Four Views of the Same Short Story

I had a short story come out today: “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Era of Humans for the First Time,” as part of the Robots Vs. Fairies anthology. And here’s something I would like to show you, regarding the story: Four takes on “Three Robots,” from four different Goodreads reviews of RvF, each one giving the story one star fewer than the review preceding it (note: minor spoilers in a couple of the reviews):

Four reviews of my short story. The first one gave the story four stars the second three; the third two; and the last, one.

Which review is correct? Of course, they are all correct. Which is to say, they accurately represent the opinion of the person writing the review. Depending on who you are and what you want out of a story (or what you want out of a story from me), “Three Robots” is a four star story, or a three star story, or a two star story, or a one star story. It might be your favorite story in the collection, or the one you actively hate, or the one you don’t remember the instant you stop reading it. The text of the story is the same regardless of who reads it, but the experience of reading it is unique to the person reading.

This is a very important thing for writers (especially newer writers) to learn and build into their worldview: That everyone’s experience of your work, and any reviews they might then write, are inherently subjective, dependent on the person writing them, and there is nothing in the world you can do about that. That’s just the nature of putting work out into the world. Your job is to write the story as well as you can, and not worry overly much how it will be received. Because, as you can see above, it will be received well, and poorly, and everywhere inbetween.

And yes, learning to be okay with the fact everyone won’t love what you wrote is hard, because everyone has an ego, and everyone likes the validation of people enjoying their work. But as I frequently tell people, there are creators who I admire and whose work I love, and every single one of them has something they’ve created that I don’t like. Sometimes more than one thing! And sometimes it’s more than just not liking; sometimes I kinda actively dislike it. Or even hate it. On the flip side there are creators whose work I mostly dislike who will have that one thing that just works for me, or that I might even love. It happens! And then the whole mass of creators in the inbetween, whose work is mostly okay for me, but occasionally veer into the “like” or “dislike” territory.

If I feel that way about the creators whose work I experience, how can I expect any different from anyone else? I don’t expect everyone to like what I write equally; I don’t even expect people who like what I write to like it all equally — or uncritically. That would be weird and a little unsettling. I mean, you don’t need to tell me personally when I write something you don’t like. Feel free not to. But if you think yourself “I like Scalzi’s work — well, except for [X] which really kinda stank,” congratulations, you’ve passed a Turing test. You’re human.

Write your story and create your work as well as you can. Be as happy as you can with what you write and create before you send it out into the world. That way, no matter what people think or say about it, you can be happy knowing you did as well as you could with it.

Which is how I feel about “Three Robots,” incidentally. I enjoyed writing it, and it did what I wanted it to do, really well. It was fun. If people like or love it, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s okay too. They’re entitled to their opinion, and they’re entitled to share that opinion. I’m glad they took the time to read it.

41 thoughts on “Four Views of the Same Short Story

  1. > The text of the story is the same regardless of who reads it, but the experience of reading it is unique to the person reading.

    To me, this is the salient mantra when writing. Every person’s experience will be unique, and you can never make anything perfect for everybody.

    But I also know that different things I do with the *text* will alter the *experience*, often in predictable ways, leaving me obsessively focused on how the nuances of text affect the experience.

    Which, all in all, is how I think it should be. If I haven’t tried as hard as I can to deliver the experience I had in mind, then my text has failed.

  2. This was the best advice for writers I have ever read.

    From a personal perspective, the timing of this writing was perfect. Thank you.

  3. I’ll also mention about readers (speaking for myself). What I enjoy sometimes depends upon my mood. I’ve picked up a book and put it down again, because I just couldn’t cope with it for whatever reason. Months later, in a different mood, I might pick it up again and think it wonderful. It’s mostly on me and very little on the writer.

  4. I’m old, and I learned this in the dark mists of time when I started doing and showing photographs an eon ago. But it bears repeating and remembering—thank you for the reminder once again!

  5. As an architect, we learned to listen to criticism from day one of school. And learn what to do with the critical thoughts afterwards: Understand, disregard, deep six into some pocket of your mean psyche, celebrate, etc. Still – that process of getting our work critiqued was face to face, and relatively civil. I wonder about Trolls sometimes. Do they feel the need to be so nasty because they aren’t speaking to you face to face, typically? Like they have to ramp it up because they can’t see you get mad or start to cry or… It’s a good thing the internet hasn’t invented a 3D fist that erupts from the screen, even though it feels like it already exists.

  6. I initially thought “Goodreads lets you review individual stories? Time to get my # of books read this year off to a roaring start.” But sadly it appears that it is just a couple of reviewers leaving very detailed reviews of the whole collection. Only one I read so far so I could read this post. Felt a little short, and the name of one of the robots was annoying, but it was a whole bit so I guess I’ll allow it. I did laugh at parts so there is that.

  7. Scalzi wrote: “…there are creators who I admire and whose work I love, and every single one of them has something they’ve created that I don’t like. ” There are some authors who have only written one thing, or only one significant thing, and I have liked that thing. For example Margaret Mitchell (ignoring posthumously published work, which I have not read). Less pedantically, there are some authors whose every work I have liked. For example T. L. Sherred, and Saki. There are very few if any works by P.G. Wodehouse that I don’t like.

    However, it is very true that reactions to a creative work (novel, story, painting, symphony, etc) are highly individual, and a creator is well advised to keep that firmly in mind.

    @Ruth Vallejos, I think it is the lack of face-to-face connection that makes it easy for some people to be so nasty on the internet, as it is all too easy to forget that those on the other end of the connection are in fact humans, not merely collections of letters. Of course a true troll posts primarily to create emotional havoc and controversy, so nastiness is just one of their tools, often an effective one.

  8. I’ll agree with Sandra Levy.
    How much I enjoy a book can come down to the mood I’m in.
    The first time I read Lock-In I didn’t rate it much. Then I read it again a few years later and enjoyed it (even though I “knew” the story and there was no sense of discovery you get from reading a book for the first time).
    Then there are books that I struggle to get in to, only reading a chapter or two per night. Then suddenly half way through the book it (or me) catches fire and the second half gets read in one or two sittings.
    So, mood it is.

  9. I’ve been feeling bad because my response to The Collapsing Empire was kind of “meh”. I thought I must have missed something because it seems to have been received well. Still, I know your work and am looking forward to the other installments. To a large extent Book Ones of trilogies usually serve to set things up anyway, so I expect to enjoy two and three more.

    Keep writing!

  10. David E. Siegel, I think you hit the nail on the head with your comments about the personal nature of the creative process, both for the creator and the audience.

    I had a very similar conversation last fall with a friend who is a ceramics instructor at our local university. He was frustrated by the responses he often gets from his students to the (very necessary, appropriate and respectful) critiques he gives their work, because there are always some who cry about any critique at all. An instructor is not there to be a cheerleader but rather to help the student move to a higher level in whatever the subject matter is, and this particular instructor is both very gentle and very effective in accomplishing that objective, so he found it frustrating to get tears in response.

    I told him then, and I still think now, that people who create must of necessity invest an emotional component into their creations, because ultimately that is what grabs the intended audience. If the piece generates a visceral, emotional response to the work and implicitly to the emotions that went into creating that work, then for that person with the emotional response, that creative piece works. And I think that for a certain percentage of creators (and probably a higher percentage the younger the age), it is difficult or impossible to separate a critique about the PIECE from a critique about the EMOTIONS that went into creating it.

    There are books (including some by Mr. Scalzi) that I love-love-love, and there are books (also including some by Mr. Scalzi) that I bounced off of hard and never made it past the first chapter. There are ceramic pieces and paintings and photographs that I passionately adore, and there are ceramic pieces and paintings and photographs that leave me completely turned off. There are musical works that fill me with great joy, while other music makes me want to flee the room until the noise is over.

    ALL of those reactions are a reflection of me and my particular mix of emotions, not of the work or of the person who created the work. But for a creator who struggles with separating their identify and sense of self-worth from the emotional content of their art, I suspect that distinction is difficult or impossible to internalize.

    Good post, sir, and a healthy one for many people in many creative arenas to read and think about.

  11. Cute, you satirized/homaged the teens encounter things from the 1980’s and Irish people encounter American beer, etc. vids from the Net and the culture producing them. Nice way to con me into getting the anthology.

  12. I’ve been fortunate mostly to get good reviews for my work, but when I don’t I examine what the reviewer didn’t like and see whether the critique shows me where I can improve. Sometimes I’ve found it does. If not, I just think, well, that person isn’t part of my audience.

  13. This reminded me of my reaction to reading the reviews for “The Sagan Diary”. I like to read reviews before making a decision to buy something. The reviews to “The Sagan Diary” were no help at all. They ranged fairly evenly from one to five stars and from “I loved it” to “What was that?”. (Personally I thought it was about the most beautiful piece of writing I have read of yours, except, perhaps, https://whatever.scalzi.com/2016/06/12/thoughts-and-prayers/

  14. Interesting topic. It makes me think of an interview I saw online. Norm Macdonald is interviewing Carl Reiner, and Norm puts forward the thought that maybe comedy isn’t subjective. Maybe some things, Norm says (in more or less words), are just funnier than other things. Objectively funnier.

    Carl Reiner is then reminded of a joke. A snooty museum director, Carl says (in more or less words), is giving a tour of a museum, showing great art pieces throughout history. They get to one picture in particular, and a lady in the tour group says, “meh, I don’t like it.”

    The snooty director turns to her and says, “You’re wrong.”

    But Carl’s ultimate response to Norm is that you know something’s funny when people laugh.

    But then, what if everyone doesn’t laugh? Is getting a laugh out of say, Carl, more impressive than getting a laugh out of old stone face Jimmy Fallon? I don’t know the answer to this question, but it’s a fascinating topic. The idea that there is an objective truth. That one joke could be objectively funnier than another, but the people with the taste are the ones too intrinsically flawed to know better.

    The problem is compounded in reviews, I think. I hate that we live in a world where it’s difficult to get genuine feedback. Above, folks have mentioned how “trolls” like to leave bad reviews just to stir bad feelings. This may be the case, I don’t know. But I do suspect there are folks who leave bad reviews because they disagree with the author’s politics, thus they like the idea of trashing the author’s work in the hopes that it might be offensive tot he author’s career. I don’t support that, nor do I support the coin when it’s flipped. Someone leaves a good review just because they personally like the author.

    All of this turns the review process into a combination of legitimate reviews mixed among popularity contest reviews. It makes it difficult for readers to know take a good sample, and maybe worse, it makes it difficult for author’s to know how their work is honestly being received. Take Doors of Stone, for instance. It hasn’t even released yet, and it has tons of positive reviews giving it over four stars on goodreads.

  15. One useful distinction in giving negative reviews is between disliking a particular work because you think it didn’t accomplish what it set out to do, and disliking the kind of thing that it is, even if it’s a good example of that kind. Some people just don’t care for light throw-away humor, and I think some of the more negative reaction to Scalzi’s story may be of that kind, especially from the person who complained of the story’s reverse bathos.

    Same thing goes with positives. Some types of stories may just goose you irrespective of whether they’re any good. In that case, your responsibility is to avoid sniping at people who aren’t so goosed with condescending remarks like “Why can’t you just turn your brain off and enjoy it?”

  16. @jo – I do think there’s some level of objective quality to works of art. There’s technical competence (no double negatives, no “centered around” or other grammar mistakes) and there’s consensus opinion from qualified people (informed critics, other practitioners), e.g. that William Gibson’s prose is generally amazing. But that still doesn’t mean that it’s going to resonate with a particular reader.

  17. @Rick — you know, for all practical purposes, I agree with you. I tend to think the old nuggets of wisdom are good and make novels better for their inclusion, or exclusion as the case may be. Avoid said bookisms, for instance. Chop out exposition. Show, don’t tell when you want someone to be close in a scene, and by all that is holy, keep your adverbs in your head.

    But.

    But I consider novels that do extremely (absurdly, massively, abundantly, insanely) well that clearly don’t follow a lot of these maxims. We all know books like this so I don’t think I have to name any names here.

    It makes me wonder. Do we really have a good grasp of objective truth when it comes to what makes a piece of writing good. Or great or bad or mediocre or whatever. I wonder, maybe we only have a glimpse of what makes something work, and we try to express that in little condensed, often pithy, ways.

    I think of chess. Generations of play have led folks to theorize about the best openings. Along come computers, and suddenly no one, not even the greatest grandmasters, can beat the Stockfish chess engine. Filled with book knowledge, filled with all of the best openings, Stockfish has the ability to consider a ridiculous number of potential moves every time it takes action.

    Then along comes, what’s the name, AlphaZero (from Google’s division Deepmind). AlphaZero wasn’t filled with book knowledge. Instead, it was turned on, given the rules of the game and allowed to play itself over and over again. In essence, AlphaZero learned to play chess from scratch. Here’s what I find interesting. AlphaZero learned, all on its own and in just a few hours, to use the same openings that grandmasters developed over generations. What’s more, AlphaZero goes further. The AI can beat Stockfish. Out of 100 games, AlphaZero won 28 games and tied 72 with 0 losses.

    Is it possible there’s an AI somewhere out there in future time that will turn on. A computer that will be left running for a few hours and then come up with a string of words that everyone loves.

    A silly thought, maybe, but it just occurred to me that I recall an old story about something like this. Asimov, maybe it was, but I can’t remember right now. The idea of the story was that a writer was arguing with his editor. The writer’s story had been put through a machine that suggested a different ending to make the story better, and the writer was offended. He wanted to keep his own ending, and to heck with the machine that said it would be better otherwise. To prove it, the writer put something by Shakespeare into the machine, and the machine came back with only one suggested change. One word in one spot. The writer, of course, used that as an argument to suggest that the machine was taking the humanity out of the prose and ultimately (spoiler!) was allowed to keep his own ending. If I recall correctly, that is.

    Anyway, it’s late, and I’m clearly rambling. My eyes are a bit bleary; apologies for any typos. Just a subject I find fascinating.

  18. Just as different people can have different reactions to a story, the same person can have different reactions to a story at different times… (Possibly because they’re a different person by that point).

    I can remember reading Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy for the first time. As a firm (non-evangelising) atheist, I’ve never understood religious faith. At the end of the trilogy, I actually felt I did have some idea of what it was about.

    A couple of years later, I tried it again, and the books left me completely cold. The understanding from the first time was missing.

    Same reader, same text, different reactions.

  19. “…everyone has an ego…”

    The key is to have a healthy one; a fragile osteo-arthritic ego is a liability. Make sure yours gets enough calcium and sunshine (vitamin D) and exercise ;-)

  20. This hits right at the heart of why I (mostly) stopped writing – and I think it’s definitely a subject that doesn’t see the light of day enough.

    You often get told as writers to make something as good as you can, but no one really tells you what “As good as you can” actually means – or how to measure it. It implies progression, but ‘progressing’ is not a linear path, and neither are there any real identifiers where you are moving. Progress is also a multidimensional knot of continuums (pacing, character, world building, prose, style, etc) where many sections are diametrically opposed to others; there is no such thing as a perfect book.

    What rarely gets touched on is how to figure out who you want to write for – or more simply, which set of things can you do badly and people won’t mind (or the corollary: to which audience will your own set of failings appeal to). Knowing what you want/need to make better is (IMO) superior to knowing ‘how’ to make things better – there’s significantly more resources for the latter.

    Maybe it’s too late for me; the anxiety and neurosis of trying to just “fix” everything is maybe too baked in now. But I think it’s a real shame so much writing advice is based on how to polish, and not what blemishes to leave alone

  21. To add to what Darkling said, it’s even more confounding that the same person can have different reactions to the same writing depending on time. I’ve read books I loved and when I went to read them again years later I couldn’t for the life of me understand why I liked them the first time. The reverse has also happened, when I reread something I didn’t like very much years later (generally something that was more of a classic, and for some reason became relevant to my life) and found I loved it the second time around.

  22. A thought here: you were lucky in that you were able to extract three critical reviews from people that clearly wanted the story to work and were actually critiquing on what one might consider their merits. I far prefer it when reviewers or critics approach a work from that perspective; if the work doesn’t succeed for them, at least acknowledge why it didn’t and move on. But some critics are more bitter or harsher, and sometimes even seem to be reviewing something that seems to be unrelated to what you actually created.

  23. @Jo: Yep, Asimov, “The Monkey’s Finger” (1952). Based, he said, on an argument he had with Horace Gold over one of his own stories.

    This post was timely and helpful for me, as I’m currently trying not to let the widely varied reviews of my most recently published thing give me writer’s block on my next thing; so, thank you, Mr. Scalzi.

  24. I think this relates to ALL forms of creativity. It’s sort of like having a kid. There are painful parts, and parts that are wonderful. But eventually the time comes when said kid is released into the wild to do their own thing. As a parent, you will always love that child, help that child – but also as a parent, you still have to step back and know that you did your best and now it’s time to let him or her fly. I’m not a writer, but there are other forms of artwork that I dabble in…and it took a while to be able to find that ability to release and step back. It’s a choice that had to be actively made every time.

  25. A writer can survive countless no’s as long as they have the one, most important, yes: the yes from a publusher.

  26. @jo – “It makes me wonder. Do we really have a good grasp of objective truth when it comes to what makes a piece of writing good”

    Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that informed, knowledgeable people can generally spot writing with technical flaws. Yes, in the sense that consensus opinion tends to reject truly bad work.

    No in the sense that not everyone is knowledgeable about what makes technically good writing (not all readers are equal and some are better in this respect than others) and No in the sense that consensus opinion can sometimes reject not just bad work but good work which is far out of the mainstream.

    Also no in the sense that just because a story is well done on a technical level doesn’t mean it’s actually good writing – the characters might still be flat, the prose done correctly but in an uninvolving manner. Conversely, the writing might have some technical flaws but not enough to truly hurt the reader’s involvement in a story and the story itself might be compelling and excellent.

    Then there’s what others have mentioned – personal preference, mood, and all of the rest. In this respect it’s like other creative endeavors. Heck, look at food. There’s the technical merit – is the steak cooked properly, is the sauce flavored right, etc. Then there’s general opinion – do the ingredients work well together, do they harmonize or conflict, and all that. But then there’s preference. A vegetarian won’t want the steak dish even if it’s perfectly done. Someone who dislikes seafood won’t care that the salmon is smoked beautifully. A person with celiac disease isn’t going to eat the bread even if it’s sublime.

  27. Dear Jo (and various others),

    It’s not uncommon for a book that the publisher is pushing to have many reviews appear for the book is even out. Publishers send out paper Advance Reading Copies and, more commonly these days, electronic Advance Reading Copies ( a.k.a. ARCs), for the purpose of garnering reviews. It creates a buzz, and, assuming the reviews are generally favorable, people are mostly drawn to buy books that have a good rating and LOTS of reviews.

    When John (Sandford) and I wrote Saturn Run, there were plenty of online reviews before the book came out,\ especially on Goodreads. What I found interesting was that John told me that his experience had been that these advance reviews averaged a few tenths of a point more negative than the ones written by regular readers after the book comes out. His feeling is that the people getting the free advance copies are inclined to feel like they should take their job more “seriously.”

    I’ve read every single review of Saturn Run that I can find (over 2000), but that’s because I don’t actually give a fuck. About 1% of them tell me something genuinely interesting about the book, which is enough to keep me reading.

    If there’s one piece of advice I would give every single author and would-be author, it is to NOT read reviews if you really care what they all say. If you are going to take them personally, just say no! For the sake of your peace of mind and your creative happiness.

    Unfortunately not everyone can do this. One well known and successful science fiction author, a friend of mine, can’t do that. They feel compelled to read every review that’s out there and they CARE what it says, so it sends them into a real tailspin when there’s a negative one, most especially an unfair negative one.

    (Has any author ever felt they got an unfair positive review?)

    One of the advance reviews for Saturn Run was so vicious and venomous — it genuinely appeared to be a willful misread of the book — that I went and researched the reviewer just to make sure it wasn’t someone who I (or John) had personally wronged at some point, in which case apologies (from one of us) would be in order. No, a total stranger. So I ignored it.

    And, of course, it was ultimately buried by vastly more favorable reviews.

    That’s the thing to remember — nobody except obsessive authors looks at all the reviews. Or even very many. The primary factors driving the book sale are the book’s rating and how many reviews it has. Almost nothing else matters. Some potential buyers will read a couple of the most favorite negative and positive reviews, but it works as confirmation bias as often as it tells them something useful.

    Short form: don’t sweat reviews!

    And, most importantly: never, ever, EVER get into a fight with a reader over their critique of your book, no matter how unrighteous it strikes you. You WILL lose.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    ======================================
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 
    ======================================

  28. @Grace, @Jo,

    Yes, and the story that the argument was over was ‘C-Chute” which can be found in the collection _Nightfall_. “The Monkey’s Finger” can be found in the collection _Buy Jupiter and Other Stories_. It is in my personal opinion fairly minor Asimov. The “writing robot” could not possibly work as described, it claims from a short sample to be able to reproduce the rest of a work, but “correctly”. The example used is G. K. Cherterton’s “Lepanto”, but that poem depends vitally and consistently on historical and literary allusions, and without knowledge of the history and other fiction involved, (which we are specifically told it does not have) no Robot could possibly reproduce the poem from the first few lines. It was a clever and fun story, however.

  29. I agree with much of what Rick Gregory says above. When a story doesn’t work for the reviewer, and particularly when it doesn’t work for many readers, one can often point to particular reasons why. Low level technical flaws, such as poor grammar or excessive said-bookisms. Mid-level flaws, such as too frequent POV shifts, or poorly handled ones. Higher-level issues, such as characters that are too flat to engage the reader, or plot arcs that are never resolved but simply waived away, or improbable changes of character, or one might say inconsistencies of character. yet one can find works that have each of these issues (although perhaps not all of them at once) and still work very well, at least for many readers.

    Often given such a work one can point to aspects that make it work despite the “flaws”. But none of that means that there are a set of formulae for writing a “good” book or story, nor that all readers will react to a work in the same way.

    For some readers, particular aspects of a work are all-important. Some might read a historical romance and respond entirely to the degree of historical accuracy; others might respond to the same work based entirely on their perception of the emotional validity of the romance.

    And many very negative reviews, even by highly literate reviewers, seem to be taking issue with the *kind* of work that they are reviewing, and not whether a particular work is a good or bad example of its kind.

    For example, Mark Twain’s scathing “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (and its completion “Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses” found in Letters From the Earth) was really a complaint that Cooper’s novels were not realistic fiction of the sort Twain himself wrote. They ignored the possibility that the earlier style of Romantic fiction could be a different thing yet also a valid way to tell a story. Perhaps Twain should have consulted the works of Kipling (whom he professed admiration for) and learned that “There are nine-and-sixty ways / of constructing tribal lays / and every single one of them is right” (“In the Neolithic Age”).

  30. “I like Scalzi’s work — well, except for [X] which really kinda stank,”
    For me, I like Scalzi’s work–well, except for [x] which I knew I wouldn’t like so I didn’t read it.
    Maybe I was wrong about that and I would have loved it, but I firmly believe that he described it fairly and saved himself a disappointed reader.
    That’s what reviewers are for: to let a reader know if they want to read the book. I’ve read many a negative review that still managed to let me know I would probably enjoy a book or movie. I’ve read many a glowing review that let me know I should give that one a pass.

  31. I was having a similar discussion with some of my knitwear designer friends recently. I do not expect everyone to like my creative work and I’d go further to say that if I were creating stuff that no one disliked, it’s probably because it’s not particularly interesting to start with. The only things that are nearly universally acceptable are things that are so commonplace and unremarkable, that they go unnoticed.

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