Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Different Readers

There's been a lot of talk on the blogosphere about trust recently--and while Robyn talked about the importance of trust in yourself, Michelle talked about trusting advice, and Natalie talked about NOT trusting the rules, there's one issue about trust that kept wiggling around my mind.

The Trust of Readers.

Quit thinking like a writer for a sec--think like a reader. When you pick up a published book, you trust that author to an extent. You trust that the author is a good writer (at least good enough to be published). You trust that the author will deliver a well written book--both grammatically, stylistically, and story-wise. You trust that the book is worth your time--and (if you bought it) your money. You wouldn't shell out $15-$25 to a stranger for no good reason, would you? No--you trust that the story on those printed pages is worth it.

Now think about the last time you critiqued a friend's work.

Did you have that same trust?

I'm betting you didn't--because you weren't thinking like a reader, you were thinking like a critiquer. You didn't have the agent, editor, publishing house, and media hype to build up your trust in the work--you just had an unpublished document by a friend who freely admits (by asking for a critique) that she DOESN'T deserve your trust.

Did you rip it to shreds?

And, more importantly...should you have?

In the past few years, I've done every kind of critique there is. I've gotten beta reads from published and unpublished writers, I've paid for critiques from former editors, I've signed up for online critiques from agents and editors, I've done the first line/first page/pitch contests that riddle the kidlitosphere. I've been in three different critique groups, worked online and in real life with other writers, gone to two conferences, read writing books, and spent more money that I think I could stomach if I actually tabulated it.

Have they helped?

To some extent.

And now I can tell the difference. When I submit my work to people I've worked with before or know to some extent (either online or irl), I think I've built up a trust relationship with those individuals--moreso than with a stranger. They know I can write because they've seen me write before and are aware of my abilities. I'd even argue that you, as a reader of my blog, are aware of my abilities to a greater extent than the Internet population at large. You trust in my abilities to write a blog post, at least, and if you've been around here for awhile, you probably have a sense of my tone and style and ability.

But when I submit to online anonymous contests or do a swap with someone I'm not really close to, that trust isn't there. They don't trust that I can write--and the critique is affected by it.

Natalie's post on rules really made me think of this. If a critiquer is reading a portion of your writing and doesn't have the inherent trust of most readers, they'll nitpick the rules. Does it really matter if one sentence is passive? No. Does it really make much of a difference if you chose a different word to describe something? Not really.

I once entered an online anonymous first page contest. At least two-thirds of the commenters talked about my main character's name--NOT the story itself. Which. Drove. Me. Crazy. How am I supposed to learn something new when most of the comments are so banal?

Now, on the flip side, it's just as important not to get a critiquer who's too trusting of you. Like, say, my mother. She thinks everything I write is gold, and is, in this case, absolutely useless to my revisions.

This is why it's important to be selective about who you allow to read an unpublished draft of your work, no matter how polished it is. You need a critiquer who has Reader-Trust in you--someone who believes in your ability. At the same time, you need a critiquer who is a fellow writer, who can help with the actual writing of the story.

You have the right to be selective! Go out and find people who both trust in your ability and who help you achieve your ability!


Jennifer said...

Wow, Beth, I think this is the best advice I've heard in a month. Seriously. You've just convinced me to let people I know actually crit my work. Which is absolutely CRAZY! Lol. Thanks for the awesome post.

Natalie Whipple said...

Great post! (And not just cuz you linked to me, hehe, thanks, btw.)

I remember when I didn't write and I could buy a book and just enjoy it. Now that I know more about publishing, I'm even doubtful of published writers. I kind of hate that. I try to shut off the critiquer and just enjoy the book, but sometimes I can't. I know I'm harsher than I need to be.

Sometimes I really think we forget to enjoy writing and reading. We've all become skeptics. I'm trying very hard to chill out and just enjoy.

Elana Johnson said...

What an awesome post! So true. I also think that it takes TIME to find those readers. You can't just trust everyone you "meet" online. My online group didn't form until a year after we'd "met." It takes a long time to form friendships and trust with people you don't really know. I think that's something important to keep in mind. I've seen people get taken in by the first person who comes along and says how much they love the writing. So yeah. Just be careful to take the time to really get to know someone, and build real trust before sending off your full MS to them. What do you think?

Clementine said...

Awesome post! Good writing partners is like any other friendship. The relationship must go both ways and there must be mutual respect. Well said, Miss Beth.

Unknown said...

I am so glad you liked it, Jenna! :)

Natatlie (or Nat, or Talie, or Wolverine, hehe): I loved your rant--it really got me to thinking along those same lines that you were talking about. I, also, have been reading published novels with an eye for what makes them worth publishing, and it is damaging my reading enjoyment. There have been more than one book that I know I would love if it weren't for the fact that I'd read them now, instead of five years ago.

Elana: TOTALLY AGREE. It DOES take time. In one of my critique groups, I joined as quick as they'd take me...but now...I realize that of the five people, there are two I trust completely and two whose reviews of my work I skim, but never really take seriously. If it weren't for the members who were good, I don't think I'd bother with it at all.

Steph Su said...

This is a pretty good post. Of course, the trust is not there whenever you try to start a relationship with someone--namely, one with agents or editors. Therefore in those cases your work DOES have to stand by itself, and those are the people who can afford to be picky.

I've done mostly first-time reads for people I know, and I never go into the nit-picky details. (I mean, come on: ONE passive sentence? A character's name? Besides for the fact that the second is not something you're in a place to comment on, that's not a first-time reader's job.) Instead, I let them know my thoughts on their writing style, overarching plot lines, the "workability" of the characters... leave the little stuff to the editors, if and when you get that far!

Rebecca J. Carlson said...

You are so right about trust. I had a test reader once argue with me about something in one of my books and refer me to an informational web site that I had actually already read more thoroughly than he had and used to construct the setting. Oh well.

But I also think that you need to have both writers and non-writers look at your work. Writers read things differently than other people. It is true that if writers stopped buying and reading books, the industry would suffer, but the bulk of readers out there simply like to read. Your work has to appeal to them if it is going to sell.

The hard truth to all of this is, you can pull all the gimmicks and follow all the rules you like, but sometimes a book just ain't going to work. It needs some quality, as intangible as charisma, to catch the imagination and invite the surrender of one mind to another for a few hours.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

This post is fantastic, Beth. WOW. I think I need to do a post roundup that highlights all these great Trust posts lately!

I've learned the hard way what you speak of here... and you lay it out perfectly. Thank you!

PJ Hoover said...

Great post, Beth! I'm really picky about who I get to read early these days. When I first started writing, I wanted anyone to read who would, and all I got was "this is really great" or nitpicky comments on stuff which got edited out completely.

Christina Farley said...

I do see your point. And hello, a main character's name could be changed by the suggestion of an editor and how many times do you read a book and don't like the character's name? Often.

I agree. There is a sense of trust involved and it's tough to send your work out there too!