Friday, January 11, 2013

How to Judge Your Own Work


A long time ago, while pretending to write, I was surfing the internet, reading writing articles, when I came across one that insisted that it is impossible for an author to know how good his own work is. If this is the case, not only does it discredit the creator’s ability to understand himself, but it makes editing impossible. The point of the article was to tell an aspiring writing to get feedback, yet it was a gross inconsideration on how unlikely getting good feedback is. The average unpublished author would be lucky to get one person to read his novel for free, let alone get a response. Let alone get a useful response. The fact of the matter is, until that book gets picked up by an agent, for most of the journey, you’re on your own.

That means that in order to get the book good enough to be looked at, he needs to make some judgment calls for himself.

-You know how you feel. Trust it and ask why.

For some authors the first step is to notice how they feel. People who are more guarded, reserved, even dignified, often have a wall between them and their emotions. If you are one of these people, then the important thing is to turn around and examine the thoughts you’d been trying to keep your back to.

After that, the important thing is to believe yourself. Of course, you’re going to be biased, but the great thing is that, although the lines are blurry and vague, you’re still going to be able to recognize what those biases are better than any outsider’s. You might not be able to tell how much of your feeling is to do with being prejudice, but that doesn’t mean you’re completely inept at recognizing it.

One of the damaging biases is remembering why you wrote what you did. Knowing where you were coming from puts in more information than the objective reader will have. This is why the “drawer” technique is useful. Putting it away for a while will make you forget your perspective and take on a new one.

The most useful question, however, is why do I feel this way? When the author hates what he wrote, then his immediate instinct is to abandon it. The most typical reasons for not enjoying what you made is because it turned out differently than you wanted, because you expected more of yourself, because you fear it is a sign that you weren’t meant to be a writer, or because you have a certain level of self-loathing (which most of us do).

Usually it is a mixture of things, all solvable as long as you do your best to first identify the problem.

-Treat yourself as you would treat others.

They say not to try to make love to the world; you’ll only get pneumonia. I think it’s more likely you’d get gonorrhea, but I think that’s a more modern take.

One of the problems the author faces is the fact that multiple paths can lead to the city of “good,” but indecision and attempts to split the difference will end him up just lost.

It’s important to start narrowing down exactly where you want to end up. The city is a big place, but there are some bad parts of town. Furthermore, you get there, and you might find yourself stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. An author gets a reputation for thrillers and all of the sudden his romance books can’t get published. Worse, he hates writing thrillers.

Using an individual judge versus a demographic helps to make specific decisions. When a book is written for “kids” it’s hard to predict its success before it actually sees print. Children, like everyone else in the world, have many different tastes, so just because one finds your story on dinosaurs dull as hell doesn’t mean others will. You might use a topic kids love, but, because it’s written badly, no one cares. If you have one kid in mind, thinking “would she like this?” versus “would they like this?” you have a more crisp reality of what is wrong with it.

The knowledge that people are different is actually a handicap. One of the hardest questions to answer is, “I don’t like this, but will other people?” Personally, I see this thought process as a trap. When Hollywood comes out with a bad film, it seems to reek of it. “I think this concept is idiotic, and you think it’s idiotic, but they, the common denominators of our audience, will love it!”

It can be true, and it can work. Which is why it is so commonly used. It is so hard to know what is taste and what is error that it often prevents us from making any decision at all. But indecision is the worst decision we can make. The definition of good is already so vague that the more optional contexts involved the more we compound the problem.

Unless your mind is extremely different from the norm, which you will know by your inability to communicate, you have things in common with other people. Utilizing yourself as an individual judge will help cut down on viable options, leading to a more cohesive and directed thought. Though anything can be good, it isn’t always good together, and though tastes are too varied to try and make everyone happy.

-Have a vision (and cut down options).

For the same reason as above, having a specific vision will help you cut down on the possibilities. Most authors don’t start out with a full idea of what they want, and there is nothing wrong with writing without direction. However, sometime during the editing process, it is important to start saying “This is what I want.”

When not caring what happens as long as people like it, the author has too many options to contend with to really make a decision. He knows something’s wrong with this scene, and he could do a thousand things to it, from cutting all together to changing an event one hundred pages in. How he knows what to do is dependent on what he wants the result to be. So he’s sitting there thinking, “This scene is really funny, but the humor keeps cutting into the tension in the wrong spots.” Both of those are qualities to a good work, but not together. He might realize that the scene is best for making the characters likable, thus he keeps the quips and removes the hostility from the argument. Or, he might want the very opposite and get rid of the humor to add to the tension. Whatever he does, he needs to head in a specific direction, which means getting rid of a good detail for the benefit of the big picture.

-Judge other people’s work.

School doesn’t teach critiquing or editing very extensively. They like to say they do, of course, but then their English classes are filled with teachers saying, “It’s not about whether or not you like it,” and demanding that the writer sits in silence while receiving criticism. No one gives feedback on feedback, comments on comments, or critiques critiquing. We often believe that it is an innate talent that doesn’t need practicing, and then are surprised when we ask someone what they think and all they can say is, “It was good.”

When I say “judge” I mean, “to judge,” good and bad. “Why do I like this?” “Why do I hate this?” More importantly, “Why do I hate this and other people like it?” Those popular books you hate the most are often the best study tools.

Some authors, of course, don’t need to be told to do this, and are very good at dissecting things on their own. For these people, the only thing to do is make active censorship choices. Critiquing things you don’t care about is an important part of being able to critique yourself, but sometimes it’s important to not let people know you’re doing it.

-Don’t be a martyr for things you don’t care about.

It is common, and understandable, to want to reject rude advice, inane advice, and idiotic advice. Sometimes, however, the quality of the project is dependent on making sacrifices, especially incredibly stupid ones for incredibly stupid reasons.

The writing world is a culture on its own, a well judged one at that. There are some things, like plot structure, that people have inane expectations on. There are some things, like a male’s voice being used for movie trailers, that probably should be changed. But if it’s your movie, a movie not about feminism at all, sometimes sacrificing a moral that your film isn’t dealing with will best to support the moral it’s actually about.

This can range from big issues like racism down to little issues like if it’s okay to use a semicolon. Unfortunately knowing when isn’t that easy; an author shouldn’t always listen to what they’re told. Readers reading a published book will often not care that about the adverbs used that the readers reading the draft did. Sometime’s a critic’s stupidity is unique to him. Sometimes an inane change can surprisingly ruin the work. Sometimes it’s important not to compromise your ideas just because someone else doesn’t like them. Sometimes it is best to ignore it. Sometimes it isn’t.

An easy way to know is through objectivity, in the normal sense of the term, but, more importantly in a business wise and artistic wise. When one clearly overrides the other (it’s doesn’t change much artistically, but it will affect the likability) then you have your choice made for you.

Although, of course, usually it is not that cut and dried.

Like looking at a photograph of himself, it can be hard for an author to glimpse something that just may prove his worst fears. But, like photos, one bad picture does not mean an ugly face. And unlike photographers, authors can fix ugly. The biggest obstacle in judging your own work is taking that first step to look at it. Remember that what you see is easier fixed than it looks, and that, whether or not you suck, you’re still judging yourself more harshly than you would of a photo of anyone else. Unless you believe that an author is only allowed to write if he is an innate genius, then the first draft’s ugliness shouldn’t matter to you. You can always fix it, even if you don’t have anyone else helping you.