This is my blog, which is part of the fediverse. If you don’t know what that means, the fediverse is a decentralized network of free and open source social network platforms. This means that you can follow my blog and even comment using an account from any fediverse instance, such as Mastodon. Here is a good article on the subject, if you’re curious.
Think about the last terrible book you read. I mean absolute trash. Maybe you didn't even finish it, or the only way you managed to get through it was by mocking its every mistake. Now, try to name one thing you enjoyed about it. If you do, try to think of another one. Try to think of ways you could improve it.
It's not easy, is it? We're, sadly, emotional creatures. When we see something we dislike, our natural reflex is often to mock or trash said thing. This book is so bad, no good could possibly come of it.
That takes us to today's topic: cynicism and negativity in criticism. It happens a lot, and it can ruin the reviewer's position and credibility. After all, how can we trust a reviewer to be genuine when they're out to trash our work? Sure, there are ways to look past it and understand what brought this reaction, but it's tedious and work that, quite honestly, can be avoided.
Let's start by looking at what an early draft is. It's an experiment. Authors will try things out, see what sticks. A lot of it won't make it past the first draft and won't ever make it to proofreaders. Some of it will get pointed out and fixed, and some of it will make it into the final version. Why? Because art is subjective. What one person considers to be trash, others might see as genius.
But let's go back to our example. You're given an early draft for a story. You go into it and, as expected, you find a lot to talk about. The problem arises when patterns emerge. Let's say, for example, that the protagonist befriends a troubled little girl, and the girl's parents are oblivious to her emotional turmoil. It's not that unbelievable of a story, except that the narrative paints the parents as good people, with no mention of them being negligent. This is exactly the kind of issue that often arises in early drafts.
So you point out the discrepancy the first time it shows up. Maybe suggest a way to fix it. Then you keep reading and the issue shows up again. It keeps showing up in every chapter. It gets frustrating, and you've had enough. You leave a comment after a line by the father: "what an oblivious moron." A few paragraphs later, another comment: "rolls eyes."
Are these comments helpful? Well, they show frustration, but that's it. They don't explain why, they don't offer lines of thought that could lead to a fix. They don't take context into account. They're negative comments fueled by frustration. It's something a reader would say, but a reviewer should know better. Remember, your job is to help the writer.
The one thing the reviewer failed to keep in mind in this example is that the author never saw the issue as they wrote the book. That's natural, and it's why we have to rely on proofreaders. That means that a problem can repeat itself. Yes, it can be frustrating to read, and it's okay to point out repetitions, but you have to do so in a way that's helpful. It's very likely that the first comment you leave will be enough for the author, and they'll fix the issue throughout the entire text.
Furthermore, allowing yourself to become cynical and negative as you proofread a story will lead to you missing important details. Think back to the example at the beginning of this article. When you read a terrible book, it's natural to only focus on the negative. If you allow one aspect to get to you, you risk embarking on a viscous cycle where you just look for ways to trash someone else's work.
Let's look at it from the author's point of view. You have pages upon pages of comments on why the little girl's parents are insensitive idiots. Okay, maybe there's a point to it. It's worth looking into. However, the more you read into it, the more it attacks your characters, and as a result it attacks your writing. You get defensive. Who the hell does this person think they are? These feelings have to be fought, of course. The reviewer is trying to help. The problem is that emotions got involved somewhere they should never have been. So instead of calmly fixing issues, you're fighting your own hurt feelings. Because cynicism is always hurtful, and that's the core of the issue.
It can get even more frustrating when a reviewer get cynical about a theme they dislike. Let's return to our previous example. Let's say that our protagonist is an official in the local religion. Now, let's imagine that our proofreader is an atheist who actively dislikes all religions. Both the author and reviewer are entitled to their opinion here. However, one should know what they're getting into when they agree to review something. Some big rant about why religion is stupid would have no place here. Criticism of the approach is definitely welcome. Again, it comes down to the same question: Is the feedback helpful to the author, or is it an emotional rant?
Staying away from cynicism and negativity isn't always easy. Books are meant to create an emotional reaction, and not everyone can distance themselves enough to provide the analytical proofreading an early draft requires. One trick I have when struggling with this is to write my angry rant, read it again, and then delete it. I get it out of my system, accept that it's how I feel, and then move on. Often, I'll come back later and explain the core of the issue in more sober terms.
The next time you feel frustrated with an aspect of a book you're reading, try to understand why it happens. What could the author have done to fix it? And if you're a writer, try to look past overly emotional comments. Overall, try to avoid cynicism and negativity in general. Aren't we all better than this?
You know what's often a touchy subject when discussing writing? Diversity. No, wait, don't leave just yet. Let me explain. Diversity has, sadly, become very politicized when it shouldn't be. Really, it's just a question of having a more believable cast of characters. Diversity can be a good way to make characters interesting. It can give a character a unique take on a situation that would feel mundane to another character.
Let's face it. Storytelling is about putting different characters in unique situations. That can't work if everyone is similar, and that means pushing the envelope. I first want to look at how the mainstream approaches diversity. From there on, we can discuss what we can learn from it. I also want to touch a bit on my own personal experience with it.
Most corporate media tends to be ruled by fear of the unknown. Anything that hasn't been done before, that could potentially offend someone, is not something investors like. As a result, it tends to be very conservative in its approach. That's not to say that they're opposed to it, but they'll stick with diversity flavors that are proven sellers. Decades ago, the idea of a female protagonist in anything other than a romance story was unthinkable. Now, it's common and accepted by most people. (There's always ultra-conservative assholes out there, but we'll ignore them here. They're really just a vocal minority, and I will not give them a platform.)
There are multiple steps to diversity adoption. First, a form of diversity is shown by one mainstream project. Think of the Kirk/Uhura kiss in the original Star Trek, for example. We get something the mainstream audience considers to be brand new, and people talk about it. More recently, we saw the Doctor in Doctor Who transition from male to female. Again, it made the news and everyone talked about it. For a lot of us, the reaction was: "about time." For the average Joe, it was shocking.
Eventually, these things gain acceptance by the public. Progressive voices do tend to win in the long run. It's just a slow process, and conservative views don't dissapear overnight. As a form of diversity is accepted, it gets marketed. Authors try to adopt it and jump on the bandwagon. It's not always successful. There are cases of straight up exploitation. There's also people who just get it wrong. How many "token black guy" or "token gay friend" have we seen in movies? How many of these characters are little more than walking stereotypes?
Luckily, these things are criticized and slowly, as time goes on, diversity is normalized. Members of minorities speak out and inform the public on misconceptions. Eventually, diversity is seen as a normal part of fiction and is no longer exotic. It's no longer special to see female characters in positions of power. It's no longer a big deal to see gay characters, or heroes who aren't white.
That's not to say that misrepresentation ever disappears. Accidental sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. will always be around. Truth is, writing anything different from our own experiences is a challenge. "Write what you know" is a common saying, but one that, honestly, is bullshit. As a writer, I want to challenge myself. I want to use my writing as a tool to broaden my own horizon and learn new things. That means taking risks, and potentially making mistakes. That also means learning from those mistakes.
So what should we do about it? First, mistakes should be called out, but not ridiculed. I have a transgender character in Opt Out. Did I get anything wrong when writing that character? Quite possibly. What proofreaders pointed out, I fixed. Still, what I wrote is based off research, not experience. As it often does, it comes down to intent. Did the author try to include diversity, or did they write an exploitation piece? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell.
If you are a member of a minority and you feel you're being misrepresented in a work of fiction, my advice would be to reach out and point out the mistake. If you're being ignored or if your opinion is disregarded, then you can mock to your heart's content. Just make sure that you don't discourage a writer who honestly tried to give you some representation and happened to make a mistake. Writing involves a lot of research, and it's easy for something to slip by. That's not malice, that's an honest mistake. Keep the writer's experience and resources in mind as well. A major movie studio can afford a consultant. A self-published writer cannot.
If you're a writer, then do your research. Don't base your characters on what you see in fiction, but rather look at what real people go through. Social media can be a good starting place for research. I'm going to use a personal example here. This is a Reddit thread I started a while ago for a story I'm currently working on: https://old.reddit.com/r/genderfluid/comments/hds3zt/author_here_currently_writing_a_genderfluid/
Creating this thread wasn't my first step. The idea is to lurk first. I want to write a genderfluid character. The first step is to create them as a fully fleshed out character first, and make sure genderfluidity is part of who they are, but not their entire identity. Then I read about it. I would take notes of experiences people posted online, get some ideas on how they perceived it and what they learned from it. I took plenty of notes. Most importantly, I kept an open mind and left by preconceptions at home.
After about a month, I started the thread I linked, where I asked for clarifications. This is something I highly recommend. Reach out to the community. A lot of people like talking about who they are, and they do want fair representation in fiction. Also, be mindful that some communities might feel threatened by what you're attempting to do. Some minority groups were often painted negatively in fiction, and are understandably wary. It's your job to convince them of your good intentions. Just be respectful. If a community doesn't want you asking question, then politely honor their request.
Overall, diversity in fiction is great. We do need more of it, and I recommend making the effort. Just make sure you do it for the right reasons. Don't be afraid to ask questions and push the envelope. Just be sure to do it right. Remember that what is a character trait to you is every day life to some people.
Opt Out has been released for a week, and I'm pretty satisfied with the reception so far. Of course, a lot of you haven't yet finished reading it, but there's definitely more interest than I expected. Interestingly, all of the sales and download come from my website. The book has yet to gain any traction on any of the stores onto which it was posted.
I've included it on those stores mostly as an afterthought, I admit. I know that some people prefer to stick to those ecosystem. Even though I'm not a fan of proprietary devices and their ecosystems, I figured it costs me nothing and Opt Out might reach a few more people that way. In the end, it's a choice that I choose to respect.
There's one exception to this, and this exception is Amazon. If you look at any self-publishing resource, everyone loves to mention Amazon. The Internet is full of stories from writers who published on Amazon and played the algorithm right to makes a fortune.
There's one big issue there. If you want to publish on Amazon, you have to do it their way. I use Draft2digital as a service to distribute Opt Out to online stores. It saves me the hassle of having to deal with all these companies individually. It's very straightforward to distribute everywhere, except Amazon. This is the letter they wanted me to sign in order to make my book available on Amazon:
"I'm writing to confirm that I own the exclusive distribution rights for all of the works I'm publishing to Amazon. I am the legal copyright holder to these titles and I hereby authorize Draft2Digital to deliver my titles to Amazon in the language, format, and territories submitted. Furthermore, I have never had nor been denied an account with KDP. I have never had an account terminated, listings removed, or any other disciplinary action that would prevent me from reaching Amazon.com through Draft2Digital's publishing service. My published works are not freely available online through sources other than the vendors I've approved for distribution. I am aware of no locations on the web and if found freely available on a website other than those I've approved for publication, they would be unauthorized versions not supplied by me, the legal copyrights holder.
[signed by your name] Writing as: [pen name]"
Yup, they force anyone who'd sell on Amazon to make sure the book isn't available for free anywhere. This is incompatible with creative commons. Amazon pretty much insist they get the lowest price. Either you do things their way, or they won't carry your work.
A lot of writers just go with it. They're the biggest online store, after all. It's where most sales will come from. Honestly, maybe I am losing money by not working with them. Wouldn't it be simpler to just go with the flow?
I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it. However, I chose to publish under creative commons for a reason. It's the same reason why Opt Out is released under a pay-what-you-want model and that I accept cryptocurrency donations. I want to explore better, more ethical ways of distributing my work. Culture shouldn't be shared according to the whim of large corporations.
The larger Amazon grows, the more aggressive their bully tactics will get. Already, a lot of the services they offer to self-published writers are only available to those who make their work exclusive to Amazon. This company has a long history of bullying their suppliers.
As writers, our only recourse is to refuse to play their games. I'm well aware that on my own, having only published one book, my gesture is symbolic at best. I'm still hoping that more people stand up to the big bully. If you buy ebooks regularly, I urge you to only use Amazon as a last resort. I could go on about how they mistreat their warehouse workers, how they force small businesses out of business, or how they lock their users in a proprietary ecosystem filled with abusive anti-features. Honestly, if you made your way to either my website or the Fediverse, chances are that you have some idea of how much of a shitty company Amazon is.
In conclusion, I will not make Opt Out or any future projects available on Amazon as long as they use bully tactics in an attempt to stay at the top. The primary way to obtain my books will always be through my website. While future projects may have a minimum payment at some point, I will always accept crypto, and I will always publish under creative commons.
If you're a fellow writer, the only thing I can say is that standing up to bullies is worth it in the long run. In the short run, it can cost us, but I believe it's worth it. If Amazon grows even larger, they can decide to take a larger cut off sales, and no one can say anything about it. They could force DRM, and we'd be powerless to stop them. They could force us to include advertisement within ebooks. I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to pull any of those stunts.
Thank you to all of you who support Opt Out.
I'm happy to announce that my first novel, Opt Out, is now released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/.
The book is available under a pay-what-you-want model over on my website, at https://roryprice.net/store/.
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In my previous article, I talked about understanding intent before giving criticism. While this is essential, it can also be misconstrued as an excuse to disregard valid negative feedback. Therefore, this is what we'll talk about today. When is it okay to ignore criticism?
I have two general rules that I apply to criticism. The first is that every point raised is ultimately subjective, and the opinion of the person giving it. The second is that ignoring any piece of criticism should be justified.
I'll start with the first point. Any form of art is ultimately subjective. Music, books, video games, they're all very different. I've seen poorly written fanfiction develop its own dedicated fanbase, and some works that are today considered masterpieces were initially ignored or plain rejected. Appreciation for anything creative depends on one's personal taste. It can be influenced by one's past, political position, religious upbringing, age, gender, a number of different factors. As much as we all want to say we're open-minded, everyone has prejudices.
When I give feedback to another writer, I try to be as aware as I can of my own subjective preferences, but it's still my view of the story. It's always nice when the person providing feedback points out when something is just their own subjective opinion, but it can't always be the case. A lot of times, we're not even aware of it. Be mindful that an opinion being subjective isn't by itself a reason to ignore it. If something annoyed one reader, it could very well annoy more of them.
And that takes us to the second point. Ignoring criticism should always be justified. That sounds simple in theory. In practice, it'll lead to a lot of uncertainty. There's really no way around that. Sometimes, someone will leave feedback that we never thought about, and it'll tear us up, wondering how we should approach it, or if we should change anything at all. The only thing I can do here is talk about my own process.
The first thing I do is ask how the points raised fit within my vision. I return to my original intent. Would following the recommendation help or hinder that intent? Sometimes, it's as simple as a piece of feedback that doesn't fit with my vision and would take the story in a direction I don't like. These comments, I disregard it as not working out for me. Still, it's important to keep an open mind here. If following a recommendation won't interfere with the intent and only add more realism. It's worth considering.
Another thing I like to try is to find the root cause of the issue. Very often, I find that the issue isn't as much what was pointed out, but rather a failure on my part to communicate the intent of the scene. Maybe a proofreader pointing out that a character is unnecessarily rude really means that said rudeness wasn't properly established in earlier chapters. This is something I do a lot. I'll leave a line someone disliked as-is, but change something else so that line makes more sense.
Finally, there's the big one: pride. Taking criticism is hard. There are days when I just can't do it, and I believe that's true of everyone. We all have our own threshold to how much of it we can take. Try to take some distance before you react. If a comment makes you emotional, skip it and move ahead. Go back to it the next day, and see how you feel about it with a fresher eye. This brings us back to my original point. It's okay to disregard feedback, but only with a good reason. If you can look at it from a non-emotional perspective and name an actual reason why your work should remain as-is, then you're probably fine.
If you feel like someone is being unfair to you in how they give criticism, it's perfectly okay to thank them and move on to someone else. I know that some people will consider my take to be controversial here, but no one should harm themselves to the point where they lose all motivation. I personally have a zero tolerance policy with my proofreaders when it comes to cynicism. If I feel like someone can't help themselves but attack my story or characters, then I just don't work with them. Just be aware that you can ask your proofreaders to be nice in how they voice their dislikes, but critics are a different story. Once you release content, some people will leave feedback that can be downright harmful, sometimes cruel. Criticism from friends can help prepare you for that.
I recommend trying out suggestions when uncertain. I mentioned such an instance in my previous article where I tried to follow feedback I felt uncertain about. I hated the result, but I learned from it. It helped me get a better grasp of my story, and what I liked about it. Time spent experimenting is always good, and criticism is one of the best ways to experiment in ways you might not have thought of.
Hopefully this helps. There isn't any sort of global rule on what to do and what criticism to follow. I should also point out that if you're currently in school, follow your teacher's advice and don't ignore it as subjective opinions. It's useful in the long run to learn from an experienced individual and fully understand their way of doing things before deciding what to use and what to disregard.