To Each His or Her Own

DavidBCoeDavidBCoe
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The other night we went to see a performance by a nationally renowned dance company.  It was a performance in three acts, as it were, and while the first and third dances were, for me, very enjoyable and fairly traditional — one was set to Handel, the other to Bach — the middle one was, well, different.  The music was discordant solo piano, the dance was filled with odd, angular positions and bizarre movements, and the costumes — well, for the guys, picture place mats covered with thick dark fur and strapped to their backs.  I think they were meant to evoke a sense of the primitive.  Okaaaay….

I’m sure that lots of people in the audience enjoyed the dance.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Misty was saying right now “Ooooo, that sounds cool…”  It didn’t work for me.  And that’s okay.

When I write, I want to reach as wide an audience as I can.  I want lots of people to buy and read my books.  And I want everyone of them to like what I write.  I want every editor to whom I submit short fiction or novel proposals to want to publish my work.  I want every reviewer to rave about my writing.  Ain’t going to happen.  The fact of the matter is, we can’t please every reader.  We shouldn’t even try.  Because as consumers of art, we are all driven by our own particular tastes and idiosyncrasies.

I have several friends who write Military SF — and they’re really, really good at it.  At least they’re well-reviewed and their sales are strong.  The fact is, I don’t know if they’re any good because I’ve never read an entire novel of Military SF.  I’ve tried, but I just can’t get into it.  People apologize to me all the time for not reading epic fantasy, as if the fact that I write that kind of book means that they should change their reading preferences.  On one level, I understand this — many of these people are friends who feel that they should read my work, but just don’t like fantasy.  But I wonder:  if I was a lawyer would they apologize to me for not suing more people.  One of my closest friends here in town teaches violin, and yet I still haven’t started taking lessons.  Should I apologize to her?

In one of his essays for the upcoming MagicalWords “How To” book, A.J. writes about the guy at a convention who corners you for half an hour so that he can tell you all about his book until finally you either a) relent and buy it, or b) give in to your initial impulse and kill him.  If we have to try that hard to get people to read our books, chances are we’re talking to the wrong people.

Kidding aside, I do have a serious point to make.  This is not a profession for the thin-skinned.  Even among the tiny part of the population that regularly reads speculative fiction, most people have never read my work and never will.  Of those who have read it, a significant minority (God, I hope it’s a minority…) won’t like what I write.  I get good reviews, but I also get bad ones.  I’ve had a good deal of success throughout my career, but I’ve also had my share of failures, of rejections, of books and stories that never have seen the light of day.  People who enjoy epic fantasy with lots of political intrigue, well-drawn characters, and complex storylines will probably like my books.  People who like mystery and fantasy and historical fiction might enjoy the new Thieftaker series.  People who like hard SF probably won’t.  People who like mainstream literary fiction probably won’t.  People who like police procedurals but hate fantasy, would be well advised to steer clear of what I write.  And again I say, that’s all right with me.  Just as I should know my audience, readers should know their own preferences.

In his wonderful post on Saturday, Edmund illustrated the importance of knowing who we’re writing for before we begin to write.  We also need to know our markets and understand that no matter how good our book might be, it’s not going to be right for everyone.  If you write a beautiful romantic fantasy, chances are Baen Books isn’t doing to buy it (they tend to specialize in Military SF).  If you write a terrific SF novel and send it to an agent who works mostly in mystery and romance, chances are you’re going to get a rejection letter.  If you write . . . well, a book, and Kirkus Reviews reviews it, chances are it will be a bad review.  That’s just Kirkus.  But it doesn’t end there.  You might write that terrific romantic fantasy and send it to all the right places and still get the rejections and bad reviews.  Sometimes people just don’t like something.  It doesn’t mean that it’s bad, or that you’ve failed.  It means that on that particular day, that particular editor (agent, reviewer, reader — take your pick) didn’t like that particular book.

Rejection, negative feedback, uneven sales — these are all part of what we do.  This is why we at MW tell you again and again to write what you love, to get into this crazy business only if it’s a passion, and to make sure that you’re thick-skinned enough to take it.  The money sucks, and sometimes the process of putting your art out there for people to embrace or reject, to love or hate, can leave your soul bruised and sore.  Just remember that there are good days, too.  An unexpected royalty check, a good review, an email from a reader telling you that your book made a difference in his life.  The trick to staying sane is controlling your reactions to both — don’t get too down when dealing with the crap; and don’t give in to euphoria when the good stuff happens.  Write your book or story.  Make it as good as it can be.  Let that be its own reward.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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17 comments to To Each His or Her Own

  • Nice post David. I have two friends (I have more, but I’m only talking about these two), and we’ve seen many of the same movies. The movie Contact I found unbearable and a complete waste of my time, a five minute story dragged out to 2 hours. One of my friends disagrees absolutely and completely. He argues that Contact is one of the great explorations of science fiction and the intersection of science and religion. My other friend agrees that it wasn’t a great movie but thought it wasn’t a waste of his time. By using those two guys I can often, and have successfully, judged other movies I’ve thought of watching. If the first guy thinks it is a deep and careful study of some subject then I avoid that movie at all costs because I’ll probably disagree myself out of existence and if the second friend likes a movie but thinks it is perhaps a slightly shallow action film devoted to guns and explosions I’ll go watch it (because I can be very shallow at times and enjoy explosions, or Conan the Barbarian).
    The same has held true for books I’ve read and I’ll try to keep it in mind when people give me harsh reviews, though I’ll likely go watch an exploding movie just to feel better. :)

  • Very true, David. I’ll probably post on getting negative reviews sometime soon because I think it’s something we all wrestle with, but the core of the idea is close to what you’re getting at: you can’t please everyone, and trying to do so strips your work of originality and personality. I suspect it’s one of the hurdles some beginners never quite get over because they figure the way in is to please as many people as possible in pursuit of the mega seller. That almost never works. Find your target audience and write for them.

  • And no matter what else, please, please, please DO NOT respond to negative criticism in any comments section anywhere on the internet! A few successful, professional authors have done so — addressing bad reviews either on their personal websites or, even worse, on amazon.com. It’s a dumb move on so many levels. But if any of MW’s readers finds the urge building to do so, just re-read David’s post here. Not everyone will like your work. And with the internet, some of those people will make public their dislike. That’s okay. Just ignore it and move on. Nothing to see here.

  • “Write your book or story. Make it as good as it can be. Let that be its own reward.”

    Easier said than done, but in the end still the best advice. You will never make everyone happy; trying will only make you crazy. That’s true about life in general, not just writing.

  • Scion, thanks for the chuckle. And yes, I have friends like that as well — people who taken together run the gamut of reactions to movies, or books or TV shows, and whose opinion help me judge where I might fall on the spectrum.

    A.J., I think a post on reviews is a great idea and would be helpful for all of us. There is so much about what we do that is necessarily difficult. Writing is hard; the publishing business is nuts; the current economy doesn’t help. It’s a tough way to make a living. We shouldn’t make it even harder on ourselves by trying to please every reader and reviewer. That will never happen, so why set ourselves up for failure. As you say, find your audience. But I would add that ultimately you need to write for yourself; audiences can be fickle.

    Well put, Stuart. I have to admit that early on I did respond to online criticism. Nothing good ever came of it, and looking back I regret having made the effort. Better to turn the other cheek. Where were you twelve years ago, when I needed that wisdom?

    Edmund, yes it is harder to do than my glib ending suggests. But I think it’s the key to success and contentment in this business. And you’re right — in all endeavors.

  • I don’t think your ending was glib; I thought it was succinct and exactly on target. Sometimes the truth really can be summed up in fewer than 20 words.

  • Oddly, I’ve always found bad (make that “critical”) reviews more helpful than the positive ones. People who like/love a piece of work tend to say only that: I loved it! It was really good! While that may be nice to hear, it isn’t terribly useful to know. Someone who, on the other hand, finds a work lacking, is far more likely to say why they didn’t like it – sometimes in excruciating detail.

    And while that may not be fun to hear, it is useful in that it not only may reveal weak points that you can henceforth improve upon but it also lets you know where the reviewer is coming from and how heavily you might wish to weigh their opinions.

    (This relates, of course, to the more casual sort of review, such as Amazon or e-mail or the like, not professional reviews.)

  • Great post David. I can always count on you to start me on Monday morning with something that will get my writer self going. Even if it is Monday afternoon, actually. (Scratches head. What happened to Monday morning?)

    Anyway, my response is this: I once received a horrible 1/2 star review because the reader hated first person POV. She trashed my character, my writing style, my originating plot line (because she didn’t make it past the first chapter) and me personally for writing in 1st POV.

    I wanted to bop her a good one. I wanted to send off a scathing and well-worded first person POV letter and show her up for the awful reviewer and human being she is. And then I got past it and opened a beer, tosted the idiot, and had a good laugh. We all have to. I’ve had some awful ones and some great ones. And now I have stopped reading them totally.

    That said — I look forward to a post on reveiws.

  • Ryl

    David, I’m in full agreement! My own taste is far from pedestrian, and all too often so-called blockbusters, both film and fiction, bore me to tears.

    Imagine the horror and futility of planning a feast while struggling to anticipate all possible food allergies — you’d end up being able to *safely* offer only room temperature water and gluten-free bread. In which case, why even bother?

    At this time the only audience I’m interested in pleasing is my Muse. Writing for the masses is a feverish dance for broad, all-inclusive acceptance [excruciatingly like high school, and so not worth it] — soon neither the writer nor the writing is authentic.

  • David> I’ve tried many, many times, and I just don’t like watching dance, particularly ballet. I’ve seen several since Columbus had its own troupe. Romeo and Juliet, Dracula, some classical stuff, some modern stuff… just isn’t for me.

    This is a useful post as I’m getting ready to start collecting rejection letters soon. Nobody likes everything, a few people like nothing, and there’s no way everybody likes the same thing. And in the end, to get a book published, I need one agent to like it enough to convince one publisher to take a chance on it. So, what, five people? That’s not too bad. :D

  • Thanks, Edmund.

    Wolf, I do think that some critical reviews can be helpful, although I have to admit that I’ve seen more than my share — of my work and of other books, movies, albums, etc. — that were so far off the mark, and so useless, as to make one wonder if they even read (watched, listened to…) the work in question. But your essential point is right — often thoughtful criticism is far more useful than praise from an artistic standpoint.

    Thanks, Faith. Glad you liked this. I’ve had reviews like that, too. I have to admit that I still read all my reviews, good and bad. But I take them far less seriously than I used to.

    Ryl, I think writing for one’s muse is the best way to go. Eventually, hopefully, you’ll have an agent and an editor, and you’ll write with their advice in mind. I can anticipate my editor’s comments much of the time, and so can avoid some mistakes/ problems before they crop up. But even now, I write for me, and hope that what I come up with will also be marketable.

    Emily, both my girls dance, and actually (confession time) I danced in high school — modern. (It was good for me, and it allowed me to hang out with the cool, pretty girls, which mattered a lot in my little world.) So I actually like dance a lot. Just, apparently, not all of it…. Yes, this is the time when you need to start bracing yourself for some rejection and criticism. Here’s hoping that you encounter little of it. But it sounds as though you’re heading into this with the right attitude.

  • I don’t know if the fur-carpeted dancers would have appealed to me. Ick! Your description of the dance reminds me of the “Choreography” number in “White Christmas”, in which everyone is wearing steel gray clothes and just posing to the music, while Danny Kaye sings “What happened to the theater, especially where dancing is concerned?” Except that eventually they all start dancing for real. *laugh*

    Sometimes I get nervous about what I’m writing…is this original enough? Is his name too romance-novel? Am I going to understand the world well enough to communicate it to readers? All those insecurities are just part of the process, but I think it’s easy to look at negative reviews, remember the worries during the creation of the book and decide that they were right. Believing in oneself is so much harder than it has to be. :D

  • “Believing in oneself is so much harder than it has to be.” — That’s so true, Misty. And yet I think that every successful artist has to find a way to embrace that belief. You can’t put your art out there for people to read, or see, or hear without believing first that you have something to say, that your art is worth the investment others have to make in order to enjoy it.

  • Wow. Thanks for another great pep talk, David.

    You are very right about not trying to please everyone all the time (in life as well as in writing), and that’s a lesson I’ve had hammered into me over. and. over. But I also know that if I’m honest with myself, coming from a place of someone not yet published who hopes to be sending something out soon, the one voice most likely to be going through my head is the tiny, timid one chiming, “Will they like it? I hope they like it. This is a piece of my soul I’m sharing. Please, please, let them like it!” Whoever “they” is. Because at least coming from a not-quite-there-yet perspective, I have to weigh feedback and criticism against my abilities. Maybe the manuscript has room for improvement? Maybe I still have more to learn? Why can’t I figure out if this is good enough on my own?

    … And so on. I’m working on this whole “thick skin” thing, honest.

    Thank you for the reminder about how to behave. Thank you for the pep talk. I can’t say I will be able to make that voice disappear completely—would you say that it becomes easier with time?—but I can try to remember this.

  • Moira, yes, dealing with the negative feedback does get easier with time. But I would say add that we all need to weigh the feedback we get, negative as well as positive. I would never say that we should ignore negative feedback all together. There are many times when our readers and our editors and agents can help us become better writers by pointing out the weaker points in our books. There are times when what we write needs improvement. What I think you need to keep in mind is that you can please everyone with what you write, and we as writers need to learn to distinguish constructive criticism from the negative comments of people who are a) mean-spirited, or b) not interested in the type of stuff we write and so not likely to be helpful as we seek to improve our work. So I don’t respond to bad reviews. I’d like to stop reading them entirely eventually, but I’m not quite that secure yet. At the same time, I listen very carefully to criticism from my agent, my editor, readers who are clearly interested in helping me. As for the voice inside me that expresses my own insecurities, I can’t block it out entirely. But I have learned to tell it to shut up and let me hear the other, more constructive voices….

  • When I belonged to a writing group, I absolutely *hated* those critiques that started with, “I loved it!” I shared works with them precisely to have them tell me What’s Wrong With It. When I started getting published (short stories), at first I was terrified that I’d get “I Hated It” reviews. The first couple of stories got NO REVIEWS AT ALL. Then my first one – not horrid, so for a novice, I was thrilled! Then a bad one. Know what? It didn’t hurt all that much. Why? Because, it occurred to me. His opinion didn’t matter. The EDITOR liked it. My words had been published. If it hadn’t been, then the reviewer couldn’t have decided he hated it.
    What it all boils down to is – who gives a rat’s nether anatomy what a reviewer says?
    I don’t read reviews before I buy books. I buy books based on the cover art, the dust jacket blurb, whether I’ve read other books by that author and enjoyed them, by friends’ recommendations, and quite often because some stranger says, “Try So-and-So” as I’m wandering the isles of the bookstore.

  • Lyn, I think that’s a very healthy attitude to have. I can’t always maintain it, even after all these years, but I do strive for it.

    I will say, though, that in critique groups I think it’s always good to begin with you DO like about a story or chapter. It makes it easier for the person who is being critiqued to hear and accept the more negative feedback. But more than that, it acknowledges something important: this is hard, and people deserve some credit for the things they do right. That’s my approach anyway.