RavenCon concluded. It was an incredibly chaotic weekend, with ups and downs. While the weekend didn’t go even close to how I think anyone imagined it, I will say unequivocally, it was a net-positive experience. The Geek Debates were an especial highlight but the con as a whole was a damn-fine weekend. Definitely a con to keep tabs on and attend if you ever get the chance.
For me, it was a bit of a home-coming. I got to see some dear friends I haven’t seen in ages, and also the chance to simply be at a literary convention. Literary cons are quite different from anime/comic book/video game conventions that have been my world of late. Not only do the attendees tend to skew a bit older, but they also tend to skew a bit more rowdy. Sure, tweens at an anime con might take over a hallway just lounging around but forty-somethings at a literary con are going to have a sing-a-long. You haven’t lived until you’ve been present for a hallway full of librarians and professors singing Never Gonna Give You Up in the original Sindarin. But I digress.
One panel that I caught the tail-end of was an industry panel on the importance of editing and a good editor. Towards the end, Tee Morris (co-author of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences) remarked about giving feedback, knowing good feedback from bad feedback, and the like. He made the point of talking about honesty and being truthful (I am anecdotally paraphrasing a multi-paragraph statement). He and the other panelists had some great points but one aspect they didn’t address I felt was important enough to expound upon, and that is who you are asking for feedback.
This isn’t to mean ‘ask people who know literature’, although that is a valid point. Nor does it mean ‘ask people who know the genre’, although that too is a valid point. It doesn’t even mean ‘ask people you trust’, although…you get the picture. None of the usual advice is wrong or invalid, merely incomplete. What I assert is know, when you ask someone for input an advice, know who it is you are asking.
People have few one-dimensional relationships. A coworker is often not just an office-mate but also a friend and a worker ally. A spouse is also a working professional, potentially a parent, a friend, etc. The people that we know and work with, interact with and trust, often have many different roles. They wear ‘different hats’ to use the colloquial term. And so, when you ask a person for this input, it isn’t just the person you should be mindful of but also the hat they are wearing.
I am a writer. I am also an author. I make a habit of delineating the two. A writer is an artist, whereas an author is a professional. A writer’s sole concern is with their craft and the works that they produce, whereas an author concerns themselves with sales, marketability, cultural impact, distribution, etc. So asking me for my opinion on your new erotic fairy tale collection is going to depend heavily on which hat I am wearing. And if we’re friends – and by god, we better be if you’re asking me about the literary equivalent of Bondage Fairies – then that’s an additional role that must be weighed.
If you ask writer-me to review this book of yours, then I’m going to talk about characters. I’m going to talk about story and narrative and plot and events. I’m going want to know where this is coming from, what inspired you, and – depending on the antics your protagonist gets up to in the book – how recently have you washed your hands.
If you ask author-me to review this book, you’re going to get a different answer. Yes, the characters and the plot will be foremost on my mind, but from the standpoint of marketability, from the creation of a possible franchise. I’ll be less interested in the artistry and more focused on the marketability. What I am looking at is not so much art as an artistic commodity.
If you ask friend-me to review this book, my response will hinge far more in my personal opinion. I’ll speak to what I enjoyed, what I didn’t care for, and what I really latched onto and responded to as a reader and a fan. I’ll also probably swear.
I say all of this not to suggest duplicity, or to propose that one must use some super-secret buzz word in order to get the proper review. It’s to keep in mind just who you are asking and what you are asking for. If you want to know ‘is my book fun’ and you ask author-me, you’re going to have a bad time. If you think this book “works”, you will get very different answers from writer-me and author-me. Writer-me thinks the 1995 Mortal Kombat film is really weak and lacking in almost every sense, author-me thinks the movie is a little underrated for being a pre-Hong Kong Invasion kung fu movie despite completely missing the fundamental elements that made the Mortal Kombat video games so acclaimed, and friend-me will go to his mother*&king grave knowing in his soul it’s the best video game move ever made, hands down, bar none, damn straight, come at me. You have to know who you are asking, and what you are asking for.
It’s at this point that I’m sure some are all ‘well, what if I want all of the reviews’? Well, that is when you need to pony up some cash or at least splurge for some dinner because that level of review in a manuscript ain’t cheap. That ain’t a review; that’s an evaluation. And evaluations cost.
The takeaway from this shouldn’t be not to ask for reviews or help with your manuscript. It isn’t even to suggest making sure you phrase things in ultra-specific ways. It’s merely to appreciate that a good review and a bad review can come from the same person and be about the same thing. Juggling a personal favorite with a professional critique can be a challenging task but it gets even harder when you are balancing professional viability with artistic integrity.
Ultimately, people want to know the truth. Is this good or not? Do you like this or not? They ask for the truth and they are owed the truth. But the truth can come in a lot of forms and those questions can be interpreted a lot of different ways. That simply means you need to be careful when you ask for something and make sure you are asking for (just as an example) a friend’s opinion and not getting an author’s consideration. That will mean you want some honest encouragement but get the cold, calculations of a professional. Worse, and certainly more detrimental in the long run, is to ask for the honest assessment of a professional and get instead the supportive opinion of a dear friend. Blind support helps no one. Quite the opposite.
There’s also a question of appropriateness. However harsh it is to say it, asking an author who has sold maybe a hundred books their marketable assessment of a novel may have limited worthwhile applicability. On the other hand, asking them for an artistic evaluation may be very valid. Market success and skill as an artist are not one and the same. As Dan John once said, one must never mistake success in one’s field for mastery of one’s craft.
So yeah. Just be mindful. Just as you should be mindful of who is (and isn’t) part of your audience for a given work, be mindful of who you are asking for input and critique and what input and critique you are asking for.
With RavenCon down, I now turn my attention to Escape Velocity in National Harbor Maryland this Memorial Day Weekend May 25th-27th, specifically). Some of you may recall I helped the Museum of Science Fiction (which runs Escape Velocity) with a panel back at MAGFest. Well, I will be at their flagship event for more panels, books, signings, and inane babble about geeky things.
Author and fellow Caffeine & Ink publishee LG Ransom is planning the release of her newest novel, Legacy of Hollin. Sequel to the fantastic mecha tale, Hollin’s Heir, I am beyond excited about this and am looking forward to it. Come out and support the release!