Who Do You Write For, and The Effect of Good Criticism

One of the fun things to consider about writing is: who are you writing for?  My stock answer is that I’m writing to entertain an imaginary reader out there who just happens to like everything I do.  In fact, it is a bit more complex than that.  Sometimes people who are important to me get passages.  “I’m going to put this in there for Jen,” or, “Pamela will like this,” or, “This will make Will chuckle,” or, “Okay, Adam, here’s one for you,” or, “I wish I could see Emma’s face when she gets to this bit.”  Obviously, this is even more fun when collaborating: writing to delight your collaborator is a big part of what drives you.

That’s one of the things that makes writing fun and enjoyable.  And I make no apologies, because if Adam, for example, is going to be pleased when I make fun of elaborate, stupid dream sequences, well, I’m pretty sure some other readers will also be tickled.  And tickling the reader is good in at least two ways:  One, I like to make readers happy.  Two, a good tickle tends to disarm the reader, thus setting him up for a good, hard, kick in the ‘nads.

I now abruptly change subjects.

I adore good criticism.  By good criticism, I mean a piece of writing that makes me go, “Oh, man.  I hadn’t noticed that.  Cool!”  The platonic ideal of a critic for me has always been the late and very much lamented John Ciardi.  Of those working currently, one of my favorites is David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site (he’s just written this, which I highly recommend).  Now, unfortunately, Walsh doesn’t often review Hollywood movies, which means he rarely discusses anything I’ve seen.   But, in the first place, his insights can be delightful even if I’m not familiar with the work, and, in the second, that makes it all the more fun when he covers something I have seen.  A good critic makes you think about how the creator achieved the effect, about subtleties that are obvious now that they’ve been pointed out, and about how this work fits into a broader context both within the genre and within the society that produced it.  This is stuff that I happen to enjoy, and is obviously useful, at a minimum in the sense of making you go, “Oh, hey, I know what I could do!”

And now we tie the two sections of this post together.

I’ve been reading Jo Walton’s essay collection, What Makes This Book So Great.  It is delightful on several levels, not the least of which is that I come in for a lot of ego stroking.  To semi-quote Twain, we like compliments. All of us do: writers, burglars, congressmen, all of us in the trade.  But with Jo’s book, I’ve noticed something else.  She keeps nailing me on things I did right, then backed away from.  I still remember writing my first book, Jarhead or whatever it was called, and thinking, “Why the hell can’t people write books with ongoing, happy romantic relationships where that is just part of the backdrop?  Fuck it, I’m going to do that.”  Then I didn’t hang with it, and Jo called me on that.  Or when I wanted to add a bit of revealing background by talking about how there weren’t carriages any more, now that teleportation was so common.  Then I slipped away from that, because I wanted a carriage in a particular story, and she noticed that (I’m working on a retcon for that one).  Critics who notice what you’re doing, like what you’re doing, and can point out things about your work that you didn’t notice, are incredibly valuable.

It just hit me today, as I was looking over the final draft of Hawk and considering the early chapters of Vallista, that at the moment I’m kind of writing for Jo Walton.  I can live with that.

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15 thoughts on “Who Do You Write For, and The Effect of Good Criticism”

  1. I don’t see any problem with you including carriages if you want. There was probably a good reason for it to be in the story. After all, there are people who have horses today in a world of cars. Now a jet plane in your story could be a problem. But lighter than air ships would not (relatively low tech).

  2. This makes me think of another aspect of your (and other) stories. Namely what is the energy price associated with doing magic? I think you made it clear in some of your stories that teleportation took effort to perform as well as special knowledge.

    If it becomes a world were everybody is doing effortless magic all the time, that kind of destroys any novelty about magic. I see a lot of that in some TV shows these days. If something is too easy, it loses value.

    I was thinking about something like a hydrogen balloon. It takes energy to make, but no energy to maintain (ideally). Floating castles, however, seem to be breaking the rules of both the magical and mundane world?

  3. I write for my wife. That’s my primary audience. I sometimes write lines that make me think of my editor or even someone else.

  4. I write for a reader who is like me (has the same sense of humor). I can’t really grasp what other people might enjoy. Maybe what my wife likes. But that’s about all I can know.

  5. You do write for me, or at least people like me. But then, you already knew that. (: I try to return the favor as best I can, but I fear my editorial skills tend mostly toward spelling, grammar, and consistency. Even so, I’ve tossed you what I can when I have it to toss.

    My writing tends largely toward the form of software design, but I write most things for the same reason you do – to see the pleasure bloom in the eyes of the reader; or more usually in my case, users. In my case, it is the pleasure of dawning realization of all the new possibilities opening up to them. There’s no better feeling than enabling people in a healthy fashion.

  6. I find that I tend to ignore any minor inconsistencies especially if they are from two different books in the series. Needless to say I didn’t even notice the carriages thing.

  7. To be honest, I usually write for myself. Something that I’ve tried to fix as of late, but I always create things that fill a void in my own life. Like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was X or Y?” Then I set off to create that. Sometimes this means I’ve created something no one gives a damn about. That used to bother me, but I’ve just come to accept that this is how I function and there would be no point in creating something that someone already made, right?

    Lately, I’ve been writing just to have something to chat about with my wife. She’s good for bouncing theory off of and it’s a change of pace for me. When she gets a kick out of an idea, it gives me a warm feeling which leads to more writing. At the end of the day I’m still filling a void in my soul somewhere. Heh, my wife just helps me feel better about it.

  8. So who were you writing for in Jarhead? Was this is before you were actively engaged with folks like Pamela, Emma, Adam, etc… ?

  9. “This is stuff that I happen to enjoy, and is obviously useful, at a minimum in the sense of making you go, ‘Oh, hey, I know what I could do!'”

    I admit I’ve never really understood the point of entertainment critics; the idea that they can help others within the field solve a problem in their own work is a whole new perspective. Have you gotten ideas for your own work when reading criticism of others, or is it more that you sort of tweak your plan when critics comment on what you’ve already done?

  10. It’s a bit like the way you can learn more from a good B-grade book than from something flawless–you can see the superstructure, what the writer was trying to do, and that can give you ideas. I can’t recall examples, but I know that there have been things in Literature and Revolution that have made me go, “I’d love to try something like that.” And, certainly Ciardi’s criticism of Dante fed into *To Reign In Hell.*

  11. I never thought of using a criticism in that way, but it makes excellent sense. I have a friend w/a journalism degree who wants to write fiction although he doesn’t read anywhere near enough, so everytime I give him or recommend a good story, I try to include an OK story so he can see what makes the good one good. Maybe locating a few critics’ columns could cut out the middle step.

  12. Including an OK story is, in my opinion, an excellent idea. You can learn so much from a story that tries to be brilliant, falls short, and ends up decent. You can see what the author was trying to do, and get some really cool ideas.

  13. Thanks for the link to Jo Walton’s new book, I was completely unaware that it was going to be published.

    By coincidence, I just went by the TOR web-site a couple weeks ago and reread all of the reviews that Jo had written for your books.

    Is it strange to enjoy reading reviews by other people of books you have read and enjoyed yourself, but never bothering to read reviews of stuff you haven’t read or didn’t enjoy?

    Anyways, thanks again for the link to Jo Walton’s new book…..

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