Monsters and Critics

The title of this post is borrowed from a website that reviews SF/F/H, including, I gleefully report, enthusiastic reviews of my books.  But I could have called this post “do you think critics are monsters?” because people ask me that.  Short answer:  No.  I love to read what others think about my work, and (almost) always write better for it. 

Critics divide into three categories:  Pro reviewers, fans, and anonymous rants.

Pros.  I’ve been lucky that formal critical comment on my books, from traditional print media like The Washington Post to the SciFi Channel’s literary arm to web publications has been enthusiastic.  That makes it easy to absorb the rare “howevers” in such reviews, and use them constructively to make my writing better.

Fan mail and ‘blog comments.  Fan mail is by definition positive.  Once in a while it includes a question about an apparent fact slip-up, or a lament about a character’s fate.  

A specific example?  Jason as an infantryman used a fictional modernized version of the Vietnam-era M-60 machine gun.  An infantryman in Iraq emailed (emails from current and former service personnel always flatter and move me) that his squad loved the books, but thought my 2040s army should have updated the modern SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) now in use, not the antique M-60.

The comment illuminated for me that readers can only know what you tell them.  Jason’s 2040s army updated the M-60 for two reasons.  First, I had hands on experience with the older gun, so I could describe its workings confidently.   Second, as I wrote the book earlier in this decade, reports from Afghanistan and later Iraq showed that body armor was improving radically.  One reason that the real SAW replaced the real M-60 was because the SAW fires a 5.56mm round, that, among other advantages, is much lighter than the 7.62mm round.  So a GI can carry more ammunition.  But it seemed (and seems) possible that a beefed-up version of the “obsoletely heavy” 7.62mm round might make a comeback in order to penetrate improving body armor, so in the book I updated the M-60, not the SAW.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to include that rationale in the book, without having some character give a lecture.  Lectures can slow a story, so writers always have to balance explaining everything for specially-informed readers against pace.  But I learned a lot about balancing from that exchange.

 Anonymous rants.   These are a recent, web-enabled phenomenon.  The late Kurt Vonnegut said, approximately, that angrily criticizing a novel is like taking a battle axe to a hot fudge sundae.  But rants happen, sometimes taking the writer to task, personally.  Even the likes of Kevin J. Anderson.  Kevin, a professional’s professional at the business of writing, doesn’t even read them.  As he says, they are a distraction from his work, and are more a product of some abberation in the ranter’s life experience than knowledgable criticism.  That’s probably the best way to handle rants, though I haven’t been able to resist sifting through the couple I have come across, in search of a constructive kernel that will make my work better.

 It all comes back to the fact that all you need to know about life you should have learned by kindergarten.  Sticks and stones…



5 Responses to “Monsters and Critics”

  1. Jennifer Rardin Says:

    Excellent timing on this post, Bob, and I will take everything you said to heart. Especially the rant part. I’ve been shredded a couple of times and had to have long discussions with hubby to work out the why of how such a reaction to my work even came to be. You don’t want to be putting suckage out there. I agree anything you can do to improve your writing is imperative. But then, there are limits to what opinions you should even entertain. So…thanks!

  2. Robert Buettner Says:

    Jennifer, you, of all writers, need not stress about such things. The Jaz Parks series speaks for itself. – Bob

  3. Jennifer Rardin Says:

    As always, you are far too kind! Thanks! Counting the days till your big book release now. Are ya planning a big party?

  4. mythusmage Says:

    On Ammo Caliber and Explaining the Why

    if it’s a first person narrative you could always do the following:

    “I’ve been asked why we use an 8mm round when using a 5mm round would let us carry so much more ammunition. I explain it this way; putting more lead in the air does you no good if none of it can get through what the other guy is wearing in the way of protection. Besides, you should see the way the 8mm round punches through walls. I’ve known guys to cut new doors and windows in buildings while ‘properly disposing” of past due-date munitions.”

  5. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    My friend on Orkut shared this link and I’m not dissapointed that I came to your blog.

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