One of the hardest things for a writer to accept is that his work isn’t perfect. You poured your heart and soul into this piece. You were so excited when you were writing it that the only thing more exciting was the anticipation of how your readers would react. And then, like any good writer, you show it to someone. Someone who will proofread your work and highlight where you forgot to put a comma, the words you may have misspelled, and point out that Captain McCoolname’s hair was blond in the beginning of the story, but it changes to red, brown, and paisley colored without explanation during the narrative.
That’s all necessary to make the story polished and professional. No problem, right? Even if you’re self-publishing, that’s no reason to put mediocre work out there. And some of the best fanfictions I’ve read were so polished and professional that it made me eager to know whether this author would go on to publish any original work.
But what about when someone reads your story and they don’t get something? Maybe you wrote a science fiction tale and your writing group is a literary fiction crowd. Maybe you posted your vampire story on a writing forum, but everyone who reads it thinks that Anne Rice, Stephanie Mayer, and Bram Stoker are the only true writers of vampire fiction.
This is the dilemma we all face. Because like our children, we don’t want to believe that anything could be wrong with our stories. There’s a commonly held belief that if the reader doesn’t get it, then it must be the writer’s fault. Is that a fair analysis?
Ray Bradbury once spoke to an assembly of Harvard students about his book, Fahrenheit 351. Half way through his lecture, the students corrected him. Yes, a bunch of kids who weren’t even a flicker in the minds of their parents when Bradbury sent his first manuscript actually had the balls to tell him that his story was really about censorship.
And you do have to look at this from their point of view. Most of those students probably read Fahrenheit 351 as an assignment. So while they’re reading it, their teachers and professors are writing things on chalk boards, handing out xeroxed copies of worksheets, complete with quotes and analysis and interpretations of Bradbury’s work that likely went on without the author’s knowledge. People drew their own conclusions about the book’s main theme, wrote papers, got published and prestigious, and it was those works that these students were likely exposed to, thus leading to this incredibly disrespectful response to the author’s lecture.
Bradbury’s response was to flip them off and leave the stage.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably not Ray Bradbury. If you are Ray Bradbury, my mistake sir, I thought you were either dead and/or a Luddite. I’d be honored if you would autograph my copy of one of your anthologies. But in the far likelier event that you are not Ray Bradbury, you will not be able to get away with flipping off your writer’s group.
Part of the process of becoming successful in any field to accept feedback with a certain amount of grace. Even though inside you’re thinking, “In the name of the Great Prophet Zarquon how could you have not gotten that!” outwardly, all you need to say is, “thank you for taking the time to read this and providing me with your feedback.”
Bradbury couldn’t be expected to reach every single reader. There were people that actually grew up in his time who don’t even know he exits. Would they understand subtle themes in The Martian Chronicles, The Flying Machine, and The Dog any more than a bunch of millennials? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s fine, because he obviously had a very successful career that allowed him to live the life that permitted him to tell Yahoo to go Eff themselves (you’ll notice I don’t swear so much in this blog, which is how I want to keep it) when they offered to build his website for free.
At this early stage of my career, I am learning to cherry pick. Some advice will be useful, others less so. Think of it as picking up cans and bottles for recycling. You only want to save the ones that can be redeemed at your local liquor store or bottling center for cash. The rest you can leave behind (or throw into a recycling bin that doesn’t give you money, if you’re not that petty) and not worry about.
When you think of how many online reviewers poke holes in the works of movies and video games, it makes it easier to look at your own work and say, “You know what, this isn’t perfect. I do need it to be the best it can be if I want someone to pay money for it, but I don’t need to please everyone. So in the name of The Doctor, The Delorian, and the Heart of Gold, grant me the ability to listen to their advice, the patience to filter out what is irrelevant to my story, and the Serenity to know the difference.”