Friday, January 15, 2016

When You Have Very Different Opinions on Your Own Work

Back when I first started to seek out criticism heavily, I found myself completely overwhelmed. Most of the critiques were about little things, line-edits, not mentioning the big picture, just complaining about this word here and that word there. Which would have been fine, except it wasn’t consistent, and the specific changes couldn’t be used to make decisions in the future. I couldn’t see why they hated this word so much and left that one alone. Or even loved it. One person would tell me, “You absolutely must change this word!” in which no one else said anything about anything remotely related to it. I was lucky if I got three people out of twenty to agree on something, and in those very rare, cases, it was usually something arbitrary or even dumb, like when I said, “red” instead of “blood,” or “He clamped his mouth shut.”

“With what?”

Call it a cliché even, but I wasn’t being especially clever with that one. You’ve seen this phrasing before, I am positive.

Moreover, I started to get criticism I couldn’t figure out. People would tell me to do something, and it wasn’t necessarily something I disagreed with, I just didn’t get it.

Whenever I met with agents, editors, or authors, I would ask, “What do you do when you get feedback you don’t understand?”

They didn’t get it. “What do you mean, ‘don’t understand’?”

I couldn’t even understand how I didn’t understand it. I’d give them examples and, of course, they just told me what to do with it.

“Oh, just ignore it.”

But the interesting thing was that even though everyone had answers, it seemed that those who were experienced—the agents, editors, and long-term writers—all told me to just ignore it and move on. It was the newbies, the aspiring authors, the non-writers, the beginners, who said, “If you don’t disagree with it, why don’t you just take it?”

Over the years I found how to ask questions, find what I didn’t understand, and use criticism more efficiently. Generally speaking, my personal judgment was key. Sometimes, people would tell me something and I didn’t see it at all like, “You need to set up the scene more.” In those cases, I learned to express my feelings instead of just saying, “Okay,” and struggling to figure it out on my own.  I found every time that someone said there was a problem in my work and I didn’t see it, it was because it wasn’t there. At least, not in the way I was interpreting it.

Usually, it is an issue of miscommunication. By “set up the scene,” he didn’t mean describe the hut they were in better, he meant explain the rules of the entire world faster. “Like, are we in outer space?”

It’s not common that my judgment is completely contrary to someone else’s opinion. In fact, if I don’t agree that the existence of what they’re describing then it says to me that we’re not on the same page. We might disagree if it actually hurts my work, or whether or not the benefits outweigh the consequences, but I do expect to recognize their perspective. If I don’t, I work at it until I do.

People will tell you you can’t edit your own work, that you’ll always be biased against it.

While this thought has some merit, I think it’s actually damaging. Writing is about conveying a story, and learning how people react to certain choices is key. Your perspective will always be different, and that’s why you write. It’s important to at least understand how other people are seeing your work, and in many cases it is the best (maybe even only) way to familiarize yourself with the abnormalcy of your mind. You can’t realize how you think differently if you don’t communicate with others. Getting someone else to read your work is imperative to the process, yes. It teaches you how to put yourself in your readers’ shoes, how to convey thoughts, and how your understanding of words and actions isn’t necessarily everyone’s. Plus, there’s issues like when you, knowing what you mean, might naturally fix errors in your mind that are still there on a page.

And you are biased. Your project is more special and intimate than it is for someone else. You also hate it a little more than others will. You have seen the monster being sewn into the costume, you know the failings of the author—you’ll never put yourself on the idealistic pedestal.

But then again, everyone’s biased. Every reader enters in with pre-existing assumptions, expectations and hopes. Whenever you go into a writers’ group, everyone there, even the most kind and helpful people, want to be a better writer than you. And when you tell someone to examine a novel for mistakes, they’re going to read it very differently than if they had picked it up for their own enjoyment.

You’ll find that if you give an unedited work out to people, you’ll get back responses that you could have fixed yourself. People only dig until they find a mistake, so if you have a lot of typos, you’ll get a manuscript back with only copyediting. (Unless they are an experienced editor and know better.) The less obvious the problems are, the further people will take it.

This is exactly why an author needs to self-edit first. He needs to trust his own judgment and hold himself to higher standards. The worst thing you can do is hand a manuscript to someone and say, “Is this any good?”

My response is always, “Well, do you like it?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like anything I do.”

“You’re not being analytical enough.”

It can be overwhelming to judge your own work, especially because you’re right in thinking that you might just be overly negative—or overly positive. But I have found that when a writer actually sits down, reads his work, and practices critical thinking, he can be very capable of finding problems and improving the work.

But it is a learned skill. The biggest issue is that most readers go off of an, “I’ll know it when I see it,” method of judging quality. In fact, if you start talking to non-writers about what makes good literature, you tend to get vague answers. It’s just a feeling, in most cases. People don’t sit there and determine the qualities of the story before passing judgment, they just know. When you start writing, you begin to ask questions that you’ve never even considered before. You can’t have that same, “I’ll know it when I see it,” for your own story because your first impression happened to a manifestation that no longer exists. You can’t judge it based on a feeling. You have to learn how to really analyze a work. It’s important to at least try to criticize your own writing before you hand it off to someone else.

I finished my manuscript yesterday. Two years in the making—a horrible duration for a first draft for me. I had been struggling in recent history to actually write, and though I did get a decent amount of editing done and partial manuscripts, I hadn’t actually finished anything in a while.

I also should have completed back in December, but I kept procrastinating. For some reason, I struggled with it. To be fair to me, it was about 25,000 words longer than I had originally planned, ending at 105,000. But that was still in my safe zone, and I’m just glad it’s not ridiculous. I have room to cut and add if necessary without going too far over or under.

I knew I had something with it ever since the first pages. I remember getting distracted from writing constantly. Generally, I open up a document and start reading the beginning until I get bored, and then go back to work. With this one, I would be on page seventy before I said, “Knock it off, idiot.” I’ve read through it many times, still entertained.

Around six months ago, after having abandoned the project, I opened it again to find some of the problems I had seen before—rushed transitions in between scenes—weren’t an issue for me anymore, and found some problems I hadn’t seen—choppy wording—were now there. Some of it could be attributed to changes I’d made, but in other places I knew I just felt very differently.

That’s the sort of moment in which feedback comes in handy, right?

True, except that feedback is personal. If someone naturally addresses your concerns, you’re lucky. In most cases, they’ll focus on what is most important to them. A non-writing reader is going to give you a vague reaction (that may or may not be solved in whole or in part by your concern), and a writer will give you a specific instruction, (that may or may not reference a problem that would also be solved in whole or in part by your concern.) You can ask if something is an issue, but that puts the idea in their head. Even if they had no problem with the pacing, once you say, “Did you think the pacing was rushed?” it could then make them feel like it was.

Or maybe they just didn’t mention it. Or maybe they just didn’t realize that was the issue, but now you said it…

My tactic is to make mild changes as I go along. I find that drastically attempting to fix a problem has always been inorganic and obvious, making more issues than it solved. I read through and make alterations on a point by point basis. It also gives me a good idea of how I really feel in general.

After finishing a manuscript, I give it a look over and make some notes and edits. After the second draft I then put it aside for about a month (or more.) But I find it useful to fix some things while I still remember what I wanted. And there’s some changes I already know I want to make. It also gives me something to mull over and digest. When I’m not sure of an alteration, I will let it sit for a time, and generally find the answer later. I’ve left the beginning alone.

Today, I opened up another manuscript. It’s around 60,000 words in, and I haven’t worked on it for a while. I usually write with the belief that the beginning won’t really be the beginning. I at first considered the introduction to this story explanatory and uninteresting. But as I read it now, I find myself feeling very differently. I realize that some of the curved balls I throw against expectation muddles the kind of world it reads as immediately—the protagonist, in a fantasy-based world, mentions how different women’s rights were 20 years ago—yet I don’t take issue to the opening monologue as much as I did when I first wrote and continued to read it. Prior, I was sure I wanted to change it. Now, not so much.

Biases change. At first I was biased against it because I know narrative monologues tend to be boring. I also often feel backstory is not the place to start. I wrote it to get a gauge of the world and have the ball rolling.

Now I feel it’s more interesting than I originally thought. But it could be because I don’t want to do the work to change it. It could also be that I understand the characters much better. I often say to people that if you like the beginning of your story when no one else does it’s probably because you know something they don’t. The details mean more to you. Which could very well be the case.

I hate this moment. For me, editing isn’t hard except when you’re not sure on what you want to do. Moments of indecision can become painful.

The beginning of the book is funny, and I read the first thirty pages easily. I suppose that means I’ll leave it as is right now.