Sunday, 20 February 2011

Yes, but that's just your opinion

The goal for the novice (or even the not so novice) writer is to write better. That doesn’t necessarily  mean writing to a grammatical gold standard, or following the rules laid down by the late and the great. It just means finding the words to tell your story in the way you would like it to be told. In your voice.

The thing is, we are all capable of moments of clarity where we say what we intended, in a way that hits home and actually means something. But we are also capable of saying the wrong thing, doubting ourselves, stammering like a loon and then bailing on the big moment we had been building up to. The great thing about writing is we can sift through the first draft and keep the good bits, and keep reworking them until they say what we meant to say.

It’s okay to write down a bunch of stuff that happened (in reality or imagination) but what is the effect you want it to have? Sympathy? Outrage? Amusement? It’s only once you figure that out that you can start deciding which bits are unnecessary, and which bits are missing. But it isn’t important so that the reader reacts the way you want them to. Readers are a varied bunch and will interpret your words in an infinite number of ways whatever you do. The important part is how it affects you, the writer. What does it mean to you? Because that’s the voice you want to write it in.

Finding people who can help identify what it is you’re going for (when sometimes you don’t even know yourself), and who can also help you get there, is no easy task. It isn’t impossible, but you should bear the following in mind.
When you put your work on the internet, or any other kind of writing forum, and ask anyone who feels so inclined to offer their views, often what they say is not particularly useful. Sometimes it’s even quite painful. That is not a bad thing. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

The idea that there’s a nice way to say negative things is of no relevance, you’re only limiting your opportunities. Lots of people can’t handle criticism, or rejection, or feeling belittled or treated dismissively or whatever else psychological issue they’re vulnerable to, even though many of them claim they just want to know the truth. Trying to offer them a sop to their frailties is a huge waste of time and energy.

Telling a reviewer/commenter/critiquer they have offended you, will get rid of the blowhards, but it will also chase away those with keen insight that just assumed they could tell you what they thought without endlessly adding ‘in my opinion’ and ‘I could be wrong’ or some other qualifier at the end of every sentence to spare your feelings. That’s how we approach children, because they are children. If you want to have everything delivered with a spoonful of sugar what does that say about you?

You can’t prescribe how people couch their words or put forth their opinions, it’s just not possible for a crittiquer to tailor their approach to so many different people’s personal preferences. You may wish for certain kind of comments, not nit-picks on grammar, more overall story, only from people who enjoy the genre and what-have-you, but you have no control over what other people do (and nor should you), you only have control over yourself (if you can manage it).

The people who offer you their opinion on your writing will be of varying viewpoints and talents. If you ask them to tell you what they think of your story, they can only answer to the best of their ability. That ability will vary from idiotic to brilliant. And a person’s response will also be affected by the mood they’re in, how tired they are, how long since they ate, the noise their children are making, and any other number of variables. Everyone has their own issues, which may well affect their judgement, but there's nothing they can do about that.

It is up to the writer to discern from the raw material he is given whether there is something of use to him. The reader is the one doing the favour, there is no obligation to do it in just the way the writer thinks would be most helpful. In fact that would more or less invalidate the whole process and not make it worth doing for either party.

The writer has all the power, nothing can be changed without his say so. If a comment is deemed unhelpful it can be ignored. So ignore it.

Of course the feeling of hurt or anger or resentment a harsh critique can evoke are very real, but they are based on insecurity, which we all have. That doesn’t justify them though. If a reader believes a paragraph you wrote should be cut, and then magically cuts that paragraph from your story, then you would have a case for being upset. But he can’t and those feelings will just go away if you wait. If you decide you can’t wait, then you are just indulging your own pettiness.

And answering a criticism with a list of reasons why the comments are mistaken is pointless. You asked for views on your work, the reviewer did not ask for your views on his comments. He isn’t going to rewrite them and post them up again. He won’t even remember what he wrote most of the time.

It’s not the job of the reader to be supportive, or positive or encouraging. They can do those things if they want of course, but ‘Tell me what you think’ is all that’s needed. And the more honest they are the better. That’s not to say honest means correct, they can’t know if they are correct or not. But if a harsh, negative, unfair attack on your work has maybe a 1% chance of saying something that might help improve your writing, a generic, warm, encouraging one has 0%. You can’t learn anything from ‘Brilliant, I’d buy it tomorrow!’ And if you make a point of bad-mouthing people who are negative and praising those who are sycophantic (which, let’s face it, is much the easier, lazier route for everyone), then all you’ll get is people who tell you how great you are, and how useful will that be?

Even if the person can’t articulate what they didn’t like about your story, if they just say they got bored or lost interest at a certain point, that is far more useful than a vague thumbs up. They may be completely wrong in their estimations, but that is for the writer to decide.

It is 100% up to the writer to sift through whatever he gets (and often it is pretty slim pickings). It is not the reader’s job to offer up only the best bits on a platter — because the reader does not have the ability to do that. 

Why doesn’t the reviewer do it like this, that and the other? Because he CAN’T. He physically isn’t able. Does not have the facilities. Lacks the skills. Be grateful for what you got, someone to read your work and the chance (just a 1% chance but still more than nothing) he might have said the thing that opens your eyes to what needs to be fixed. 

There are numerous rules associated with writing fiction. It's a pretty simple task to learn what these rules are, but it's much harder to know WHEN they apply. There's no universal law of writing. Or indeed of anything. Love does not conquer all. The camera often lies. And the journey of 1000 miles doesn't necessarily start with a single step if you are lucky enough to be born at your destination. It is not enough to know the rules and how they work, you have to know when and why also.

People who tell you something doesn't work are probably right. Most of us have read enough good books to know instinctively when something feels off. However, the reasons they give and the solutions they offer will probably be wrong. What's right for you, your tastes, your voice, can't be summed up in a '10 Rules For the Perfect Novel' one-size-fits-all handbook. If you read advice from any established writer, and then read their work, you'll find they break almost all of their own rules. Because they aren't rules, they're a way to analyse your writing to see if it's doing what you want it to do. The problem is that most novice writers don't know what they want their writing to do, and can fall into the trap of doing what someone else suggests. And then, to make themselves feel better about the choice to abandon their own voice, they try to convince others to do the same.

The other thing to remember is that even if a critique is terrible and of no value whatsoever, the person has taken time to read your work, at your request, and it’s just basic manners to say thank you. If they tell you they’ve never read so much claptrap in their life and you should be stabbed in the face with a Mont Blanc fountain pen, that’s their opinion — which you asked for. You don’t have to take their advice, but a little gratitude for their efforts is only polite.

Just because THEY weren’t fair, or respectful or failed to show good manners, that doesn’t excuse you from also being a jackass does it? You instigated the exchange by putting up your work for public consumption. Well, the public is a lot of people, many of whom are idiots. You can become like the worst of them or you can let it go and move on to the next one and hope for something better.

Writing is a difficult, emotional business that can make people feel sensitive and insecure. You will get all sorts of advice because there are all sorts of people out there. But the only way to learn is to roll with the punches and keep moving. Every time you get stuck in dwelling on some comment that has no power over you, time is just slipping by.

In Summary:

1. The critique should write whatever they want and the writer should decide what to use and what not to. You’ll get a lot of rubbish, but it’s the best way to collect a few gems.

2. No instruction should be given to the person offering their views, other than to encourage them to say what they want.

3. Learning to tell the difference between good and bad advice, and choosing when and where to make changes is a difficult skill to learn, but a vital one. The harsher the criticism, the quicker you’ll learn. THE QUALITY OF THE CRITICISM IS IRRELEVANT.

4. Don’t bother defending your work, just say thank you and move on.


F said...

I have this weird love/hate thing with criticism.

I love taking shit apart to see how it works; I love talking about it. I love looking for ways to make it work better. I love puzzles and problem solving and that extends into writing as enjoying editing.

But if the writer isn't totally on board, if there's gonna be hurt feelings and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments because my thoughts disagree with their vision... well, maybe there's a pill for that. But it takes away the fun part--talking about the writing.

And I hate the idea of definitive criticism. The idea that there are right and wrong and that anything is sacrosanct. And there are those people that come along and talk from a place of borrowed authority, rather than personal opinion. You can tell them because their breath smells like ass from all the kissing.

Here's the thing, for all I enjoy the process and the exchange, I'm a shitty recipient for critique. I recognize that there are other people with mad skills, and that I'd do well to benefit from their awesomeness. But I really resent being given a solution, even if I know in my gut that it's the right solution. Especially if it's the right solution. Because it's not my solution--it's not the only the result, it's the process.

I went through this phase of posting to the hallowed halls of the internet for feedback from the older and the wiser. And I have had some really fucking amazing feedback, for which I am grateful. Stuff that transcended the individual piece and showed me gaping holes in my skillset. Just so you know there was value there.

But internet feedback is the kiddie pool. You cannot rely forever on a committee of strangers to make you a better artist. Eventually you have to rely on your own instincts. The feedback phase, that's a crutch. Too many books, short stories even, go through years of community revision on writer's websites. That's fear.

I say all that, but you know, I love to hear what people think. Not the technical shit. The outpouring of personal connection with whatever I wrote, how the reader internalizes my work. I love when people really hate something just as much as when they really love it. Especially when they hate it violently and passionately for the ideas and the emotions, because it means that it connects, hard, in the solar plexus. Real reader feedback, even if it's from people that write too.

When it comes right down to it, I am an arrogant sumbitch, and as much as I enjoy the soul candy that comes with attention, negative or positive, deep in my bones, I do not care. Nobody has ever said anything to me about my writing that hurt me, or made me angry. I've got my fistful of rejections, just like anyone else. None of them has stung, not a single one. Even the ones from really awesome places. I don't know why and it makes me wonder, some days, if I lack the requisite passion.

mooderino said...

What you are saying seems perfectly reasonable. You have your approach, your own personality and tastes, and no one can make you feel otherwise.

The thing is, that's true for everyone else also. So people can only offer you what's within their ability to offer, and if it isn't to your liking, you get to ignore it.

What you can't do is try to convince them they have to offer you what you want to be offered, any more than they can convince you that you have to accept what you're given.

Having confidence in your instincts isn't going to change other people's behaviour, but it does mean you can listen to all sorts of opinions without feeling hurt or resentful or derided, and use that instinct to spot anything in there that might be of use. And if you can do that, you might come across something incredibly useful. Although admittedly not very often.

F said...

I think we're mostly in agreement.

I think writing true to yourself requires self-confidence bordering on arrogance. It's a tightrope. Lean too far either way and the whole thing splatters.

I'd rather hit the pavement because of my own stubborn faulty instinct than milksop confidence coaxing me into art by committee.

"What you are saying seems perfectly reasonable. You have your approach, your own personality and tastes, and no one can make you feel otherwise.

The thing is, that's true for everyone else also."

Yes... and no. I think some people probably need posts like yours to make them realize it's okay to say no to other people's ideas. Or to remind them of it. God knows, when someone really awesome says something to me about my work, my first instinct is that they must be right because they are awesome. I work very hard to overcome that.

mooderino said...

I think insecurity can break in either direction, ignore everything/adore everything. I don't think it matters which set of stairs one happens to fall down. Nobody ever gives someone else perfect advice, but occasionally something might throw a light on things, you just have to be able to know it when you see it. And I think you can only do that if you put yourself out there and suffer through the inappropriate and irrelevant.

I just wish I knew some awesome people.

F said...

I keep meeting them on Twitter. It's seething with awesome people.

mooderino said...

Is there a special Twitter for awesome people I don't know about? I'm assuming there must be.

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