What’d They Do Right?

Although I’m pretty sure I was English teachers’ worst nightmare, I really loved analyzing literature. I had terrible grammar and spelling. When I’d read out loud, I mispronounced every other word. Like all great sponges, I soaked in a lot of information and managed to be a fairly straight-A student. I think this confused a lot of teachers.

One thing that’s nice about literature classes is how the teachers will discuss the novel with almost fanatical devotion. They point out the allusions, character emotional plot points, and meaning of life stuff. As writers we learn the value of a critique and getting it to the point that readers will want to dissect these things. So I find it only natural that writers are the most critical of current written work, picking it apart to bring out the best possible story.

Except sometimes this goes horribly wrong.

As soon as a series, story, or novel becomes popular a rash of blog posts arise denouncing all the things the writer did wrong and why, if people were sensible, they wouldn’t enjoy it.

Really? Are we really going to bash people’s opinions of what entertains them? This has always struck me as completely un-classy and coming from a writer never really looks good. To me, it comes across as jealousy over someone else’s success. Okay, I admit I giggle over the flippant 50 Shades comments or the occasional sparkly vampire reference. But when it comes to full public rantings and obvious frustrations that an “awful book” became popular, I have to take a deep breath. If someone doesn’t like a book I almost always chalk it up to not being her thing. That’s the subjective part of writing (with some exceptions, of course. I can understand wishing and pleading books contained wider appeal, more diversity, or better handling of plot/character. I really want to see this more, too. I like to see these arguments posed in “what writers are doing it right and still remaining popular” along with what we can do as writers to not add to the noise).

I think writers read hot books to learn how to write their own hot book. So it’s a learning experience in a way, an exercise. Except the exercise ends in bullet points of all the weakness of the book. I guess for me this is counter-productive because I always learn more when I figure out what someone did right. Some people may learn a lot by being extra critical, but for me it’s always been about seeing what the book did right.

When I want to have a story published in a magazine I read the stories that magazine has published. I don’t read it for “Why did these people get in and not me?” I read it for “What are they doing right?” I know it’s hard. Especially when I come across a story I don’t like. It’s difficult to avoid fixating on the weakness of that one story, but I’ve learned to cognitive therapy my way out of that scenario.

When I recognize that tendency, I step back, breath. It’s not productive for me to dwell on the negative. I might spend a ten-minute spitting-mad moment of quoting the awful prose to my husband who actually, bless his heart, just sits there and nods. But I almost always get myself back on track. If I don’t like any stories in a magazine, then I know it’s not my market, no matter how much I’d like it to be. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop sending material, but I might not read it as thoroughly. If I didn’t like any market then it’d be time to analyze what I’m doing in this profession.

I’ve met people who hate most books they read. I pity these poor souls. Why do they continue to torture themselves? I like to read the nitty-gritty public dissections posted by reviewers—those can be insightful. But when it comes from another writer, it’s that awkward moment at the water cooler where a colleague humiliates or harasses another co-worker.

It always comes back to me this way: If millions of readers read this book and loved it, what did they do right?

I love comments! Every comment you leave will result in a writer “getting it right” and will save another writer from a public rant. You will be doing a huge service for the writing community!

Also Blog Bonus: I’m guest blogging today at J. Kathleen Cheney’s blog. She is the author of The Seat of Magic and The Golden City. My blog post is: Set Your Phasers to Destroy: Unnecessary Verbs


6 thoughts on “What’d They Do Right?

  1. Stewart C Baker

    There’s definitely a difference between critiquing, criticising, and reviewing as a critic.

    While I remain convinced that critics play a useful role, flat-out criticising something is less than useful. As for critiquing a published work… what purpose does that serve? I doubt the author will change it, unless there’s some serious flaw they can change in a revision.

    1. Tina Post author

      It’s a really subtle line. One that’s not crossed until all of a sudden it is. I also think on the internet we have to be careful with these sorts of negative over-critical posts (on blogs, message boards, comments), since people can’t see body language and don’t know personality. Everything comes off as terse and sarcastic.

      And yeah, I’m of the mind that the writer can’t change it and if it’s a serious problem then email them. Maybe they will change that in another version. Or be more careful when writing future books. A writer ranting on the internet will probably have the opposite effect, and be damaging to the complaining writer, too.

  2. Pam

    I love this article. I think many of us are preprogramed to look for the bad until it eclipses all the good. This is a great reminder to seek the positive and learn from both the mistakes and the excellence. Great post.

    1. Tina Post author

      I think so, too. There is a good time to focus in on what needs improvement (during a critique of a new story), but there is also a time to focus on the positive.


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