A good writer is a strip-tease artist. In the process of telling her story, she reveals a great deal about herself: what makes her laugh, what makes her cry, what turns her on. That's why the toughest skill for writers to learn is the ruthless objectivity of the craftsman: does this do what I want it to do? Does this have the effect I intend? After all, I'm revealing so much of myself. If it doesn't work, does that mean I myself am flawed?
Well, no. It just means you missed. Not even the best marksman hits the target every time. At the same time, though, if you can't force yourself to look at the target objectively, you won't know if you hit it or not.
Sometimes other people are a better judge of whether you hit your objective. They don't have as much invested in the effort, after all. It's probably taken you a good six months to write this particular book -- days of spilling your guts on the page, of laying it all out with every detail you can imagine as you struggle to create the emotional effect you want. No wonder being objective is so difficult.
That's why online criticism can be either invaluable or incredibly damaging to the artist. If it's truly objective, it can be a golden opportunity to see your work as another sees it and determine if it had the effect you intended.
The trouble is, online criticism is often far from objective, even when it pretends to be. The author of online criticism is frequently grinding an ax of one kind or another. Writers must decide if the criticism is legitimate and should be heeded, or is the product of some kind of agenda. A writer who listens to the wrong criticism can cripple herself with self-doubt and depression. At the same time, though, the writer who automatically rejects all criticism deprives herself of the chance to make her work better.
In one sense, trolls are the easiest creature in the writer's bestiary to spot, but that doesn't make them any easier to take. Like the troll under the bridge in the fairy tale, this kind of online critic springs out at unsuspecting artists with vicious attacks. Often it's because the artist has unintentionally written something that hits the troll's hot buttons.
For example, erotic romance writers tend to attract a species of troll who simply don't like highly sexual content. The romances the troll could once count on for a certain safe content are becoming increasingly sexual, and she finds this threatening. "Smut!" the troll shrieks. "Page after page of smut! Why can't you write like (insert author name here.)”
Because this kind of troll tends to sound just like your maiden aunt, she can trigger all kinds of guilt and anger in the writer. She’s telling you sex is bad, and you’re a slut for writing it. Since erotic romance authors tend to struggle with these feelings anyway, it’s very hard not to explode at the troll.
That’s when it’s time to walk away from the computer. Do not feed the troll. You’re not going to convince her that your books don’t contain too much sex or that you’re not a slut, so don’t even try. In fact, responding to her at all simply validates her opinion by telling her that you care what she thinks. You’ll find yourself in a flame war quicker than you can say “Billy Goat Gruff.”
And you won’t win. Don’t answer her e-mails, don’t respond to her posts. The less time spent on her, the less damage she gets to do to your productivity as an artist. Don’t give her what she wants – which is you, feeling like the slut she’s branded you.
Snarks are those online critics who pride themselves on using humor to puncture artists and writers. Mrs. Giggles is a good example.
Snarks are in many ways more troubling than trolls for a number of reasons. For one thing, they may actually have a legitimate artistic point, whereas a troll is simply irrational and shrill. What’s more, because they use humor to poke fun at the book, they tend to bring out a writer’s inner twelve-year-old, who remembers getting laughed at for wearing something goofy-looking to school.
Anytime a point is made in a biting, clever way, it gains power.
But that still doesn’t mean it’s right. Sometimes Snarks go for an obvious joke just because it’s funny, not because the book really doesn’t work. The Snark’s objective is to attract web-traffic to her site, and humor is an effective way to do that. What’s more, if an oversensitive writer shows up to rail at her, she’s got the opportunity of a lifetime. The writer’s fans will also make an appearance, along with various enemies looking to see the writer get her comeuppance. All of which means lots and lots of glorious hits.
Which is exactly why writers should never, ever show up at a Snark site to bitch about a review. One, you’re handing her hits, and two, you’re giving her another opportunity to humiliate you. Which she’s going to do. Even if you feel you’re more than up to out-Snarking her, you’re validating her by admitting her dig hurt. Don’t do that.
On the other hand, sometimes a Snark is also a legitimate critic, and that’s when you need to take her a little more seriously.
As I've said, no writer hits the mark every single time with every single scene. Writers must handle a vast number of difficult tasks in writing a book: beautiful description, gripping conflict, pacing that flows, characterization that makes readers believe absolutely in imaginary people. It’s tough. Sometimes, scenes or lines or perhaps even entire books miss the mark. Our objective as writers is to identify the point at which a book misses and figure out how to avoid that mistake on the next one.
You want people to say of you, “She gets better with every book she writes.”
So when a critique points out a flaw in a book in a rational, objective way – and I’m not talking about, “This book sux!” – you need to pay attention. Think about the comment, even if it stings. Does it resonate internally? I’ve had Amazon reviewers dismiss my books as boring, which is one criticism I’ve never taken seriously. On the other hand, I’ve had others who say my weird universe incorporates everything but the kitchen sink, which makes it hard to take seriously. I admit, I think about remarks like that, wondering if I should simplify just a bit in the next universe I create.
You should also take a criticism more seriously if you hear the same thing from a number of people. I’ve had Amazon reviewers complain about Jane’s Warlord because I didn’t make clear that Jane’s father murdered her mother. I didn’t really tie up that particular loose end, a problem I’m going to keep an eye on in the future.
On the other hand, just because a legitimate reviewer makes a comment about a book, that doesn’t mean she’s right. It could be that she simply doesn’t like that particular kind of book, or even that she’d had a really rotten day when she sat down to write the review.
But whether you’re dealing with legitimate critics, Snarks or Trolls, never let anyone’s words keep you from writing or make you feel inadequate. Writing is a learning process. Remember: you may write the book, but you are not the book. The book is a piece of craft, no different from a coffee table. If the legs are a little crooked this time, make them straighter the next. Learn from your mistakes, and incorporate what you’ve learned in the next one.
That’s what truly separates a professional writer from a wannabe.