In which I ramble about art & criticism

I feel like it should be kind of taboo for a writer to talk about the beta reading experience, except in very general ways. I mean, beta readers are giving up their free time — which I am certainly stingy with myself — to offer free criticism on a manuscript. And it’s absolutely vital, especially for people serious about achieving excellence. Given how reticent almost everyone is about giving critical feedback, I wouldn’t want to do anything that jeopardizes engagement.

All that to say, I apologize if this is a little vague.

But beta feedback is really difficult to sort through. In the first place, everyone’s experience of the text is valid. And I don’t mean that in a New Age-y, touchy-feely way. With books, even more than with movies or even comics (although those too), the experience is necessarily personal. So much of what is passively presented on film must be “unpacked” by the reader. Yet, there are only so many things an author can say about the setting, for example, before the description starts to get tedious. Good writers must be both parsimonious and artful, which is what Hemingway was getting at when he said you didn’t need to tell people about the boat or the fisherman or the water. Just tell them about the glint of dew on the fishing line, and they would bring all the rest with them for “free.”A book is not a passive medium, like a TV. It has to be read, to be stretched upon the canvas of the mind, and the narrative is built out of that based on the reader’s own experiences and expectations. It’s akin to a reader staging their own play with their own sets and cast. It’s its own creative act, and so it is necessarily valid. (Or at least it is not INvalid.)

But then, if each reader’s experience is valid, it means no one reader’s experience is canon, and so writers must become critical readers of their own critical feedback. Just as each beta reader unpacks the text in their head, so each writer must do the same with criticism. They have to infer and construct the reader’s critical milieu in their heads based on cues and experience.

For example, I am usually able to tell who didn’t engage with the story. I can’t describe this feeling in a few sentences, but it’s usually quite clear. There is a kind of detached language coupled with an odd preoccupation with minute detail. This person did not unpack the narrative in their mind; they studied it at arm’s length.

I usually discount such feedback. As much as I appreciate the time and effort — truly, per my comments above — it’s just not very useful to me. Not every reader is going to be a reader of mine, and I am not trying to make a book everyone will enjoy, not least because no such thing is possible. I’m trying to write a book that “readers of mine” would enjoy, where that class is both fluid and fuzzy at the edges.

Now, I said “usually” because it does happen that people who would otherwise be “readers of mine,” based on earlier experience, don’t engage with the story, which is what happened with the first draft of Episode Three, which is why I took the time to completely re-write it.

And then there’s the fact that if you ask people for criticism, they’re going to find things to criticize. It’s a lesson I learned in my corporate career working with lawyers and auditors, whose job it is to pick at things. A healthy business can become sickly merely by hiring a lawyer. (I once asked a VP at Ernst & Young if, in 35 years, he had ever produced a clean audit — that is, NOT found any issue — and he just smiled and said “Well, that’s not what you do, is it?”)

That being said, as a writer you have asked for feedback, so it makes no sense to simply turn around and ignore it once it comes. It’s just that deciding what to do with it isn’t always easy.

Neil Gaiman once said that when people tell you something doesn’t work, they are usually right, but when they tell you how to fix it, they are usually wrong. I think that’s true, but only in the aggregate. “Doesn’t work” is defined in the plural. Multiple people need suggest a problem for it not to be idiosyncratic.

Thus, regardless of what appears in my inbox — and for those who’ve never solicited beta readers, responses range from “I really liked this story and I feel bad because I don’t know what else to say” to “Here is an itemized list of everything wrong with the book compete with page numbers for reference and suggestions for how to fix it!” — beta feedback is not any of that. It is NOT what beta readers have typed. It is, like the experience of a novel in the reader’s mind, a virtual entity constructed in my head from my readings of the complete volume of feedback, and it may include all or none of what any individual reported.

This is, like anything else, something one can either be good or bad at, and I suspect those who are better at it, naturally, are the ones producing better books. And so, as arrogant as it may sound, I must conclude that grows from the talent of the author, not the quality of the feedback.

That is, critics don’t make artists better. Better artists grow out of criticism.

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4 thoughts on “In which I ramble about art & criticism

  1. Oh man, have you struck the right chord. Because of my inexperience a few years back, I did not see how unproductive I was being by chasing every little criticism and trying to fix this and that irrelevant detail when the more important things were not getting addressed. I stopped looking for beta readers for a while and tried to simply read what I could to improve style, form and editing process, taking queues from authors, successful ones, I liked, wherever I could find it.

    Finally, it dawned on me that I should look for a beta reader, one, who was a target audience reader, one who would approach the feedback process much like you described. Turned out I knew one. He was the one who gave me boxes of his hand me down books for years and told me which were the ones he liked best. He was the one. We worked out and agreed how to proceed and he has been showing great patience with me; in turn I respected that he has a life and a rather busy one so the whole process is a lengthy one but I really don’t mind (it fits my lifestyle anyway).

    It’s not to say I’m idle, no; I keep working on sequels and I submit bits and parts to a MeetUp group, in between the periods when I submit chapters to him. When I say he has patience, I mean that he didn’t mind starting at the beginning each time; of course some chapters are quick reads when he’s read them before. It’s rewarding when he notices the improvements.
    It’s a journey isn’t it? A self improvement if you will. I would not convince him to take on the sequels if I wasn’t really improving what I’m submitting.
    Interestingly, he never once asked me about where the story was headed, nor does he ask about the characters. When I was tempted to give him clues and background he simply said it would spoil the fun and skew his feedback.
    I trust our collaboration will pay off when the first novel gets to the editors, and I understand the sequels will have to be single reads for him to continue giving of his time, as they should.

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    1. Wow, that sounds like a helluva process. I wondered how things were going on the books. I figured with your burgeoning romance, there may not be time. It is a journey, as you say. Keep on truckin’.

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  2. So let me tell you what happened to me yesterday . . .

    I went to the gas station to put a little gas in my car and because I’m only kind of slightly overdrawn with the bank, I went inside to pay for my not-even-half-a-tank fill up with cash. When I came back out, I noticed that the shrubs lining the fence outside were smoldering . . . well, I thought smoldering, but as I got closer to it, I found that they were actually on fire. So I ran back inside and went around the line to tell the clerk Heyyyyyyy buddy your fence is on fire outside. Now, this clerk has a job to do, maaaannnn he’s got five kids to feed, and every single last one of those people in line were giving me the hairy eyeball like damnit lady I just want some gas and snacks, get lost!! Well he kept ringing up customers, and I said it again, “dude no you don’t understand! A part of your building is on fire outside!”

    His coworker came out from the back with an armful of Styrofoam cups for the coffee station and the clerk yells over to her and goes, “hey this lady says that there’s a fire going on outside” but clerk #2 has a job to do as well. Clerk #2 simply rolled her eyes and said, “I’ll go check it out in a minute”

    I go back outside and by this time, because the wind is blowing and there’s fresh mulch around the site of the fire, the smoldering has turned into a full-fledged conflagration, but you know what? this is lunchtime in sort of a bad part of town at a high-traffic gas station and people are just walking by the fire–they don’t have time to do anything about it, so why bother? Nobody really seems to notice this RAGING fire until the manager FINALLY steps outside the building. He throws his arms up in the air and does the Kermit the frog Muppet flail (he really did, it was quite hilarious) before running back in the building to retrieve a fire extinguisher. A few minute later, the biggest fire truck this city could possibly have–I mean like a full out ladder truck with caboose and everything–comes screaming into the gas station. The fire gets put out. The day is saved, gas station is still intact. Nobody died. Nothing blew up.

    Now, I am not in any way emotionally attached to that gas station.

    I don’t work there. Their sandwiches and snacks are actually pretty lousy compared to gas stations of the same chain around town. Their clerks are usually assholes to such a degree that I very nearly got into a physical altercation with one on a very bad morning a few years ago when I was just a few bad mornings away from re-enacting the movie Falling Down. But I wasn’t going to just LET that fire burn because I was in a hurry or it inconvenienced me or because I wasn’t emotionally engaged with the business.

    And in that same vein, I would expect my beta readers to do the same.

    If my business is on fire–and you’re an author so I assume this is very much your business–I would want customers to tell me when my building is on fire. I expect my beta readers to be a lot like observant passerbys–they’re not all there for gas or tornado dogs, some of them may not even be customers but their input is valuable to me because through them I can see how my “store” appears externally to all those on the street who may be going to other gas stations or who may not even know that my lovely little oasis of greasy pizza and drama exists on this side of the street, not to mention that they can apparently see things that my all seeing author’s eyes did not see during my various passes over the text. Saying “I usually discount such feedback” when referring to beta readers who *didn’t* engage with the story is a lot like being the disenchanted gas station manager. I can sit in my little control room and look over the monitors all I want but the funny thing about flames is they’re kind of difficult to see on those wavy black and white TVs, so if a customer comes running in and says YOUR BUILDING IS ON FIRE, I’m at least going to get off my duff and see it for myself instead of saying “well, you know these customers, you have to take what they say with a grain of salt” and then proceed to dump the whole can of Morton’s over the monitor.

    I didn’t look for the fire: I observed it and I reported it. Apparently multiple people observed it also but just didn’t care or didn’t have the time to do anything about it. I also didn’t take a fire extinguisher to it because, since this was the bad side of town, the fire extinguishers on the pump were locked and the manager was the one with the key. I beta read, I report what I see. It is entirely within the author’s discretion to use that observation however which way they want–hell this could have turned out to be a total “chicken little” type situation where this huge conflagration I described was really nothing more than a tiny puff of smoke from the ember of a cigarette–but if we want our structures to be sound, we at least try to understand WHY this customer may have had this perception where they felt compelled enough to tell you HEY YOUR BUILDING IS ON FIRE and not just assume that they’re only saying that because they’re trying to jack up your routine day, especially when they’re total strangers with no vested interest in tearing your structures down, especially when they are customers or potential customers, or even landscapers that can help heal your property after it’s been scorched. That’s kind of the funny thing about being a human, we don’t know it all. we know what a doctor is but we’re not all doctors and may never be one, but we need someone with that kind of money and dedication and time and interest to become doctors so that they can take that life experience and observe the health problems in us that we may be oblivious to.

    If you doubt the authenticity of this story, feel free to peep my Facebook profile because like any good American, I took video. You won’t have trouble finding me; I’m the only person out there with my first name/last name combination.

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