Listening to people criticize your baby

Recognizing Gabe” has been up at PodCastle for over a week now, and so has its discussion thread in the PodCastle Forum.

As a writer, one of the things you want to know is whether people get your story or not. Do they understand what you’re saying? Do they think it has value? Did you do a good job? Did you move them? Hell, do they like it?

So, knowing that PodCastle has a forum for their listeners to comment on each episode of the podcast, I haven’t been able to keep away. I want to know the answers to the questions above, after all. I haven’t been obsessively checking the discussion, but I do stop by and take a peek now and again.

Other writers–and readers–have often said that only half of a story is on the page; the rest is in the reader’s mind. I think that’s true. As readers (or as in this case, listeners), we bring ourselves to the story and furnish it with our own imaginings. I doubt that any two listeners pictured Gabe in the same way, much less the same way that I imagined him, or even how I wrote him.

The audience catches many things; some you intended, others you didn’t. (Of course, if someone posits something awesome in your story, claim it whether you intended it or not!) They will also miss a lot of things, because sometimes no matter how well you thought you were conveying your point (and often no matter how well you in fact did convey it), someone is simply not going to get it. Or get it and not care. Or get it and think you did a bad/ambivalent/ineffective/irrelevant job.

Or they’ll be turned off by the subject matter. Or the prose style. Or the fact that it contains words in a language they don’t speak.

As a writer–hell, as a person–it’s hard to not get defensive at criticism. Especially at stupid criticism–because let’s be honest, not all criticism is actually good, or useful, or even cogent or on-topic. That defensive reaction is perfectly normal and all right. But, if you’ve got any sense at all, you don’t respond to it publicly. For crying out loud, it’s useful to remember that The Author Is Dead, even–no, especially if you’re the author.

Criticism is useful:  it gives you a parallax view on your work, and it helps answer all those questions I mentioned above. It can help you grow and make your writing sharper, clearer, and more effective. Forum discussions are sort of like a workshop critique session:  you get to listen as other people discuss (and sometimes tear apart) your work, and you note their useful points and ignore the rest.

I think that’s essential. When you’re playing God–and don’t believe any writer that tells you that they’re not–it’s really useful to have someone comment on your work, even if you wind up wishing them in hell.

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