Friday, October 30, 2015

Don't Belittle Writers for Accidents

I hit a deer. He died on impact, which I suppose is a good thing. I was driving along at eight o’clock at night in the middle of Wyoming, going the speed limit, when a group of them were just hanging out in the road. I slammed on my brakes, but it wasn’t quick enough.

My car is at the mechanic, and I’m hoping that he can get it fixed soon. The boyfriend really wanted to see a concert in Phoenix on Halloween, and I hate to disappoint him. I’m waiting for a call right now.

Every part of this sucks. Even when I thought my car was fine—it looked fine—having manslaughtered an animal is terrible. I know many of my friends are hunters and don’t necessarily know where I’m coming from, but I hate it. However, it’s not as bad as it could be.

When I finally arrived at my friend’s house in Laramie, I could see the smoke rising up through the lights. I got out to witness a waterfall of liquid pour out of the engine. I didn’t get upset. I wasn’t filled with anger or frustration or tears, I was just like, “Well, better call the mechanic.”

Getting into this accident was one of those things that happen. It was an accident. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It wasn’t like going to the repair shop and saying, “Yeah, I haven’t gotten an oil change in three years… What’s wrong with my car?” I wasn’t terrified the cops would come in and say, “Well, you were going twenty miles over the speed limit. Here’s a ticket to add to that.”

I could take my car in without shame, call my parents and tell them what had happened, and then focus on solving the issue. This is the sign of an adult, I believe, because as a child, I remembered living in perpetual fear that I was going to get in trouble whenever something went wrong, even if I had no idea how I could have prevented it.

I look to my friends and relationships in which someone had a bad habit of lying when there was no reason to, those who fabricate a ridiculous story instead of just admitting, “I realized I can’t do what you asked, actually.” Personally, I’m terrible at lying, and I rarely consider it necessary. Most times the truth is fair enough. “It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with you, it’s just I’m tired and don’t want to leave the house at all.” People will often understand. The friends who lie a lot tend to have blame-based parents, the ones who will yell at you if you dropped a dish the same amount if you were playing baseball in the house and broke it. They grew up learning that when something bad happens, someone has to be shamed for it, someone is at fault, and an accident is always caused by a wrong choice—even when it isn’t.

Not only is it a huge problem for our development, not only do I believe that forgiving children for accidents is an important part of helping your child develop critical thinking and independence in our daily lives, but not telling the difference is a huge problem in constructive criticism for writers.

Of course I went there.

Sometimes mistakes happen that were completely unintentional and not necessarily preventable. Like typos, for instance. They occur to all of us, and usually come from typing too fast, or switching back and forth from the left to right brains too much. They don’t exist because we did something wrong, but because we slip up, physically and mentally. Sometimes they are made from ignorance—not having seen a word in text before, having seen it but not remembering it, not realizing you have been saying a phrase wrong all your life. Sometimes you forget that you started a sentence with “While” and stop in the middle of it, creating a sentence fragment. Sometimes you can’t picture if a book the weight of a bowling ball would have enough air resistance to make it hit the ground after that bowling ball. Sometimes you have no idea what a bazooka shooting a human being would actually do because you’ve never seen it before, so you make a guess. Sometimes you forget that you fired the gun six times already. Sometimes you forget you had a gun at all.

These are not bad choices, they are accidents. They can be solved fairly simply, just by writing in what the feedbacker believes the author actually meant to say. He might be wrong sometimes—him being the one to mistake what the real phrase is—but it’s often fairly cut and dried and requires little evidence or consideration.

But bad choices are different. A bad choice is something where a person makes a conscious decision hoping for certain results and either did not achieve those results or the ramifications outweighed the benefits.

It’s much more complicated with a lot more room for subjectivity. Maybe it does achieve the desired outcomes, just not for that specific feedbacker. In many cases, the priorities of the author differ from the priorities of the reader. The writer wants people to be immersed in the world most, the reader thinks writing should be beautiful and complex. Or maybe they don’t agree at all, the reader believing characters have to be likable, the writer insistent they don’t.

What’s worse is that the discussion will cause people’s opinions to change. It’s not just making everyone aware that the reason the reader didn’t like “red” because she thought it was pretentious and the writer used it because he didn’t want to say “blood” again, and not only about if most readers would really find it pretentious as well, and not only who’s correct in thinking that not having repetitive word choice is more important than using simplistic words, but also about how we don’t have those opinions well defined, how the writer might originally believe no repetition is important, but change his mind based on the reader’s arguments. The discussion can cause the writer to decide his priorities aren’t what they should be, or even, unfortunately, can change the reader’s opinion to conform to the writer’s.

Which is what, really, most authors want to do. We are striving to get people to question their assumptions and biases, but as they say, it doesn’t matter if you can convince a feedbacker of something through discussion because you can’t talk to your actual readers in the same way.

That’s why giving advice about choices over an accident is so much more difficult and so important to differentiate.

Acknowledging the difference between accidental errors and choices you don’t agree with is key in helping someone be independent and, honestly, not dread coming to you for advice. Whether it’s with the daily things, “I broke a dish,” or your manuscript, “Everyone hates my characters,” if you can first acknowledge the difference between an accident and a choice, you can better tackle how you talk to them.

For starters, making people feel bad, in both cases, does very little, but treating an accident like a bad choice or a bad choice like an accident can be the number one cause of offense.

In the case of a onetime issue, like one word that you don’t feel fits, or one time your son let the dog out, it’s important to discuss why it’s a problem, but not shame them. If it’s obviously a mistake, going into detail about why it’s a mistake is insulting. “You spelled ‘the’ ‘teh,’ which tells everyone you didn’t read this yourself.” If it’s not obviously a mistake, but actually a choice that could have worked in other contexts, then it’s extremely important to discuss why it didn’t work now—and also keep in mind that other people, and not just the author, have every right not to agree with you. “For me, this didn’t strike the imagery I believe you are going for, and it made stop and consider why you wanted that word instead of staying immersed in the storyline.”

When a child breaks something on accident, let him know, “Well, that’s upsetting. But there’s nothing to do about it now, so let’s clean it up.” He knows he did something bad, but he’ll be grateful for you not taking it out of proportion, instead understanding he didn’t mean to. It will also help him stop focusing on getting out of trouble and considering why, when he is being punished, you’re lecturing him for this and not for that. Punishing a child for something he didn’t mean to do makes it harder for him to believe he can control his actions and that the punishment is earned. It is less effective. Punishing a writer, by belittling him, for creative choices makes him feel restricted and less inclined to take risks.

When a child breaks something when he should have seen it coming, or an author makes a choice that everyone told him wouldn’t work, it still often is better not to shame him. If possible, point out the factors that he should have considered before he decided playing baseball inside was a good idea, and ask him if he had thought he had any doubts before he did it that he just ignored. Most children, especially boys, will say, “I don’t know,” but that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t doing anything.

But yes, sometimes tough love is necessary. When the mistake happens once, it requires more understanding and is better fueled by discussion than yelling. If, however, the accident continues to occur after having addressed it, it may actually be a consequence of bad choices, like picking up the dish with wet hands, or consistently attempting to look smart in your words. You may need to be more stern about pointing out that he could have done something to prevent it. But when a bad choice continues to be made, sometimes the only solution is to be upfront and frank about the problem and how you feel about their continual decision making. Keep in mind the difference between choosing to ignore other people’s needs and believing that it was the best choice at the time. Treat the guy who refuses to copyedit any of his writing differently than the guy who truly thinks he can write a good book with an unlikable character. Both, over a period of time, can be frustrating, yet with the people who don’t care about the experience they’re giving their fellow humans, you might benefit from telling them straight up, “Your error ridden manuscript makes you look like you don’t give a shit, and I have yet to see any other evidence you do.” Yeah, he’s going to be pissed, he might even hate you, but it’s more likely that your words will knock him into shape if having explained to him sixteen times already that readers want writers they can trust, and well-polished manuscripts are the main way they know they can trust you. If, however, you can see why he still thinks it’s a good idea, why it’s not just him being lazy or stubborn, you still might want to be stern, but tell him to consider if it’s as important to him as the amount of work and trial and error it will take to get it there. “You know I don’t agree with your vision to not have a character arc. I don’t think it’s working, and I don’t know what the benefits of achieving it are. But that doesn’t mean I’m right. I would strongly consider what your goals are… If it’s about challenging yourself, keep going, or if you think it’s just me, give it to some other readers and see what they have to say. Then really consider how much you want this and how much work it’s going to be.”

The point is, however, to give people credit and see where they’re coming from. When lashing out at a mistake, always consider the benefits of punishing them. Are you really trying to help them, or just control their behavior? Will lecturing or being disgusted really inspire a behavioral change, or lead them to hide it, avoid you, or even become more stubborn? When a writer makes a choice you don’t agree with, don’t write them off as an idiot or an incompetent; explain your side, and remember that not only is it ultimately their choice, but you’re not always going to be around. If you want people to be able to make good decisions, you have to help them understand why something is a bad one, and also not feel shame when something doesn’t go to plan.