Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rebutting a Flaming Review

How do you handle criticism? As writers, we open ourselves up for it. We labor over some of the decisions we make with our writing, from what our characters like to the theme of our books to whether to self-publish or traditionally publish. It is all open to scrutiny and every writer has his share of praise and criticism. We love the praise, but the criticism is hard to take.

It might be better if we don’t handle criticism the way reports Alice Hoffman reacted to a less than ideal review. Allegedly, she chose to respond by Tweeting the reviewer’s phone number and e-mail address, encouraging her fans to respond to the review. I can think of worse things she could have done, but the word for this is vengeance. She later apologized. I’m sure most of us have looked at something someone said or did that we didn’t like and thought, “I’m going to make him pay. He’ll regret he ever did that.” If I were to guess, that is what I believe must have been going through Alice Hoffman’s mind. So, how should we respond to criticism?

It is better not to respond than to respond in with vengeance. We might tell ourselves that we can make the other person regret his words, but vengeance only gives him more proof that we aren’t the great people we would like people to think we are. In many cases, we don’t have to respond. So, the other person doesn’t like our work. Yeah, maybe his readers aren’t going to come flocking to our door, but it really isn’t that big of a deal until we make it one. The critic has probably already moved on. His readers have probably already forgotten about your book. They are looking for good books. The rest, they forget. To them, your book is just another of many less than perfect books.

If we do respond to criticism, it is an opportunity to show character. I’ve never gotten a truly flaming review for any of my books. I’m not asking for someone to give me one either, but how a writer responds to someone who has a bone to pick tells other people a great deal about the writer. If the writer responds with a humble spirit and grace then people will see the writer as someone they would like to have as a friend. If the writer responds with a flame torch then people have a totally different impression.

I’ve had my share of situations in which I said something inadvertently or yes, maybe even intentionally, that caused someone pain. If that person acted in anger, my thought would be, see, I knew you were that way. On the other hand, if the person responded in grace it went a long way toward me saying, “Wow! You’re a lot better person than I am.”

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written: "Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,saith the Lord." Therefore: "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink. For in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head." – Romans 12:19-20 (KJ21)

Getting Your Readers' Attention: Here's the Thing (1 of 5)

Ever wondered how you can get you’re your readers’ attention? Though not specifically addressing that question, in his March 2009 pod cast Andy Stanley talks about five questions that can help. He was speaking to a group of pastors on the subject of how leaders would effectively communicate their vision to an audience, but it occurred to me that these five questions apply to writers as well. Their application in the non-fiction realm is obvious. Most of what he says in his pod cast applies directly, so I want to focus on the fiction realm instead, with the assumption that you will go listen to his pod cast.

What do they need to know?

Novels provide information. You might think of a historical novel and some historical tidbit that you gleaned from its pages, but that isn’t what we’re talking about. What people need to know is the events of the story. Our readers need to know the problems our protagonist faces, how he tries to solve them and the result of his actions.

But which problems and actions? Our protagonists have many irons in the fire. Which events in their lives should we cover in detail and which should fade into the background? Andy Stanley talks about boiling a speech down to the one thing. “Here’s the thing,” we might say to someone. The on thing is that one thing that we want our readers to get, if they get nothing else. This is what we would normally call the theme of a novel. When you listen to the pod cast, you will notice that he mentions several examples that could just as easily be the theme for a Christian novel as the one thing in a sermon. “Your friends will determine the direction and quality of your life.” Doesn’t that sound a little like the theme of a Young Adult novel?

When we discover our theme or the one thing, we need to remove everything that isn’t focused on arguing that theme. That may mean we have to cut some of our favorite scenes, but if they don’t support the one thing then they shouldn’t be in there. Maybe they’ll fit in another novel, but for now, we need to get it down to that one thing that our readers need to glean from the pages of our book.

Next time, I’ll talk about Why do they need to know it?