I promised you a post and then vanished for 2 weeks. I didn’t die, nor was I kidnapped… and I wasn’t conquering the world. Not yet anyway. I was, quite un-glamorously, SICK. Alas, alas, how the best laid plans of mice and men go astray when a villainous virus attacks them.
But I have (mostly) vanquished it and am here to answer the big question plaguing many new authors: When should you listen to the opinions of your readers, and when should you politely ignore them?
Simple answer: AHAHAHAHAHA, there is no simple answer.
Wait a minute, what use am I if I can’t give you a concise answer to this? Well, hold on. There isn’t a super catchy answer to this question, BUT, I can give you a few tips.
There aren’t a lot of hard and fast ‘rules’ for when one should listen to their readers and when they should ignore them. A lot of it is learned through personal trial and error. But here are a few general guidelines.
When to listen:
- When they compliment you.
(*cough* Had to state the obvious, just once.) Caveat: Try to distinguish between empty flattery and true compliments.
- When they tell you what they did and didn’t like about the story, especially when they tell you the WHYS of each.
This feels like another ‘DUH’, but it can be hard to remember sometimes in the exhaustion of a book’s post-release period. Also, it’s somewhat of a two-edged sword, because what one person loved, another will detest. So, LISTEN to it, but don’t necessarily let it GUIDE you. On the other hand, if 15 out of 20 readers are telling you that they really don’t like your book, it’s either reaching the wrong audience or you didn’t write the book as well as you thought you did… in which case you should definitely re-examine your work in light of this feedback.
- When they share their theories about the future of a series.
This is a good indicator of how well or badly you’re concealing your hints and foreshadowing.
- When they tell you what they’d love to see you write in the future.
This can be great inspiration, but there are going to be times when you have to say, “Sorry, no, that won’t happen because it’s not my kind of thing.” You usually will want to avoid lengthy descriptions of why it’s not your kind of thing. Keep it simple.
When NOT to listen:
- When they’re bashing you because they don’t personally like you or something that you said.
This seems like common sense, but I’ve seen a lot of new authors forget it. Just walk away. Hate and bashing are going to happen. The things these people say about you are probably going to hurt you. Swallow hard, turn around, and walk away. It’s honestly not worth answering them. By walking away, you’re being the mature person and proving that you are an author who won’t be dragged down to the level of mud-slinging.
- When they insist that you change your writing style to suit them.
Whether you tend to be more sparse with your descriptions and heavy on the action, or write gorgeously descriptive scenes and go light on the details of gun fights, some readers just don’t like the STYLE of a writer. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.
- When they threaten you for not writing what they think you should.
For example, when they insist that you include a character of a certain race/religion/sexual orientation or they will boycott you. It’s your choice when– and what– to ‘represent’, not anyone else’s. (The Force Awakens fans, I’m looking at you.)
EXCEPTION: when it’s CLEARLY in jest. Like when you kill off a fan favorite character, and everyone is wailing and threatening dire harm to your personal being. This happens all the time- to me, to authors I know, etc. It’s part of the fun of author-reader interactions. It can become serious though, if you happen to gain some crazy stalker fans. In such a case, notify someone (the police) and may Heaven protect you. (I’m serious, guys, those kind of people are just CRAZY.)
- When then tell you that you have to change what they didn’t like.
Be it the ending of a character, bringing someone back to life, or having someone turn a betrayal around, this is YOUR story. You are the author. Don’t feel like you have to write something just because the fans demand it.
- When what they are expressing is their personal opinion and actually doesn’t reflect the quality of your work.
If they normally only read and love science fantasy but they read your regency romance and said it wasn’t very good simply because they didn’t like that genre… say, “Oh for cryin’ out loud,” and ignore it. Just because they didn’t like the book doesn’t make you a bad writer. (The reverse is sometimes true- just because they like the book doesn’t mean you are a great writer.)
- When they miss the point.
For example, if someone reads a book you wrote that is a coffee shop romance (as opposed to the epic hard sci-fi series you wrote before it) and condemns it for not being as deep as your epic series. Excuse YOU, it’s not supposed to be deep, it was something you wrote to give your brain a break but still write something worth reading. Ignore that kind of feedback and move on. (As a writer and a reader, it drives me doubly insane when I see fellow readers doing either of these last two things.)
In a nutshell: remember two things.
- You are the ultimate architect of your story. Just you. No one else.
- Their opinions deserve respect, even if they’re wrong.
Some authors ignore reader feedback altogether. This enables them to write without overthinking what they’re doing and tangling up the story as a result. Others need constant feedback to encourage them to keep going, to know that people like reading their books. The more you interact with your readers, the more you will learn what your personal balance of when to listen/not listen has to be so you don’t lose your sanity. Er, what little bit of it you might have left.
As writers, has there ever been a time when you wished you hadn’t listened to a reader? A time when you wish you HAD listened?
Merry Writing, and may your readers always be charming and helpful!