Friday, July 29, 2016

Surviving a Special Snowflake’s Meltdown

When I was in college, I had a professor tell me, “Write what you know.” And then, “You should write about being an outcast.”

I was not a social person in general, not into keeping up appearances, focusing on depth over so-perceived “shallow” attributes. I spoke my mind, refused invitations on outings, and did what I wanted to do artistically despite the naysayers. I had my qualities and my flaws, but I definitely was not part of the social group of our theatre department.

Over time I started to develop (organically and intentionally) a better balance in my life. I had realized that gaining trust, and thereby gaining support and certain freedoms, was an important part of being able to do what I wanted. Looking trustworthy and being trustworthy are two very different skillsets. For example, I needed to emote more—to force my typically reserved inner dialogue as viewable manifestations. I needed to use facial expressions and body language to tell people who I liked I liked them, to laugh at jokes I found funny, to respond externally. I am typically inclined to react in my head instead of out loud, and that doesn’t help others understand your emotional state.

We are admired by society for lots of different reasons, some of them superficial—Do you make money? Are you pretty?—some of them less so—Are you interesting, friendly, and ambitious? People who achieve their goals, especially goals that most people aspire to, are highly valued.

Writers are often, though not always, outcastes who hope to illustrate their point of view in life. But writing is an extremely respected part of society, and becoming a successful writer, even modestly, garners you respect and acceptance that you may never have had before. I think authors most commonly experience the sudden difference between being ignored and being noticed.

The problem with acceptance? Those who are accepted by society are pursued for acceptance. They become a target for all those who need validation. Perhaps you suddenly got beautiful, or your accomplishments took fruition. Maybe you are just older and more confident. Who knows? But most people have a point in their life where they stop being the one begging acceptance, becoming the one begged for it.

An author on Facebook shared this conversation just now:


“Bizarre!” all her commenters said.

“Bizarre!” I told her.

“Bizarre!” she agreed.

Except it isn’t, exactly.

His behavior follows pretty typical patterns in someone seeking validation.

The Insult.

This is a throwback from my teenage years, and when I taught high schoolers. When you think someone else is confident and successful, you don’t curb your words or opinions. Teenagers are less likely to throw punches period, but when I was younger, I distinctly remembered the epiphany that adults didn’t always respond well to being told they were wrong. I don’t remember figuring out Santa Claus isn’t real, but I remember comprehending the compulsion of criticizing someone just to show I knew what I was talking about.

I often offered suggestions of alternative ways to do things simply to say I’d done it before, not because there was anything wrong with their decisions. Teachers are inclined to encourage that, but once you start to interact with coworkers and peers, you see the ramifications of uninhibited divulging of opinion.

There was one girl in my college who did this constantly. She would always, always tell you you were doing something wrong to later inform you when you did it her way it was also wrong. “I can’t be better than you if I agree with you.”

People who haven’t been in a position of acceptance or power are more inclined to insult those who are, unable to see them as real humans. Sometimes it’s not malicious, just offering up ideas more frequently than you would with a peer (which can be incredibly frustrating especially if that person is naïve to how things are actually done). Other times, it is very selfishly motivated.

Negging is form of come-on in which a man (typically) approaches a woman and gives her a backhanded compliment, criticism, or outright insult. The idea is to lower her esteem and make her want your validation instead of the other way around.

Even if this “critic” wasn’t intentionally negging her, the process can work in a myriad of situations and we can pick up on it subconsciously. You can scare people into pandering to you, especially if they aren’t confrontational. You can make people crave your acceptance by demonstratively not giving it to them. For many, the more you reject them, the more attention they give you.

The Brag.

Bragging feels good, especially if the other person responds well. It’s easy for me to understand the compulsion to insult someone and then brag about it when you’re hurting, it’s more difficult for me to get why someone would actually go through with it—and expected it to go over well.

Many commenters did Google him, and he is a self-published author with two out of print books created three years ago. He has one Amazon review.

Does he truly believe that he’s as important as he acts like he is?

That too is something fairly common. Many writers, myself included, assumed at least at one point (if not perpetually) we were destined for greatness. In some ways, it’s a good thing; I’ve met truly humble but talented artists who recognized their insignificance in the world, and they didn’t do much with it. Not a problem if that’s what you want, but in these specific cases, I knew they wanted to have more respect and freedom than their current situation allowed for. A certain self-importance can encourage you to do great things despite the odds.

I remember when I was younger asking myself why no one respected me. Why did my fellow students blindly follow my professors who insulted and sabotaged them? Why did they prefer to listen to someone who belittled them in public and ignore me when I said he did that to everyone? That he was bitter and reaching. That it was meaningless. Why did I get argued with constantly when I had thought, and thought, and thought about what I believed while my professors got away with, “You’ll learn with experience.”

Why didn’t people realize how great I was?

In hindsight, I maintain I was right about my professors. No one should have listened them. They threw around unhelpful criticism like it cluttered the place: “You’re too fat.” “You’re not white enough.” “Your blonde hair won’t light on the stage.” “You’re a character actor and there’s no parts for you until you’re fifty.” They lied a lot for selfish and lazy reasons, they had all or nothing attitudes, they liked what made them look good. I may be wrong, but even to this day, six years later, I still believe they were motivated by malicious goals.

But as for why they didn’t listen to me instead? Well that’s more understandable.

It’s a daily complaint. Most of us have felt unfairly neglected by people who have no reason to pay attention to us. And by those who should, even.

A lot of it falls back onto the issue that “looking” like you’re something isn’t the same as “being” something. Convincing people you’re a great storyteller requires professionalism, presenting a clean and vibrant visual imagery, while being a good storyteller requires an abstract emotional comprehension unperceivable from first glance. Two totally different skills.

I have said it myself. I have been asked by many more. “Why don’t you just trust me, random stranger I’ve never met before?”

“I am not ‘people,’” he said. I am important. I have an opinion, I have the right to say it. And if you were smart, you would realize that I am important and so is that opinion.

Some people want you to sense their inner greatness without them needing to prove it. They want your trust without giving you any reason that they’re trust worthy. They feel entitled to respect and a chance.

Then they insult you.

The Different Narration

According to the author, this stranger asked her for free samples of her poetry. She told him that he could find some on Amazon. He returned with the above messages.

“I will not buy or read it even if it is given to me for free.”

“People send me their work like every day.”

“I will never message you about how I don’t like your work.”

He later posted and deleted:

I’m sure, in his mind, by directing him to Amazon, she did request him to read it. In fact, I would give him a little leeway and think maybe he believed that connecting with other writers was done by discussing their books. Many people promote all uncensored honesty (verbal diarrhea, as I call it) as constructive criticism, and stand behind every comment a person can make, even ones done passive-aggressively, rudely, or naively; even those done as personal catharsis.

Now he has helped her to not be so “cliché.”

Was that what motivated him in the first place? I really doubt it. I think he was lashing out for attention. But does he believe that now? Certainly.

What is so insane about this conversation is his seemingly complete separation from the truth, but I feel they are understandable conclusions brought on by a lack of self-reflection. He probably has no idea why he said that. He never thought about it. Now that she isn’t responding well, he runs through the situation and sees what could have been done differently, but rather than take control over his own actions, he pinpoints how she could possibly be in the wrong and calls that the truth.

She’s being overly-sensitive. He won’t do it again. Let’s be friends.

The Compartmentalization

A few weeks ago, I was harassed by a quintessential asshole. He had been messaging me ‘Hey’s and ‘Hi’s for some time now, and finally I was fed up.

“Yes?” I said.

He started cussing me out.

A friend of my ex’s (who had started hitting on me long before we broke up), I knew very little about him, but I would have never pegged him for someone so filled with venom.

He demanded to know what my problem was, why did I care if he talked to me? When I told him I knew that he was hitting on me and that I wasn’t interested, he laughed in my face—“Ha! If you say so!”—and started swearing at me again.

Then: “Why aren’t you interested?”

I decided, instead of blocking and seething in my anger like I normally do with jackasses like him, I would explain to him exactly what was happening, hoping maybe having a conclusion would allow me to drop it. As the conversation went on, me telling the full truth including the parts that weren’t about him—“I’m not over my ex yet and am not looking for anything physical or romantic with anyone.”—he decided that my engagement was a sign of forgiveness.

He asked me out.

In text messages, it’s easy to follow an argument from beginning to end and you start to see this lack of consistency in their goals, foolishness in their arguments, the lack of listening. One minute they’re trying to save their pride by embarrassing you, the next they’re trying to make them like them. Outright denial is common.

“I wasn’t mad,” this Prince Charming told me.

“‘What the fuck is your problem?’ isn’t mad?”

“I can say that without being mad. LOL.”

“Pretty rude for a calm person.”

“Now I feel like shit.”

I’m not much of a liar, for a fiction writer, and I’m surprisingly gullible. I tend to take people at their word—or, at least, think they believe what they’re saying. This makes it incredibly hard for me to relate with something that so completely separates from the truth that possibly be that delusional, but my speculation is this:

Some people react on an emotional level and then forget that emotion the second they don’t feel it anymore. They compartmentalize as a defense mechanism. They don’t dwell. They are more impulsive (both a quality and a flaw) because they don’t spend too much time worrying about their past thoughts or feelings. They’re focused on the now, reacting to the ramifications now. They don’t know what they did or why they did it, but it’s over, so why does it matter?

So let’s move on. “Did you have your dinner?”

There’s not much you can do for it, but be prepared.

The more I find happiness with myself and my accomplishments, the more often someone approaches me in hostile hopes for my attention. It can be difficult to respond in kind—because you know they’re already hurting, because you want to be professional, because you don’t want to start shit that’s going to weigh you down for a long period of time. It’s difficult to ignore someone who really just wants to talk to you. You certainly can’t get them to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll absorb it and accept it sometime from now, but that won’t sooth the anger until then. You explain your side of things, they cuss you out. Too nice, they think they can go back to harassing you with their unsolicited comments.

I tell this story not because I have the answers—uncharacteristically—but because truth is stranger than fiction; this insanity is pretty common. Be prepared for it.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

H.G. Wells Quilt Giveaway


It's that time again. Each June and December, I offer a personally crafted quilt in a giveaway.

But Charley, it's July!

So it is. Moving on.

This "June's" quilt is a H.G. Wells' themed, The Time Machine, a 100% cotton, 40x40 inch circular decorative piece.

To enter:

Scroll down to the Rafflecopter box.

Choose one or more of the available options to submit. The more options followed, the better your chances!

FOR FACEBOOK: Follow the below link to open and like my Facebook page - hang around, like things, comment - but be sure to return and select the "I visited" button.

FOR THE NEWSLETTER: I am launching a newsletter this September that includes updates of my work, reminders of any future giveaways, and a bonus comic. An email will be sent requesting confirmation before being signed up. Each newsletter will arrive on the first of the month and can be unsubscribed to at any time.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


The winner will be asked to supply an address the quilt can be sent to for obvious reasons.

For American and Canadian addresses I pay for shipping and handling; the giveaway is completely free. If the quilt is returned to after being sent to the given address, the winner can either repay shipping or refuse the quilt.

For International addresses I pay shipping and handling (and yes it will cost me an arm and a leg!) however, I cannot be held accountable for any extra expense for customs in your country. You may be required to pay a fee based on trade laws (this does not go to me). If the quilt is returned after sent to the given address, I will not repay for shipping. The winner can choose to pay to reship or refuse the quilt.

The winner will be announced August 3rd, 2016.

If the winner does not respond within ten days of being notified, I will draw a new name.

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Your Narrator is Not a Realist

Glass of water? Half full or half empty?

“Four ounces.”

Not what I’m asking. And if you’re going to be “accurate,” it’s closer to four and a half.

You can’t ask the question of optimism or pessimism without dealing with the answer of “I’m a realist,” which, for me, is not an answer at all. A realist is a pessimist who can’t accept the reality he’s a pessimist.

If we were to be fair, of course everyone is sometimes a realist. And sometimes they’re an optimist and sometimes they’re a pessimist, and it’s healthy to fluctuate back and forth. When we ask the question do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist, the idea is what do you lean towards? Do you usually think positively or negatively?

Stating, “I think realistically,” is an obnoxious and unrealistic answer. You tend to assume things will go well for you. You tend to assume they won’t. You look at a situation and you see problems first. You look at a situation and notice the positives. Both have their benefits, but no one is constantly objective.

In order for a “realist” to truly exist, it would mean that he is better at perceiving the world around him than most. He can, with a glance, successfully gauge the exact amount in the glass. He has an accurate perception of himself and, for whatever reason, a good estimate of the qualities of the others who are applying for the same job. When he says the chair is blue, it is because that chair is blue. Anyone who would call it teal or green is wrong. They just don’t have the perfect grasp on reality he does.

We are all realists on some subject matter. We’ve done the research, had the experiences to effectively analyze likely outcomes in specific situations. We can sit back and objectively run through a list of positives and negatives of the situation and at times even manage to allow that logical rundown control our feelings on the situation.

But not often. Not on everything. And let’s face it, even if you are like that, it’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s boring. It’s awkward. It’s unnecessary.

“Pass me my glass. The one with four ounces please…”

When we say we are realists, we are claiming our own reality is the one true reality. Which brings me to narrators.

When I say “narrators,” I am referring to the narrator of all books, evens those which do not have an actual character telling a story. An important factor in this is what I call the “seeing orb” narrator and how the cold, analytical voice of a camera can tear a reader out of a scene.

(Notice I said “can.”)

Some authors naturally write from a third-party perspective. It is most often a “camera,” a “reader,” or “God.” When they envision a scene, they don’t see it as an over-the-shoulder shot from the protagonist’s (or narrator character’s) P.O.V., and they don’t describe details in the protagonist’s words. Or they do use characters’ words, but will move between “heads.”

This is called third-person omniscient and many times it is considered a mistake. And sometimes it is. It’s not uncommon for a writer to jump heads in a singular situation, or without warning, either because they forgot, the subconscious continuity changed, or it suited that one specific moment. If the reader can’t tell whose reality they’re experiencing the book from, or if the images are abruptly contradicted because the reader is “standing” in the wrong place, it can be legitimately argued that the choice was unsuccessful.

But it is also one of those things that we’re told to look out for, something we’re told not to do. The authors who naturally envision their books as an invisible character walking into a room are less than those who see it as inhabiting the body of the main (or narrator) character. How much less? Well, E.A. games did a survey to determine how many people “made themselves” as their avatars and how many didn’t. About 33% of people made a completely new character. If we believe there is a connection between who makes themselves in games, readers who envision themselves as a character and writers who write from the protagonist’s point of view, I’d say around two-thirds of authors are naturally inclined to write in first-person or third-person limited. That makes the third-party perspective the minority, which would explain why people balk at it as being an abnormal error.

Why does this matter?

Third-party writers are more inclined to make an inhuman P.O.V., trying to realistically and objectively dictate the events with no room for personal opinion. I want to preface this by saying that, artistically, there might be a reason to do this and I’m not poo-pooing it in general.

But from my experience, it is an unintentional and inhibiting choice made often by new writers. The harder part is, because we denote pessimism and optimism as bad things, praising realism and objectivity, many of these authors have been, though unconsciously, striving to be a “realist” rather than a distinctive perspective.

The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction can have one true perspective: the author’s.  Is the chair blue or green? The writer knows. Is the protagonist going to get the job? The writer knows. Who is right? The writer’s opinion is all that matters. In real life, where some things can’t be answered, there is no “truth.” In fiction, there is one.

Some of you have probably heard advice not to take sides and be biased, that a good author sees both sides of the argument, that the villain has reasons to think his actions are good, that the hero isn’t always right. This is all very true. But the point is the narrator is not the writer—unless you’re going to take it in that direction—and while the writer may understand the villain’s actions, it doesn’t mean the person describing them has to.

You may have also heard people talk about the other senses, as in taste, smell, touch, rather than just talking in sight or sound. Or having long sentences is bad. Or show, don’t tell. All of this can be an attempt to encourage an emotional response rather than a logical delivery of facts and events. A lot of new writers write factually and clearly, and many use these above suggestions to help them increase tension and voice.

The camera P.O.V. encourages a dictation of imagery and visual details. It offers up a few sounds, but not much, and tends to avoid other means in which we take in information. This is partially because of what we consciously remember and our dependence on vision, but it can also be noted that sight is more often measurable while the other senses tend to be more subjective.

Two reasons a narration might come off as cold and explanatory is because it 1) only discusses images and 2) it uses numerical measurements.

Using specific numbers and sizes can be effective depending on the circumstance, but there are moments in which the measurement isn’t natural—it’s not the way a person in that situation would see it.

You may describe a knife as six inches when someone pulls it on you, especially if you happen to be a knife aficionado, but it’s more likely, when telling the cops about your experience, you’d say “big.”

Pointing out specific details, like the fact that your attacker “pulled the six-inch knife with his left hand from his backpack,” can detract from the emotion—fear—of the scene. It’s the difference between reading a police report—meant to be unbiased and professional—and listening to the victim tell his side of the story. One will strike more empathy than the other.

Same goes for shorter sentences. A shorter sentence, by nature, is less risky than a longer one—the more words you have, the more possibility for mistakes and getting off on the wrong path—so there’s plenty of reasons people push that shorter is better.

I don’t always agree less words are automatically better, but the main reason I usually take issue with a long sentence (on the rare occasion I do) is it ignores the duration of the moment in order to be perfectly clear about exactly what is happening, typically at the beginning of the story. When the writer tries to shove the exact image into the reader’s mind as fast as possible, especially when something action packed is going on in the background, it slows the scene down.

Is John angry? John doesn’t feel the sensation of anger, but to Lenny he looks it. Would the character say his face is “contorted in rage?” “snarling in disgust?” “Put out?” “Constipated?” Would John’s wife agree with Lenny about the extent of the anger?

The writer says the character is mad, so he is, but would the people involved in the scene agree? Usually no. You’d be hard put to have every person with the same interpretation of events.

It’s easier to make telling objective (which sometimes you might want), while showing tends to require opinions. I can say, “John was mad,” and that’s the end of it. He was mad. Or I can say, “John’s lip rose, and he rolled his eyes.” The readers have more room for interpretation, but are also more likely to trust that interpretation and actually feel the tension.

John would say that he just frowned. Lenny would say that he snarled. John’s wife—who had seen John in real anger—would claim his lips thinned, that he looked like an angry man all the time anyways. Who does the narrator agree with? The author might know the “truth,” but the narrator will have an opinion.

The majority of adjectives and verbs—strong ones especially—are fairly subjective. Adjectives being descriptive words like “dark” or “long” or “purple.” Verbs are actions like “walk,” “stroll,” amble,” “frown,” “snarl,” or “thinning.” Not only can most colors’ labels be quibbled over, but size, magnitude, and connotation must be considered as well. Did he slam, shove, or push that guy into a wall? Depends on who is describing it.

We prioritize realism and accuracy over perception in our everyday lives, but facts don’t make a story. Understanding thoughts, exploring how different people see the world, and realizing that in many cases there is no one reality is a big part of why we read. We want to connect to characters, relate to them, and through them understand ourselves better.

You may end up deciding that your narrator is truly omniscient; he knows what everyone is thinking, he can tell the readers the absolute truth of it, giving them no room for speculation or interpretation, but make that a choice, not your default. By considering the little factors that go into decision making, you will show your audience the way you see life, depend less on their willing trust of you, and learn true empathy.

Not only is seeing the world through a lens natural, it is by far what makes humans interesting.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

I Hate Mail Chimp

Newsletters, huh? Can’t beat ‘em, certainly don’t want to join them…

It’s the sort of thing that I never really signed up for myself and couldn’t understand anyone else’s compulsion, yet I’ve seen it pushed as one of the best marketing opportunities out there.

However, I read only a book a month typically. Sometimes I’ll devour a fantastic one in a day, and it’s not uncommon I may get through one in a week, but overall, I take my time and find my To Be Read pile always tremendously backlogged. Other times, I might take several months slogging through one slim volume. I suppose when you are a much thirstier reader than I am, constantly looking for the new thing, having book updates brought to straight to your email would be a relief. I read weekly web comics and started to have problems keeping track of them all, so I can only imagine having a list of series that only come out once a year.

After long contemplation, I decided no harm, no foul. My manuscript is nearing its final incarnation after three years, and I’m starting to have a lot of faith in this one. In fact, if I can get through this last draft today even, I am going to send it out to a remaining few interested beta-readers with a deadline of a month. So it’s very possible I could be submitting to agents this August, which is the first time I’ve really had a solid deadline for it. If this manuscript does well, even if I only collected a few emails prior to publication, every little bit helps.

Plus, with TheStories of the Wyrd, my web comic, and this blog, it would help to have a source more controllable than Facebook. Mostly, I’d like to see more action from my biannual quilt giveaways, and I know there are people who are interested, but miss out due to poor marketing.

But I didn’t want to spam people, as easy as it would be, and so for a while I started signing up for newsletters to see how they looked. Mostly they’ve only included a few updates here or there—the ads you’d expect. And the places giving advice on newsletters suggested it to be frequent, but not annoyingly so, so my initial idea of only sending one out for every giveaway and book launch seemed to be advised against. If I wanted to do it more often, it would have to be at least vaguely interesting.

Reading up on newsletters, they said not to make it more than one or two pages, that no one would read a great deal of content in any case.

So, what to do?

I wanted something unique that I didn’t offer elsewhere, though I supposed I could have written articles. I figured that wouldn’t be very appealing though; it’s taken me years to build up a blog following, and I still struggle to maintain interest in my yammering.

The thing that tipped my hand was an epiphany of sorts. I have long wanted to do highly illustrated blogs with imperative pictures—an almost comic. It occurred to me that if I had a page of updates with a page of a comic, I could give my readers something appealing and skimmable. Sending out a monthly graphic on writing, I wouldn’t feel as sleazy, it would give me a medium for some of my more ambitious ideas, and hopefully it would meet all the requirements that the articles on newsletters suggest.

But my real problem, as it turns out, isn’t the newsletter itself. I have been working hard on other projects, getting my manuscript ready, the next Story of the Wyrd, the H.G. Wells quilt (the giveaway will be held the last week of July for those interested), and getting ahead several comics like I’ve been wanting to, so I hadn’t jumped on it so quickly.

I turned to the infamous Mail Chimp first, hoping to at least get ideas if not be able to set it up. It immediately felt a little Word Press-y to me, limited, money grubbing. I immediately thought, why? Can’t I just use regular email?

I know a few things; I need a physical address involved. It would be nice if I had a long-term post office box for business. I already have issues with men harassing me and so I am reluctant about being too forthcoming where to find me. I’m moving in October and could wait until then, but I don’t exactly believe in waiting for certain factors to align—that’s usually when opportunities pass me by.

I also know that attachments tend to get sent to spam, so I can’t do it as a PDF like I was originally thinking, but then I wonder how we do images without them being attachments? I know that Mail Chimp does it, after having sent some to myself.

Added to that, I’m not sure how to do mass email while hiding other email addresses (for the security of the readers), or if that won’t be picked up as spam itself.

That all seems neither here nor there really because I truly got stuck on the actual building my email list. I figured, back at the beginning of the month, I could at least put an option on my site to subscribe to the newsletter, but when I tried, I found a huge stack of obstacles.

First I tried a Hello Bar, which gave me the HTML code to create an email form on my website, but I could never get to work on my actual webpage or my blog. I tried another, much more low tech option, and while I could get it to do exactly what I wanted, it also didn’t react well in blogger.

So I said screw it and decided to create an old fashioned comment forum, but couldn’t figure out how to get it to actually send. HTML, for various reasons, requires an extra “script” to have a comment box—partially to keep people from snagging email addresses. I spent several days researching and coding how to do a PHP script, but never got it to work.

I’m exactly the sort of person Mail Chimp is designed for; to help us peons do things without professionals. And yet, like Wordpress, I feel limited and helpless in my naivety, the skills I do know bound by their limitation. I may need to learn to reinvent the wheel, but it does get me places. Just very slowly.

In any case, I am still considering trying to launch my newsletter in August, partially so I can include subscribing to my newsletter in my giveaway, but that is entirely contingent on if I can find a safe and professional way to keep people’s emails safe. As of right now, I’ll be looking into other programs and options. If you still would like to be notified of updates and receive the first newsletter when it comes out, please let me know the old fashioned way by sending me an email to

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Letting Go of Poor, Harsh, or Flawed Criticism

I’m reading along in my manuscript, making edits based on the criticisms I received at this year’s Jackson Hole Writers Conference. As I said previously, three out of four critiques were extremely useful. One, not so much.

Her critique wasn’t mean or extra negative, she didn’t tear me apart or put me down, and when I left I was initially filled with a lack of reaction, focused mainly on making my next meeting. I looked back on the experience and had a few eye roll moments, but it didn’t anger me.

Until it did.

As I read the beginning pages (yet once again), the words inspired memories of what was actually said. By the end of the critique I had started to think that she had hastily skimmed it for basic writing rule “errors” and other easy comments. I knew science fiction was completely unfamiliar territory—that much was obvious even from our limited time together—and that she was an outlier in the extreme extent of her confusion (and the way she was confused) so I pretty early on dismissed it as an overall useless critique with one or two helpful comments and went about my day.

So you think, knowing that the critique’s quality was poor due to circumstance, it would have been forgotten quickly. Yet, as I comb through, I keep finding myself growing more and more agitated.

One of the things she implied was that the wastelands weren’t very well described, if the deadlands were dry, if it was hot, etc. She wasn't organized in her thoughts, rambling in her wording, and I wasn’t always clear on what she was telling me, but it seemed she didn’t understand what the deadlands were or looked like. As she said it, I remembered several passages that should have explained it, but decided I had unknowingly cut them in the new version of the first chapter.

I am finding now as I look at it, they weren’t:

“One year ago, Raiden had ripped through those wastes stopping for nothing. No signs of life, of people, or of humanity’s improvement, he kept on, thinking eventually he’d see the end of the world. Or, at least, the highway.”

“The sun bore down on them, the walls and foliage of the community too far to give them shade.”

“Somehow the cult had found and carried in healthy top soil to cover up the gray that made the rest of the planet. The brown ground extended far to his right, reaching the flat brick platform in the middle of nowhere. Beyond that, the dirt darkened to a soft, loose ash.”

“Some homes had their tall, white-brick walls and gardens to block out the ghastly sight of the dead horizon, but the remote outpost of the cult stood open, easy to stroll in or out of from any direction.”

“He’d had driven for days, meeting only parched dirt and a bleached out sky.”

“The dusty stink of the deadlands disappeared into the tangy whiff of plant-life and he knew from that first moment this place was different.”

“‘Can’t make water,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t rain without the terraformers.’

‘It will rain when He forgives.’

‘It will rain when someone figures out how to make it rain. It doesn’t rain over the Foundation. You think it just appears randomly in a bucket?’”

The chapter is filled with descriptions of the deadlands, the heat of the day, the sweat rolling off their faces—even with the above passages alone her questions were answered, but there were far more descriptions and clues. I suppose I can see how she could miss it, and in truth I don’t blame her for that. I tend to skim when I read myself. But I also am aware that I do it and critique accordingly, and considering it wasn’t her only question already answered by the manuscript, that it wasn’t the only time she wrongly assumed I had made a mistake when really she just didn’t agree with the direction, and that she continually announced with disapproval that she didn’t know what some common, self-explanatory science fiction terms meant, it only feeds into my theory that she wasn’t actually reading. And if you know you’re just skimming, why trust your own judgment with such vigor? Even curbing the critique with, “I might’ve missed it, but…” would have saved face enough that I would accepted that the details might need to be more obvious. But stating like something’s a fact (interspersed with don’t use adverbs and Star Wars doesn’t have backstory in the first act) puts any person on edge, right or not. And what if I had just said, “Okay,” and started to force in more obvious passages? It would be easy to error on redundancy and belittling the reader.

A part of me, I realize, doesn’t trust the possibility that maybe it really was just a bad critique. A part of me insists that it’s my ego talking, that I am too obtuse to realize what a jerk I was being.

So I fixate. I constantly try to prove myself wrong. I focus on the negative, the problems, what went wrong. Even though I know people who I can count on having a good word about working with me, who feel listened to, encouraged, and seek me out for one-on-one reads, even though there are a good number of peers and friends and experts I like working with, even though I have fun workshopping, hearing feedback, it usually brightens my day going to a writers group or meeting, even though I often leave laughing, even when they don’t love the work itself, I can't help but continuing to run through an undesirable situation searching for my mistakes.

A lot of people do this. So, instead of sweeping it under the rug, let's discuss it. You will have a critique gone wrong and you will still blame yourself even when it’s just a difference of opinion, a mean person, a poor connection, or even someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And then we have to keep with our vanity and pretend like it never happens... or look like the egotistical ass we're afraid of.

I tend to run through the same conversations in every spare moment (if not the Meow Mix song) until I figure out a way to solve the problem. This enhances my skills at dialogue, but it can also get frustrating, even eat away at me for long periods of time. The same feelings are invoked again and again, a sense of helpless can start to overwhelm me if I can’t come to some sort of answer. Isn't some layer of hell about experiencing the same pain, unsolvable, getting your proverbial liver eaten out by an eagle at each sunrise? Mine would be having the same argument with a different person everyday. Sort of like the internet.

I think, how can I react in a more effective way in the future? Was there anything I said that caused her to speak to me in the way she did? I spend a lot of my time frustrated, tense, flipping back and forth from shaming myself to blaming the other person and feeling guilty and childish for doing both.

I struggle to talk to others about it. A confession, I’m not used to people agreeing with me. It’s changed as I’ve gotten older, mostly from learning how to better articulate my thoughts.
And then I wonder, am I deliberately forming my sentences and ideas in a way that I know people will agree with me? If they agree with me, is it because I tricked them?

Even though I try not to do that, thinking hard about neutral wording and give credit to the opposition in many circumstances, I'm still not sure I can trust myself. (You can tell when that goes out the window because “jackass” gets thrown around a lot.) I focus on telling the story honestly without having people shut down. I think and think and think about how to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and end up randomly going on about boring details or refusing to leave out unnecessary parts.

There’s a psychological concept of the Impostor’s Syndrome in which a person believes that when they achieve success, it doesn’t really count for whatever reason. “I published a short story, but I’m not really a published author because it wasn’t a novel.” “I published a novel, but I’m not a real author because it wasn’t one of the Big Five.” “I published with the Big Five, but it was just a fluke.”

The “impostor” believes that they tricked people into thinking she’s better than she is.

In some ways, when it comes to people agreeing with me, especially in situations where I start to be suspicious that it was someone else messing up and not me, I tend to feel like I’ve tricked them, manipulated their understanding of the situation. It couldn’t possibly be that someone might just agree with me. Is that condescending? Probably, knowing me.

Just like anything in life, critique partners may be naïve, mistaken, or abnormal in their opinions. Just like authors, they may step with their ego first and be unable to listen and respect the other person. They may use criticism as a means to empower themselves, they may talk down to people, belittle or berate them instead of finding other, more useful ways to talk about their ideas. While in most cases it takes two to tango, there will be times where there was nothing you could have done.

As I go through, her comments, even ones forgotten, keep popping up in my mind.

I would be telling the audience the protagonist isn’t paying attention—“His eyes remained forward, but stayed unfocussed.”—and she would tell me in exasperation, “But that makes it sound like he’s not paying attention.”

I would make a joke…

“And my mother made it all about you, like I was gaga over you and that’s why I didn’t want to go. She thinks I’m an idiot.”

“Keep in mind her first impression of you was you pooping everywhere. First impressions are hard to let go of.”

She’d say, “That is not a mother’s first impression!”

It all comes down to a lack of faith, it seems. Her absolute assumption of my inability. I struggle with swallowing my perception of her. How could you not even consider, even briefly, that maybe at least a few of my choices were intentional? I mean, I get sometimes sarcasm is hard to pick up on in the best situations, but how on Earth could you ever think a character actually means a statement like that? Especially when the girl’s reaction was to laugh?

I mean, Jesus Christ, lady.

The more assured I am that her confusion was due to her expectation that I was a hack—she has the lowest reading comprehension of anyone who had read any of my work to date, but especially this section—the angrier I get. When I did finally vent to my friends, the more disgusted they were with her, the more riled up I became. I wasn’t feeling validated; I was feeling enraged. The more I find proof her questions were answered, evidence she was being intentionally obtuse, the worse I get. I could let it go initially, but now that I know her thinking was flawed, it’s very much worse.

I looked up online how to let things go. I have been struggling with pent up frustration and resentment recently for other personal experiences (men hitting on me in callous ways), and Sensory Processing Sensitivity came up. Turns out that my food, social, and sound avoidance along with my constant self-reflection is actually a researched type of mental process that not everyone experiences. It might be that I have an atypical and heightened response to everyday, external stimuli making me more sensitive and more likely to fixate on conflict.

Some sites discussed ways to cope, and the one option that caught me was on projection. I have long known that humans as a whole tend to be harsher on flaws and decisions that are similar to our own, and the suggestion that maybe I was angry due to seeing myself in them tripped me up.

But I try, I told myself. I try to listen. I try to consider others’ needs. I try to think about my mistakes and what I could have done differently. I force myself to mentally admit when I was wrong. I would never give a critique like she gave me. Not after years of experience anyway. I would never begrudge a guy for trying to politely tell me he’s not interested, laugh in his face and pretend I wasn’t hitting on him. I always try to give people an out, the benefit of the doubt, freedom to make their own decisions. I haven't made those mistakes in years.

Not for years.

And then I started to realize.

Obtuseness makes me angry. People making poor choices due to inexperience. People forcing me to be mean when I don’t want to hurt anyone. People who refuse to hear my side of the story, judging me for it. People who I come to for help and brush me aside. People who approach me, demanding my attention and acceptance while simultaneously writing off my perception as wrong. People pushing me to anger and judgment.

People whose ego makes others miserable.

I spend so much time thinking—thinking, thinking, thinking—so much time editing, so much time getting feedback, so much time debating how to make other people comfortable, so much time understanding what people think, understanding writing philosophies and stubbornness, so much time fighting my own ego, that when I see someone who is unwilling to put their opinion or wants aside for a moment and actually hear me and what I think or feel, it’s not that they think I’m wrong; it incites a deep lingering fear in me.

What if, even after all of this effort to be kind, to listen, to seek the truth beyond what I want to hear, I’m really making an ass of myself and am completely unaware of it? What if I’m like the mystery writer who asserted ridiculous statements about Star Wars and adverbs and I am the one sitting here blaming others because I am too obtuse to see it?

Every time I see a sentence that proves her so absolutely wrong, it doesn’t validate me, it just reminds me how certain you can be that something is so absolutely wrong and yet so absolutely disagree with someone else.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Here There Be Purple Prose: Dickens Versus the Worst Writer Ever

When I took the test, I had no idea who Bulwer-Lytton was. I’d never heard of him before and couldn’t say when he lived or what he wrote. Charles Dickens, of course, I knew, but the extent of my knowledge came mostly from Wishbone and the fifteen times I did Oliver!

The quiz explained that Bulwer-Lytton is considered one of the world’s worst writers, and yet when this test was given to over 9,000 university students, it seemed people were only able to attribute correctly 50% of the quotes to each author.

I got a 42%.

Considering that it confirmed my own experience that “good” writing is more about trust and willingness to invest emotions than universal credentials of credibility, I genuinely attempted to take the quiz in the intended way, judging it by its perceived quality and voice rather than thinking about tests in the way I normally do. But that was hard. As much as I wanted to not meta-read, I kept finding myself thinking, “They chose this quote because it looks like bad writing, so it must be Dickens.”

As I checked back the answers, most of my test manipulation was correct—more so than my actual judgement. I figured things like the first question would automatically be Dickens, and they certainly wouldn’t have two Dickens in a row, and ended up second guessing myself, going against my “instinct” because I knew my instinct was pulling from my experience of fudging multiple answer tests from high school.

But the truth was I’ve never had an ear for quality of writing anyway. I did not have faith in what the academics told me was good, and many of my professors had been caught in lies over the years—giving us “masterpieces” they themselves were apathetic about, or gushing about something to look intelligent or unique. They were human, but as a teen, I couldn’t match up with the disconnect. To this day, I can’t take a look at an unfamiliar paragraph and tell you if it came from a reputable author. I don’t believe in quality like that anyway. I certainly could tell you how something made me react, I could say if I liked it, but if you handed me a manuscript and asked me to evaluate it based on the mechanics of speech, the over thinking would cause me to respond differently. None of it would sound natural, and I think that’s pretty common for most readers.

However, I can hear voice pretty well, or at least attitude and ideology. In real life, I don’t recognize people by their physical appearance, but can recall a personality from sixteen years ago the second they open their mouth. Despite not having actually read any of Dickens, some of the quotes I guessed correctly because I could tell which story they would belong to.

I had to wonder if I actually had familiarized myself with Charles Dickens’ work would I have been able to hear the difference? Whether I’d actually read the particular story or not? If I had understood more about Bulwer-Lytton, would I have been better able to speculate who was who?

There have been cases in which someone has misquoted (falsified even) a writer and I instantly recognized it as something the author would have never written or spoken, even if I hadn’t read the actual work itself. I’d learned enough about the artist that the wording or sentiments rang untrue.

In the case of Dickens versus Bulwer-Lytton, I was a prime candidate for the survey because I didn’t have enough wherewithal to supplement who the quote belonged to. I had to merely differentiate between what writing I thought was good and bad, and I did so with less success than a coin would.

I tried. I didn’t expect much. Had I been better read with either of them, perhaps I would have been more disappointed with my results.

After looking up Bulwer-Lytton, however, I realized that the claim of his terrible ability was more or less exaggerated. Or telling, depending on how you look at it.

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual writing award that goes to the person who can write the worst first line of a novel, attributes him to be the one to have coined the phrases “The pen is mightier than the sword,” “The great unwashed,” and “The almighty dollar.” He is also the man who wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

He writes with big words and long sentences, that’s agreed on. The full line from Paul Clifford goes, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

You could easily make fun of him and his writing.

Yet the question becomes why are his winding and long sentences (at least this one) considered terrible while Dickens isn’t? How does a man who has coined several household phrases, appealing enough to be repeated 150 years after his death, get a reputation of being less?

When I was in college, my professors loved Absurdist theatre. I, for one, wasn’t so fond. And yet I knew that many of the works they gave me, after I forced myself to read them and listen to someone else passionately go on about the meaning, I could see their merit. I may not like Jean Genet, but I could argue why he was so successful compared to others. But if someone hadn’t told me he was great, hadn’t demanded that I re-evaluate my immediate impression of him, he would have been no different than my peer writing about Rubric’s Cubes representing the homeless.

How much does reputation—the opinions we hear about the author—affect his quality?

I also wonder if the quiz was changed to simply “Like” or “Dislike” what the results would be. How many would “like” Dickens while “disliking” Bulwer-Lytton?

But actually, the real point was this: I may know of Charles Dickens, but I don’t actually know Charles Dickens. There are many books I’ve been trying to catch up on, but I suppose these works need to be right up there.

So while I can’t say the results of this test surprise me, I’d like to, at very least, be able to pick Dicken’s voice out of a line-up if it so came to it.

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Friday, July 8, 2016

Do You Tell Your Artistic Significant Other Their Work is “Bad”?

Not mine, though I am having disagreements about the artistic properties of mouse remains on my carpet with a certain furry roommate. The answer, in that case, is yes, but I don’t think it’ll do much good.

Today a young woman asked if she should tell her boyfriend that he can’t draw. He had been looking into new occupations and decided to quit his job to see if he could make it as a comic artist, having storyboarded his ideas, but, summed up, very much an amateur. She found his work mediocre and desperately lacking in some technique.

On the one hand, she says, she is completely financially separate from him and he has the money to support himself for a while. On the other, it makes her question the relationship, his obtuseness causing disrespect towards him and his judgment.

I have to say that I understand where she’s coming from. There’s something irrationally irritating when someone has confidence founded in naivety. I struggle to be around new artists because some of their initial expectations are ridiculous—and hit a little too close to home. Their belief in destiny and absolute quality can send me up a wall; “I’m going to mail this CD to the radio station and if it’s any good they’ll play it. If not, they won’t.”

However, while I empathize with her frustration at something that doesn’t necessarily matter, I think the compulsion to reveal to people their unlikeliness of success is problematic.

For one thing, unskilled people lacking the ability to evaluate their own effectiveness is a pretty typical part of the process. In some ways, it is beneficial because it prevents them from being discouraged and allows for them to keep up the excitement and enjoyment of the piece rather than wallowing in the crap they’re making. The problem arises with, surprise surprise, problems that would be better solved by self-awareness and are exacerbated by “blinding” ourselves to them out of fear.

If someone is not using these delusions to put down others—discussing how everyone else sucks in comparison, thinking they’re entitled to giving out disrespectful criticism—and faces no immediate, long lasting ramifications sometimes it’s not a bad idea to allow them to think highly of themselves and stick with only important, big picture responses to their work rather than insisting on giving them a reality check. I’ve found that people who take it upon themselves to do so are usually just being high and mighty and not caring about that individual. In the discussions I’ve had with those who informed someone else on their eventual failure have yet to lead to logic I find fully formed, just, “If they can be discouraged they should be” because “now they can focus on something they’re actually good at.”

Except you don’t need to go out of your way to discourage an artist who can be; it’s not like the path is easy without assholes intentionally standing in your way. And so far, no one has offered up these poor victims any alternative of what they should be doing with their free time. The speaker had a low opinion of him all around. Considering creating isn’t a waste no matter if is conventionally successful or not, these arguments don’t hold water for me.

So, my big answer to this is that you don’t have to prove to him that he sucks as a creator, but you can allow yourself some primary issues to discuss. As he works on it, you will often see some of the smaller more frequent problems to be smoothed out by attacking the big picture. And if he refuses to hear anything at all, consider whether or not he just needs some time by himself to start figuring out how he feels—common—or if he really is being an insufferable tool bag. Then it’s more of a question what do you do with an insufferable tool bag? Insult him? Maybe.

But that’s probably not what’s going on.

She claims he pins her in a corner and then doesn’t want to listen to her opinion. Also typical. He’s looking for someone to soothe his fears. As I’ve stated before, it is perfectly acceptable to be in this mindset, but don’t lie to people about looking for criticism if want you want is reassurance. Tell them the truth, “I’m not ready for feedback yet, I just want to share it with you.”

Of course, that’s not always the ticket either. Some people want “criticism” in that if I ask for criticism and you can only give me praise, I know it’s good. They often hope their work is somehow surprisingly astounding and they just can’t see it and want someone else to prove it. This is wrong to place on another person’s shoulders, especially someone who cares about you.

In my opinion, she’s right on point in the way she feels; this attempt to find himself really isn’t something that needs her to get involved or be the judge of what will come, but it is frustrating as hell, and dealing with a significant other who wants your honest reaction while needing you to be supportive is a terrible position to be in.

I don’t think he’s as stupid as some might think, nor is he doomed to failure. One of the things I’d like people to remember is that it takes ten years to be an overnight success—we don’t see all the mistakes our heroes had to make to get where they are today. If you want to be an artist of some sort and can swing quitting a job you hate, why not? Take the time to do really put some effort into it, find another career if it doesn’t work out.

I say that as a someone who has never had lots of financial security in my adult life and it’s easy to tell people to not fear losing it, but it’s not a bad way to live and is completely doable if you are free of kids and a mortgage and other such responsibilities. Of course, if you are invested in a person and don’t want to deal with their starving artist lifestyle, that is completely up to you. I wouldn’t blame a man who didn’t want to date me due to my lack of stable income. Some might find it shallow, but it’s a lifestyle choice, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for not wanting to live it.

If I were her, I would question when this attitude truly becomes a problem. Is it affecting their relationship, their standard of living, is it making him constantly shoot himself in the foot? Make poor decisions when it concerns his career? If there aren’t any ramifications, I’d say to let him “find himself” for a while and don’t judge him for taking a risk on something. Keep in mind that all artists have found someone wrongly assessing their chance of success and telling them they’re not going to make it. I myself have had a few successful projects in which a friend came up to me and said, “I thought this was such a terrible idea when you started!”

I have no idea what you hope to achieve by telling me that now!

Sometimes you have to see the vision and remember that it really is subjective. You might desire to tell someone they won’t succeed, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are correct. It more likely means that you are annoyed with their lack of self-awareness about the difficulties.

However, that doesn’t solve the real problem of her frustration and disgust for his ignorance. I don’t think this is just petty and it’s not going to go away simply because she rationalizes that it doesn’t help to tell him to pull his head out of his ass. In fact, I think it’s imperative she voices her opinion, otherwise it will probably fester into resentment for him and his work. And if he demands for her opinion—which he has and will—it puts her in the awkward position of either lying or telling the ugly truth of it.

I think it’s important to find the truth that matters and stick to that. When the subject comes up, inform him of any honest positives, “I’m really impressed that you are doing this,” before letting him know you want to be left out of it. “Right now I think you need time to figure out your work, what you want to be doing, and just generally self-reflecting and pushing yourself without worrying too much what other people think.” If and when he keeps going, continue to say, “When you ask me my opinion, as of right now I don’t feel you hear it, so while I am more than to give you any support you need, I’m not going to critically analyze your work until I know that that’s what you want. If you want me to encourage you, I can do that too.”

And then he’ll ask for her to “critically analyze the work” because no one can stand an answer that’s not as positive as they want, giving her permission to give the one most important issue on her mind.

If diplomatic about it—keeping in mind the subjectivity, respecting that he has a least a small reason for the choices he made, making it all about you and your feelings instead of him what he did—it’s possible to get it off her chest without hurting him or getting into an argument: “It’s just a matter of getting yourself to your limits. Aim big because I know you can do amazing things, but remember you are competing with people who have being doing this for years and years. Right now, I think your work has certain tells that you’re just starting out, and I believe learning more about them would help give you more immediate credibility.”

If, while you’re remaining calm, he does fly off the handle, it’s a good sign of a toxic relationship. You shouldn’t be scared to voice your opinions as long as you try and do so in an encouraging way, and if your partner uses anger to prevent you from saying something, they have a lot of maturing to do.

Honestly, most people need to learn how to offer their opinions in a non-invasive manner anyway, and learning how to talk to someone about these kinds of things—especially your significant other—is important. It’s not just about the art, but everyday life. We won’t trust everything our partners choose to do, and the best we can offer is the truth while standing back and letting them do things for themselves.

Do you tell your loved one that their work is terrible? No. It may be that it’s just not your thing, it may be hard for you to see the potential. It may be fear or jealousy or just our natural abrasion to hubris. But don’t try and hold back your feelings or opinions, just find the most useful way to convey them. And if they don’t want to hear it, give them some leeway; it can be hard in the beginning. But if time passes and they don’t give a shit about what you think, it’s not really about the art anymore.

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