Friday, December 8, 2017

If the Solution Seems Simple, the Problem Isn’t

Well, probably.

The more I overhear writing criticism, the more I see problematic trends in how we respond to each other, how we answer questions, and why advice is often unhelpful.

Let’s be honest, how many times have we read a “how-to” guide online to have it do nothing for us? How often do we ask a writing question while truly anticipating leaving with a good answer? With better understanding? With an epiphany?

Part of it is the nature of the biz. It’s not uncommon for us to just be asking, “Is there any way that this can be made easy?” And the answer is no. Often we know that before we even speak.

But I also find that we are more likely to dismiss the questions as impossible without really analyzing them. Ask about writer’s block and you will be told it doesn’t exist. As how to make money as a writer and you will be told you shouldn’t be writing for that reason. Ask if you should do A or B and you will be told, “It’s your book. Do whatever you want!”

A personal peeve of mine is when someone states, completely rhetorically, “Why don’t you just…” as though whatever it is they are going to say is easy and obvious. Actually, it combines all of my irritation in one. I find criticism works best when the speaker acknowledges that there isn’t one way to do something, just that this choice will achieve… and then explains it.

Which is one of the reasons we don’t do that. We stick to vague and dismissive comments like, “it’s unnecessary,” and “why don’t you just…” and “QUESTION MARK?!” because the second we bring up reasons to make a change, it gives them room to argue. But that’s the point. Enabling them to discuss the pros and cons of any given situation helps them to better understand the benefit. Arguing, civilly discussing what you’re thinking, is a key ingredient to successfully processing new information.

Most criticism focuses short term. I once found myself in an argument with a large, aggressive lawyer after he belittled all the members of a writers’ group. I believe, to this day, he just wanted everyone to tell him he was right. The argument snapped off abruptly when I said, “Even if you are God’s gift to writing, you’re not always going to be around to tell everyone how to do it! Show us your thought process!”

Today an author was discussing how members of his workshop told him not to say, “He made a disgusted face,” but to describe it. His point was much more about the emphasis people put on showing over telling than the actual example, however someone asked him, “Why don’t you just say, ‘He scowled’?”

If you have ever written anything remotely long, you probably understand why these kinds of statements are short term and possibly overly simplified.

Do you know how many times you can use the words, “He scowled,” in just one book? Let alone over an entire career?

Then there’s the other problem of “scowl” being only one portion of conveying disgust. In certain contexts, an audience member might think that he was angry, confused, or even jealous. A big epiphany for me was when I heard the phrase, “Don’t use a twenty-five cent word when a one cent one would do,” and realized the emphasis is on “would do.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that the smallest word (or phrasing) to correctly convey something is actually a small word.

I suppose the bigger issue is this “fixing the trees without seeing the forest,” mentality. As a writer, you’re constantly stepping away from the project and then walking closer, all the while having people shout at you their perspectives and angles. A writer might be told something is “wrong,” and when he goes over to double check, he’s trying to understand where the critic was standing, what the critique meant by “wrong,” how to fix it, how the entire big picture looks when he makes a change, and if it needs fixing at all. It’s even possible that the flaws of the trees were what made the forest so beautiful. Meanwhile, someone else strolls along and sees the author fixated on this one piece of damage. He thinks, “Just cut it down!” not realizing of course that the writer is still going to have to deal with a multitude of other trees and comments, and he can’t just cut them all down, especially when their absence could negatively impact the entire wood.

You can’t just delete something every time someone complains about it, or you’d have nothing left.

When you see an author obsessing over a little thing, the most useful action is to acknowledge that obsession isn’t just foolishness. Sometimes rehashing a conflict in a critique is a means to understand it. Sometimes the problem and solution are much bigger and more complicated than strictly about that one specific word. Maybe that word is a symptom? Maybe that complaint comes up again and again? Maybe the writer’s perspective is conflicting with what the critic claims and he’s not sure if it’s ego, different tastes, or the critic being controlling?

Whenever someone comes to you with a problem, they’ve probably already thought of the simplest answer. For whatever reason, they rejected it, and even if their rationale was flawed, dismissing them flat out isn’t going to solve anything. Start by understanding where they’re coming from, figuring out why they care, what the actual details are, and then explain your own perspective and thought processes, make arguments for your case, and always remember that if they’re freaking out about something so seemingly small, it’s probably not about just that.

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