Do You Really Want To Know What I Think?

About a month ago a friend of a friend asked me if I would read and give feedback on his first book – a work of fantasy – not a genre that I go out of my way to peruse. A bit reluctantly I agreed and I read the book twice and conscientiously made notes.

More than anything the dialogue in the book turned me right off. I clearly had a hidden expectation that characters in a fantasy novel would speak in a certain way. Not, I hasten to add, all “thees, thous and thines” but equally not “punks and assholes” and crying “wanna play hardball d’ya” whilst riding a dragon. I found the modern idioms just brought my subconscious expectations of fantasy novel dialogue crashing about my ears and from there, I became aware that I was developing a slightly jaundiced view about the whole book. But then, since I’m not a fan perhaps am I just a gnarly old bag totally out of step with fantasy fans ‘expectations?- (Rhetorical question, no reply necessary thank you.)

That wasn’t really the problem though. In my day job over the years, I must have run hundreds of workshops on giving and receiving feedback. When I reread my notes I realised something. Except for a few editor- type points, I didn’t give this guy real feedback – information that is:
• Specific
• Objective
• Not “right or wrong” but based on facts, evidence or observation.

Instead, I gave him criticism (and praise) that is:
• based on opinions and feelings
• couched in generalities and
• as happened in this case, leads to defensive arguments about who is right and wrong.

I have to say, to my eternal credit, despite being one who loves a good battle now and then, I resisted the temptation to engage.

There’s nothing inherently wrong in giving praise and criticism, except, as I’ve said to groups over the years: “What are you going to do with it?

As more and more of us self-publish and by-pass the conventional feedback routes from agents and editors, beta testing our magnificent opera on unsuspecting friends, relatives, friends of friends has become part of the writing process. Its got me thinking – of what value is what they tell us and, more to the point, what should we do with it?

Should my friend’s friend take note of my carefully and sensitively constructed objection to his dialogue and do a massive re-write? Does it depend on whether he’s looking to satisfy existing fantasy fans or pull in newcomers? Is he breaking new ground with his style and language? Does he go with a majority vote from his testing panel? Will he feel the strength of his own convictions and hold fast to what he’s created?

I’m still trying to put myself in his shoes but it’s Friday, the sun is out as is the tide, so I think a stroll on the shoreline is called for where I can keep mulling it over.

7 thoughts on “Do You Really Want To Know What I Think?

  1. Tough call. As a fantasy author, I do find that a lot of readers go into the genre with preconceived notions. It’s almost like you have to write like Tolkien for some and C.S. Lewis for others at the same time in order to survive.

    • I do think some of it is a generation/age thing. If you’re accustomed to fantasy games/vids etc I don’t think you’d have a problem with more modern idiom. I definitely don’t think you should write in medieval English but, for me, to really get into a fantasy novel there has to be a middle ground somewhere.

      • One thing I always found odd about the genre is the constant connection to medieval English. It seems to be a requirement even though you’re writing a world that isn’t Earth. For some reason, I could never wrap my head around that one.

  2. I guess it’s something to do with it’s development over time – from fairy stories, myths, legends until it reaches its modern incarnation but it’s a good point. If you look at sci-fi – very often about worlds nothing to do with Earth – I don’t think the expectation is that anything other than modern idiomatic english would be strong.

  3. This is interesting, something that challenges a lot of writers and ‘beta’ readers. I wonder if you still have the same ideas, and whether you’ve drawn conclusions…

  4. Tough question Cath. Overall I think as an author you should know your readership; yes give them what they expect but then try to push out their boundaries a bit. However it is such a subjective area. When I have used beta readers and other feedback the most helpful thing I have found is if I can persuade the readers to say ‘why’ something didn’t work for them rather than leave it at ‘something I didn’t get/like about it.’ For me, I don’t actually want peons of praise I prefer the criticism, it is something that helps me to develop as a writer but any reader who gives me a ‘why’ as well is precious to me because I have something to work with – something to reject, accept or maybe just clarify. So I guess I do have mostly the same ideas and my conclusion is…if whatever is criticised still feels right for me after honest scrutiny then I leave it as it was. The irony of this post however, is that from being a very tepid fantasy fan I always seem to have a bit of fantasy/spooky stuff into my stories!

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