Friday, January 27, 2017

The Best Lies I’ve Heard in Constructive Criticism

It’s rare to have someone knowing lie about their opinions. Or, at least, I would assume it is. I’m a pretty good judge of character, but after a jaunt with a certain boy, I do have to question my naivety on the existence of good and evil. I’ll admit I’m not much of a believer in stupidity or true malevolence, attributing most conflict to miscommunication, necessity, or impulsivity. Because I’m not much of a liar, it is rarely my first conclusion.

Loyal readers of this blog hear me claim that the first step in vetting the usefulness of criticism should be determining whether or not the speaker believes what they’re saying. Not because it’s common they don’t—again, I think it’s incredible rare that it doesn’t have at least a foundation of truth—but because if they don’t even trust what they’re saying, you know it won’t be of any use to you. It is one of the few occassions I would recommend just throwing something out.

But why would someone lie? Why would someone knowingly make something up when they’re trying to help?

It doesn’t happen often, it does happen.

“Superman is a well-written character because he has weaknesses.”

The lie isn’t that weakness make a well-written character, it’s that Superman is one. It’s the implication he’d ever read a Superman comic or watched a Superman film or done anything that would remotely familiarize him with the character.

As a child, I liked Batman. Partially because of the animated series, but even when Justice League came out, Bruce Wayne absorbed my interest far more than Clark Kent. Full disclosure, the Martian Manhunter was actually my top choice, then the Flash, then Batman. Both Wonder Woman and Superman didn’t interest me much because they were too good, lacked personalities, and almost always did the right thing. (Although I didn’t dislike Diana, and she too had her moments of fallibility.)

Because I didn’t like Superman, I didn’t watch much that featured him, but I did still watch plenty, (and read a few early comics) and he is rarely well-developed. In the early comics he’s more vicious than later, but still, there’s a notorious black and white issue with his morality. He is a good person through and through.

As for his supernatural weaknesses, kryptonite is a pretty painful choice. He’s either a god, or he’s an infant. There’s not a lot of mobility in the process of taking him down.

I would rarely consider Superman a well-rounded character, nor do I think his “weaknesses” should be emulated by other writers, if for the sole reason the all or nothing power set-up is difficult to do right.

Why he lied about it:

At one point, this man in question admitted he didn’t read much. He actually was just starting out as a writer, and as far as I know, he only wrote six pages into a memoir before he vanished from the writers group. He came in a lot, but kept redoing the same beginning pages.

A woman who had been writing a detective novel had a scene in which someone had gone through the protagonist’s hotel room and left a bug. The protagonist proceeded to seek out answers as to who had done it. Our male peer believed she should have gone to the police—it was the only natural thing!

I couldn’t say as I wasn’t far enough in the novel to know the detective’s backstory, why someone would bug her, or, more importantly, what she thought was going on. I didn’t question her reaction, and after he did, it seemed to me there would be many logical reasons she might not wish to go straight to the authorities. But our peer was insistent.

The writer didn’t argue, just listened to what he had to say, but didn’t gush over his brilliance. He scrambled for more and more arguments to prove himself correct, finally announcing the truth of things: “I don’t believe a lone woman wouldn’t turn to someone else for help! Don’t women turn to each other for help on everything?!”

Women don’t have to be strong all the time, he said, in a group of women. Strong characters are created by having weaknesses.

“Superman is a well-written character because he has weaknesses! He’s not strong all the time!” he stammered.

There was true faith in his opinion, he just didn’t know how to prove it.

“There is no backstory in the first act of Star Wars.

In the same vein as above, an older mystery writer found herself out of her area of expertise when reading my science-fiction novel. My real speculation is that she was new to criticizing in general. It wasn’t her first time, but she definitely exhibited some behaviors and ideas that are typically groomed out of you once you’ve been collaborating for a while.

After handing me a worksheet on proper plot structure, she explained to me that backstory shouldn’t ever be in the first act. What surprised me most by this gesture was how seemingly oblivious she was to the possibility I wouldn’t take it well. Many people vehemently don’t believe in formulas or writing rules and anyone giving criticism should be savvy to that. She acted as though she spoke of a scientific law, as true as the existence of gravity, when, in fact, it was more like overly-simplified, general suggestions.

I didn’t say much to this. It wasn’t until she continued on, stating, “If you watch Star Wars, there’s no backstory in the first act,” that I became noticeably unconvinced. 

“What?” she said.

Star Wars starts with backstory.”


“The big scrawling credits it’s famous for?”

“Oh. Well, that doesn’t count.”

Why she lied about it:

Name dropping is a common tactic in issuing criticism. It’s easy, inarguable, doesn’t take self-reflection, and actually can be helpful. Don’t know how to write an action sequence? I don’t either, but read this book. It  has excellent ones.

The problem is, if you don’t actually read the genre, it’s not easy to offer up examples of works that were successful for you, and in many, many cases, it’s not that the book didn’t do something, but that you didn’t notice. Maybe it’s because they did it so well it was virtually invisible. Maybe, just as frequently, you just didn’t think to question it because that was THEM and this is US. Reputable “experts” are not inherently questioned, so their mistakes have to be grander and more cut and dried. Or, in this case, what she meant is Star Wars didn’t revealing backstory in the way I had—my “backstory” was a visual attempt to build the world by describing the protagonist’s first impression of his new home one year prior, a very successful 11th attempt at painting the culture early on.

Considering she stuck to tired and non-subjective clichés for advice—systematically pointing out each adverb I had—and lacked a sense of sarcasm, humor, lie detecting, or hyperbole, I believe she was  name dropping successful works, which would have been an effective argument for her as a writer. She was talking in the way she would be convinced, but didn’t have the resources to seek the best examples for her points, so she pulled one out of the recesses of her mind and assumed both she would be correct, and I wouldn’t be more informed than her.

Past versus Passed.

A Facebook post some years ago asked, “What’s the difference between past and passed?” About 100 people commented. They all disagreed. Adamantly.

In one humorous case, a woman commented in a long winded version explaining the difference between the two using parts of speech and other grammar jargon. Another person agreed with her, simplifying her answer. They said the exact opposite things.

Each person staunchly stated the right way to use the sentence in question, despite the next comment staunchly asserting the opposite. At least a half of them had to be wrong, but no one was even hesitant to believe their choice.

Why they lied about it:

Because they thought they were right.

Being wrong isn’t a lie, but speaking from assumption rather than education and then not questioning it when many others disagree is negligence; you’re willfully spreading incorrect information you haven’t fact checked.

I question a lot of things in my life; it’s the cause of my anxiety. My conclusion jumping is flawed, and I hate making mistakes. I want to find the truth of things, which often requires me to reassess my assumptions.

You can’t live like that.

While questioning what you assume to be normal or true is an important factor of being a good person and being successful, sometimes you do need to just trust yourself, act on impulse, believe you’re right, and take action when the getting’s good. You literally do not have the time to question everything. I am not sitting here saying, “Does ‘while’ mean what I think it does? Does ‘questioning’? ‘What’? Will my readers agree with me on those meanings?” I do often come across words that don’t actually mean what I think they do, (words I use a lot even) but I can’t always second guess myself if I want to complete a blog post in a reasonable amount of time. Most of them I’m right about.

I personally thought I understood “passed” versus “past” until I worked with an editor on a short story and realized I very much didn’t. I had believed “past” was only a noun in reference to time. But it’s also a preposition. To walk “past” something dictates where you are. To “pass” something is an action. You pass past.

The best time to question yourself is when someone else points out they’re disagreement. If 50% of people answer wrong, you would benefit from doing a quick Google search before throwing in your two-cents.

“Don’t end your sentence in a preposition.”

Let’s be honest, the reason why this is on here is due to the competitiveness inherently attached to this statement. What’s the non-WASPish benefit of not ending a sentence in a preposition? Perhaps clarity, in some cases. Outside of that, I have found attempts to not use a preposition to be far more invasive than just using it.

“Wake,” or “Wake up,” that is the question.

Rundown: Prepositions are “locations” of two objects relative to each other.

It is on the chair. It is under the chair. It, due to a freak accident, is in the chair. On, to, about, in, under, above, through, and even, for some reason, “for” are all prepositions.

Of course when you end a sentence in a prep, the second object is typically implied: “He walked by (you.)”

However, this isn’t an actual English grammar rule and has never been. Back in the late 1800s, there was a push to make English more like Latin. No official grammar editions were convinced, but the masses heard this and just assumed it was correct. Today it is pushed by many people, including highly successful writers and editors, but the fact is, it’s not a fact.

Why they lie about it:

Considering that most people think this is true, it’s not really a lie. But for the same reason not checking your resources on “passed” versus “past” is deceitful, defending any rules with guns blazing before really understanding why is problematic.

More so, since there’s not a lot of artistic or linguistic benefits the change, often insisting on no prepositions can come down to a sole attempt to sound intelligent. The lie is continually propagated by people who want to believe it because it makes them feel like they know what they’re doing. Whenever you see an article about this very subject, you see many comments that insist ending a sentence in a preposition is wrong, despite not offering any argument as to why, suggesting to me they just like believing in it.

“Science-fiction novels are supposed to be short.”

She was my elementary school teacher who ended up in a writers group with an adult me (years later, of course.) She wasn’t the first person to say this, and I know she believed it. I have a high level of respect for her, mostly due her respect for those around her.

But again, there was a moment in which she insistently said something untrue due to her lack of experience.

Why she lied about it:

She was older, which contributed to this. Back in the 1960s-1980s, science fiction was notoriously cheap, mass paperbacks. Due to the methods they were sold (via grocery stores mainly), smaller books would fit more copies on the racks, which meant more money for everyone involved. ‘Cept the author, of course, but who cares about them?

In the recession of the 80s, the publishers needed to up their prices, but the grocery stores refused to charge more for the same “weight,” so publishers began to pick up larger manuscripts.

Adding into the gradually growing popularity of secondary worlds (instead of magical/high tech elements on Earth) caused by Lord of the Rings in 1954, science fiction and fantasy books have slowly grown in size for the sake of developing the worlds as well. Then there’s the improvement on science fiction’s reputation as more of an intellectual piece of literature rather than silly fluff, which makes “serious readers” drawn to it, who typically enjoy longer books.

In any case, since the 1990s, most science-fiction books are around 90-100,000 words, a debut author able to sell at 120,000 more easily than someone of another genre.

I include this on this list, not because she was intentionally lying to me, but because this woman who I had high respectful for was delivering me faulty information—right after I had informed her the opposite was the truth.

And that’s the underlying theme. These lies stay in my mind, not just because I’m obsessive and neurotic, but because they acted so certain about what they were saying despite their information being incorrect. To the extent that they didn’t even waver at disagreement, they pushed their beliefs as fact, and the simple truth is, had I not known any better, I probably would have believed them.

Don’t believe everything you hear, and don’t be convinced by confidence. As much as you question yourself, make sure to question others because some people can tell you lies, assumptions, and fabrications without even flinching.

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