George at Decrepit Old Fool, who is one of the most wonderful human beings I know, was kind enough to review a book for an old friend of his. Even though that friend is a devout Christian. Even though the title of the book is The Pilate Plot. Even though the blurb said this:
David Urbane has a grudge against Jesus Christ but never thought he would have to opportunity to do more about it than teach his own slanted version of history at the college level. President Robert Cooper harbors the good, old-fashioned aspiration to rule the world but needs the legacy of Christ out of his way. Nathaniel Stone unintentionally provides the means that involves them all in a plot spanning space and time that may change the world forever. Ruthless ambition, total dedication, and the advantages of modern knowledge and technology are all stacked up against the very foundation of Christianity. Who will prevail?
George’s review is an education in honest self-restraint. Well, mostly self-restraint.
And I’m not going to rip the book. Haven’t read it, for one thing. Don’t intend to, for another. My adventures in Christian reading began and ended with Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (which is one of the better examples of Christian supernatural thriller. Compare to the rest of the genre and form your own conclusions). Well, that’s not quite fair – I got to sample a page or two from many titles at the bookstore I worked at, and put it like this: I have no intention of ever reading self-proclaimed Christian fiction ever again. If a book is segregated in the Christian Literature section, it’s a near-certainty it ended up there because it would’ve been mauled by the better books in General Fiction.
But I digress.
This isn’t about Christian time-travel books, or the general horrors of religious fiction in general (where the message bludgeons the story to death with incense burners, pastoral staffs, and hardwood crosses ripped directly from the pulpit). No, this is about writers asking non-writer friends to read and critique for them.
I have just one piece of advice for such writers: you’d better be damned certain your friend likes the kind of books you wrote.
While George is an intelligent, intellectually-gifted, even-handed man who can set aside personal preference to try to give a book a fair go, most people aren’t. So what you’re getting is the opinion of someone who wouldn’t have read your book even if it was the only thing in the bathroom after an incident with a betting pool and a 20 lb bag of bran mixed with wasabi (hint: they lost the bet). I have just one question:
What the fuck makes you think such a reader can give you a useful opinion?
You need opinions from people who read the genre. They’re the only ones qualified to judge the quality.
People who haven’t read in your genre don’t know the conventions. They’re bored out of their minds by the things that fascinate fans. They frequently don’t know what the hell’s going on, and will be confused by writing that’s crystal-clear to veterans. They won’t like the story because they don’t like that kind of story. They won’t like the characters because they don’t like that kind of story. They won’t be moved by your plot or theme. You might have just written the most brilliant novel ever to hit your genre, and the best opinion you’re likely to get from a non-fan is, “It was okay. I liked your pun on page 147. Um…”
That kind of thing can take the wind out of your sails in a hurry, and cause you to rip a perfectly good book apart looking for flaws that aren’t there.
Conversely, they won’t catch the flaws that are there. I’ve seen plenty of stories that tested well to a non-genre audience, but got shot down by editors because the subject matter has been delved down to the last quark by other writers. There you are, pumped because your genre-naive friend actually loved your story, which caused you to believe it was fresh, original, and the greatest thing ever written in the whole history of that genre, and it turns out the only reason your friend liked it was because he hadn’t seen the exact same plot 4,862,987 times before. And you’ve just missed an opportunity to give an old plot a new twist, one which could’ve been suggested by a veteran.
If you’re going to foist your magnum opus upon unsuspecting friends, and you’re new to this, make damned sure you’re placing it in hands that might well have picked it up on their own at their local book store. Even if you’re an old hand, it’s best to draw the majority of your test readers from the fan base. Outside opinions are nice, but not when you don’t know how to sort the valid criticism from the biased, and definitely not when the biased is all you’ve got.
And remember to keep the salt handy when foisting your baby upon experienced writers who don’t read in your genre. Even they are peering at your beauty through spectacles of the wrong hue, although they’re trying hard to only look over the rims. They’ll do you right in critiquing the nuts-and-bolts. The more genre-specific stuff, not so much.
Finally, keep one thing in mind when reeling from an overly-harsh critique from a non-fan: There are people in this world who do not worship Neil Gaiman. Shocking, I know. Now imagine Neil taking all of his advice on the quality of his books from people who can’t even appreciate a master of the genre.
Give your stories a fighting chance. Get them in the hands of people who can assess them accurately.