the pirates.

The problem with that argument is that piracy is more about culture--about thought--than it is about the law or the means to enforce it. If digital media had nothing to protect it, it would be hard for even the most law-abiding citizen to justify not copying their library for a friend.

But the second half of the argument is spot on: DRM often makes things more inconvenient for the paying consumer than it does for the illegal pirate. So this is what I think good DRM should look like:

  1. When your stuff is lost (computer crashed, dropped the Kindle in the bathtub, someone stole your iPod, etc), you should be able to get it back without a hassle.
  2. You should be allowed to use your stuff on whatever device you prefer, even if it's not the same device as the company you bought the media from. So you should be able to read B&N e-books on a Kindle, or listen to iTunes music on that cheap MP3 player you bought years ago. If I paid for it, I don't want to lose money just because they pulled a Borders on me.
  3. You should be allowed to use your stuff on a reasonable number of devices. If you own a laptop, iPad, iPod, and desktop computer, you shouldn't have to remember which one is licensed to watch those episodes of House you bought.
  4. It should be easy to register/unregister devices so you can use your stuff wherever you happen to be. In other words, you shouldn't have to uninstall MS Word on your old computer before you can activate it on your new one.

    The underlying assumption here is that the people who paid for the digital media want to follow the rules. When a customer asks if he can download his music again, or explains that he deleted his old copy of MS Word before deactivating it, he's not trying to pull one over on the company. That'd be like the lamest way to pirate stuff ever!

    The real pirates already do everything I listed above, for the low price of hanging around seedy webpages and having to scan for viruses every other day. They're not going to e-mail tech support asking for someone else's legitimate library--they already have what they want from Pirate Bay.

    Can it be done? Many DRM schemes already do some or all of the things I've listed. Many don't. Those that don't are hurting paying customers and doing absolutely nothing to pirates (except maybe to convert a few more to piracy). I think we need DRM, but I don't think it has to be so draconic.

    What do you think? I'd love to hear your opinion in the comments.

    The Arguments Against eBooks

    There are good reasons to favor paper books over eBooks, but they are more limited than most people think. This post is intended to clarify what is and is not a good argument, using the most common ones I've come across.

    (NOTE: The first two arguments are actually TRUE for the iPad, which is more of a tablet than an e-reader.)

    1. "I get a headache looking at a computer screen for too long." FALSE. Not that you don't get a headache, but that you're not looking at a computer screen. E-readers treat your eyes more like paper than anything. The screen reflects light like paper, rather than shining light into your eyes. And it doesn't constantly refresh (which is what causes the headaches). If you've never tried an e-reader, I'm not sure you're allowed to use this argument.

    2. "You have to charge it everyday just to read." FALSE. Because the screen isn't constantly refreshing, the e-reader only uses power when you change the page (and then not very much). Unless you leave the wireless connectivity on all the time, the battery could easily last a month or more.

    3. "It doesn't look/smell/feel like a real book." TRUE. It's smaller, lighter, and lays flat on the table.

    4. "You can't loan books you love out to friends." FALSE...ish. You can loan, but it's limited. Honestly, this is my biggest hold-out too. But it's also my biggest draw because I could borrow books from anyone in the world.

    5. "You can't borrow e-books from libraries." FALSE. You can do it without even leaving your home (though not with a Kindle, apparently).

    6. "E-books cost as much as, or more than, a paperback that I could loan to my friends." Varies. Some are more expensive. Some are cheaper. Really, it's up to the publisher, and publishers are still figuring this out. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of (legal, non-self-published) books you can download for free.

    7. "DRM sucks. You have to tie yourself to a specific device forever." TRUE. It'd be nice if we could just pay for the e-book and then copy it as much as we like to whatever device we like. But you can see why that's a bad idea in general, right? On the plus side, if you lose or break your device, you can still get all your books back.

    8. "You can't take an e-reader in the bathtub." FALSE. I mean, no, you can't put it in the water, but you can't do that with books either. You could put the e-reader in a plastic bag and still turn the pages, which is something you can't do with books.

    9. "You have to turn your e-reader off during take-off/landing." TRUE. What? You thought I had a backhanded counter for everything?

    10. "You can't trade/sell/buy used books." TRUE. It's possible Amazon and others will have programs to trade in old e-books for new ones, but I wouldn't count on it. And no, the concept of 'used books' doesn't quite fit the e-book paradigm.

    Like I said, there are good reasons to favor paper books, but they're limited--and getting more limited every day.

    Know any arguments I missed? Disagree with my reasoning? Let us know in the comments!

    Gummi Bears and Obsessive Compulsions

    Everyone's got their quirks. Some people have to collect the same edition of a book (mass market, trade, or hard) for the entire series. Some people straighten cards and game pieces constantly. Some won't watch a movie if they have to start in the middle. Some have to peel their orange in one giant piece, while others put each piece on the table such that none of them are touching.

    Okay, so those are all me (except the last one, but that's my son, so it's the same thing). When I was a kid, I'd dump all the Gummi Bears on the table, separate them into groups, and eat them in order from my least favorite to my most favorite. That way I'd have the best flavor still in my mouth when I was done.

    It's, uh . . . it's possible I still eat food like that.

    But I'm discovering it's not just me. My wife, after separating the colors into groups, would eat from the largest groups until they were even. Then she'd eat a bear of each color, keeping them as even as possible until they were gone. My dad, on the other hand, ate the groups that had the least number first. Why? So the strongest would survive.

    I have no point, except that it's okay to be crazy. So how do you eat Gummi Bears?

    Actually Critiquing

    Have I talked about critique partners enough yet? Well they're important. I do believe you can learn from anybody, at any skill level, but you can learn a heckuva lot more when you find the right folks.

    But all the awesome friends in the world will run out if your critiques aren't all that useful. Fortunately, you don't have to be an awesome writer to give good critiques. You just need to pay attention to what's working (and not working) for you, then communicate that.

    The rest is just being nice and professional, like so:
    1. Don't be a jerk. In particular, assume the author is as intelligent as you are.
    2. Be positive. Say everything you like about the story, even if it's small. This not only makes the negative stuff go down easier, but it helps the author know what they're doing right.
    3. Be timely. When someone gives me a novel, I tell the author when I think I'll be done (based on life and my normal critique speed). I'd also tell them if I wasn't going to make the deadline for some reason, but so far it hasn't happened.
    4. Know what the author wants. Is the manuscript a first draft doomed to revision? Then maybe don't nitpick grammar and spelling so much. Are you the last reader before an agent? Maybe you shouldn't suggest sweeping changes (unless you feel strongly about them, of course).
    5. (Optional) Use Track Changes and Comments within the document itself. Obviously this depends on what the author wants, but I've found MS Word's features (and many other word processing programs do this as well) to be the easiest to track. I will always use them unless the author can't read them for some reason.
    6. And one more time because it's so freaking important: DON'T BE A JERK!
    As with everything, you get better at critiquing with practice. What's even cooler, though, is you get better at writing when you critique too. It's easier to see the speck of dust in someone else's story, and after seeing the same speck over and over, you begin to notice it in your own story.

    So go out there and be good critters. Seriously, if I hear one of my blog readers is being mean out there, no more Thai food for you!

    More on "The Entire Freaking Internet"

    NOTE: Apparently, I'm not the only one who decided it was Critique Week. On Monday, LT Host wrote about the different kind of beta readers, and Natalie Whipple is running a crit partner classifieds. I'm starting to feel redundant, but I'm nothing if not lazydetermined. Let us press on!

    Stop me if you know this feeling. You find a critique group only to discover its members are where you were five years ago. Their comments are glowing because they don't know what to say, or else they're pedantic nitpicks that don't help you improve.* You'd prefer a critique from that recently-agented blogger you follow (or Neil Gaiman, if we're being honest), but they stopped answering your e-mails after that "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" comment you made on their blog.

    What are you supposed to do?

    Fortunately, God and Al Gore made the internet. Do you know how many unpublished authors of every skill level are out there? Thousands. Blogging, commenting, tweeting, and most importantly, critiquing. What you need to do is find the ones who (a) are around (or above!) your skill level and (b) like you a little. Then ask as politely as possible if they want to swap critiques.

    How do you know if they like you? Comment on their blog, respond to their tweets, and be a friend. Don't be creepy. Don't be overly-friendly if you hardly know them. And DON'T interact just to get a critique (people can smell that).

    How do you know their skill level? Most of the time you don't until you swap a critique. But generally, I say if you've got the time then swap. You can learn something even from beginners, and friends are friends regardless of (current) skill level.

    Critiquing an 80,000-word manuscript is a big undertaking, so you need to know what you're asking of people. This is why you swap. This is why you're always professional. This is why you're understanding if they say no, regardless of the reason.

    And this is why you're always, always thankful when someone does accept your offer. Even if this is the only manuscript of yours they read, you're making a friend, and that counts for a lot.

    * I once got a critique for Pawn's Gambit that said, "Let me send you a story written in Scottish dialect. You deserve it for the headache I got from reading your story.... I suspect no matter what I say you're going to continue trying to write fantasy dialog."

    Fortunately, by then I'd had so many people tell me they loved Air Pirates slang that the critique just made me laugh.