Monday, September 11, 2017

The Quantum Effect of Soliciting Criticism

Several years ago whenever I’d meet with a published author, editor, or agent I’d always ask them, “What do you do about criticism you don’t understand?”

Each time the answer, after a hesitated consideration, would be the same. “What do you mean, ‘don’t understand?’”

I couldn’t say. I couldn’t believe no one had had the same feeling as me, that no one knew where I was coming from, no one had that moment of someone giving you a piece of advice and you just don’t get it. I could give them examples, like when my professor out of the blue told me I should, “Add in another character,” but the responses to this weren’t very helpful.

“Did you only have one character?”


“He just wanted you to add him in.”

Their guesses seemed speculatory and inaccurate.

Over time, it took a lot of self-analysis to finally explain what exactly I meant, to figure out how to explain what ‘not understanding’ was and thus how to solve it. Yet to this day it still shocks me that so few people relate to what I mean when I say there’s feedback I am confused about, even though it’s probably the majority of what I received.

Disagreeing with a criticism is you thinking it is incorrect. Not understanding a criticism is where you don’t see what problem it would solve, or maybe just don’t  understand why it’s so important to the reader. Sometimes they’ll harp on one word that I consider fine either way, that no one else has mentioned before and no one will seem to care about after. But they’re so adamant that you can’t but help wondering what is missing.

One day, while complaining about this to my dad, he said, “Well, sometimes you just need something to say.”

That rang true.

In a constructive criticism session, it can be a complete waste of time if no one has a response, but in many cases responses don’t come naturally. The most painful moment is when someone brings in a manuscript that is fine. It doesn’t have any obvious mistakes, doesn’t have any issues, but you don’t really love it either. What do you say to that person? Yes, I have scanned through a manuscript looking for something to say because I know how annoying it is to have people go, “It’s good,” and add nothing else.

You’ll note that when you give a manuscript out to someone, in the beginning, it’s chock-full of line notes, little anal comments on you using “slightly” instead of “lightly.” Sometimes this is useful, but in many occasions the notes are contradictory with other people’s versions, the one word that So and So complains about is not something that Joe Snuffy cares about and something that Joe Blow absolutely loves.

Over the course of the manuscript, further into the text, the line notes get less and less, growing into more bigger picture issues. The reader gets more engrossed in the story, has more information to go off of, and so stops feeling the need to rewrite the book for you, but actually starts to have some opinions.

But even those can sometimes feel forced.

Most readers naturally judge in hindsight and rarely analyze why they felt the way they did. Processing this way makes the book more enjoyable, makes the world more real. It’s one of the things authors complain about after they started writing—you see books differently once you decide to create them for yourself. Writers begin to dissect and go meta, struggling to be immersed and just let the story happen.

Which is why I recommend getting feedback from readers who don’t write along with any professionals or experts you can find. Readers are going to have a more open minded, result-based opinion than those of us who have been dissecting stories for the last decade, and are less likely to fixate on rules but rather reactions.

The issue is that getting specifics from non-writing readers is difficult. They only know if they liked it or not. They’re not able to tell you what exactly made them apathetic, just that they were. Many people will, of course, try, but that’s when we get into the quantum effect.

Quantum physics is a science that studies (among other things) photons and atoms. One of its concerns is about deciding if something is a wave—an oscillation accompanied by a transfer of energy that can travel through space and mass—or a particle—a minute fragment or quantity of matter—The most famous experiment, however, is when they attempted to determine the state of light and came to find that it possesses both qualities of waves and particles.

According to Wikipedia:

“In the basic version of this experiment, a coherent light source such as a laser beam illuminates a plate pierced by two parallel slits, and the light passing through the slits is observed on a screen behind the plate. The wave nature of light causes the light waves passing through the two slits to interfere, producing bright and dark bands on the screen—a result that would not be expected if light consisted of classical particles. However, the light is always found to be absorbed at the screen at discrete points, as individual particles (not waves), the interference pattern appearing via the varying density of these particle hits on the screen.”

In order to eliminate the interference, they decided to send one particle through at a time. When doing so, it acted like a particle, being “stopped” by the screen.

But they noticed something strange when it came to calculating the experiment’s results. When they attempted to measure the light, it acted like a particle, when they didn’t, it acted like a wave. Quantum physics suggests that once you try and measure the outcome, you can actually change it.

When people read for entertainment, they read differently than when doing so for analysis. Instead of letting themselves react and then determine if they liked it or not, they will try and recognize how they feel as they go, looking at each specific detail and trying to judge the whole of the story. It suddenly becomes impossible to not complain of adverbs and passive sentences, they get hung up on words they don’t know instead of skipping over them. They might start playing dumb and understanding less than they would if they hadn’t been looking for errors. They often let the details get to them and don’t notice the bigger picture issues.

Sometimes this is just sensible. An excessive amount of typos is naturally jarring and expecting someone to get immersed in the story despite commas and spelling errors confusing cadence and meaning is a little hopeful. Plus, it’s not as though they’re completely wrong when they don’t like a word you use.

It’s just that, sometimes, what people complain about, what makes them feel a certain way in a draft isn’tnecessarily how people are going to feel in a published book. You’re more limited when someone is deliberately trying to give you criticism. Sometimes they’ll not only allow, but enjoy your creativity in a published work that they would have scoffed at if done by a peer.

So what do you do?

Telling the difference is hard, but important. Many great writers were criticized before they got the reputation for people to trust their “strange” behavior. What made them famous was what was keeping them from getting their foot in the door. If you alter every unusual choice because that’s what people chose to complain about, you will likely produce an acceptable, but homogenized, uninspired piece of fiction. On the other hand, if you just ignore it, you might very well be shooting yourself in the foot. If you want other people to read your work then obviously other people's opinions matter. The question of how many people will feel the same way and in what context is important.

How can we avoid the quantum effect? How can we determine if it’s a result created from our attempts to measure it or if it is a constant reaction in any context?

1. Ask your readers not to mark up a manuscript.

Get one or a few readers to not actually use a red pen, but rather just read the manuscript without any notes at all. Afterwards, discuss their reaction, ask them how they felt, and see if they have any ideas for your problems. Tell them you’re using them to gain a better understanding of your piece, not actually looking for specific criticism.

When they’re not reading to make notes, they’re more likely to take it as it is on the whole, and their responses can be taken more seriously. Instead of trying to parse out if each individual phrase is actually problematic or if they’re just rewriting it in their way, hearing them say, “I love the way you write, but it can also be jarring sometimes,” can be taken as a more serious reaction. They’re more likely to forget each individual and perhaps petty critiques and only remember the more serious issues.

2. Make two lists of your favorite and most admired works.

On the first list, write out books that you enjoyed reading, whether you actually respected them or not. On the second list, name the works you admire regardless of if you actually had any fun reading them.

When someone gives you a criticism that you question, see what the people on those two lists actually did. If someone is telling you, “No one likes prologues!” but every book on your list had one, than you know it’s more of a question on why was theirs successful, and now can ask if the criticism on yours about what you did, a matter of personal taste, or just the critic looking for something easy to point out.

If books you enjoyed and respected did it, it now becomes a question of whether or not you did it well/if it’s an issue of trust and reputation. (Your reader didn’t like it because it was you, a peer, rather than they didn’t actually like it.)

If the books you enjoyed did it, but not the ones you respected, ask if its merit is actually about entertainment and if it’s the decision that lost respect.

If the books you respect but didn’t enjoy do it, ask if you are just trying to mimic them, or if perhaps the reader assumes you’re only doing it to look literary.

If none of the books on your list do it, it might be a good sign that it is a problem. You may consider looking at the stories you hate and seeing if they don’t also make the same choice.

3. Look for hypocrisy.

Check out your readers’ favorite authors. If your reader is a writer, see if you can’t go through some of their work. You may find that they’re reputation focused, i.e. Stephen King can get away with something Richard Bachmann can’t because King’s already been proven. Or it might be that they’re projecting—They try to write like their favorites all the time, so they are more critical when they think other people are doing it too. This doesn’t necessarily tell you if you should make the change one way or another, but it does give just a little bit more information to help you decide.

Same goes for if they write the way they’re telling people not to. It might be an issue of them being harsher on their own flaws, or it might be that they think they can get away with it; it’s something only the greats can do. It also might be something that other people have harped on them for, and we tend to give criticism in the way we receive it.

4. Get more readers.

It should be obvious, but the good side of the quantum effect is that it tends to lack consistency—also the reason why it’s a problem. When people are looking for something to say or are inorganically trying to come up with some sort of feedback, they tend to go to different places. If the feedback isn’t a genuine feeling, but rather something somewhat forced, it’s very likely that few people will say the same thing.

But keep in mind that sometimes, especially when the reader is only offering solutions without explaining the problem, two people can be saying the same thing in drastically different ways. Look for the common denominator before writing it off as being inconsistent, and whenever someone is telling you to do something (don’t use adverbs), make sure that the reason why they’re telling you to do it (enhance tension) isn’t the same motivator as another person also telling you to do something (shorten your sentences.)

5. Take conversational criticism more seriously than intentional criticism.

After you start producing work, writers begin to overhear conversations about their stories. People start approaching you to tell you what they think, they will discuss your blog on a forum, they’ll leave comments on your page, and feedback comes in from all kinds of places outside of an editor/review place.

Sometimes you can discard this information due to the differences of opinions and subjectivity (don’t ever pander to your enemies at the cost of your fans), but in many cases, if someone wants to tell you something without obligation, it’s a sign of a genuine feeling. There are many reasons to not listen to every layman with an opinion, but you can, at least, assume that it came from a real reaction rather than the man-made ones that might result when we force ourselves to have a response. Intentional criticism, like Amazon reviews or peer critiques, can be fantastic, well informed, and far more thorough, but it can also focus too much on logic and the way the world “should be.” Both criticisms should be taken seriously (as well as with a grain of salt), but just know there’s a reason why the feedback you got in a room with writers isn’t necessarily the feedback you’ll get from the internet.

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