Saturday, May 18, 2013

How to Improve Writing When Improvement is Subjective

It always surprises me whenever I talk about seeking improvement and someone says, “That’s not what you should be doing,” or, “Don’t you think it’s just about self-expression?”

They’re usually actors, or people inexperienced with the concept of isolated art. The problem for authors is writing gives absolutely zero feedback from anyone but yourself. And when you do finally go out and get an external review, it’s never very thorough, mostly because it can’t be. It’s about whatever the reader thinks is important, and, unlike while making acting choices, the author can’t gauge a reaction to the things the audience doesn’t realize they’re noticing. At best, the writer can have a group of people reading the story out loud, so he can watch their facial expressions. But finding one soul willing to read your work is hard, let alone three or more.

The truth is improvement is important to creators. Whatever that means. It might be the actual storytelling part, or just our pitching that we need to come to better terms with. We want to come up with better ideas or better express those ideas. We want to be somewhere we aren’t and receiving results we aren’t. In order to do that, we need to change positively. But there’s a problem.

Art is subjective.

Any choice can be a good one, depending on the right context. Any mistake can be magical. The difference between style and inexperience is a thin line. The rules are made to be broken. A story’s quality has little to do with universal laws as much as current situations.

So, here’s what happens: an author is told something's wrong with his story. He, however, claims there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s an artistic choice. Stories are subjective, and what one person considers good writing another might not. The editor then wants to say, “Okay, subjectively, what’s good about your story?” But instead, the critic (who for some reason is not a jackass in this scenario) attempts to explain it better, all the time hating the author.

Or worse, the situation is the author is sitting there judging his own work, and thinks, “Is this good or bad? I can’t tell anymore,” then shrugs, “Someone might like it.”

The question becomes about knowing when it is subjective and when it is pretty much just common. While we want to work with only universal laws, only having to go to the trouble of changing something when it will always be bad, it becomes quickly apparent that only fixing things that are absolute means we can’t fix anything at all. Because everything is subjective.

So, we have two choices. One, we give ourselves over to “self-expression,” write what we write without any conscientious thought as to why or how it will be received, and consider it a success if it proved a catharsis for us.

Or two, we start defining what quality means to us personally and come up with standards accordingly.

What that means is we remove all the “coulds” and “maybes,” and release our right to wing it and hope it makes us happy in favor of making actual informed choices.

In order to do the latter, we start by asking ourselves some questions:

1) How will I know when this book is “good”?
2) What do I believe is a likely reaction?
3) Who is my audience?

For the first one, sitting down and deciding how you will know when you’re successful will clarify the actions to take. You say to yourself, “This will be a great book when people fall in love with the characters,” and then, upon being unsure if you should cut a scene or not, you can decide if that scene helps, ruins, or does nothing for that goal.

You get to decide your objectives are whatever you want them to be, and you get to have as many as you want. The important thing is to be honest, specific, and prioritize. Pretending you don’t want something you do (“I want to make money”) won’t behoove your decision making skills. While you don’t have to tell anyone what you want, you should be able to admit it for yourself.

If you have more than one goal, remember that eventually you’ll have to sacrifice one over the other eventually, and knowing which one will make several similar sacrifices support each other rather than void each other out.

(NOTE: Since I believe in hindsight editing, i.e. writing the story and then analyzing it, I will say the question of likeliness is for the second draft—trying to think about audiences' reactions while writing will drive you insane and limit your options.)

In many circumstances, thinking, "It could be funny" is an issue of what you believe conflicting with what you want to believe. You want people to think the joke is funny so you bank on a difference sense of humor or that you are just too close to be amused. And the annoying part is, you might be right; your audience may love something you don't. But sometimes, just by being honest with yourself and saying, “I really don’t think that most people will be amused by this,” tells you to fix it or cut it. Which, strangely enough, is a relief because many times the decision is the hard part.

Next, you can get feedback from other people (allegedly) and when they confirm your fears, you have an answer. Or, in the scenario they brought up something new that you are unsure of, you are still able to gauge the commonality of the opinion by profiling (taking what you know about the person and using that understand his own personal tastes) or by getting more than one person’s advice and seeing if they agree. Preferably they will all mention it on their own, but if not, then the issue becomes asking a question in a way that doesn’t have an answer in it. But that’s a different article for another time.

At the end of it, when it becomes extremely difficult to know how other people will react, think about your audience. While I am not one advocating that you need to market to a specific demographic—I believe it lends to dumbing down your work—I do think that having an idea of the person you’re writing for will help make decisions.

While many people argue against writing for yourself, I recommend it. I think zeroing in on one specific individual, especially one you know very well, benefits cohesion. Rather than “making love to the world,” or even a group, you target a fan that you want to get, which is usually yourself.

No matter how much we want to be special and unique, each of us is part of a marketable group. Your personal tastes are what can create an original perspective and story. Trying to ignore what you specifically want because it might not be what everyone wants is either self-loathing or pretty narcissistic. When considering how many people start writing in order to touch people like someone touched them, it would make sense to think of yourself as the fan you want to get.

Writing the book you want to read, telling the story you want to hear, aiming to create the book that you want to exist gives a clear and crisp goal for the author to aim for. Instead of thinking, “I want a good book,” and being happy if it turns out as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged makes it really hard to know when a scene is too intellectual or too scary or too glittery. Succumbing to subjectivity, claiming that what just happened is a style, that someone somewhere might think a joke is funny, that the unexplained mess you made might be considered genius makes the editing process a hell of a lot harder. Depending on hope in order to preserve possibilities will not do nearly as good as depending on your personal taste in order to preserve your vision.

It’s true that art is subjective. This is the author’s problem. While acknowledging its subjectivity is helpful, surrendering to it doesn’t help anyone.