While everyone is entitled to their opinion, that doesn’t mean that the opinion is valid. I mean, technically, if one’s definition of substantive writing absolutely excludes the possibility that anyone would find said writing enjoyable, I guess it is a valid observation. But I don’t think that such a definition is a reasonable one.
One of the reasons I hate the term “fan service” is because the implication is that merely because a moment in a story (whether that story is a novel, short story, movie, or television episode) makes the audience cheer that means it is objectively a bad thing. Now the counter-argument is usually stated that they aren’t saying a story shouldn’t be enjoyable, but rather that the author shouldn’t put something in merely because the audience wants it.
To which I say, “Bold of you to insist you can always discern the writer’s motive.”
On one level, the fan service critique sounds like simply another way of stating an oft-repeated piece of writing advice: “Of course you have to write to an audience, but never forget you are writing for yourself.” That’s a good piece of advice so long as you understand what it means is that you shouldn’t compromise your story to appeal to an audience. And by compromise we mean, don’t make the story unsatisfying/unbelievable to you. Because then you aren’t writing your story.
Sometimes what people who use the term “fan service” really mean is that it is something they think the wrong sort of person would want. It’s a weird form of gatekeeping. “This plot development appeals to the sort of person I don’t want to consort with, and I don’t want to consort with them so much, that I don’t want to be perceived as liking the same sort of things as they do.”
While others who use the term seem to honestly believe that if something is enjoyable that it isn’t worthwhile. Because only difficult-to-understand art is substantive? Though there is a lot of snobbery in this attitude, so it may just be another form of gatekeeping.
Other times, the person using the term means the event was something they didn’t care for. And that is a valid reason to dislike a particular story, but that doesn’t mean the story is objectively bad. Whether you like the plot point or not is literally a subjective thing. And you know what else is subjective? The definition of “substantive” when applied to any work of art. Because substantive just means “important” or “meaningful” and what is important and meaningful is going to vary from person to person.
“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”
I like this Vonnegut quote because it embraces the idea of subjectivity. Readers are selfish, he observes, but he doesn’t say that is a bad thing—because in this context it isn’t. Just as a person who is on a date with someone that they find incompatible (whether they simply have no common interests, or are off-putting, or creepy, or acting like an asshole) has the right to walk away, so too the reader has the right to set the book aside and never finish it.
It’s simply the flip side of the principle that not every story is for everybody. While a particular person may be incompatible with you, they may be absolutely perfect for someone else. The same goes for stories. Something that I can’t stand might be one of your favorites, and vice versa.
Putting things in your story that makes some of the readers cheer ought to be one of your goals as a writer. You shouldn’t be afraid of it. The key is whether or not that same thing is something you think belongs in the story.
The ultimate goal is to write a tale that makes some readers keep turning the page, again and again, anxious to find out how it ends. That means at least occasionally including moments that cause that reader satisfaction.
That isn’t fan service.
That is simply good storytelling.
Most advice I’ve read about using feedback as a guide for revision assumes that every writer feels compelled to immediately change their story to comply with every suggestion, and that most of us need pep talks to remember the story is ours. There’s nothing wrong with such pep talks, but my experience has been that many writers (myself included) are more inclined to dismiss most advice, critique, and suggestions unless such feedback comes from someone we know and trust.
Be open. Don’t dismiss feedback out of hand, and resist the urge to argue or explain.
Yes, if you are attending a writing workshop taught by an author you have long admired, and bonding with your fellow students, you’re likely to take every single piece of advice to heart, even the contradictory ones, and tie yourself in knots trying to rewrite your story to address every issue. Similarly, if you have a critique group you trust, you may find yourself in a similar situation after they go over a story. In that circumstance it is important to remember the Neil Gaiman quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
People are making suggestions because the story isn’t working for them. Some of the suggestions are contradictory because the people offering them are misidentifying the root cause. Before discarding contradictory advice, see if you can find an intersection. For instance, one time I received feedback on a draft novel from three people whose opinion I trust. One was quite insistent that I needed to add some dream sequences or some other sort of mystical experience to more explicitly explain why the reclusive shrine-guardian was compelled to undertake a quest to save the world. Another thought I should remove several characters (including the shrine guardian) that (in their opinion) weren’t contributing to the main plot, because there were just too many things going on, and clearly the center of the action was the cursed thief. The third person wanted me to split off the shape-shifting fortuneteller (and a few other characters) into their own book.
The intersection of those comments was a fundamental issue all three readers were missing: the novel doesn’t have one protagonist, it has three protagonists whose fates are intertwined and that all come together in the end. Now the reason these readers were missing that detail was not because they were dense or didn’t appreciate the story; they were missing it because I as the author hadn’t made it clear. It was not working in the story. I needed to fix it, but the fix did not involve removing characters, or adding dream sequences, or splitting the book in two. The fix also didn’t require massive rewrites. The fix required dropping a few scenes that weren’t carrying their weight, replacing them with some that did more, and making tweaks to several others.
Look for the unobvious connection. Just because advice seems contradictory doesn’t mean it is wrong.
Sometimes the feedback you get appears to come from a different planet. I’ve mentioned before the reader who complained about my happy endings. The story that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for that reader was a tale which ends with two of the main characters saying good-bye as one is going to escort the corpses of several murder victims on their journey to their families. The story had featured some graphic violence long before getting to that scene. While the killer had been caught and was going to be facing justice, and some of the characters had survived, given how many didn’t and where I set the final scene (literally next to some coffins) I had trouble thinking of it as a happy ending.
I’m a person who fundamentally believes in hope. I’m never going to write stories that will appeal to the sort of reader who insists that happy endings never happen for anyone. That particular story had already been published, so it was a bit late to revise it. But I still found the feedback worthwhile. It was worth asking myself if I had written something earlier in the story that had led this reader—who was really looking to read something grim and dark—to think that that’s what this one was going to be. Did I raise an expectation that I failed to deliver?
Maybe I did. A lesson I took away from that was to remember to look for those unintended expectations. Everyone has heard the famous advice about the gun on the mantlepiece: if you show the reader a gun on the scene, the gun needs to figure in the plot before the story is over. The advice doesn’t just refer to guns, it means that when you draw the reader’s attention to things, people, or events that seem to signify certain dramatic possibilities, that something needs to come of it. That isn’t to say that I must write stories that meet the reader’s expectations, just to make certain that I don’t mislead the reader midway through the story. Yeah, misdirection is okay as long as you play fair (that’s a topic for an entire blog post on its own), and you don’t want to telegraph the ending to the reader, but don’t play bait-and-switch.
Don’t blame the messenger. Maybe the person giving you the weird sounding feedback is absolutely the only being in the universe who will misread your story this way, but don’t forget that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.
I’ve gotten feedback that left me feeling confused and conflicted about whether my story is worth telling. That might be a good time to follow the advice I read in a magazine article decades ago (and have long forgotten who wrote): sit down and write out an explanation of what is wrong with each part of the critique to don’t like. Do not ever send this to the person, repeat any of it to the person, or post it. Instead, set your reply and this story aside and go work on something else. Later, when you can look at this story objectively, pull out your explanation and go through your story. Is everything you say in the explanation in the story? Is it clear in the story? Chances are that some things you have assumed the reader will infer aren’t as obvious as you though. Sometimes you’ll discover that you never actually mentioned one very important fact for your plot. You thought you did, but it isn’t actually there. Now destroy that explanation/argument you wrote, and rewrite your story.
Argue with yourself, not the reader. Figure out what is missing, and add it in.
Many times I’ve written scenes that never wind up in the story. Sometimes I write them because I’m not certain what to do next, then later I realize that scene isn’t necessary. Sometimes I write them because I’m trying to figure out something that I plan to have happened in the past or off screen, but I need to be able to have characters who lived through the events react accordingly later. And sometimes I write a scene because I received suggestions or critiques that I either wasn’t certain I agreed with, or was quite certain I disagreed with but it kept coming up from multiple people. So I tried writing the scene that followed the suggestion. Usually what happened is not that the new scene went into my story and replaced a bunch of other stuff, but rather, in the course of writing the scene, I figured out something else about the story. Just trying to write it the way other people wanted it to go clarified where the story actually needed to go.
Give it a try. Every writer writes stuff that eventually we decide not to use or to change significantly. Don’t be afraid to spend some time giving alternatives a go.
Trust the story. Recognize that you will stumble and sometimes fall. It doesn’t matter how many times you do that, if you keep getting back up and get moving. So stop thinking about the story, and go write it!
It’s the most natural thing to do, because you know you don’t have a bigoted bone in your body, so of course you aren’t racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semetic or whatever the person has just said. So of course you feel the need to defend yourself. But you’re wrong. That’s because what you think they mean is that you are a horrible bigot, but that isn’t what’s going on here. What the person is actually trying to communicate is this: “I felt devalued or erased by some of the content of your story.” Nothing you say can change the feelings they had when they read your book. So the first sense in which it is wrong to argue is that you see this as an attack on you, whereas they are explaining how attacks on them that society has been subjecting them to their entire lives are being unintentionally aided and abetted by your story.
The other sense in which you are wrong is the belief that you don’t have any bigotry at all. Because all of us do. It is impossible to grow up in human society without absorbing a lot of prejudice. Including prejudice aimed at ourselves. Queer people have to overcome a lot of internalized homophobia just to come out of the closet. Women learn and internalize misogyny and sexism. Ethnic minorities learn and internal racial prejudice, and so forth. So it doesn’t matter how much you feel you aren’t bigoted, there is going to be some unconscious prejudices boiling around inside. And problematic content isn’t usually about overt bigotry, but is often more subtle.
So, when someone confronts you about any unintentional bigotry in your work, you need to do three things:
It is tempting, even if you stop yourself from getting defensive, to respond to this sort of criticism as just another kind of negative review and say, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it” then try to change the subject. But this is a different category of discourse entirely. And quite often the people who bring this criticism to you did enjoy most of your story. That’s why they’re taking the time to tell you about this problem. So a better response would be, “I’m sorry the book disappointed you in this way.” If you can say that sincerely, you might also say that you didn’t intend to do that, but don’t let it become an attempt to prove they’re wrong. Better to say, “I’ll try to do better.”
If the person wants to explain to you what it was in your work that made them feel this way, listen. Don’t argue, listen. If the person doesn’t want to talk in more detail about it, that’s all right. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you’ve someone won the argument. As uncomfortable as it is for you to hear that something you wrote made someone feel de-valued, it is just as uncomfortable (and riskier) for them to bring it up. Dealing with every day discrimination and microagressions means that members of marginalized communities have already had to defend themselves and explain how they are hurt by discrimination thousands of times. And they don’t have the energy to try to educate you in depth on the issue.
Which is where we get to the learning. Once it has been brought to your attention that some readers feel this way (which you never intended) while reading your work, it’s your job to decide how to do better. I love quoting the advice “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.” That’s part of a Neil Gaiman quote. One of the truths Gaiman is getting at is that if one reader feels a particular way about your work, many other readers will, too. The rest of Neil’s quote talks about fixing problems, and fixing it is the writer’s responsibility, not the reader’s. They’ve told you how it made them feel. If you don’t want some of your audience feeling that way, you have to decide how you’re going to fix that going forward.
I want to emphasize that I know this process isn’t easy. The first time someone told me a story I wrote had sexist bits in it I became extremely defensive and reacted like a complete jerk. I was wrong to do that. Fortunately, I also spent some time, after I acted like a jerk, re-reading the story and trying to see it from the reader’s point of view.
And she was right. There were several little things I had done just because that’s what women characters do in that situation in millions of books and television episodes and movies that we’ve all watched. And it was a simple matter to make some very minor changes to get rid of them. I didn’t become suddenly a sexism-free writer after that. I found myself a couple years later being asked by someone why after six chapters into a book I was writing, not one single female character had appeared or had a line of dialog—in a story that was set in a ordinary public school in a small modern American city. There were a number of women and girls in my imaginary world, some of whom were going to figure in the plot later, but for whatever reason, I had omitted them in the opening chapters. This, by the way, was the incident I’ve mentioned before that prompted me to re-read a whole bunch of my work applying the Bechdel–Wallace test1, and finding myself very embarrassed at how many of my stories failed it.
And even though since then, I have tried to educate myself on it, and made several changes to the way I tell some stories, I still find problems. I was editing a scene in one of my currently still-in-progress novels not that long ago when I happened upon a line of dialog that I barely remembered writing, and it was a very clichéd and sexist line. I changed it. Now not only is it not sexist, I think it’s funnier.
Again, not every such criticism is going to be spot-on. A few years ago I got a long angry letter about how a story I wrote perpetrated hate against religious people. The rant included accusations that I had been “brainwashed by the femi-nazis” so I wasn’t inclined to take it completely to heart. I asked some religious acquaintances to read the story (without mentioning the negative review) to give me feedback on the portrayal of religion and the various religious people in the story. Not that if they disagreed that proved the reviewer wrong, it was just two more perspectives from people who I trusted.
I ultimately had to make the decision about whether the story perpetuated anti-religious bigotry.
That’s all we can do: try to learn, try to see things from other perspectives, and find people we trust to check our conclusions from time to time. Members of particular marginalized groups can disagree. A few years back I and another gay male sci fi fan and writer got into a really long discussion about whether something I had written perpetuated negative stereotypes about gay men3. We never came to a complete meeting of minds on the topic.
There’s an excellent post over at Patheo by Libby Anne which makes really good reading on this topic: What to Do If Someone Calls You Sexist: A Short Primer. And it doesn’t just apply to sexism.
1. Based on a 1985 comic strip from the series Dykes to Watch For by Allison Bechdel, in which one woman asks another if she wants to go to the movie, and the second woman explains that she has a rule, she will only go to a movie if “…one, it has at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about something other than a man.” Then she confesses that the last movie she’d been able to go to was Alien, because there is one scene where the two women on the spaceship crew talk about the monster. But only the one. Bechdel herself expressed some discomfort with people naming the test after her, since she said she got the idea for the rule from a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf.2
2. If a movie or book passes the test, that doesn’t prove that said work isn’t sexist. All the Bechdel-Wallace test is assess whether women appear in the work to specific degree. That fact that so many works fail to achieve even this level of inclusion is just sad.
3. Remember, it is not a valid defense against an observation of bigotry to be a member of the marginalized group in question, any more than claiming to have a friend in the group absolves you of all culpability. Internalized homophobia can manifest in even the most woke queer person.
Everything I need to know about responding to reviews of my books I learned from my choral directors
There have been a few really notorious cases of this type. There’s the author who seemed to become obsessed by one person who had given lots of negative reviews online to a lot of books. The author tracked down the reader in real life, going to rather absurd lengths to document all the things the reader had said in her various personal profiles on different social which appeared to be false or exaggerations. It culminated in the author going to the reader’s home and confronting her. That’s not only not cool, it’s stalking under the legal definition in most states in the U.S., and could be prosecutable.
Another author tried to sue Amazon and a reviewer for libel.
Then there’s the various Anne Rice incidents: posting a link to a bad review on a book blog on her Facebook page and encouraging 740,000 plus fans to harass the reviewer in 2013; writing a scathing 1100 reply to a reader review on Amazon in 2004; issuing a petition to try to force Amazon to reveal the real names (and contact information) of customer reviewers; trying to get bad reviews reclassifyed as cyberbulling in 2015; et cetera.
I’ve seen some really good articles and at least one of those humorous flow charts about how to respond to negative reviews. And those are great. But negative reviews are only a subset of the problem. And I realized that when I shared and commented on one of the recent posts about this, that I was repeating advice that I’d received from some of my music directors back in the day. I was in orchestra, band, choir, and a small men’s ensemble in school, and then choir and small ensemble in college, and later sang in a gay & lesbian community chorus. I’ve had a lot of music directors, but it was always the choral directors who gave advice about responding to negative comments and other sorts of reviews one might receive to a concert. And what they said can apply to any creative work, so here we go:
When someone tells you they disliked your performance/your story/et cetera: Your response should always be limited to a simple and sincere, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.” As one choral director said, “Don’t give in to the temptation to try to convince the person that the concert was great. Don’t try to educate them about the significance of the piece, the history of the composer, and especially about how much hard work you put in. Just say, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it’ and move on.” Doing anything else just makes people feel angry and defensive.
Personally, I think this response is best deployed with someone contacts you directly or tells you in person that they didn’t like your story/book/painting/what-have-you. In the case of published reviews or reviews posted online, the best response to negative reviews is to pretend you didn’t see them. Maybe talk to a close friend about any particularly badly phrased review, if you need to vent a bit, but don’t respond online or publicly in any way. Don’t send the reviewer private messages. Don’t post links to the negative review.
Arguing with someone is not going to change how they feel about it. And it may well convert them from someone who merely didn’t like this story, to someone who has a grudge and goes out of their way to bad mouth all of your other work.
Negative reviews aren’t the only kind that can be problematic:
When someone tells you they really liked it: Say, “Thank you. I’m so happy you enjoyed it.” This may really seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t count the number of times that a musician, artist, or writer I’ve known has responded to positive comments by saying something like, “But we did it wrong!” or “I hated it! Look at all of these mistakes I made!”
One choral director put it really well: “What you just said to that person is, ‘You have really bad taste in music or are really clueless because you didn’t notice the mistake.’ It’s an insult. Even if you are convinced that they are merely being polite, just say ‘Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.’”
It’s really easy when I look a something I wrote to see all the flaws. Particularly if it is something I wrote a while ago. Even if the story has prompted more than one reader to contact me to tell me they were so enthralled by my tale that they missed their train stop or their cue or stayed up way too late reading it. When I look at the story, I just think how the characterization of one of the supporting characters was inconsistent, or that I could have done a more subtle job revealing that clue, or why did I include the lyrics of the song one of my suspects was performing in that pivotal scene?
But those readers enjoyed it. They didn’t have to send me a comment. I might have never known they had even seen that story if they hadn’t gone out of their way to do so. They liked it. And that’s why I wrote it! I wanted someone to read it and like it! I shouldn’t try to talk a fan of my work into hating.
We’re socialized to be self-effacing. We’re taught that being overly proud of our work means we’re an arrogant jerk. Some of us have self-esteem issues and sincerely have trouble believing that people actually like our work. Don’t give in to either of those tendencies. Just say, ‘Thank you.’ Bank the compliment, and remember it the next time you read a negative review.
When someone asks questions about it: This one is tricky. We’re all socialized to answer questions when asked. Some of us are a bit too happy to expound at length if someone shows the slightest interest it our work.
It’s okay to answer questions. As one director put it, “It’s understandable that someone might ask why we performed a classical piece in German for an English-speaking audience, for instance. It’s perfectly reasonable to answer the question. Just make sure you simply answer it, and don’t try to pick a fight. Don’t assume that they are trying to start an argument. Tell them that the piece was originally written in German, and that you think music is beautiful in any language.” Questions about minor things in the plot of your book or character motivations which seem to be genuine confusion on the part of the reader can be answered in person or direct conversations as long as you don’t get defensive. Similarly to factual question about the publishing process—but keep it as simple as possible.
When it comes to published/online reviews as opposed to someone contacting you directly, don’t get drawn into an argument. Straightforward questions with a simple, factual answer are fine. For instance, I once saw in a review of a story that was part of a continuing series but had been picked up for reprint in another publication the comment: “I liked the story well enough, but wish I knew more about these characters.” It was simple to post a comment: “For more stories set in this universe using these characters, check out [Link to a place to buy them].” I said absolutely nothing else. Just an answer to the one question that had a simple answer.
Sometimes a person asking a question is looking to start an argument. And sometimes it’s quite obvious that they’re doing it. I once got a question about one story along the lines of, “Why did you have to give us a happy ending, again? Your stories really draw me in and get me interested in all the characters, but then you have yet another unrealistic ending. In real life things never work out like that!” If someone is doing this sort of back-handed compliment disguised as a question, you need to treat it as a negative review. “I told the story as I saw it. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
Other questions may be less obviously a back-handed compliment, but still not have a simple factual answer, such as, “I don’t understand why the author made such an unlikeable character the hero of this story” or “Why are there so many sub-plots in this book? Why can’t we just stick to one character?” or “Why did the main character spend all that time moping and talking? He should have kicked some butt and showed them who’s boss!” There is no answer you can give to this person that will make them happy. You had your reasons for writing the story, they wanted to be reading a different story. Again, you need to treat these sorts of questions the same as a negative review. If it’s in a published or on-line review, don’t respond. If a reader is asking you directly, say as simply and sincerely as possible, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
You can elaborate a little bit. “That isn’t the story I was telling” or “This was the best way I could think of to tell this particular story with these characters” or something like that. It is so tempting to try to convince the person that what you did was the right thingFinally, remember that sometimes the reason you got a bad review has nothing to do with you or your story. Mark Kloos recently shared on twitter: “Don’t fret about your Amazon reviews. I just got a three-star review because my novel isn’t a 36-count package of Jimmy Dean sausages.” And he included a screen capture of the review. While technically this violates the negative review advice above, it’s clear that the reviewer wasn’t actually reviewing the book, and Kloos didn’t ask people to go harass the reviewer.
That example leads to the final piece of advice from several of my choral directors: “Once the concert is sung the only thing you can do is be proud of the parts that went well, laugh about the parts that didn’t, and start practicing for the next performance.”
Many Waters is a sequel to that book, and it is the first one where Sandy and Denys take center stage.
Before I get into my review of Many Waters, I want to share one amusing personal incident: by the time I was in the fourth grade we had moved several times. For example, I had spent part of third grade not only in three different school districts, but each was in a different state. Part way through fourth grade we moved yet again. At the new school, we were assigned to read A Wrinkle in Time, and then give a book report. My report came back with a low grade in part because I had supposedly misspelled Murry, the last name of the family. I had to show the teacher in my own copy of the book (since the school copies had been taken back already and passed on to the other fourth grade classroom) that Murry is how it is spelled in the book. It didn’t occur to me until years later that this meant the teacher probably had never read the book himself. So on what basis was he grading everyone’s book reports?
So, what did I think of this book? … Read More…