The Craft – Part Five: Criticism
This is the last in a series of articles talking with fantasy authors about the craft. You can read the previous posts here:
Criticism is always hard. People can put on stoic faces and even welcome criticism but the first time it happens, it is always like a blow to the stomach. Over time, the blows become a little easier, but a writer is never totally immune. Professional writers not only have to become accustom to criticism as their work passes from beta reader to agent to editor, then as their work is published, they must also be prepared for the general public to analyse and comment.
In this final article we talk to a four fantasy writers about criticism and how they deal with it.
Lou Morgan’s debut urban fantasy novel, Blood & Feathers was recently released by Solaris. It is the story of a war between angels and the fallen, and a young woman called Alice caught in the middle. The sequel, Rebellion, is due for release next summer.
M. D. Lachlan is the author of the popular Wolfsangel series from Gollancz, the latest of which – Lord of Slaughter – has recently been released. Prior to moving to genre he had a successful career as an author in the ‘lad lit’ movement.
Sam Sykes is author of the Aeons’ Gate fantasy series from Gollancz. Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo were recently followed by the third volume, The Skybound Sea, which was released in September.
I started off by asking whether how they dealt with criticism changed once they were published.
“This one’s not really sunk in yet,” says Morgan. “I have no doubt it will, soon enough, when I get wind of someone who can’t stand [insert-part-of-book-I-really-like-here]. But that comes with being in the luxurious position of being able to put your work out there in the world.”
“My book hasn’t reached a wide audience yet, considering it’s not out for a few months,” says Lam, “but already a fair number of people have read Pantomime. My net of beta readers has grown, and then all the Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry crew have read it. Right now I’m asking for blurb requests, so emailing writer friends and some of my all-time favourite authors has been a new step, and a scary one, as writers are story architects and might notice flaws that a reader might not.”
“I think everyone deals with criticism poorly when they first get it,” says Sykes. “It’s hard to read someone saying you suck online and harder to keep yourself from shooting back ‘No, YOU suck’ (don’t ever shoot back with that or anything else). As with editing, though, you learn what criticisms will work for you and what criticisms won’t. You figure out who has genuine points and who just hates what you do. The answer, as with all things, is to write your story and hope it works out.”
“Soon, I won’t be in control of who reads my book,” says Lam. “ARCs will go into the wild in a few months, and then the book itself will be in the hands of the masses. There will be good reviews and bad reviews, as it’s impossible to please everyone. I think, for my sanity, I’m going to try and stay away from reviews and keep the focus on my work. As I write YA, I mainly write what my 16-year-old self would have liked. I know her better than anyone else out there, and if I keep writing what she’d have wanted to read, then I’m happy.”
“There are two sorts of criticism,” says Lachlan, “broadly divided into that written by those who know what they are talking about and that written by those who do not. I try to listen to the former and ignore the latter. It’s inevitable some people will like or dislike different things to others.”
“People bring their own baggage to books,” admits Morgan. “I’ve done it plenty of times in the past with things I’ve read! In a way, that’s the best part: hoping someone connects with what you’ve done. If they do, fantastic. If they don’t…well, there’s always a chance it’s just a matter of taste.”
Lachlan says, “If enough people make a particular criticism than you must accept that, whatever you think, it’s probably valid. That means you should try to do something about it when you next write.”
“As long as I still feel I’ve written something I can be proud of, then I’ll just have to deal with that,” says Morgan, “I’ve read great books – books which I know are wonderful and technically brilliant and supposed to move me – which I just didn’t connect with, and that’s how it goes.”
“I do tend to reject stuff that says ‘I didn’t like the main character’,” says Lachlan. “I don’t necessarily want you to like them but I do want you to be interested in them. I’m not trying to offer the reader an image of themselves in chainmail, I’m trying to offer an interesting and historically accurate – whatever that means – character who faces realistic dilemmas. I want my characters to be engaging but not necessarily likeable. This doesn’t mean that they’re selfish or corrupt, far from it. Jehan, the main character of Fenrir, is a living saint but an inflexible and dogmatic individual who has very high standards for himself and others.”
“As for dealing with criticism,” says Morgan, “ask me again once I’ve had a couple of particularly excoriating reviews. I bet I won’t be half as perky then.”
We would like to thank all the authors that participated in this discussion. You can read more about them and their work on their websites listed below.