Friday, November 17, 2017

Picking Your Battles without Being a Slave to Criticism

I get told a lot, “But if the story is good…”

“But if the story is good, people won’t care about the typos.”

“But if the story is good, I shouldn’t have to write a wonderful pitch.”

“But if the story is good, they shouldn’t obsess over the cover.”

“But if the story is good, they won’t question the flaws in my logic.”

“… the continuity errors.”

“… if my character is likable or not.”

“… the underdeveloped scenes.”

If the story is good, I shouldn’t have to work on it.

Sometimes I find the belief in destiny holds people back to unfortunate extremes. What is the story if not for the execution? A good story is not just concept, or a few pithy lines here or there. In fact, as an devoted reader of self-published works, I can say that it is far more aggravating when a wonderful idea is being marred by little, catchable flaws the author stands by with some misdirected sense of loyalty.

I’d argue, in fact, that an author can sell a novel with no real concept but wonderful execution far easier than someone can sell an idea with terrible writing.

If you’ve been to even one writer’s group, I’d wager you’ve seen someone be stubborn about a decision. And if you’ve read even one of my blog posts, I’d wager you’ve seen me be stubborn about a decision. I can’t count how many times I’ve locked down in a staring contest with someone who really, really wanted me to delete that adverb.

For once, I’m not being a hypocrite here. Well, not on this subject, anyway. I come here lecturing picking your battles, but I am not advocating blind obedience. Rather, I am saying, smartly choose what you want to fight about.

Sometimes that is something as little as an adverb. Sometimes people will bring the fight to you, and you won’t want to stand down just because it’s an inane discussion.

A woman who, I believe, merely skimmed my work without reading, noticed when I wasn’t notating a specific comment in my notebook. When receiving criticism, I always write things down to let the speaker know I’m taking them seriously, which gives them confidence, encourages them that I’m listening, and takes the burden off of my non-emotive face. Also, of course, it helps me to go through later. Over the course of her critique, however, this woman proved more and more arrogant while less and less experienced. She seemed closed-minded in many ways, and had a shockingly low reading-comprehension. (She was a very literal person, and, as I stated, I don’t think she actually read any of it.) So when she pointed out a word she didn’t like calling it redundant, I told her that it would make the meaning of the sentence the opposite of what I intended. She demanded to know why I wanted his question to be rhetorical, that it should be genuine, and then proceeded to suggest the most poorly worded, explanatory sentence because that would be better than an adverb.

I decided not to argue, putting my pen down and waiting for her to move on. Probably a minute of silence passed between us before she said, “It’s only one word.”

Yeah. And you’re wrong.

I made a mistake, however, in arguing with her. As much as I advocate against the idea of merely thanking someone you don’t agree with, there are times and people who you simply listen to: not because they’re an authority or you respect them, but because they don’t take criticism well themselves.

If someone you think highly of says something that you don’t agree with, asking questions and clarifying why you don’t agree is useful. I can’t tell you how many times disagreement came because I misunderstood (or they misspoke) what they meant. Rarely has the best criticism come from their initial statement, but the conversation that followed. The day I talked to the above woman, I had three other critiques that went extremely well, with respectful dialogues in which my critique partners were able to argue their ideas in ways that clarified and evolved to my understanding and vision.

The reason I argued my point was not to defend my choice, but because I was still of the mindset we were to have a healthy conversation. When she told me that the adverb was redundant, my initial reaction was confusion: Is it clear it’s not a real question without the “pointedly”? I told her what I was trying to do for the direct purpose of getting us on the same page.

In some ways, I was right to do so because had I, theoretically, just accepted the criticism, I would have taken her at her word and just deleted the word, altering the sentence to a completely different meaning than what I thought the audience was hearing. However, what I assumed she was saying had a complete disconnect with what I was seeing—because there was a disconnect.

In most cases, discussing the writer’s intention would enable the two of you to reevaluate the words from your new perspectives; the critic could reread and ask herself if she slipped up (yes, readers sometimes make a one-time mistake in haste), or why the author’s meaning wasn’t conveyed to her and the best way to do so, while the writer, now aware of this alternate interpretation, can step back and also figure why there was the miscommunication. The conversation is more informed, making it easier for both parties to come to a successful solution about if the problem really exists and how to solve it.

But in her case, it became a battle of the wills. She needed to be right, and I refused to placate her by lying about my agreement. I didn’t want to argue either. She had already convinced me she was a naïve rule-junkie, incapable of independent thought; having figured why she wanted me to do it and not agreeing with her reasons, there was no benefit to trying to prove her wrong. It’s just waste both our times. I genuinely can’t say if I was being moral by not fibbing to make things smoother or immature, and I won’t claim that either is the best option for you. I tell you this story because it is a prime example of picking your battles, but not fighting doesn’t necessarily mean obedience.

I read the other day about someone who got in an argument with a potential agent over the title of his book. I found the title to be generic, forgettable, and a little meaningless. I couldn’t exactly understand why he loved it so much, or why it was something he had fought for. He said he’d change it if a publisher wanted him to, but he liked it better than any of the others, and instructed his audience to keep a title if they like it.

He also mentioned how this particular agent had given him a criticism on his blog about looking hard to work with as well. I’ve seen agents make statements about the unwillingness to change titles specifically being a sign that you are awful to work with. I had to wonder if this particular blogger picked his battles and had reasons for keeping it other than he liked it and he didn’t see a reason to change it.

As I say, if I strictly followed writing rules I wouldn’t like my writing at all. If I never listened to them, I wouldn’t like my writing as much. Pushing myself to meet seemingly shallow or irrelevant requirements have made me reexamine the potential of my manuscripts, and via being critical yet willing, my greatest writing came from caring about others’ opinions.

You don’t have to obey people until you have a good reason otherwise. And authors are made to be heard, not seen. Sitting silently while being talked at isn’t exactly effective means to understand your work. Yet, just because you like something doesn’t mean it can’t be better. We all know a writer who can be foolishly stubborn; if you want to be different, you have to consider what fights are valuable and which ones are simply reactionary.

Fight the good fight, but do it smartly.

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