Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ten Things I Learned about Writing from Working in a Fabric Store

Currently I make my living off of part-time jobs and freelancing my theatre skills. My main source of income is a fabric store where I might spend more than I actually make. During these days, I spend a lot of my time thinking about writing, and thus connections are bound to be born.

1.) Subjectivity is a real thing.

This year we had several showings of local quilters’ works, one in which we had the opportunity to vote on the best. We had three categories: Best of Show, Color, and Student. I helped to tally the votes at the end, and the ones I chose? They were on the lower side of choice, having some marks, but less than most.

The ones that won I understood a little bit. Color had the most colors (and I don’t like colorful; I chose the combination I liked best), Best of Show was the hardest to make, and the students was the only one that was not just a bunch of typical squares and stars. We had all predicted the one that would win—it was obvious—but I would have thought the ones I liked best would have done better.

Some of the ugliest quilts I’ve ever seen get a great deal of compliments—without the creator in the room. Color combinations I would never use, colors in general that I couldn’t make appeal to me with all the fabric options in the world, are some of my costumers and coworkers favorites.

Unlike in writing in which I—insanely, if not accurately—attribute many people’s love of a “bad” book as lying. You do not like Hemmingway and Jack Kerouac and Fitzgerald. Bullshit. Or my friend who thinks that she’s better read than her classmates. Both of these things can be true, but they aren’t necessarily true all of the time, and nothing shows the objective truth of subjectivity when it comes to favorite colors.

Some people like things other people don’t.

2.) Never ask stringent rule follows how to break rules.

I work with a lovely woman who is much older than me, and a completely different personality. She is a longtime seamstress, a perfectionist, who is very good at what she does. She knows how to do practically everything. But God forbid you want to do something weird.

I hesitate to ask for her help on things because it will generally be prefaced by “Why are you doing it at all?” I want to change a pattern, trace a pattern, move something, reorganize something, try something new, and I’ll have to explain to her my reasoning behind it. In her mind, we should never change unless there’s a reason to.

This is pretty common in writing sessions, but less obvious. Unlike sewing in which there is a pattern for, a clear rulebook, and logical standards of protocol, the “rules” on writing are pretty vague. And I’ve never met a writer who was willing to admit that he liked doing what he was supposed to.

But you’ll come across smart, experienced people who you disagree with in every way, or will question you on your choices, but will never outright admit that they don’t like rocking the boat. Hell, you might be one of those people. In these scenarios, the receiver of advice might not realize what is going on. I, for one, never even considered that people would balk at change or originality. I consider any criticism on such—always—as them saying, “You’re trying too hard to be original.” But no, there really are people who want things to be formulaic, who don’t want to break the rules, and who will actually say the words, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before,” as though it’s a bad thing by itself.

There is a thin line between being creative and looking like you’re trying to be creative, but when someone starts questioning why you would bother, making suggestions that you don’t agree with, it’s important to consider if maybe, just maybe, they’re a rule follower. If they are, and you aren’t, it might be the cause of the disagreement, and maybe you don’t just have your head up your ass.

3.) Comparison is important.

I would love a fabric. I would love it from afar, never having a reason to use it, never having a reason to pick it up. Then, one day, that would change. I’d take it out, cut off a piece, throw it in my box to make a display, only to pull it out a day later and go, “I liked this?”

Writing, like fabrics, is often evaluated by what it’s being compared to. On the shelf, a color is defined by the colors it’s next to. Books are defined by the others a reader is seeing at that time. Ideas that are great on their own change when put into context. How well something is received sometimes has nothing to do with what it is, but rather what it is being compared to.

4.) By making one arbitrary decision, great ones will follow.

When you walk into any fabric store for the first time, there’s generally a sense of overwhelming decisions to be made. If you have no pattern, no color scheme, have no idea what you want to do, it’s common to try and keep options open. As soon as I pick that fabric, I can’t pick this fabric, and many don’t like to limit themselves like that.

Authors do this all the time. Many people who want to write a novel say to me, “There’s just no idea that I want to commit to yet.” Many who start to write a novel then quit, say, “I just get in and then change my mind about what I want to happen.” People don’t like limiting themselves. They want to see all the options before they make a decision. They want to make the right decision.

This is, however, impossible. Because writing is subjective and because there are too many choices and possible combinations available, trying to wait for the right idea will often lead to nothing happening.

The moment, however, that we make a concrete decision—say, “red”—obvious decisions follow it. I can’t use orange, but I love black with red. Is orange bad normally? Not always. But in this context it is, and it’s easier to skip the orange section and get ideas without being worried about skipping the orange section.

It is far better to make a decision and change your mind than it is to wait around for the right decision to come along. Mostly, because making that first decision is more likely to help you understand what you want—or don’t.

5.) What I like best and what I am most impressed by is not always the same thing.

Back to the contest, I suggested to my boss that we have different option for favorite and for most difficult. She said she had something similar, but the costumers got too confused how to rate it.

I wanted it, however, because the quilts I liked best I knew weren’t that hard to make, but the ones that were impressive, I probably wouldn’t have in my house. Should I vote based on my honest feelings or my logical “shoulds”?

What is hard to do in writing isn’t always clear. The best authors make everything look natural and easy. Sometimes the most complicated and thought out moment is the one most glossed over.

That being said, there are a lot of books that I love that I’m not really impressed by, and those that I’m impressed by that I don’t really love.

Do I think Beckett is a good writer? Yes. As a person of study, to take him line by line, he is interesting. I think he was a fun writer, a good wordsmith, and analyzing him is a blast. His stories, however, would be something a theatre in hell might play.

I find him very, very boring.

It is helpful for every author to remember that they are not intrinsically connected, and that he might be prioritizing one that a reviewer or contest judge is doing the opposite. While, I believe, most people would like to have both, sometimes it helps to remember that not having one doesn’t mean a complete failure.

6.) You’ll get better without even realizing it.

Free motion sewing is a quilting process in which the seamstress becomes completely in charge of moving the needle. She pushes the fabric around with nothing to regulate her seam length or direction. The process would be akin to tying a pen in place than trying to draw by moving the paper. It’s hard.

When I first started, my coworker—a great quilter—said, you’ll be surprised at how much better you are by the end of the quilt.

She was right. I free motioned, making up flowers and leaves all along the edges of the blanket, and you can definitely tell where I started and where I finished.

This is true for everything, whether it be writing, drawing, playing an instrument. With writing it’s hard to tell because it’s not visual or audible, but abstract. What is good and bad is so indistinct that sometimes all we know is “I don’t like it.”

It is typical to feel like you’re never going to like what you do, or that it will take far too long to get there. Many times you don’t want to ruin the project you’re working on with your inevitable mistakes. But the only way to learn is to practice.

7.) You will disagree with people on what is “supposed” to happen.

I walked into my boss’s office to see new fabrics lined up by her desk. I’m not a necessarily a horse person—I like them, sure, but I’m not as obsessive as some others—but immediately I wanted to make something out of it.

Because we live in a tourist town in Wyoming, we sell a great deal of western fabric to quilters looking for things they can’t find in their hometown. (Yes, that actually is a pretty common thing for quilters to do.) These horses, however, weren’t really all that western. Running through a blue winter plain, they were unique.

When I put them together, I mostly used fabrics from the same line (a “line” is a series of fabrics deliberately designed to go together), but for the cornerstones (small squares of fabric that—usually—go in the corners of the quilt) I chose a pattern of blue horses from elsewhere in the store. Well, a coworker didn’t like it, so I let her pull out a great deal of alternative options. My boss came out and we asked for her option, to which they agreed on a brown one. I was asked, “What do you think?”

“Well, it’s okay. My only problem is that it’s kind of western, and I like the fabric because it is about horses, but isn’t so western.”

“It’s not western!” my boss said. “It’s just brown.”

Well, my lovely coworker from above came in soon after to give her opinion, to which she said, “I like this one.” (pointing to the majority’s favorite) “It makes it look more western.”

I started laughing, and my boss explained, “That was the wrong thing to say.”

When my boss explained way, my coworker was so flabbergasted; she couldn’t even form her thoughts into words.

“It’s about horses!” she said. “It’s western! Deal with it!”

Everyone makes assumptions about the way things are supposed to be and what other people are going for. She could not comprehend how I could possibly want a horse not to be western, and I could not comprehend why that wouldn’t be incredibly obvious.

All writers will have this conversation at one point or another. A reader will make the assumption as to what the author’s going for, as to how things are supposed to be, about personal tastes, and the writer has to decide if he agrees or not. Whether it be mixing genres, morals of the story, or just little, unpredictable details, at one point in time someone will say something isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

8.) What seems like common sense to you isn’t always that common.

A guy came into the store a few days ago needing a thin strip of felt, 60 inches long. He had a worse temperament than most of the men. It is common for them to be uncomfortable, hostile, and abrupt in a fabric store. (There are a lot of men who aren’t, of course, but who notices them?) He gave me that same constipated, monosyllabic tone reserved for someone who just underwent surgery, and kept staring at me, waiting for me to deliver whatever the hell it is he wanted.

He said he needed felt, so I pointed the direction it would be in. He waited. I walked over with him, saying, “This felt is 72 inches, and we cut width of fabric, so you’ll take the whole 72, but it will be long enough.” I showed him the felt bolts (cardboard wrapped in about 15 yards of fabric). He stared at me. “Do you know what color you want?”

“Don’t you have anything else? I just need a strip.”

“Well, we have felt squares, but they’re only a few inches wide and long.”

“Don’t you sell it in ribbon form?”

I didn’t expect this. “Nope.”

He eyed the felts and, deciding that it wouldn’t work for him, “Can you tell me any other options?”

At this point in time, I had no idea why he couldn’t use the felt, and he was so abrasive, I didn’t care.

“This is all we have. I don’t who else would sell felt.”

“I just need a thin strip.”

Now I just stared at him.

“And that’s too much,” he said, gesturing at the bolt.

“I can cut as little as one-eighth a yard, which is about four and half inches.”

“Oh. Okay.”

He lightened up. Then he stared at me.

“I’ll do that then.”

And he stared at me.

“What color?” I said finally.

Selling fabric is a weird business, and it’s understandable why people are uncomfortable and confused. The problem is there are so many different possibilities as to where they might be confused, I don’t know what they don’t know. Now, having worked there for a while, it seems like second nature to me. I knew he was concerned about something, but I couldn’t figure what. In hindsight, it’s obvious why he wouldn’t know how little I could cut, yet I have no idea how much he thought he had to take. It seems like common sense that the bolt would have worked for him, but because he didn’t understand anything about the process, he couldn’t even begin to ask about the miscommunication, and I couldn’t begin to guess.

The number one reason I don’t understand feedback is when the peer glosses over something “obvious.” Instead of saying, “I’m confused who’s talking here,” they say, “Just use their names.” Instead of telling me, “I don’t know who I’m supposed to root for, so I root for no one and don’t care,” they say, “You have too many characters.

By assuming “common sense” neither party is able to understand where the miscommunication is happening. Of course, you can’t explain everything to everyone without sounding condescending as hell, but when miscommunication happens, you can start by considering what you don’t know.

9.) Many customers won’t understand that what they want is unique to them.

I’ve worked there for eight months now, and in this time I’ve had a few costumers upset that we didn’t have what they wanted. Most handle it pretty well. If you’ve lived in Jackson for more than three seconds, you know this is a small town and we have nothing. Go to Idaho Falls if you want a Furby.

But there are those who—usually due to procrastination—are very upset about not having it. I had one man give me a ten-minute long rant about how he keeps coming in there and we have nothing he wants, and I need to be sure to deliver the message to my boss. Because, yeah, what she really needs to hear today is some old jackass complaining we don’t have the color of Velcro he needs. I’m sure that will change everything.

The funny thing is that in all of these situations, the person complaining is often the first person asking. I’ve never been requested for it before, and I haven’t been requested of it since. The items that we do get a lot of requests for, the people haven’t been alarmed about not having it. The tantrum throwers want something that, while not unique, is not something I picture being sold in bulk.

I’ve had people like this in writers’ groups, where they tell their fellow writers what their book needs to be or needs to change, completely unaware that their request is unique to them. A man once started by saying, “I don’t like detective novels,” then telling the mystery writer what she shouldn’t do to fix that.

Unless she was writing mystery novels for non-mystery readers, this is advice that probably isn’t that useful.

10.) People don’t like labeling themselves.

When someone comes up to buy a lot of fabric, I ask, “Are you a quilter?”

What I really mean is, “Do you have any idea how much this is going to cost?”

Nine times out of ten, they hesitate.

“Well, I’m a beginning quilter,” they say.

“I quilt,” they say, “But I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘quilter.’”

Like calling ourselves “writers” people have a problem with putting a label that they don’t think fits them fully. It becomes a big step for us to admit, yes, I am a writer, yes, I am a quilter, and the amount of pressure we put on those labels can be funny.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

“Do You Know Any Good Publishers?”

About two years ago I was sitting around “writing” (i.e. “reading articles about writing”), and I came across an interview with a traditionally published author. I didn’t know who he was exactly, and I certainly don’t remember him now, but he was fairly successful as a novelist and in the most accepted sense of the word.

He told a story about an aspiring author’s comment during a book signing. The man came up to him, tapped on his book, and asked, “How much did this cost you to make?”

The author said, astonished, “Not a thing.”

This was the first time I had heard the belief authors were supposed to pay to be published. At the moment, I was really surprised. Yet, with actual statements like, “I’m going into self-publishing because I don’t have the time, energy, or money to do it traditionally,” getting round the internet pretty frequently, it has started to become apparent to me that it is a fairly common thought.

The publisher finances the project. That’s the reason an author would agree to share his profits.

Which is why I wonder what these potential writers think a publisher does, and why I don’t know how to answer the most typical request on any writer’s forum, “Do you guys know any good publishers?”

That depends on what is meant by “publisher.”

Some people mean self-publisher, some people mean traditional publisher, and some don’t know the difference. Despite the repetitiveness of the question, this unfamiliarity with the publishing process remains, this is the reason behind so many successful scams, and is why so many people get burned.

Publishing is just like any other business. You have the guy with the money who pays the people with the skills. He gets to decide who he hires, and he looks at a resume (query letter) and a portfolio (the manuscript). The only real difference is that, one, the author has already done the work, and, two, it’s the author’s brainchild instead of the guy with the bank account.

So the power therein is a little unclear. The publisher works sort of like an investor as well as a boss, the author is expected to take a good amount of personal investment and opinion into the scene, and instead of it being majorly the boss’s name on the line, it’s the artist’s. Sure, HarperCollins looks a little bad when producing a terrible book, but most people won’t even know who the publisher was. John Smith is the idiot who thought it was a good idea.

(Not that Mr. Smith could ever been an idiot.)

The symbiotic relationship between traditional publisher and author works like this:

The publisher puts up the money so the broke author doesn’t have to. If the project fails, the publisher is the only one financially affected. But in return for this risk, if the project succeeds, the publisher gets the profits, paying the author with royalties.

The publisher has more resources; they can buy the books in far higher bulk and thus have cheaper costs, they have a working relationship with bookstores and so can get their novels on shelves easier and book signings faster, and they have a better reputation which, in this business, means a lot. No one is looking for typos because they assume there won’t be any. They are experienced in the commercial aspects of novels. Each person in the company has made a lot of their mistakes already and learned from them, warned each other about them, and developed a system to prevent them from happening. They have a good sense as to what works and what doesn’t. The publisher tackles the writing world from the financial angle which allows the author to focus on the artistic one.

The symbiotic relationship between the publisher and the author in self-publishing:

They are the same person.

Self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like. The author, instead of turning to a company for investment, fronts the financial side of it by himself. This allows him to have complete control over his own project and reap all the rewards. But it means that he is on his own.

The self-publisher does not have a good reputation. Currently (and that must be emphasized because the literary world is changing fairly fast), the majority of people see the self-publisher as the “I needed the instant and guaranteed gratification for my work that self-publishing supplies, and am too lazy and/or arrogant to get a ‘real’ book, and so slapped whatever unedited crap I spewed onto paper on the internet and expect destiny to take over from there.”

Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case, and I’m not trying to dissuade anyone who is interested in this avenue. I’ve read many good self-published books. But, to be fair, I have read a lot more terrible ones. Or, at least, started to.

My point is that, while there are a lot of reasons and benefits to self-publishing, before an author takes that route, he can’t be disillusioned about how people are going to see him. As A.A. says, the first step to solving a problem is by admitting there is one.

Self-publishing is that it is just like starting your own business. If a writer is not good with business or marketing, or very inexperienced, he needs to consider that before trying to start his career in this way.

Can you get people to friend you on Facebook? Follow you on Twitter? When you were selling candy bars for girl scouts/boy scouts/sports/school electives, did you do a good job? Did you hate it beyond all belief? Have you promoted and produced any sort of smaller projects before? How did those go? Do you have enough money to pay for advertising? Do you know how books are advertised? Have you ever tried to make money via self-employed means before?

Because of the current stigma, an author who has self-published a book that was not a surprising success now has a black mark on his career. Publishers aren’t impressed by this action, and worse, they tend to believe you’re going to be harder to work with (see above perception), and if you don’t provide the name of the publisher in your query, they’re going to think (know) that any “published” book is just self made. If you don’t mention it at all and they look you up on the internet and see it, they’ll be annoyed that you didn’t talk about it. (I’ve heard agents complain about this.) This leads to very limited options in terms of proper etiquette when trying to switch back to the traditional route.

This is to say there are reasons not to do self-publish if you’re not prepared to make it successful. Considering how many times I’ve read a blog that said, “I was just going to put my book up on the internet and let whatever happen happen,” I know it’s not uncommon for authors to never have any intention on putting in the effort.

Self-publishing isn’t easier. It’s just that the hard work comes when the book is already out.

Authors who want to be traditionally published have every reason to go for that route first. Many self-published writers didn’t bother with it, for various motives, and turned straight for the guarantee. Make sure that the publishers really are a bunch of tasteless suits before assuming that they’re not going to like what you wrote. They very well might like it, and there’s a lot of benefit to having financial back than having control and no support. Traditional publishing may be the worst route for an artistic and financial genius, but it allows for skill compensation for us without both.

If your goal is, however, to just have a book in your hands and not have a long standing career (which really is some people’s), then we can turn our heads to the vanity press. This is a publishing company that, by means of the print-on-demand option, will (as an unsaid rule) accept pretty much anyone and make a printed book available to the public online. They aren’t actually created until someone orders them, so the press isn’t out any money.

The problem with vanity presses is that they are poorly edited, (I believe not at all), and very expensive compared to other books. That’s how they make their money. They get authors to buy the novels themselves (sometimes in a hostile, manipulative manner), and some from their families, and then, by sheer bulk of the creations, create a profit that way.

This is great if you don’t care about getting readers or them in bookstores. It is a perfect way to have your story in tangible form for twenty bucks. If that’s someone’s goal, (and only goal) I actually would recommend it.

Or, you could actually go the self-publishing route, have them offer the book on print-on-demand, and buy one of your own for a couple of bucks.

In this day and age, it is really easy to get a book available without paying a dime (a singular book). This is important to remember. If your goal is just to have one or a few copies of a story, then you can do it by paying for the books themselves and don’t need to put in thousands of dollars.

All an author needs to understand about a self-publishing company is:

They are a printer not actually a publisher. All they are doing is creating a tangible product you paid them to make.

Some will offer more services as well as printing. This is not necessarily a scam, but the author is still in charge. First, he should have the right to only pay for printing. They might advertise that they have great graphic design artists for the cover, that they have great editors to look through the book, and, in all honesty, this is might be true. But because it’s the writer’s money, he needs to be and to be able to be the responsible one. Before paying for any of this, he should know who’s doing it and what type of work she does. He should also be able to bring in his own artists. If the company says, “Ours or nothing,” or especially, “You must pay for a graphic designer/editor before we will print anything,” it’s a scam and you can get a better deal through other companies. There are too many options to put up with this.

Lastly, and this is the most important part, a self-publishing company should work by commission OR by an upfront charge, but not both. Anyone ever asking for both is definitely a scam. Either the company charges you for printing/specific services (in which you know exactly what those services are), and then you’re on your own, or they don’t charge you anything, but get a percentage after a book has sold.

Simply:

You pay for hard copies. They print those hard copies (in the exact form you have given them) and send all of them to you. The price should be low enough that you can sell them to others for the same amount an average, traditionally published book would go for. Then the company has no investment if the book sells or not. They do not edit, market, or design the novel for you. They take the product as is, no acceptance or rejection involved. (Avoid any self-publishers that have a submissions process.)

OR

You pay nothing. They offer print-on-demand and ebooks online. When someone purchase the copy, (say for $10), they keep a percentage ($2 to $4) and you get the rest ($8 to $6). You should be able to buy your own books for their “percentage” price ($2 to $4), not the retail price ($10). (In this case of not paying anything, it’s because you have also designed and edited it yourself instead of hiring someone.) They do not edit, market, or design the book for you.

Maybe you added some extra services that they offer:

You pay $300 (for example) for a cover design. You pay $3,000 for an editor. You hire a P.R. agent to do the marketing. You need to include those in your cost of books and consider how much you’d need to charge to make that money back. If it gets ridiculous, do some research for what’s normal.

But you never, ever pay for a Printing Fee, a Reading Fee, Marketing Fee, or any extraneous/ambiguous price. You should know exactly what you are getting out of your money, and how much you should be spending on that service. You are paying to get something very specific back, and not paying for their “time” or “consideration.” It should make clear sense as to what the purchased service is. You should be able to opt out of the other options as well/bring in your own artists. You should not be pressured into buying your own books. If they mix traditional publishing with self-publishing, it’s a scam. Luckily, they will advertise it like it’s a good thing. Lastly, the services should be a separate distinction from the printing process. You pay for the service one at a time, and should never be pressured into doing something faster. If you pay for editing, they shouldn’t be charging you for printing. You pay the editor, she edits. You wait as long as you want. You pay for printing (maybe with a different company even), you get the physical books. You should not have to pay for the printing of ebooks.

If you are looking for graphic designers and editors, I recommend working outside the self-publishing company and seeking freelancers. You have more control and more personability that way, and are less likely to be pulled into some sort of money grabbing scam.

The publishing world is changing quickly, and as time goes on, the more self-publishing becomes acceptable. But with more and more authors producing their own work, the more there are people able to collect on our dreams. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing; it’s just important to understand it first, and realize that it’s the choice, not the norm.

So as to the question, “Do you know any good publishers?” the answers are…

If you are looking for a traditional one, you probably want an agent, not a publisher. For those, look in the current Writer’s Market and the acknowledgement section of books in your genre (most authors thank them.) Most publishers do not take anything without an agent, which is why they are usually your first step. And many of them get furious at receiving unsolicited work. If you really want actual publishers, all books have theirs listed in the copyright page. Writer’s Market also has some that will take unagented work.


If you are looking for a self-publisher, CreateSpace works great for paperbacks and ebooks. They have good spines and look great (depending on the cover given). I have heard that Lulu has nice products and more options, like hard cover (also are a little more expensive). IUniverse is a scam, Publish America is a vanity press. Do a Google search if you’re unsure about any company.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why I Disagree with the “Silent Treatment” in Critiques

“The Silent Treatment” seems to be a common academic strategy used in critique sessions to prevent hostility and argument. The rule is the author is not allowed to respond with anything other than “Thank you.” Hoping to prevent the typical tirade of that bastard, The Egotistical Author, a group session will structure its proceedings strictly, preventing people from falling into the “self-defense” rant associated with our favorite stereotype.

The arguments in promotion of the “Silent Treatment” make sense—an author won’t be allowed to defend or explain himself to his readers, so if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. Plus, when in a controlled and secure situation, a peer is more likely to actually speak up than when someone might start screaming at her.

These make sense to me in a contextual sense, but, unfortunately, my priorities are different than the above. The way I see it (respectively): A manufactured criticism session in which people are reading work to give feedback rather than enjoy can’t give a “real” reaction to the story anyway. Next, just because someone’s not speaking doesn’t mean I’m not worried about them hating me. Giving a space for someone to talk freely encourages lack of censor, which is fine for helpful and considerate souls (granted, many people) who need that set up (less people), but not for others, say, The Egotistical Author, there to prove his superiority and knowledge. And, most importantly, criticisms can be fun discussions, once we get over the “being attacked” stage. But nothing makes a person feel like being attacked more than being unable to do anything about it.

While a fine short-term solution, I find not engaging a dialogue problematic for the long-term.

1) The situation is temporary and artificial.

Currently Americans are attempting to remove the concept of winners and losers from our children’s vocabulary. Everyone gets a ribbon, there are no hurt feelings, “no child left behind,” and all that nonsense.

My community was a big part of this, and I have to say I hate them for it. It can’t last forever, and the moment that I got into a truly competitive world, I didn’t know how to function. It disturbed me immensely, and I learned the very hard way that life was no longer set up for me to do what I wanted. The school-created opportunities, their secure, dictated situations weren’t like the “real world.” The contests, the plays, the events, the workshops, hell, even the projects themselves were not just sitting there for the taking. Young people are catered to (as I believe, in terms of opportunities, is a good thing), people dishing out a good amount of money so I may be in a play or have a teacher give me feedback on my writing. But anyone who wishes to continue with the same activities after school soon learns that those same opportunities depend on self-reliance. We have to fight for what we want, we have to force ourselves to do the best possible job we can. If you fail to do your work, if you piss everyone off, if you just don’t do good work, you may not get another opportunity again.

Writer’s groups, classrooms, and chat rooms that ask for a “no response” policy are creating a temporary and artificial world. (Granted, maybe forum moderators don’t care.) It solves the immediate issue of no fights being in the classroom, but it doesn’t help people once they leave that world.

Criticism and how to handle criticism needs to be learned. Neither is an innate trait or an easy skill. It can only be learned through practice and feedback.

Authors need to learn how to say no to someone important in a well-thought out and non-offensive way. They need to learn how to ask questions, how to understand what someone is telling them without sounding like they’re “questioning.” They need to learn how to respond to people who truly are just being horrible jerks (we all know at least one) without starting a screaming match. And a writer who is not conveying his message needs to learn how, and the critic is more able to give useful suggestions that if she actually knows what that message is.

And because authors will be critics at some point in their career (even if it just for themselves), it is important to practice giving feedback, expressing thoughts well, and saying things in a way that will make others respect him rather than thinking he’s a tremendous dick. By getting responses to his responses, he is better equipped to critiquing next time.

Yes, no response will prevent arguments from happening, but it won’t help anyone learn how to prevent arguments when that shield is gone.

2) It promotes a “versus” mentality instead of a collaborative one.

When I criticize this “no response” attitude, the first reaction is always, “You just want to defend yourself!”

Because that would do a lot of good.

I’m not going to pretend that I am immune to getting hurt, feeling defensive, saying things I shouldn't, misbehaving in a critique, or anything else that manifests in “unacceptable” behavior. In fact, I’m not going to even try and prove that I’m not defensive because it doesn’t affect my point.

The perception of the critic versus the author is a counterproductive yet common one. They’re on the same side, and the moment everyone involved accepts that, the situation will be better. This idea of “defending yourself,” is exactly the problem, and the fact that this is people’s first image of the hypothetical situation just tells us how horribly communal it is.

Of course we feel that people are trying to attack us. Writing is a highly competitive field and no matter how good of a person someone is, she still wants to prove her value in the world, and that is inversely linked to the value of those around her.

I’m not saying it’s stupid to think people aren’t just trying to help you; considering how cynical I am, I believe it’s a sure bet. I’m saying that promoting that attitude will not lead to a good experience.

By making the assumption that the author’s reaction will be hostile, it indicates that he should feel hostile. By tying his hands and forcing him to face people who may or may not know how they talk to others, it causes the author to brace before he has even heard a word. By creating an atmosphere that values one side over the other, it widens the gap between them. But when encouraging an open dialogue that is about listening and speaking, both parties are more inclined to feel they’re able to get their point across, not be misinterpreted, and are willing to expend the energy used to shut down to the dialogue. At worst, by being forced to respond, they won’t be able to just sneak away into their own heads.

Will they listen? Will they behave as they should? Will they stop trying to one-up each other? Nope. Not at first. Not unless they’re special and unique. But by facing the ramifications of their actions by seeing others’ responses (author and critic) teaches them to listen, to behave, and to drop the competition far sooner than teaching passive-aggressiveness does.

3) True respect is believing the other person has a point and trying to understand it.

There is one man in my writers’ group who I couldn’t disagree with more. He is an old political essayist, Republican, sexist, bigoted rule-follower. I am a young science-fiction/fantasy writer, filled-with-such-apathy-to-politics-it-would-be-too-much-effort-to-quanitify girl who couldn’t identify a boundary, let alone follow it.

About 90% of the revisions made to my manuscript were his suggestions.

Why? Because, while he was not my intended audience, while he prioritizes things I don’t (in literature and in life), while he doesn’t understand where I’m coming from, he always helps me understand him.

I am the sort of person who assumes that every new stranger knows what he’s talking about. I, often to a fault, have high respect for the criticism of others, always believe they have a good point, I’m just not seeing it.

But, for the reason expressed above, it’s hard to communicate that to someone who is worrying about how I perceive him. While it is the minority, there are those that, when asked to elaborate, will freeze up, get upset, and believe the author doesn’t respect their opinion. These are often the people who create the “no response” ruling. They see respect as full-blown faith.

I understand there are people who trust experts explicitly. I envy them in a way. It certainly makes life easier when you can trust the decisions others make for you. But I don’t consider respect blind-faith. It’s not about always thinking someone’s right, but what you do when you think they’re wrong.

Now I may not respect this man’s political viewpoints, while I may not think it’s the end of the world if he doesn’t like what I’ve written, I listen when he talks. When I don’t understand what he’s saying, when I feel I disagree, I believe there is something I’m missing, that I’m misinterpreting. This isn’t uncommon for me. So I ask questions. We talk it out until I understand. He doesn’t get upset, he doesn’t worry about proving he’s right. Because we are able to have an open dialogue, he has more than one opportunity to say what he wants, and I have more than one opportunity to understand it.

Removing the ability to discuss feedback promotes the attitude that respect is about immediate acceptance, that people only deserve one chance to “be right or wrong.”

This does a disservice to both critic and the author.

4) Successful blind obedience requires starting at the same perspective.

Perspective is what makes people different from each other. We take our memories, our moods, are passions, our futures, our experiences and bring them into every decision we make, into every interpretation.

Two people entering into a situation will have two different perspectives. Those perspectives can merge, they can look at things in the same way, but they need a signal to find out where the other person is. And, for that matter, they need to find out where they are first.

Our perspective is so ingrained that we’re not even aware of it, not even aware that we might be making abnormal assumptions. The biggest cause for miscommunication in constructive criticism is making conjectures that are true from where we stand, but not necessarily viewable from someone else’s point of view. It is important for the critic to show the author where she’s coming from—and, at times, the author to show the critic where he’s coming from—in order for him to see what she does.

My very respected bigot from above told me once that he had “so many questions,” when reading my book. “It was too confusing,” he said.

“What do I need to explain more?”

He didn’t seem to know. He just kept reiterating, “Too many questions,” unable to tell me exactly what it was he didn’t understand.

Now, had this been a place where I couldn’t respond, that’s all I would have gotten. I would have known he was dissatisfied with the number of unanswered hints in the opening, and I would have either had to ignore it or go through and try to guess as to what he wanted to be clearer.

But we kept talking, and he finally he said, “Well, for example, are we in outer space? Because it seems like we’re not.”

I was stunned. I had no idea why he thought that should be explained. Then I thought about it, and I realized: To him, “Science Fiction” meant space. From the perspective of someone who didn’t read it, he just assumed that it would be on another planet, and when it wasn’t, he was confused—or rather, had “so many questions.”

Had I taken my book home and crawled through it trying to find everything he questioned, I would have never guessed that he was confused about it not being in space. From my perspective, “dystopian future,” said “Earth” or “Earth-like.” For him, science fiction said, “Other planet.”

Back when I didn’t understand how much I didn’t understand the criticism given to me, I would take stuff home and do what was asked of me (every once in a while). I would then return with worse results, according to both me and the critic. I’ve seen this happen to other authors also; it’s a decently common phenomenon. If the writer tries to do what the critic tells him exactly without really understanding the why or the what, he is unlikely to have solved their problem.

Discussion illuminates differences in perspective that one-sided reviews will gloss over, blissfully unaware of incongruity within the listener’s mind.

5) The best answer is based around the author’s vision, not the generally accepted solutions.

Once I was told with a dismayed shrug, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Not only is every person in the room going to have their own perspective, but they’re going to have their own goals and tastes. This is important in a feedback session because perfectly good solutions will be rejected for nothing other than not being what the author wanted.

And that’s a good thing.

What will keep consistency in a book, what will allow the author to gauge the quality and success of his work, is his own personal vision. Writing is too subjective, too comparative an art form, for culturally accepted blanket-solutions to rule all.

Many critics are smart, opinionated, and helpful, but they can only go so far if they don’t understand where the author is coming from.

A writer has every right to say no to any piece of advice. But anyone who’s not been satisfied with his work and not known why, anyone who has sought out outsider perspective and yet found himself more confused, not moving forward, doesn’t want to just say no. He wants answers, he wants solutions, and he wants help. And, if the point is self-satisfaction, then being told that the best solution is not to go in the direction he wants won’t help.

A lot of criticism comes in this form. Most feedback writers get asks them to take whatever is different about their story and “cut the crap.” Whether it be switching P.O.V.’s, using weird words, telling a story backward, or having sparkling vampires, most comments will say that what makes a story unique is what makes it bad.

Hell, the author might agree. There is a very fine line between being creative and looking like you’re trying to be creative, and so these comments can be helpful.

But it can also stifle creativity.

The most helpful criticisms are the ones that takes the author’s goals and tastes into consideration. Instead of suggesting pure eradication of the “weirdness” the critic gives ideas how to make it more palatable; she tries to solve her problem while keeping the author’s stipulations in mind. This often leads to novel writing (see what I did there?), opening the box rather than trapping him inside of it.

This can’t happen very well when the critic doesn’t know anything about the author’s vision.

I think it’s great to have a response before the peer understands what the author is going for, but then there needs to be a second part of that, in which she is able to digest her actual response with his desired response. How did she feel, and why didn’t she feel how she was supposed to? The answer to those questions are some of the most helpful realizations the writer can get, and it can only come from an outside source, from someone who is able to have a better insight into the actual reaction without his perception, goals, or tastes considered.


Criticism, no matter the negative stereotypes imposed on it, no matter the authors’ hopes for humility, is a collaborative process meant to help the author. He needs to recognize this, of course, not be a jerk, be grateful, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to be bolted down and gagged. Everyone has something useful to say, but sometimes it’s only by asking, clarifying, and encouraging that we will get it out of them.