Some Thoughts On Self-Publishing: Getting Input

It is very hard to get honest opinions about your writing. Actually, it is very hard to get opinions at all about writing. It is harder to know which opinion to trust.

Coryn and Claire make very good editors

Now you can be part of a writer's group and swap critiques of each other's work (there are forums devoted to this online), but honestly, the right to criticize sort of has to be earned, and it is hard to let yourself be completely open to some random stranger across the internet or some dude you just met in a coffee shop. Other than basic grammar correction, I've rarely found that people take my opinion seriously as an "editor" when I make suggestions. The reaction I get is more often a "well, that's your opinion" dismissal or even a defensive rebuttal (the first, okay, whatever, but the second, if you didn't want my opinion you shouldn't have asked). I can be the same way a lot of times, though. It is hard to accept criticism and some people fall on two ends of the extreme when presented with it: they get discouraged and over react by throwing out their work and starting over or they get defensive and just ignore everything said no matter how well met. Especially online when you don't have to face the person and don't know their life story or skill level, it is easy to dismiss people's critiques as ill-informed or take what they are saying too personally and get upset or offended.

So unless you have a long standing relationship with a group of authors and have been trading stories for awhile, I wouldn't really use this method for a work of fiction you are seriously considering publishing.

Now, obviously, if you are getting something published the traditional way (having been accepted by a publishing house) they will have a professional editor to look over your work and suggest/order changes. Create Space offers a service where someone will do the same, but their cheapest package for this is $160.00. Maybe it is worth it. However, at this point in my life, I don't feel justified in investing that kind of money in what, up until this point, has been a glorified hobby. . . so I did most of my own editing, every so often asking friends or family to read the book.

Now reading/editing another person's work is a big job. I know that I've done it for friends and it is hard to know how harsh to be (or how honest), and most people will feel uncomfortable offering critiques. You may share files with people and never hear anything back. This does not necessarily mean that they really disliked your work (At least I hope it doesn't) though it may possibly mean that they got overwhelmed with the idea of reading it and just put it aside rather than deal with what could be an awkward future conversation. This is one reason why what feedback you can get is so precious.

Still, not all advice is created equal. In my experience, there are three different kinds of people you will encounter when you ask your friends for input on a book you've written:

Impressed Friends: 
There are two basic incarnations of this friend. The first simply can't write, can't imagine writing, considers even a paragraph long email to be "work" and an overwhelming challenge. To them the very fact that you have filled up x-amount of pages with legible words of any sort is enough to make them wow over you. You're like a marathon runner to a couch potato to them. You probably won't get any useful input from these friends, but they may be eager to share links for you via social media simply because to them what you've accomplished is truly amazing.
Of course, this impressed friends could also be "would be" writers who have always felt they have all these stories in their head but get lost when trying to put them on the page. These see you as an inspiration and may want your advice on methods for sticking to it: avoiding procrastination and focusing on a project until "the end." Don't be afraid to give advice. After all, you did complete a work of fiction. Whether it is "good enough" or not it is done. That's more than a lot of "writers" can say.

Reader Friends:
These friends may have no writing aspirations, but they probably have serious opinions about what they like to read and what makes a good story. These friends can be very useful, if only because they have  a higher chance of actually reading a manuscript you give them, but be wary if they get too specific in their criticism. Readers often have personal reasons for what they like and dislike. It is not gospel. It is opinion. However, this is also the type of person you will eventually be courting with your finished work. They are most likely to buy, read, and review your book. They probably have other reader friends and can give you the word of mouth boost you need. You want to be their answer when someone asks them, "Read any good books lately?"
So heed their advice, but remember, this is your book, not theirs.

Writer Friends: 
Assuming you don't know any published writers, these are your peers, your equals in authority. Maybe they are more talented than you, maybe contrariwise, but  unless they have proven themselves by publishing and selling their books, always remember that story and style are matters of opinion (I've never had the experience of having my book read by a published author. I would give a published author a little more credence than an unpublished author simply because if what he is writing is selling, he obviously knows something more than me about something.). Just because something does not appeal to your writer friend or he/she would do something differently doesn't mean you should immediately throw it out and start over. He/she may have a personal reason for wanting your character to be more assertive or vulnerable. He/she may like endings to be happier than you . . . or perhaps savor a more tragic spin.
Like the reader friend, you can dismiss some of it, but as writers they are also usually readers. Remember: they are part of your target audience. You need to win them over.
Also, for style, clarity, grammar corrections, and story continuity, another writer is a great resource. Be prepared to trade editing and to give their work the same focus and grace you would want yours to be given.

Another thing to watch out for when getting peer critique is genre bias.

While you do want "Reader" friends to give their opinion, it is best to remember that not all readers like all genres. Your friend may always have a nose in a book, but if those books are generally of a different genre than what you write, your book simply will not hold her/his attention, or he/she may give you advice that does not apply to your genre.

For instance . . .

I used to always get annoyed whenever my mom read my works in progress because she would get hung up on characters having "weird" names. Weird, nearly unpronounceable names are kind of a pillar of fantasy worlds.

Many readers read across genres, so just because a friend's favorite author is Nicholas Sparks or James Patterson rather than J. R. R. Tolkien or Neil Gaiman doesn't mean they won't "get" your work. However, if they are trying to streamline your sprawling, epic fantasy into a hard hitting detective thriller, you need to remember that they are probably not your target audience.

Similarly it is OK to target a specific gender or age group. You should have a target audience in mind, and when you ask an adult to review a young adult novel, you should let them know what they are reading so they don't advise you to darken it or sex it up to a level you wouldn't be comfortable presenting to a middle school student. Gender is a little trickier because there are not hard and fast rules about what makes a book for women and what makes a book for  men and there are plenty of exceptions to the norm, but it is undeniable that more women read romances and more men read . . . I don't know. Car books?

So in summation: 

  1. It is difficult to get people to read your novels and give input so be grateful for what critiques you get and try not to be defensive or take it personally.
  2. Everyone brings their own tastes and biases to a story. You can't please everyone and you shouldn't try. Remember it is YOUR story.
  3. These people are probably not that much different from those you will eventually be  marketing your book to, so take what they say into consideration, even if you don't immediately agree. 
As always I hope you will get a chance to check out my book on Amazon and if you do buy it feel free to offer any critique you want. You can check out the page devoted to my writing here