Practicing My Positivity- Lacey Crowe Style

Yesterday I reblogged K J Charles and linked to Scarlet’s blog on BL wherein an author, Lacey Crowe, blogged about only positive reviews and remarks. Spread the joy around.  Well, I’m gonna give it a shot, just for you Lacey.

Turns out Lacey is an editor and reviewer besides being an author.

 

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This gives me pause because what happens when a total disaster is submitted? Does she say anything relevant or pass it by with a polite but useless to the author thanks-but-no-thanks?

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I applaud the sentiment while wondering how she handles the reality. The reality being most books don’t rise to the lofty heights she seems to be looking for and some books read like they were written by someone who slept through their English classes and dashed off their baby, uh, book while drunk. Then there are those authors who are confident they are the next Dickens or Steinbeck or have written a groundbreaking book like the world has never seen and desperately needs.

How is Lacey going to handle all these authors in a positive manner? And is a positive manner really helpful in some of these cases? These are relevant questions but right now I’m going to practice my positivity.

Let’s look at a review of Lacey’s book, here’s one from Amazon:

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And here is the same review, same reviewer on  Goodreads:

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A glowing review. It just leaves out a couple pertinent details. But first I’m renaming Paul. He is now Paul the Positive Pigeon. Paul is here, and he says:

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“Poo-poo”

Oh-oh. When Paul the Positive Pigeon poos instead of coos there is trouble in River City. What has Paul found? Look at that screenshot that is titled “What We do”.  We. Lacey has a partner. Uh-oh. Could it be?

Why, yes, it positively is.

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Here they are on their BBR&E site.

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Here they are performing together.

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Here they are- married. That’s right, not only business but life partners. Now go back to that review, “This one, however, was well worth my time and money.” Uh, Jason, your  wife made you buy a copy? Somehow I doubt that.

Whoops, that wasn’t so positive. How about this, I’m positive that omitting your business and personal relationship in such a positive review will not be looked on by others with positivity. I’m also positive that Amazon does not allow these reviews. I am further positive that this kind of positivity will arouse feelings of resentment and envy in other authors who have not stooped to doing this because they follow the rules for any number of really positive reasons and they could use another 5 star review but they won’t step over that line like you did. This behavior is neither professional nor positive.

I’m also positive that you can learn something from Lacey and Jason even if it is only what not to do.

Being Edited, or How to Take Criticism

Scarlet on Booklikes posted a blog tonight about an author’s opinions on criticism and why only positive comments/reviews should be posted/written/expressed. I am not a fan of that viewpoint. Then I read the following by author and editor K J Charles. This I can agree with, many years ago while attending a workshop in New York the late, great Ibrahim Farrah told us he only criticized the dancers he recognized as having talent and that would use his criticism to improve. Those he found not to have talent or that would ignore any criticism of their technique he would just ignore. Why ever would he waste his time with anyone who wouldn’t take criticism?

No pain, no gain.

So here is Charles’ blog, enjoy.

Let’s start with the obvious: nobody likes it.

Any aspiring author will read plenty of blog posts telling you to suck it up / not be a special snowflake / fall on negative criticism with cries of glee. You should like criticism. Love it. You should be like a kung-fu movie monk, immersing his hand in boiling tar to become stronger. Etc.

That’s just bobbins. Even unjustified criticism can hurt like hell; even trivial throwaway comments can sting for years. Negative criticism feels bad because it’s negative; you shouldn’t feel even worse because you aren’t Superman about it. Take your emotions out (BUT NOT ON TWITTER OKAY), give them an airing to the cat, scream in the bathroom. Face how you feel. Because, all the people telling you to suck it up? They feel just as bad when they get their MS slammed. And if they don’t, if they indeed have asbestos hands for criticism and shrug it off, I’m afraid I question their commitment to their work. I don’t care is a fine thing to say but if you actually don’t care about your book, I’m pretty sure I won’t either.

Negative criticism is a painful and unpleasant necessity. The problem is that as a species, humans tend to believe that painful unpleasantness should be avoided at all costs. Wasp stings hurt like hell, so we kill wasps. That god-awful friend of a friend zeroes in on our every failing: we spend the party on the opposite side of the room. We avoid painful experiences. And thus authors may decide not to have their MS read by anyone other than their mum and a few trusted sycophants friends (which is a fabulous way to get more negativity than you can shake a stick at when the book publishes). They try to control reviews. And even the most sensible of us often try to deal with negative criticism by persuading ourselves it’s wrong.

It’s human nature. The king surrounds himself with courtiers who assure him that his subjects adore him, even while the mob is hammering at the palace doors. We don’t want to hear this stuff, because it hurts. Unfortunately, you need to face the negatives to improve, and we all know it.

So, a few tips from me in my capacity as an editor who hands out criticism, a writer who has to take it, and a human being who screws up.

Constructive v Negative

People make a big point of how criticism must be constructive. Reviews should always be constructive, apparently. (For the record, this is arrant nonsense. The reviewer is not a post-publication beta reader.) Nobody should say “this is bad”, we are told, they should say “this is how it can be better.”

Well, yes/no. An editor or beta reader who’s just there to sneer is a waste of time (a full blog post on this topic here). But actually, not all readers know how books can be made better. That’s quite a complicated skill: we call that person a development editor. It’s perfectly reasonable to say what’s wrong (“I just felt the hero never got sympathetic”) without identifying which chapters and conversations were the lost opportunities.

And sometimes things are bad. Sometimes the correct editorial response is, “You should cut this chapter”, “You should cut this storyline” or “I’m afraid this MS doesn’t work and we decline to publish.”

Here’s the thing: most people hate giving that out. It is very hard to be the bearer of bad news, particularly because so many people shoot the messenger. (I rejected a book once at work and the author was still blanking me at a conference five years later.)

Some people are just malicious, of course. But sincere well-meaning negative criticism is hard to write and deliver, and it should be considered seriously. If you don’t feel like you can tell the difference any more, ask a writer friend for a second opinion.

The more it hurts, the harder you should look

“If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” is bobbins, just ask an anaesthetist. But I am aware that the crit that makes me flinch most is the stuff I was worried about on some level. If you tell me, “I hate your crappy badly written book,” I’ll merely hope you get a disfiguring skin disease. If you say, “The book falls into obvious halves because of the clunking character arc,” I will be up all night rearranging scenes in my head because you’re right. (You bastard.)

“Well, they’ll just have to like it.” (Hint: they won’t.)

It takes a fair bit of nerve to write, and a lot of self belief. You need be true to your story, follow your dream, all that inspirational poster stuff. However, if you conflate that with believing your book is perfect, you will have a problem. The time to tell yourself “haters gonna hate” and sail serenely by the negative reviews is after publication, not at editing stage. Without negative criticism, you won’t get better.

But this is my book!

As an editor, I believe passionately that the book is the author’s: her voice, her choices, her style. However, sometimes it is the author’s badly written or unpublishable book. As an author, I won’t make changes that go against the spirit of my book and the soul of my characters, but you better believe I’ll listen if my editor/readers tell me things that suggest I’m failing in what I was trying to do, or the words I chose to do it.

What, me?

The edits received in the stoniest silence of all are the ones that cut at the writer’s goodness as a person. This scene seems to me to be verging on rape, and I don’t think you intended that. This comes across as racist. A lot of readers will find this offensive. People struggle to accept that they’ve been hurtful. Authors tend to be high-empathy people and women in particular are socialised to be nice. Most of us don’t want to accept we’ve been crass or prejudiced. And it is human nature to reframe the story in a way that shines a flattering light on our own character. I’m not prejudiced or ignorant: you’re just oversensitive. God, lighten up!

I’ve caused offence with clumsiness, and been called out for it. I did not enjoy receiving that criticism, any more than I expect the complainers enjoyed making it, and it would be a lot easier to reassure myself that I’m a Nice Person and the complainer is oversensitive, rather than accept that I’m not actually the super-considerate person/writer I’d like to think.

But I’m really not. And if I want to be better, as a writer or a person, I have to look hard at painful criticism, not in a defensive spirit but with an open mind. Because denying I was wrong will not help me do better, but listening thoughtfully might.

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We all get stuff wrong. There’s nothing wrong with getting it wrong. Just grit your teeth, swear at the cat, and make an effort to get it right next time.