Hi Story Nurse,
I’m an aro ace writer with a few published stories under my belt, now beginning to venture into writing ownvoices stories. I wrote a fluffy fantasy story with an openly labelled aromantic main character and passed it to one of my usual beta readers (who I am not out to).
One of the notes in Beta’s response said that “aromantic” didn’t seem like the right word for MC because MC was clearly a nice, kind, warm-hearted person. When I asked cautiously for elaboration, it came with more microaggressions attached. /CN
Now I come to revise the story and the notes drain my energy for doing so every time I have to look at them, and it makes me wonder if I would be believed if I did come out. How do I separate criticism of my story from criticism of myself, when what is actually being marked down is the marginalisation my character and I share?
Thanks for your time
Flat Battery (she/her or they/them)
(For definitions of aromantic, alloromantic, and related terms, see this glossary.)
Dear Flat Battery,
I’m so sorry your beta reader responded in such a rude and biased way. Of course those notes will now make you feel bad about yourself and your work!
In this case you don’t need to separate criticism of the story from criticism of yourself. What you do need to do is reject the criticism as based in falsehood and therefore invalid.
On my wall I have a poster listing Roger Bacon’s four stumbling blocks to truth, as quoted by Carl Sandburg in Remembrance Rock: the influence of fragile or unworthy authority, custom, the imperfection of undisciplined senses, and concealment of ignorance by ostentation of seeming wisdom. My grandfather taught these to my mother, who shared them with me. I find them very useful when considering whether to take advice from a particular source (and I hope my advice can be judged by the same standards). Your beta reader appears to fall squarely in category four; by making assertions about aromantic people that you know to be false, they’ve revealed their total ignorance of what they’re talking about. Their notes are not helping you find the truth of your book. Their notes are stumbling blocks on your path to that truth.
There’s also the simple fact that the notes make you feel bad. The best critiques and edits will make you want to roll up your sleeves and dive in, excited about these new opportunities to make your work even better. At a bare minimum, even the most awkwardly phrased or inadvertently hurtful critiques should help you understand something about the work that you didn’t understand before. Critiques should not make you question the value of your work, or the value of yourself. There are times when criticism is painful to read and still worth reading, but if criticism makes you feel personally anxious or makes you less motivated to work on your book, that’s a big red flag and should lead you to explicitly check in with yourself about whether the notes have any positive value at all, let alone enough value to overcome the negatives. In this case, it sounds like the answer is no.
(Honestly, that self-assessment is all you need. But I include the Roger Bacon bit first because it’s a generally valuable framing and second because when we are feeling down about ourselves it can be hard to trust ourselves, and at those times, having an external metric to turn to is useful.)
So ditch the notes, at the very least, and maybe the beta reader too, if you don’t think you’d be able to trust that person to give you good advice in the future. You’re completely allowed to solicit criticism and then reject it as not useful to you, just as you’re allowed to start reading a book and stop halfway through if it’s not working for you. No need to write to the beta reader and explain if you don’t want to, though you certainly can; it’s perfectly fine to say “thanks for the crit” and then archive the email and move on with your life.
You may be worried that claiming the right to reject a critique somehow gives you too much power, that your ego or hubris may go unchecked if you don’t have to listen to what other people say about your work. This is a worry I hear from a lot of writers. Here’s the thing: people with giant egos or lots of hubris don’t have that worry. Those people are quick to reject criticism that doesn’t match up with their opinions, and they often don’t seek outside critiques at all. If you’re worried that you will get too big for your britches, that is a sign of low self-esteem. It’s also often a sign that someone has taught or told you that you don’t deserve to feel good about your work. But you do absolutely get to feel good about your work, and about yourself for making good work.
You may also be worried that it’s unprofessional to reject a beta reader’s critique. But when I was a professional freelance book editor, one of the first things I told my writers was that they could reject any of my edits or suggestions. Claire North has a post about the power of “stet” (which means “let it stand” and is the traditional way for a writer to reject edits) and I encourage you to read it. The work is your work. You get to decide what best serves the work. Notes that make you feel so bad that you stop revising your work do not serve the work.
In traditional publishing the editor ultimately has the power to decide whether the book will be published. In self-publishing the financial power imbalance is reversed, as the writer has the power to withhold payment from a freelance editor. But with a beta reader, you’re in a relationship of equals. No one’s getting paid, and no one’s got any control over anyone else’s future or prospects. You have nothing to fear. I roll my eyes at advice that says things like “Don’t give people power over you!” because sometimes people have power over you in a very real way and it’s not something you have control over, but your beta reader has no power over you at all. They don’t have the power to tell you how to write, or what to write, or what’s true or real about aromantic people.
They also don’t have the power to tell you who you are or how to run your personal life. If you choose to come out, some people will be great about it and some won’t, because some people are knowledgeable and some are ignorant and some are supportive and some are biased and that’s how the world is. But this one person’s useless critique of your character won’t change that. It illustrates one unfortunate aspect of the world but it doesn’t change the world. Your calculations around your decisions regarding coming out shouldn’t be any different than they were before you got this critique.
You came out to me in this letter. I believe you, and I support you. Other people will too—not all other people, but many. And other people will love your authentic, honest stories about nice, kind, warm-hearted aromantic characters. Find other beta readers (may I suggest joining Queer Writers Chat? I believe there are several ace-spec and aro-spec writers there, as well as alloromantic writers who are very supportive) and let this one go. You have much too bright a future to let one biased, ignorant critique hold you back.