Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Greater Utility

There is an old joke about a man who tries to fly a balloon around the world. At some point, the balloon crashes, leaving the man lying on his back in the middle of a field. Unwilling to move, he lies there until a woman walking her dog wanders past.

"Where am I?" he asks the woman.

"You're lying on your back in the middle of a field," she says.

"You must be an accountant," he says. (In some versions, she is an engineer.)

"How can you tell?"

"The information you provided was entirely accurate, but completely useless."

I mention this joke because it is the perfect metaphor for the kind of feedback that you can expect from the publishing industry, should you choose to submit your work. You will probably be told that your work is unmarketable, but that does not tell you if your work is good; the two terms are far from synonymous.

It is important to remember that submitting to the slush piles of the publishing world is an entirely voluntary process. There is no obligation to do so beyond basic tradition. But if you are going to follow tradition, it is important to think about the utility that is to be gained from obeisance.

In short, what does the individual writer gain from submission? The satisfaction of knowing that he has stoked the engines of the industry? A handful of lottery tickets? Honest feedback about how to make his work better?

A better question might be: What does the writer need? Followed closely by: How can that be achieved?

Without exception, every author needs a trusted feedback mechanism - someone to provide specific examples of where his work is not up to snuff and how that can be fixed. The kind of thinking that pretends that this kind of ongoing external critique is not needed leads directly to the likes of Anne Rice and George Lucas.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that many authors take criticism of their work far too personally. This makes a sort of perverse sense - writing a novel can take years of intense, solitary effort. For someone to step in at the end and point out that most of that effort was wasted can be a difficult blow to recoil from.

More, it is very common to use the creation to attack the creator, mostly because it is a very easy thing to do. Personally, I find this to be a lazy approach. It is far easier to wait until the author does something stupid and use that instead. Why attack David Eddings through his writing when you can just point out that the man burned down his office by lighting a pool of gasoline on fire to see if it would burn?

But just because I am able to separate the work from the worker does not mean that every critic is equally capable. That's why it is important to find a trusted source to provide feedback. Someone who knows your work, but is willing and able to tell you the truth.

Of course, this kind of active feedback requires the author's participation. All the criticism in the world means nothing if the writer is unwilling to accept it. It takes a determined man to ignore the opinions of everyone around him when he thinks he's right. It takes an even more determined man to listen carefully and do everything in his power to make his product the best it can be. I'll leave it to the reader to make the final decision about which is the wiser course of action.