On Opinions . . . And On Doing Good Deeds
It's not that I don't value other opinions — I actually do; their critical in honing one's work and craft — it's just that I've received, in the past, such extremely, wildly, sometimes insanely-vitriolic negative reviews of my work that it's driven me to the conclusion that what it really comes down to, sometimes, in the end, is matters of personal taste that somehow touch a very deep nerve in people. As in, it not only "doesn't appeal" to them . . . but it so strongly offends their intellectual taste buds that they immediately projectile-vomit it out and across the room so hard that it sticks to the wall. Other people read my work and they love it; they love it so much that they squee about it and it makes them smile, and they fall in love with the world and with certain characters I've created. Still others are level-headed about it; they read it, identify its flaws, see its potential, see what works really well — and congratulate me on it — but they also point out the weak spots and tell me what needs work and what could use improving.
These last ones are the opinions I value the most, because they're honest and forthright without being condescending; they're useful, and above all, they're practical. They don't say, "cut half of it and it will be better" and leave me floundering. No, they specifically tell me, "Cut this, and this, and that (and here is why), but whatever you do, don't cut this, or this, or that over there." They are good readers, and even better feedback-givers. They are the people I turn to when inspiration is lacking, because they are always at the ready with ideas for what to do next, or what to work on doing better. I don't turn to the people who say, "This is too much," and who leave it at that, because that's not really useful, is it? No, I turn to the people who say, "You can cut this part; this just paraphrases what was said earlier." I turn to the people who say, "Describe his blood with a more robust adjective other than 'crimson.'" I turn to the people who say, "Try to punch up the dialogue here by using a tag other than 'said.'" And I turn to the people who say, "I love this part right here; Dizzy always makes me laugh when she does this to someone." Or, "Why do you always do X with your characters' expressions? You need to give us more variety in your characterizations, Hainline. I suggest having her smile devilishly here."
You see what I mean? Useful stuff that actually helps or encourages or points to a solution to a problem. This is what I — and other writers of all stripes — need in their critiques and feedback. Not condescending, half-witted slogans or half-hearted, one-sentence quips about cutting half of it, or that tired, old, oft-repeated schlock about "killing your darlings." No. They, and I, need practical, useful, work-specific and targeted advice on what to do to make the work better. Do you get this? Does this make sense to you? It does to me.
I post this in the hopes that some of you, as in, other writers, will read it and have an "Ah ha," moment where it penetrates your skulls and sinks it, and you get it, and it makes an impression. That you understand that the others of your "tribe" — that is, the rest of us — are out here, and we, like you, are struggling with our craft on the daily, and that we work just as hard as you do to "do the heavy braining to make the words go," as the famous Twitter meme goes. You're not alone, and we'd like to feel like we're not alone, too.
So the next time someone posts a story snippet, or their cover art, or their blurb, or their sample chapter, and asks for opinions or critique or feedback, try to follow this idea; try to give them work-specific, practical, editorial advice on exactly what to fix, how to fix it, and if possible, and time permits, tell them why it needs fixing. Offer to leave comments in a Word document if they have one or can send you one. Go the extra mile. Don't just sit on your haunches and say, "Oh, someone's work, that's nice." No. If it looks interesting, if it shows any promise, and if the person is nice, and especially if it's someone whom you know — and of course, if you have the time and you're not swamped with your own work and family crises and job stress — then go ahead . . . take the shot and help that person out. They will be appreciative, and they will thank you. And it will be worth it. Hell, I tel you this: It's worth a lot more than some crappy-ass Facebook comment that reads, "Cut half of it and it will be better." Because it actually helps someone grow as a writer. It helps them hone their craft, just as you once honed yours. It makes the world a better place. Just a little. And the gods all know we need that now more than ever, in this Age of Trump and Robot Apocalypses.