Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Internet Sabbatical

Over the last two weeks I’ve had too many gentlemen inform me of their unsolicited opinions about what I should be doing. For some reason, every single day for the last fortnight, I’ve had some guy (in real life and online) tell me without having read any of my writing, “You should be doing this.”

“Writing is about this.”

“The solution to your problem is simple.”

I’ve found myself getting trapped by the same arguments over and over. I’m sick of explaining that the speed in which you write has no constant correlation to the quality that comes out. I’m sick of saying that there are too many books in the world for every writer to have the same goals. I’m sick of reminding people the wide variety of ages that writers have started their career. I’m sick of the promotion of homogenization, the closed-minded bigotry against anyone who writes differently than them. I’m sick of people obsessed with Hemingway and demoting poetry. I’m sick of having to reveal that what “you” think can be completely contrary to what “they” think. I’m sick of people trying to enforce arbitrary, archaic, and pedantic rules without feeling the need to come up with a benefit. I’m sick of spending weeks, months, or even years finding methods to deal with writing problems just to have some person oversimplify it into an unthought out solution—that does not work because it only considers one superficial context. I’m sick of being sent unpublished writers’ short stories to demonstrate to me how they write, how I should be writing, and being forced to bite my tongue because I see no merit in demoralizing them, even if they’re being condescending as hell.

I’m sick of being told what to do by people who haven’t tested their own theories.

This has always been an issue, but it’s hit me ridiculously hard within the last few days. Just guy after guy approaching me—sometimes even flirtatiously—to explain to me that he has all of the answers. This includes the ones who’ve never written a word in his life. And when I explain to them why the thought they pulled out of their ass is not, in fact, as accurate as their three seconds thinking about it would suggest, they automatically shut down and the conversation ends there. Then the next soul pops out to make the exact same argument again.

I don’t get this. Men know that women overanalyze everything. So why is it they would assume that their ten-second solution hasn’t already been thought of and rejected? Could it possibly be because they think they’re smarter than me?

Look, gentlemen, women have egos too. The reason we get mad at you trying to solve our problems is the same reason you’d get mad if every time you complained to me, I asked, “Did you try Googling it?”

One guy told me that I must focus on function over form, story over prose. Keep in mind that he’s not referencing any writing I’ve actually done, but just responding to my joke about me working on a short story. In essence, “You’re writing a short story? Let me tell you how!” He proceeds to send me his unpolished work he posted online that is just another one of his long diatribes about the beauty of some generic woman. You do you realize that your “story” that proves the importance of “story” actually has no “story,” right?

The worst part is, he is counting on me being a good person. Either he thinks his work is so magnificent that I couldn’t possibly criticize it, or that I won’t just poke fun at the obvious issues and attempt to be objective. You think too much of me, sir.

A poet told me not to end a sentence with a preposition. In a Facebook status, no less. He explained to me that he practiced perfect grammar skills even while on social media to enhance his writing elsewhere. This is the same guy who I originally believed was a Middle Eastern person who learned English as a second language. Overly formal, technically correct with no sense of colloquialisms or vernacular, his flowery compliments and archaic voice misled me on his origin. Turned out, he was American through and through. I found his writing hard to swallow… and I like flowery.

The urge to just say, “But I don’t like your writing,” is strong. But I absolutely don’t believe in disparaging them. I don’t want them to feel bad, I want them to experiment with their methods, I want them to continue writing, I want diversity in literature—even the kinds I don’t like—I don’t want to cause conflict, and I certainly don’t want an enemy, but on the other hand, I want people to stop feeling as though they can approach me with their closed-minded and over-simplified opinions.

It’s not when people want to discuss things. If you have a personal anecdote, explanation, or thought process, that’s an interesting debate. But when you, a fellow unpublished author (and I’m not exactly unpublished), approach me with an absolute restriction, the entire existence being based on “someone said so,” I’m not going to be impressed by your astounding knowledge; I’m going to believe you confuse being judgmental for thinking critically.

It’s like if I were to ask you for a recommendation of a fantasy novel and you were to say Lord of the Rings. Either you don’t know a lot of fantasy novels, or you think I don’t.

I’ve heard the rule before. I’ve thought about it. I’ve come to a conclusion. I could be persuaded otherwise, but it would require ideas I have yet to consider, perspectives or angles I missed. Being told by some absolute stranger that that’s just not the way they would do it and then being expected to oblige them is not the same as having a discussion. Not only are they delusional enough to think that I would be obedient to them (in some cases where other people are giving me the opposite demands), but then to have them actually show me their work as proof establishes a level of ego I can’t even comprehend. And I have a lot of ego. I am then filled with an undesirable yearning for so-called schadenfreude that I can barely refrain from attacking this easy target. This self-censorship exacerbates the frustration of my current writer’s constipation. I want so much to point out why I would never write like them, why their “rules” aren’t doing them any favors, but I don’t think it will improve their writing, nor is my temporary satisfaction worth their pain. Especially because they are often not contacting me to get in a fight, but because they want to engage with me personally. They’re not bad people. They didn’t intend to insult me. It is just out of naivety and an extreme sense of self-worth that I know too well that they don’t realize how condescending they’re being. I mean, I don’t expect them to know that I’ve been writing prolifically for a long time; I don’t have the resume credits to prove it either. And I believe that just because they’re not published, it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything valuable to say. It’s just that, if they are experienced, they’re not feeling required to prove that experience or the thought’s merit either, just that I should immediately recognize their expertise and trust it.

To me, you are just a number, the same I am to you. You could be more, but you can’t expect me to recognize your genius without giving me some time and insight into your thought process.
So, here’s the problem: that “writer’s constipation” I discussed before? It’s a current state I’ve been in for a while. For over a decade now, I had been writing diligently, at least a few words every day. I’ve completed a lot, done some things with my plays and short stories, but I’ve never really readied one of my manuscripts for submission. I’ve edited, I’ve wrote queries, but I haven’t been in a place where I felt comfortable sending something out. It was never good enough.

Until The Dying Breed, that is.

Two years ago I wrote a novel that I fell in love with. It came out easily, just how I envisioned. I wrote 180,000 words in five months—which was typical for me at that time. I started editing, cutting it down, and wrote some more. I got several tens of thousands of words into other manuscripts (one of which’s beginning gained the most positive and excited responses I’ve ever seen). I managed to get it down to 130,000 words, have three unfinished manuscripts from 50,000 to 80,000 words… and then I just stopped.

I haven’t written in months. I haven’t edited in months. I’ve looked at my query letter a few times, but nothing.

With the added frustration of these last few weeks, I just shut down. I avoided the internet and the angry arguments, I sat at home and played video games from work’s end until bedtime. I did absolutely nothing. And now, I’m ready to get back on track.

The idea of a “reset” has always been useful for me. I forgive my past mistakes and focus on future decisions. Now I think I need a big one.

I’m staying off the internet for the next month. I’m going to get ahead on my web comic, my blog, my Stories of the Wyrd, jot down some more and thought out lines for my social media, tackle my New Year’s resolutions, finish my myriad of manuscripts and, most importantly, complete the last draft of my manuscript. If I get back to my previous speed, it won’t take me long to complete several of the first drafts I’ve been working on. I believe that if I avoid getting worked up over the opinions of outsiders, I can refunnel my energy into pure creativity.

Maybe not. But either way, I’ll miss you guys. A month is a long time, I know—That’s like eternity in dog years. Please don’t forget about me. I’ll be back.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

How to Encourage People to Give Opinions without Having to Take Them

 “I want you to tell me what you really think and then not be offended when I don’t care.”

If only the world was that perfect.

It is, however, an actual sentiment I’ve expressed to people that I trust, good friends whose opinion I highly value. I’ll often be in a situation where I’ll ask them to brainstorm with me, but preface it by saying, “This is something I’ve been struggling with for a while, so the answer is not going to be simple. I need you to help me consider all of the options, but I probably won’t accept them.”

It’s a fair forewarning that my good natured companions understand.

But honestly, it should be a prevailing idea in constructive criticism. Yet, both sides are difficult to achieve.

There are, of course, opinionated people out there who will give you advice even when you don’t want it. I’ve had people approach me as I walked off the stage of closing night to tell me what I should have done differently—on a show that was over for choices that will never come up again, even in a restaging of the same play. But that’s not as common as you’d think, and many people—even those who normally would offer up their two-cents for free—will suddenly clam up and be unable to tell you of their opinion when directly asked. While many of us are dying for feedback, and you’d think it would be easy to get, often getting opinions requires a great deal of encouragement and pandering.

“I will listen to you and respect you,” we need to imply.

Which, in many cases, should be true. But listening and respect is not necessarily the same as obeying. It is imperative for authors to think critically about all criticism and never just oblige someone out of quasi-respect.

Advice can be bad. Advice can be contextually unsuitable. Advice can be banal. Advice can focus on priorities the author doesn’t care about. Advice can contradict the opinions of someone else. Advice always suggests to play it safe when the author really should be taking risks. If you take every opinion you get, you will come up with a homogenized, colorless piece of common denominator drivel. You will write that bad, uninspired Hollywood film, and you will never be considered innovative.

Which advice to take and which to ignore (plus which to take a part and only partially apply) is a complex question for another time. The issue now is about what to do when someone actually is willing to give you their opinion and you don’t want to take it. You want them to keep speaking their mind, but you know if you tell them no, they won’t want to say anything again. What do you do?

First… You might be able to say nothing at all.

In most situations, I wouldn’t suggest this. I have been in many meetings, feedback sessions, and criticisms in which we would discuss ideas for hours only to have the passive-aggressive (but well meaning) person turn around and do something completely different.

Even if I don’t have to do anything for your project, it can be highly insulting to think someone agrees with you only to find out they were ignoring you the whole discussion, pandering to you to avoid conflict. It’s a waste of your time, for one thing.

But if the speaker is never going to know whether you took his advice or not, I don’t see any reason to state you won’t.  I would never suggest to outright lie about it, but it is okay to just thank them and move on. If it’s with a anonymous stranger on the internet who you’ll never see or work with again, then you don’t have to make a point to respond, outside of maybe “liking” his post, or whatever the forum’s equivalent.

But if it’s someone you know, especially if it’s someone you’re going to work with again, it is important to never mislead them into thinking  you’ve agreed when you haven’t.

You might say, “Let me reread the work and considered it.”

And then do it.

If there is even the remotest chance—even a tiny, unlikely chance—that you would take their advice, it is perfectly acceptable to tell them you need time to contemplate the change. By doing this, you’re not saying you agree, but you’re not saying you’re just ignoring them either. That way, when later they read your work and find that you’ve ignored everything they’ve suggested, you can give them your arguments—that you’ve actually thought about—as to why.

When you’ve given an opinion time to gestate, it becomes less offensive that you’ve rejected it. Most people will recognize their advice came right off the top of their head and that you valuing your own longer contemplation over their in-the-heat-of-the-moment opinion isn’t the same as you valuing your own heat-of-the-moment opinion over theirs.

They’ll also be more likely to take your arguments seriously if they think you’ve spent some time considering it. Also, your arguments will probably honestly be better if you have spent some time considering it.

Not writing an opinion off right away can be a sign of respect, even if you don’t take it in the long run.

If you know that you will not be reading it again and absolutely refuse to take the advice, I recommend not lying about it. For one thing, I think passive-aggressively placating people is hugely disrespectful. If you get caught in the lie, you’re going to ruin your relationship with them.

But, more importantly, it’s always useful to argue when you don’t agree with something. Giving them an opportunity to explain themselves will make them feel more in control, and you’re going to receive more information about the opinion than you would if you just smile and nodded. Telling them your reasons for not taking their advice gives them opportunity to poke holes in your reason. As long as you are capable of being honest with yourself and recognizing if you actually care about these holes or not, it’s a good thing to at least hear a variety of pros and cons.

Tell them why you don’t want to take their advice.

I’ve said in the past that you should never feel obligated to explain yourself. Answering someone when they’re questioning you will often validate their opinion they have the right to question you. If you feel like that’s what’s going on—the person speaking is just challenging you and your credibility to enhance his own—he’s being disrespectful, you’re probably not going to get any honesty out of him, and the information delivered is only as useful as it seems on the surface. You don’t need to engage in an argument when you feel they’re just trying to prove your inferiority.

But when they’re not giving you their opinion to be an asshat, and you get the sense they truly believe what they’re saying and are, at least on some level, trying to help you, you should be respectful enough to explain your thought process.

Even if you don’t really understand why you don’t want to take the feedback, just be honest. It’s perfectly okay to say, “I don’t know exactly why that doesn’t sit right with me, but it just feels like it’s not where I want to go.”

If they care about you, they’ll understand. More importantly, you should always trust those feelings because there probably is a real reason outside of ego and stubbornness.

I wrote a play about two women making fun of a play, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style. One of my readers, an actress, took exception to them talking throughout the show without ramification and wanted the actors to react to their rudeness.

I understood where she was coming from, and agreed with her from an actor’s standpoint it was frustrating to have people talk throughout a show. But there was something about having the actors acknowledge it that I just didn’t like, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I told her exactly that—I felt it was a problem, but that solution didn’t feel right.

A few weeks later I was thinking about it, and I realized what the issue was; the real audience (you and me) was supposed to forget that the play with in the play wasn’t a real story. The humor was, at times, that you grew so immersed into the lives of these “characters” that you forgot Molly Aire or Becca Ette’s existence until suddenly they said something. I wanted the play within the play to seem real, and having the actors break the fourth wall wouldn’t enable that.

I could then go back to her with that consideration in mind and she was better equipped to discuss solutions to the problem while still considering my priorities.

But what if you don’t have the time, like it’s a criticism on Twitter? Or you feel the person tends to be extra sensitive and less understanding?

Thank them and tell them you love to hear their opinion, and leave it at that.

“Thanks so much for the comment, and please continue giving me your opinion in the future!”

This is the nicest way to say, “That is just your opinion and I’m not taking it. But I appreciate it.”

They probably won’t feel like speaking their mind again, but being honest about what you want from them without lying about what you intend to do with their advice will at least make you look confident and assertive in a polite way. If you just don’t respond, they’ll think you’re a snob. If you argue with them, they’ll think you can’t take criticism. If you lie to them about taking it, they’ll feel insulted. And if you try too hard to pander to them, they’ll think you don’t know what you’re doing.

When in doubt, always just be honest. Don’t worry about using the most effective argument, just discuss the most important one. People giving feedback can be just as egotistical as we perceive authors to be, and just remember it’s only your job to hear them out and try and understand what they have to say. If, at the end of the day, you realize it’s not for you, you’re not an egomaniac for refusing the advice. Just be polite about the way they do it. And if you’ve done everything in  your power to be respectful and they still hate you, it’s probably their problem.