Monday, April 24, 2017

Knowing When to Take Criticism


It is far better to make your own mistakes than someone else’s.

There’s a continuity to them, a meaning; everything you did you did for a reason. It might be a stupid reason, like you were just really tired and phonetically spelt out learn as luren (true story), or it might be that your subconscious knows something you don’t.

Even great advice, when misunderstood, won’t be any good to you. To implement something correctly the nuances of it huge factors in its success. It is so important not to make a generic, homogenized work, (It wasn’t even bad enough to be good!) which is what will happen if you take every piece of advice you get. Remember, people often comment on the different more than what’s important, and sometimes, different is exactly what you want.

And sometimes it isn’t. So how do you know when to take it and when not?

Do you see it?

It’s not about whether or not you agree; it’s about if you understand where they’re coming from.

Say someone tells you you overuse adverbs. When you look at your work, you really don’t think you used very many. In fact, you just don’t see any that you used at all.
1. Reputation. We all know that person who says they love Kafka to sound intelligent. This person is prone to deceiving others about what they like and don’t like in literature. “Name dropping” in critiques (a tactic I can’t stand), is where they’ll say, “Oh, you should read A Clockwork Orange,” simply because it makes them seem well read, not because it has anything to do with you.
While this person is secretly reading Fifty Shades and you couldn’t force to see a staged reading of The Old Man and the Sea, they’re still giving out Hemingway rules of writing; they’re pretending that things that don’t work for them do while incorrectly begrudging pieces that were successful.
I didn’t simplify all my prose, I simplified the important and extra wordy sentences. I didn’t explain everything, just added in a little more detail here and there. I made one scene from another character’s point of view, but left others the same.




Admit this. It’s hard, partially because people are so terrified of looking like the asshat who can’t take criticism, but not saying what you really think will prevent further communication, and the truth is there’s a reason you can’t see it and further conversation will help you find that reason.

This has happened to me probably about six times in the past. Someone would say something—“You need to set up the scene more.”—and I felt strongly that I didn’t need to, that I had done whatever they said I messed up on fantastically.

So I explained to them what I thought. “I believed I had set up the hut really well. I thought it was vivid and grounded, you could see where you were…”

Every single time, every time, there had been a miscommunication: “Oh, no. You set up the hut perfect. I was talking about the world. Like are we in outer space?”

Or, more often, “I was complimenting you, you idiot.”

If you don’t think their perception on your book is true, it’s likely because how you’re interpreting it isn’t what they mean. It might be that you saw the word “scene” as different than the scene they were talking about, or it might be that they misspoke. You don’t really have a lot of adverbs, but when you do use them, they’re noticeable.

If you don’t see what they’re talking about as being true, you can’t really move on from there. If you do get where they’re coming from, it still might not mean they’re entirely correct (it’s possible they just have a petpeeve about adverbs), but you’re at least starting from the same base.

Do they believe what they’re saying?

Start with the philosophy that no one is stupid. Their opinions have some validity, but the context in which it is valid might not be the context in which you’re working in. Under this belief, the only time someone is outright “wrong” becomes when they themselves don’t even believe what they’re saying. No one is stupid, but there are liars.

Why would someone lie about that?

Usually an immaculate lie is rare. Generally speaking, if, say, I had a vendetta against you and wanted your book to suck, I could find something that truly did bother me and blow it out of proportion. I’d be lying about the magnitude of the problem, but there’s still some honesty to what I’m saying.

There are three common motivations for a person might lie which you should listen for:


Sometimes, people lie about what you need to fix simply to sound informed. It can manifest in many ways and can often be hard to catch. You should look for hypocrisy and inconsistency. They love Shakespeare but hate when you toy with words. They say you use too many adverbs and yet theirs is riddled with it. It’s not an end all, but you’ll start to catch some patterns in their contradictions and know it’s not just a simple mistake.

2. To segue. Similar to reputation, but slightly different, people will often use the topic at hand to jump onto the topic they really want to talk about.

So while Joe is complaining about your over use of passive-sentences, Susie hears the phrase passive-sentences, and she’ll immediately jump on it, going, “Yes, Stephen King once told me my book was fantastic except I overuse passive-sentences.”

While it sounds like she’s agreeing with Joe’s assessment of your writing, but what she’s really saying is, “I once talked to Stephen King and he likes my book.”

3. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Obviously the individual is afraid of looking stupid or disagreeing with either the crowd or a more intense/experienced member of the group. They avoid saying what they really think for fear of being judged or making themselves a target, so they say nothing, implicating they agree when really they don’t. Or worse, they’ll actively agree with the powerhouse to get on his side.

Look for inconsistency in behavior. Most groups have one member who the others are afraid of. (It might be you.) If someone never talks, it probably means nothing, but if a chatty Kathy shuts up when Mr. Snuffy is speaking, don’t take her silence as agreement. In fact, silence is rarely agreement. It’s either disinterest, shyness, or passiveness.

There are reasons to lie, and if you are suspicious a person is lying to you, then it’s a good sign that you shouldn’t put the work before them.

But, more importantly, if you get the feeling that they truly believe what they’re saying, that’s who you should listen to, no matter their experience level.

What is the problem they’re trying to solve?

The biggest reason constructive criticism gets confusing is that people talk in solutions, not in problems.

A solution is an action you can take, (or an implication of an action), whereas a problem is the effect your book had on them. I define “bad” writing as when the reader as a reaction he doesn’t think he was supposed to have.

Going off of that, first and foremost there are five common reactions people often don’t want to experience:

-Boredom.
-Confusion.
-Meaningless.
-Condescension.
-Being jarred out of the story.

Boring and confusing are obvious. No one ever thinks they’re supposed to be bored, and usually people don’t think they’re supposed to be confused. When a book rambles on and on and sounds like it’s just talking for the sake of talking, not only is it boring, but it feels like the author is deliberately wasting your time. A meaningless book is one that ends with you going, “So what?” Condescending books are ones that insult the reader, and jarring passages are where you are distracted from what is important, brought back to the real world, and forced to think about the writer and what he’s trying to do. Immersion is ruined.

The problem is far more important than the solution for a lot of reasons.

One, the solution could solve myriad of different issues, but if you try to solve the wrong one, it won’t be implemented correctly. For instance, they say you have “Too many characters.” Well, for starters, you can tell this is a solution, not a problem, because of the quantifier. A problem is a problem no matter the magnitude. Having too many characters is very different from having too few characters or even just having characters. But being too boring and being boring is exactly the same thing, where as not being boring enough doesn’t make sense. Solutions have contexts, problems rarely do.

So let’s argue that the reader was bored because you went off on all these tangents about characters he didn’t care about. When he says you have, “Too many characters,” however, you hear that he was confused, not able to keep track of them all.

You go through your manuscript and cut and merge characters that are forgettable, making everything about the main five. It’s possible you cut the most boring characters, but it’s also extremely possible that you didn’t touch the offending issues at all. You needlessly cut and merged all these characters (often adding to subtle continuity slip ups, like calling someone by the wrong name which hasn’t come up in the story before or after), and people are still bored.

Two, as Neil Gaiman says, “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

I say you can always use any piece of criticism given honestly. But it requires you to take it apart, find the root of the idea, then understand the context, and through that you will find something useful. Sometimes the benefit isn’t worth it, but it’s a required process for a lot of feedback.

You might use the advice without using the solution. It might not be the best solution to their problem, it might not be a solution you want to take at all. You have the right and ability to make any of your choices work, but you have to figure out what’s not working first.

When you understand the problem (“I was bored by most of the characters storylines.”) You don’t have to take their actual suggestion (“Cut them.”) but can still fix the issue. And you’ll probably be your most creative. (“Go through and make the storylines have higher stakes, more in-depth characters, find some moments for the readers to become empathetic to them.”)

Sometimes you might realize it’s not worth the work, but at least there’s the option there.

Three, most problems won’t be solved by one solution.

On the first book I really got a lot of different eyes on, I found little consistency in their responses. One person would say to “Simplify everything,” the next only said to change the point of view. Someone else asked for more description. When they pointed out words they didn’t like they were never the same ones. I gave three chapters to over twenty different people and the only thing they had in common was three of them didn’t like, “He clamped his mouth shut.” (“With what?” they said.)

For several months I found myself frustrated and mixed-up, but at the end what worked was when I started to find the common denominator—they were confused—and the solution was just doing a little bit of what everyone said.


People will try to give you a blanket solution that wouldn’t have solved the problem on its own, and, implemented too strongly, would cause even more issues.

It was my understanding of the feedback that enabled me to work effectively and efficiently.

Four, you might not give a shit. Pardon my French.

For my senior thesis in college I wrote a play called, Molly Aire and Becca Ette Do Theatre. The very first thing my professor said to me was, “You need to clarify they are not lesbians.”

The plot was very Mystery Science Theatre 3000, old guys from the Muppets style. Two girls at a play, making fun of it. Nothing homoerotic about it.

This might have frustrated me if I hadn’t heard it before. Truth is, you write about women, everyone wants to know who they’re having sex with. If there are no men around they must be having sex with each other. Someone has made this comment on three of my plays before. I mean, it’s possible that I am unconsciously having lesbianonic overtones, but I can’t deny the literature in which it is being compared to.

I told him that trying to prove someone’s assumptions untrue always just made them question it further, that going into these girls’ sex lives was not relevant to the storyline, and finally, if a director wanted to take it that way, then I was fine with that. Okay, it’s a date. Directors love making characters gay anyway.

My professor was the sort of personality type to back down, immediately, so the subject was dropped. Over the course of the semester, he kept giving me strange feedback that I didn’t really understand, like “Add in a third character,” and “Talk about their external life more.”

Adding in a third character would mean a complete rewrite. Because the two only speak to each other and had very different personalities and a dynamic (that I thought was the most successful part of the work) that would have to change with a third person involved, it seemed like a lot of work for what I thought was just him trying to add his two-cents.

I had forgotten about the conversation at the beginning of the semester, and so it wasn’t until the end that I started to connect the dots. Every suggestion he made could be tied directly into proving it was not a date.

The problem, to him, was that they might be lesbians and he thought they weren’t supposed to be. This was not a problem I cared about, and the effort required for his suggestions really made it all the less appealing.

Sometimes you won’t know if you agree with a criticism until after you truly understand it.

If you don’t understand, stick a pin in it.

Don’t try to take advice one piece at a time. Details make up the big picture, but it’s still about the big picture in the end. If the forest looks fantastic then there’s no reason to freak out over a misplaced leaf. Especially because quality of creative writing isn’t linear, and so that mistake might be exactly what makes the picture look real.

If you thought about a piece of advice—even if you feel like something’s there and you just can’t figure out what it is—don’t worry about it. Set it aside. If it’s important, it will come up again later. If it’s not, you’ll forget and move on to more important things.

Fixating on something can warp your view on it. It’s like saying the same word over and over again; it loses its meaning. If you start focusing on every adverb you use, you’ll stop hearing the cadence of the whole sentence. It is important to let things go.

How do you know it’s pride or your gut?

Saving the biggest issue for last, when we are most fraught with taking a piece of criticism, it has to do with our ego. Mainly that we don’t know if it’s our ego or not.

Someone implies you did something wrong, an innate part of you balks. It’s our nature to want to be right. But a big part of you wants to create the best work possible, and you’re willing to push your ego aside if that’s what it takes. Yet, on the other hand, their advice seems wrong, somehow. Your gut is rejecting it. How do you know it’s you’re instinct or just your need to be right?

The best way, unfortunately, is to be wrong. A lot. The more you are wrong, the faster you will recognize when you really are right.

Unless you’re planning on self-publishing tomorrow (which if you’re having an internal conflict, you might want to wait a couple of months, otherwise you’ll get the truth from the public.) then there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Don’t be disrespectful, you don’t need to announce you’re not taking their advice, but you should stick with your gut. Either it is your pride, and you will become more accustomed to telling the difference, or it is your gut, and you’ll have made the right decision.

Sometimes it’ll just be the person telling you. Someone more respectful might be better apt to convince you. Sometimes it’ll just be the shock of hearing something you didn’t expect and letting it die down for a while will make it easier to swallow. Sometimes you need to do more research, and sometimes you just need to figure it out for yourself.

Most problems aren’t severe enough to destroy your story. There are often a lot of solutions, flexible perspectives, and enough context in your book that allowing a few mistakes to survive through a few more beta-readers and editors and an agent isn’t an issue.

The trick is to not be impatient, the answer will come with time.






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