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Your Own Worst Critic: Guest Post by S.J. Bell, an author of Bonds of Fenris and a fellow blogger

Bad artists think they're great; Good  artists think they stink.

S.J. Bell is an author and a fellow blogger,  who is here today to share his thoughts on writing and the attitude you have to approach it with.

Back when I was into anime, I went to Otakon every year. One year, browsing the art show, I came upon something which raised my eyebrows. A truly dreadful picture -- little more than a sixth-grader's sketch -- was on sale. Asking price: $150. I snickered, and walked on. A talentless hack that was full of himself. Nothing new in the art world. It was the better pictures that truly gave me pause. Beautiful watercolors, marvelous paintings and sketches, humorous caricatures. Professional-quality stuff that clearly a lot of work had gone into. Typical asking price? Between $20-$50.

It was an interesting lesson, one which has stayed with me since and which I've generally found matching up with reality: Bad artists think they're great; Good artists think they stink. Now that I write for a career (or hope to in the near future, anyway), I think I understand why. After the first draft of Bonds of Fenris was done, I put it away for a week or so. When I came back to start revisions, I was appalled by what I saw. It was wrong, all wrong. The pacing was awful, the characters were inconsistent, and the work was replete with awkward sentences and misspellings. I spent nearly three weeks going through it chapter by chapter, trying to get things in some sort of readable condition.

That was the first revision. There have been seven full revisions, and many other minor ones, to get the book to a state where I'm satisfied with it.

 The published novel is something like Jackie Chan: it's had every bone in it broken and repaired over the course of its life. 

Whenever I looked at it, I found something that wasn't working and needed to be re-written. It was a tiring and often disheartening process, but the novel got better and better with each iteration, emerging today as a much cleaner and better story than it was in that unspeakably awkward first draft.

Having confidence in your work is important. But doubting your work is also important, because it's the doubt, not the confidence, which allows you to see what you can do better. A writer convinced that his work is good doesn't see what's in need of improvement, and ultimately the work goes to publication without those problems fixed. This is why the publishing industry provides authors with editors to point out what they're doing wrong.

But my fellow indie authors generally don't have editors.

 What's worse, some of my comrades have devoted fans that frequent their blogs, lap up their work, and then tell them how awesome they are. And I worry about these young writers. Everything they say is followed by a chorus of "Me too! Me too!", and creativity cannot thrive in an echo chamber.

 It breeds arrogance, and it breeds blindness to your shortcomings. Worst of all, it breeds stagnancy. An author convinced he is doing everything right will rest on his laurels, putting out the same stories time after time. Artists need to be constantly evolving, constantly challenging themselves to do better.

We see the results of this echo chamber on the page. It's not uncommon for a very obvious first draft, full of grammatical errors and pacing problems, to see release from a self-published author as a finished book. It's not laziness or lack of talent necessarily. The author just didn't notice the problems. But the readers notice. A lot of book blogs state in their review policies that they will not accept e-books or self-published novels. Sometimes they blame lack of an e-reader or a large to-be-read pile, but often the real reason is that they don't think self-published books are good reading. It pains me, because they're not wrong. What's worse, a lot of those books could have been good reading if the authors weren't so convinced that they were hot stuff.

Authors -- indies especially -- need to be realistic about their skills. And they need to be careful about holding their egos in check. And they need to be looking not just for praise and applause, but for blunt and honest critique. In this manner, the internet does not always provide. But then again, it's not always the fault of the internet. Authors also have to be able to listen to criticism instead of just writing it off. If you're blinded by pride, your work will suffer for it.

My girlfriend loves my work. She's convinced Bonds of Fenris is going to be a best-seller. She's my number one cheerleader, and I love her for it. (Among many other reasons.) But I don't let her help me edit.

 When I need to edit, I go to other friends, less cheerleader and more hardass coach or drill sergeant. The kind of readers who will beat you up over everything you do wrong. Because ultimately, knowledge of the things I do right is kind of superfluous; I just need to keep doing what I'm doing in the future. Knowing how I stink is critical, because that is how I know what to do better.

Thank you, S.J.! Bonds of Fenris comes out May 7th 2012, and I'll be reviewing it next month.

Talia Thornwood's life ended one year ago, when she became a werewolf. She survived the attack, and the horrifying transformation a month later, but the life she has now is barely worth living. She lurks about in a filthy, run-down house, with too many werewolves crammed into too small a space. Every day is a struggle against the stress of human contact, the romantic prodding of her obnoxious packmate Pierce, and the gnawing hunger for flesh in her soul.

She's all but resigned herself to a dreary existence on the margins of society when she meets Corwin. Corwin is a werewolf like none other. He walks among humans as if it was nothing, and can keep his wolf under control even when the moon is full. Talia's mind is suddenly opened to the possibilities before her, and the realization of how little she really knows about lycanthropy.

Corwin claims that he can teach her how to cope as he does, even how to transcend her affliction. But it will not be easy. It is a hard education that requires her to question everything her pack taught her, and confront exactly what she has become. And, more amazingly, what she never stopped being.


Eva E. said...

Such nice words. I love this guy already.

"Authors -- indies especially -- need to be realistic about their skills. And they need to be careful about holding their egos in check. And they need to be looking not just for praise and applause, but for blunt and honest critique."

Kayla + Cyna said...

Awesome post. Every time I hear someone bitching about a bad review, I think of a scene from an anime I used to watch, where a girl hears two older girls snickering about her book, and her defensive friend wants to chew them out, but the author holds her back and says "No, I have to hear that, because if I never hear why my book is bad, I'll never know how to fix it."

That's by far the best attitude for an author to have, and an equally excellent topic for a post!

Unknown said...

I just finished Bonds of Fenris last night and I'm excited to write my review already! I'm going to post a Guest Post from the Author tomorrow and I can't wait for it either. I have to say that the author clearly has way with words and I love his writing. This Guest Post is really a very meaningful one and I'm humbled by his words. Great post... I hope lots of readers will come and read this one.

Have a great day!

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