Tuesday, May 15, 2012

5 Ways to Argue with Criticism


When it comes to getting feedback, the stigma and regulations on the author are thick and overwhelming. With the (not necessarily wrong) assumption that the creator will throw himself a big fat tantrum at every less than positive tone, the idea of arguing with a person’s response is considered impolite and immature.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t. The common belief is that when receiving a reaction to a work, the mastermind behind it should have his hands folded lightly in his lap, smile and nod, and not say a word, then choose to regard or disregard it later. Often in creative writing classes the teacher will insist on this.

“Arguing” shouldn’t be hostile. It should be a form of discussion in which the participants debate on the subject. They could both be right. They could both be wrong. The advice could be right but the motivation wrong, or the vice-versa. Of course the author has the option to not use it if he doesn’t feel it is right, but it is just as equally as important for him to understand it first. That requires discussion.

It is important to be courteous and grateful to the critic; he is giving the author his time, and even when it seems to be more because he is forced to by the class or enjoys tearing work apart (which is often the case), the writer must make him feel as though his feedback is useful. Pissing him off won’t get her anywhere. (Of course, if it is someone whom she didn’t ask, then that might be a whole different ballgame.)

1. Understand how people listen.

A typical reason feedback sessions fall apart is because of the way we listen to each other. When the author gives a critic her work and then the critic responds, the author doesn’t hear what he is saying, she hears “I think positively,” or “I think negatively.” Any negative response translates into, “I hate it.”

This is not irrational because often that is what it means. However, it makes it so the author can’t use the criticism and the whole conversation goes to waste.

But that’s not the important part. The important thing is that the critic is doing the same thing. When an author responds, the critic doesn’t hear what she is saying, he hears “I agree,” or I don’t agree.”

So he tells her, “There are too many characters.” She hears, “I didn’t like it. Here’s one reason.” So she says, “I don’t think that it would fix the problem,” meaning “You can’t hate it just because of that.” He hears, “You’re wrong.” Fight ensues.

If the author can phrase her response in a way that doesn’t sound like, “You’re wrong,” then the critic will be more open to listening.

2. Be honest.

A good start to a friendly discussion is by telling the truth. When giving out a story, a writer needs to ask herself what she wants from the reader. Does she want feedback? Does she want reassurance? Often times we are just proud of what we’ve done and want to show it off. If that is the case, ask for that.

It is okay to say, “I’m proud of this; will you read it?” We tend to shy away from being straightforward about our needs, but you will get what you ask for. When saying you want feedback, you will get feedback. And if what you need is an ego booster, then they need to know.

Whenever I give out my work, I always say, “Be nice, but be thorough.”

I know I will start to tune out if my feelings get hurt. I don’t want harsh criticism; I want specifics. “Your leading man has a girl’s name and that bothers me,” is more helpful then, “I hated your hero.” It often makes the critic feel more comfortable in that we have all been burned by the author who asks for feedback and is upset when she gets it.

This doesn’t just have to be about what the author asks for, it can be about why she doesn’t want to use a piece of advice. We often shy away from our real reasons, feeling as though they won’t convince the other person. We can’t say, "I don’t want to cut because I like it," because they’ll argue with us, and it will go around and around and around.

When they tell us, “You have too many characters,” the response, “I like the number of characters,” is acceptable. Not only is it her story, but she is clearly not understanding why the critic thinks it is important. He may be right, but it is important for her to comprehend the problem he is trying to solve, and for him to comprehend what she wants from the book before they can come to the best solution.

Of course, we just have to phrase it in a way that doesn’t sound like we’re arguing with them. Which is why it is important to:

3. State the intention.

This is an important part for an author to create a friendly debate. Explaining what she was attempting to do is not an argument, therefore it is not saying the critic is wrong.

For instance, if he was to tell her, “There are too many characters,” and she was to say, “That was the point,” he’d feel as though she was dismissing his suggestion.

If she were to tell him, “Well, I wanted to tell the whole story from different points of view because it was more about the events than the characters,” he is less likely to feel as though she’s saying, “Wrong!”

He is likely to disregard it still, but his response is less likely to be hostile.

In my experience, the response to “That was the point,” is either for the reviewer to shut down or get defensive. Neither of which is helpful, where as the response to explaining my feelings is an explanation of his feelings:

“Because there was so many people, I didn’t really feel on the side of any of them.”

This, she can work with. Instead of deleting characters, she may make teams, this half against that half. Or, she can spend more time with a specific character. Now she has a number of options because she understands what she's trying to fix instead of just doing what she's told and hoping it will work.

Which leads us to the ultimate solution:

4. Ask “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?”

When the writer finds herself so confused on why the critic finds it so important, this question is a straightforward way to get an answer.

Many times feedback comes in the form of a solution of the problem. Often, the critic isn’t aware of the problem itself, but he knows what might help.

Having “too many characters” is not an issue with a story. Cutting them out, as implied, is a solution. It could be that a) the story is boring because there’s too many for me to side with one, b) the story is confusing because I can’t keep track of them all, or c) it’s actually several different stories and it doesn’t keep its momentum every time it switches. Or it could be many other different issues, each of which would want different characters to be cut.

We can see why the “problems” here would ruin a story on its own; that’s what makes them different than the solution. Having a lot of characters can achieve a positive or negative result, but being boring is never a good thing. (Yes, sometimes people will aim to be confusing; but clearly here it is not something desired.)

I can’t argue with someone saying my story is boring or confusion or loses its momentum because that’s what they feel. It could be singular to them, but at least understanding that I am trying to make it less boring gives me a direction to go when I don’t want to delete characters. Even if I were to agree to the advice and start removing characters I would remove different ones to make it less boring than I would to make it less confusing.

The problem with this question is when you have a jerk who response to it as, “The problem is you have too many characters!”

You will receive jerks that do this. You can either ask them, “How does it make you feel to have too many characters?” which receives some very amusing reactions, or try to explain to them what you want to know. Sometimes, at this point, however, it might be best to stop talking to him because he’s clearly not trying to work with you.

4. Understand the goal.

The assumed goal of any editor, critic, reviewer, and author is to make the book “good.” This is not a good goal to have. A book can be good in a thousand different ways, and often what happens is the critic tries to make it theirs.

This isn’t intentional; that’s all a person has to go off of: “what my definition of good is.” But you know when you see movies that just seem to have too many ideas and not enough details in any of them to be good? That’s what happens.

The important thing to remember is the image you are going for. It is also important for the critic to know that as well. We can’t control him in this scenario, however, so you can try to explain it to him, but it is unlikely he can understand it.

What it comes down to is a writer receives a lot of advice that a) is just a cool idea and not fixing anything, b) fixes something that is based on personal taste (such as a reader who doesn’t like war suggesting the cut of the battle scene), or c) a suggestion that will get rid of the idea of the story or what makes the story different.

Suggestions like not having the Twilight vampires sparkle, changing the time period that the story was set in, changing the gender or race of the main character are very common. These are not necessarily to be thrown away, the author may believe that the critic is right.

We will try to get rid of unnecessary risks and peculiar things we haven’t seen before. But that also risks homogenizing the story.

By remembering what you are intending to achieve, it allows you to understand why you don’t wish to take certain suggestions. Of course it is hard to say, “Well that’s not the image I am going for,” in a non-“you’re wrong” way, but it is usually the motivation for things.

5. Respect them.

What most arguments come down to is the unspoken distaste the speakers have for each other. We often feel in competition with other writers, the critic and the author both, and it is very common for the conversation to really be a secret argument of “I know better than you.”

To best utilize feedback from someone it is important to respect their opinion and not care what they think of the creator. If a writer is too focused on having the other person think highly of him, then every insult or suggestion will hurt just that much more.

It is important for her to decide ahead of time that she is there to make her book better and really try to understand what the other person is saying rather than what they are thinking.

There are some exceptions to this. Situations in which she has no choice who she hears from, people who she doesn’t ever agree with, people who she knows doesn’t respect her, still require the respect, just not the attention.

With these people that we chose not to hear from we are allowed to just smile and nod. We should still be polite to them to keep up appearances, but we don’t need to respect their opinion or discuss anything with them. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What's in the Middle of a Story

All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Some say, all stories should have a beginning, middle and end, but I always felt that was a little silly because the beginning is where I choose to start, the ending is where I choose to stop, and the middle is everything else.

There are more accurate biopsies of a story, however, ones that include the inciting event, the climax, resolution, and so on and so forth. Yet, I remember, when I first started writing, getting passed the inciting event and going, “What the hell happens in the middle of a story?”

If you look at story formulas, which are actually hard to find, they often go into detail about the beginning and the end, but not the in-between. The reason for this is obvious; the middle is the longest and most varied aspect of the story.

But the middle of the novel has to still relate to that plot, so it becomes a question on what events are off topic, and what aren’t?

There are seven different sorts of scenes that take place in the middle of a novel.

1. Getting from a to b.

Getting from a to b happens when the author has major plot points in mind and has to fill the space in between.

For example, in The Hunger Games, the main character has to get from her hometown to the capital, so the middle of the story starts after the inciting event (the protagonist volunteering to be a competitor) and gets them to the next plot point, which would be when she first gets to the capital and meets the other competitors.

Or, maybe the situation needs to change, like in romantic comedies in which it goes from meeting of the characters to them falling in love to something terrible happening and making them fight. Though they may be in the same place physically, they’re in a different place emotionally.

The important thing to remember is that though the author might know the events he wants to happen (they fall in love, they fight) he then has to figure out how to get from a to b in an interesting way.

The most common type of middle scenes, it is hard for it to survive on its own, and is usually combined with sequences of the other six different kinds of scenes.

2. Consequences of actions.

The consequences are like getting from a to b, in that it may not have to do directly to the plot (that would be, the major conflict in the story), but they often need to be included.

The consequences are what they sound like. When the main character does something, she triggers a chain of events. When an author doesn’t know what should happen next, he can often look to what they’ve done and realize there can be ramifications for their actions, or, rather, he sees what happened and realizes that there should be.

It goes like this: a group of people mob an outsider. The main character saves that outsider. Now though the author just wanted an interesting way for the two people to meet, he feels that the main character and the outsider can’t just walk around after beating up the guards, so there is a scene in which they are chased out of town. That would be a consequence.

What is important to remember is it is easy to dig yourself into a hole with this sort of scene. Because the author feels like they couldn’t just get away with defying the law like that, else everyone would do it, he may get them arrested, or have the whole kingdom’s guards after him, except now, they have to escape from jail or defeat 50 men in battle. Suddenly, the story’s spun out of control and you have 100 pages of a 200 page book in which they are trying to sneak out of a prison even though the story is supposed to be about her trying to fight a tournament at the capitol.

3. Raising the stakes.

This is by far the most important sort of scene in a story.

When an author raises the stakes, he makes it more important that the main character succeeds at what’s she’s doing.

Now, instead of it just being about the homeless shelter being closed down if she doesn’t get the money, if the other team gets it, they’re going to build another Walmart! And now, if she doesn’t do it within 10 days, her homeless friend will die of pneumonia!

The problem is what I’ve just demonstrated here. If the author makes the stakes too high, or too ridiculous, they have the opposite effect. Instead of making the reader care more, he makes her care less.

We care more about a bus of children blowing up, then a country of a million, and we care more about the protagonist then we do about the children. Psychologically, humans cannot show empathy for faceless masses, otherwise, every time we read in the news about catastrophes like Haiti happening, we’d react the same as if our whole family had been brutally murdered. We could not function.

4. Changing plans.

The characters are going along nicely. So, nicely, in fact, they’re about to achieve their goals. But half the movie is left over! What to do?

You’ll see this often in stories in which the characters are attempting to do something and then they have to change tactics.

In the movie The Lion King, first Scar tries to get Simba killed by sending him to elephant graveyard. It, of course, didn’t work. So, then he tries to get him and his father crushed in the stampede. When the prince survived, he told him to go away and never come back and had the hyenas try to kill him again. It worked, for a while, but then, of course, Simba came back, and so he tried to kill him himself.

The Lion King propelled by the antagonist’s wishes (as some stories are) has a switch in tactics for almost every scene.

This helps the author, number one, raise the stakes because it makes the author feel better when after all these failed attempts, the antagonist finally loses for sure (or the protagonist wins) and it adds some conflict.

To have a scene like this, all the author needs to do is, 1) understand the character’s goals, 2) have the character come up with a plan, 3) demonstrate why the plan will fail, 4) have the character come up with a new plan. (With maybe some depression in the meanwhile.)

5. Foreshadowing end.

The best foreshadowing is vague foreshadowing, in which the author doesn’t recognize it until after the story is over. Or, it can be foreshadowing that the audience isn’t sure what it means. Either way, this means that a foreshadowing scene needs to have a red herring, i.e., something else it pretends to be about.

These scenes, hidden as other types of scenes, create legitimacy for the ending without giving it away. The author wants the main character to sacrifice himself at the end, he needs to show parts where he sacrifices other things. He wants the villain to have a change of heart, he needs to hint at his good side or guilt.

The foreshadowing scenes are ignored by viewers unless they look for them. They are the hardest, but most important to write.

The issue to avoid is having a foreshadowing scene that seems to be about nothing, or is too obvious in its intentions.

6. Building end.

Like the foreshadowing scene, these are events that explain why the ending happened the way it did, the only difference is, they are allowed to be obvious and stand on their own.

A scene that builds the end is when the character (either aware or not) does something that sets up the resolution.

She gathers items needed to beat a god. She practices basketball every day to win the tournament. She commits to straightforward actions that will affect the end of the story.

7. Background information.

Though not usually a standalone scene, it is by far the best kind because it helps flush out all the others. If you’re getting from a to b and you need to set up a fight between the lovers, the main character can be foreshadowing how she will kill the villain by explaining how he killed her parents. Need to talk about something while she’s throwing hoops? Have her explain why she wants to be a basket ball player.

When a reader first is introduced to a character, he isn’t really concerned with her back story, but once he knows and loves her, he really cares.

We like people and we like hearing new things about them. Having interesting back story can be a standby for authors to talk about when they don’t know what else they should be doing. Though most biographical scenes should end with a raising of the stakes or having them change their plans, it can make even the most boring scene relevant. (If we like the characters, of course.)