Friday, April 28, 2017

How High School Bludgeons Its Art Students

Many believe high school promotes the hive-like mentality, is geared towards the more sheepish of the population, and aggressively (if unintentionally) stands as an obstacle for the creative minds. Whether it’s because we like pretending our dysfunction is due to secretive genius, or to prove we really are creative and unique because we are dysfunctional, or simply a way of establishing that high school really was a waste of time, the thought that the educational system hurts the arts is popular and often repeated.

And though I would like to write about the numerous of teachers who tried to drown their brilliant students in the early years, I’m not here to discuss the things I always discuss or that I like to discuss, but want to discuss a different discussion all together.

Some years ago, I entered into the real world and found myself face to face with a reality that academia never prepared me for. I wrote down my feelings on the subject, and here I am nearly ten years after graduation, ruminating over the difference of life versus high school.

In high school…

When you don’t do your work, you’re only hurting yourself.

Education is about the learning process, so every action, project, and paperwork distributed is all, in a way, pretend. If you don’t do your homework, you’re the one not learning. You’re the one who won’t understand, who won’t get the grade, and your teacher is just ecstatic they don’t have another insincere essay to read. At worst, you’re working on a group project and your procrastination is screwing over your fellow projecteers’ grades as well, which sounds bad, but it’s not as bad as it could be because…

In the art world…

Everyone depends on everyone.

It is rare for any one artist to attribute his success to only himself. Whether it be producing a play, writing a novel, or even living off painting, many people are involved to bringing success to a project. Even a one man show requires help, whether it be the light board operator, the set designer, the crew of the stage, or other miscellaneous hands. A novelist depends on an editor, an agent, a publisher, a cover designer, a bookstore manager, other businesses looking for ad revenue. They need high school librarians to let them give a talk. Even the most self-sufficient self-publisher needs a printer or social media app, Amazon or iBooks to collaborate with them. Painters sell through galleries, have publicists, and sometimes even assistants. There are occasions when a person could do it all himself, but on the whole, the art world is a group effort.

High school teaches the art student that making a deadline is only important for his success. Each student receives a separate grade from each other, and when one backs out the others usually can use that as an excuse for his end product. But in the art world, no one cares why there is no music, they just know it sounds weird. They don’t care that the advertiser didn’t meet his deadlines, they just don’t know about the show. It doesn’t matter that it’s not the publisher’s fault the author doesn’t have a book yet, he still can’t produce it. He’s still losing money.

Even Amazon, with its massive number of indie authors will still be effected by unscrupulous work practices of its suppliers.

Maybe our decisions won’t impact the success of our partners greatly, but no matter what path you take, people won’t be able to do their jobs if you don’t do yours.

In high school…

People will accept late work.

Deadlines are arbitrary to the teacher. She makes them based around well-spaced scheduling, prioritizing what the student can and can’t do, and preferring for her disciples to do the job rather than just blow it off. They offer a half-grade in order to illustrate the importance of the deadline, but still convince people to still try. And—here’s the important part—because teachers live in this pretend world, resetting and relooping over and over, the student has plenty of time to get the late work in. No one’s waiting on him, no one’s going to move forward anyway. With the exception of the more strict educators, if he can get it to her before she submits his grade, he’s golden. Sure, some teachers don’t want the extra work of a late assignment, but I’ve met few who can’t be talked into a more accepting attitude of your mistake.

But in the art world…

Deadlines are determined by necessity.

Because everyone depends on everyone, often times, other people can’t start their job until the first has finished. A lighting designer can’t do anything until the set has been built. Advertisers can’t begin without knowing what the product is. An editor can’t edit until the book’s been written.

If you’re the big man in the department, the author of the novel, the painter of the masterpieces, then deadlines are breakable—but only to a certain extent. Like a diva in a film, producers can be lenient to the big stars, but even they have specific limitations. For one thing, the artist’s reputation is on the line. But, more importantly, there are often outside factors that can’t be controlled.

If a musician doesn’t come out with a new CD while she’s still popular, she will soon be forgotten. If the movie’s premiere keeps pushing back, the audience will lose interest. Some deadlines are based off of events, such as auctions, or fads. The artist needs to meet his deadlines for the people who are working with him, for his fans, and to keep himself in the lime light.

More so, even, artistic deadlines are worse than any other form because there is always more that we can do. The writer can always make another draft. The artist can always go back and fix that one little mistake. The producer can always advertise more. It’s not just about finishing, it’s about making it good. People in the arts always feel like there isn’t enough time, and it’s important not to be the one they’re blaming.

In high school…

It’s about making your teacher happy.

Often times your teacher is the only person who will ever read your essay. The job is about the doing of it and the grade from it, and it will probably never be used again. Students know who their audience is and they can gauge the potential success of their choices based on that one individual’s personal tastes and opinions. Thus, decisions become easier to make.

Working in high school looks like this: Teacher decides on project, tells you how long student has to do it, student does it, turns in project, teacher decides if it was done correctly or not.

But in the art world…

It’s about making someone happy, but no one knows who.

Some say it is important to make yourself happy. Some say it is important to make whoever’s paying you happy. Some say it’s important to make your readers happy. The problem with that is, we don’t know who our audience is, we don’t know who’s going to end up paying us half the time, and we don’t always know anything about ourselves.

We’ve been trained to try and do what was important for the grade. We had one person in mind and that was that. There were plenty of choices to go against it—“I know my teacher loves this book, but I still think it’s stupid.”—but even still the options were obvious.

In the art world, there are too many factors to count. First I could write for myself, but then do I write the book that I would buy to seem smart, or the book that I would hide behind a cover of A Clockwork Orange? Do I write what I enjoy writing or do I write what I enjoy reading? I could write it for whose paying me, but do I target it towards my agent, my editor, or my publisher, most of whom I probably don’t know anything about yet? I could write for an audience but then I’d have to choose which audience, and even when I’ve done that, there’s still a lot more to keep in consideration. And if it’s a mixture of all of the above, that’s even worse.

Working in the art world looks like this: Author decides on a project. He decides how long he has to do it. Author does it (allegedly). He turns in project. Someone rejects it and doesn’t say why. So does another and another. Finally, someone takes it. He makes his changes. Readers get book and hates changes/original. Book bombs, can’t sell another.

Writers have to depend on their own opinion and don’t get the luxury of having a boss to decide how good they are.

In high school…

 It’s better to do something challenging and be mediocre than do something easy and be good.

I asked my acting students what is a good actor and they say, “Someone who can play a lot of characters.”

I said, “Okay. Why?”

“Because it’s challenging!”

“Why does the audience care about the actor being challenged?”

High school advisors always advise to take harder classes. It is better to get a B in an honors class than an A in a regular class. Colleges are looking for the people with ambition, not the ones seeking the easy route.

Academia is impressed by risk takers, go getters, people who challenge themselves. We are taught from a young age that it is important not to take the simpler path. It is about the journey, not the destination.

But in the art world…

It’s about the end results.

Many abstract artists have to explain their work for others to be impressed. It is not apparent to the viewer how hard it is to draw a line. They need to go into detail about the workload, otherwise people will be thinking, “My five-year-old can do that.”

In this way, the art world is like math. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you come up with the right answers.

If an artist challenges himself for the fun of it, that’s fine. If he likes the harder way better, then that’s how he should do it. But the inspiration he gives his fans will not change just because he went the hard route. Good artists make whatever they’re doing look easy. Sure, some audience members will be impressed by impossible looking things, but usually if they’re noticing how hard it must be the creator isn’t doing it well.

It doesn’t matter why the artist failed, it matters that he failed. The student challenges himself, the artist does what works.

In high school…

The people are there to make you do your work.

Because of that whole “mandatory education” thing, high schools aren’t very selective. It is not competitive so it is better if everyone does a good job. We expect children not wanting to do their work, and we also realize that many people don’t really see the reward in doing hypothetical activities. So most of academia is set up to force everyone to be productive.

But in the art world…

Everyone wants you to do less than them.

Even when not in the same field, people are trying to outdo their peers. The more “talented” the world considers you, the more sway you have. Therefore, the light designer is competing with the actor, the actor is competing with the director, and every time someone is an overachiever it makes the rest of us have to work harder. Therefore, no one is going to push you to go above and beyond unless they have direct reward from it. Or think you’re far enough beneath them that it doesn’t matter.

And, it’s a job, so the producer/publisher/agent will assess if an author’s worth the work every time they have to nag him. It is more likely that a person will get fired/not picked up again before he is pushed.

But that’s when he’s already successful. Many times there won’t be a job until after the work is done, after the painting is done, the novel is finished, the music is written. That means that no one cares if you finish at all. It doesn’t bother anyone else if your novel never gets made. They don’t need you to be a writer, they have plenty.

Unlike in high school, there is no one to tell you how to do it, the deadlines, or lecture you when the work isn’t finished.

In high school…

The path is cut and dry.

We have a few options, such as electives and what subject matter our essay is on, but there was always advice and where to go and what to do, and in order to deviate from that a student was required to a lot of extra effort. And even still, by means of having a specific direction to go, it gives an option when choosing not to follow it. If you stand still, you’ll still be pushed forward. Someone else will has already made a good number of decisions for you.

But in the art world…

The choices are unlimited.

There are a thousand different options and they all could work in one context and all could fail in a different occasion. Whereas you know exactly what needs to be done to get into college, when attempting to become a successful artist, it’s hard to separate what is useful work from busy work.

We know if we do our homework we will get a good grade and that will help getting into college. But we don’t know which idea for a novel is the best one, which will sell the best, which agent is the best to send the idea to, which agent will be most likely to open up most connections, or even if the book will come out the way we planned it. Is it better to make some short stories to help get published, or is it a better use of time to go straight to the big picture? Is writing this porn script going to count as a resume credit, or is it going to delegitimize my experience?

Art students often talk about the surprise when all of the sudden they had no direction before them. Right out of college, the path is no longer clear, and we don’t really know how to make one. And even when having some idea about the next step, it is never certain whether or not it is the right step or that it will get anywhere.

7. In high school…

If you do what’s expected of you, you can’t fail.

The student turns in his homework, he comes to class, he writes the essay, and he tells the teacher what she wants to hear. Even if he does all of those things badly, he will still pass the class. Some people are made to always go above and beyond the call of duty, but for the rest of us the knowledge that as long as we achieve the bare minimum we’ll be fine is a nice safety net.

But in the art world…

Your failure is often out of your hands.

A person could flop for any single reason, and often for very stupid, blameless, and inane ones. No one bought the book because no one heard about it, because the cover was ugly, because it had a word in the name that was in vogue at the time and therefore was ignored as one of the masses, it is compared to a terrible story, or there was a typo on the first page.

On that grounds, however, a person can also succeed for very stupid and inane reasons.

Artists often comment about how success is about luck, and to a certain measure, it’s true. Unlike high school, because no one is telling you exactly what needs to be done, and it is on the artist to make himself do his work, we can’t depend on just doing what we’re told. We have to make decisions and commit to them. High school has never prepares people for that.

In high school…

People can determine the importance of an assignment and put in a respective level of energy.

Teachers are notorious for assigning busy work. By the nature of bureaucracy, the professors are often required to give a specific amount of essays out, a specific amount of homework out, and demand that the kids stay in class for the allotted time. So they give out work to literally keep the children busy.

Thus we learn that there are some assignments that we can blow off, half ass, or speed through and there is some work that we should try harder on.

But in the art world…

When you produce crap, you produce crap, no matter how big or small.

Not all projects are created equal. Some jobs are small (30 seconds of transition music for a community theatre) and some are big (a world tour), and the number of people watching changes. Therefore, it looks as though it is okay to not work as hard for the smaller events because the reward isn’t worth it.

But hiring is based on your reputation. Small jobs often get the bigger jobs, so when an artist produces a heap of half-assed work, or no work at all, it affects them. Grades “reset” every semester, and though the GPA is an accumulation, it is still number based which reputation isn’t. Which means that if I produce a project worth an A, a C, and then one F, I have a C average. But when someone watches me produce a terrible play then a great one, then a mediocre one, I will be considered a terrible playwright.

Most importantly, in high school, projects constantly come your way no matter how well or poorly you did on the last, where in the art world, do too terribly and the projects will stop coming all together.

In high school…

People are impressed by potential.

Seeing a third grader write a novel is impressive, even if it is painful to read. A student’s drawing of their own face that looks like them will get compliments, even if with the crossed eyes and asymmetrical features. In high school, you’re talented if you’re better than just expected.

But in the art world…

People expect you to be the best from the jump.

An agent has to pick a new book to represent. The resume of one man is seventeen unpublished novels. The resume of another is one published novel. The agent will pick the later because, while it is impressive that someone could write that many, they might all be terrible. He only has the potential to be a good author, while the second has (allegedly) written well enough for someone else to invest in his work.

For a high school student to be impressive, it only requires hard work. For an artist to be impressive, it requires success. High school teaches us that if we want to show off, we only need to put in effort. In “the real world,” however, opportunities exist for the results, not for the sake of opportunity. Things made for teens are only there so that the teens can have a chance to learn something, things made for adults are there to build a profit, reputation, or some other reward. It doesn’t matter if you have potential, they need to be certain you can do the job.

In high school…

You’re only competing with people in your age group.

All contests, most classes, and the majority of tests are oriented around the student’s age. We take classes with fellow seniors, are separated during events and often social settings, and all competitions are attempted to be made fair by cutting out the competition.

But in the art world…

We need to be better than people three times older than us. Age is a funny thing because before you’re 30 you’re too young to do art, and after you’re thirty, you’re too old. However, with the few exceptions like, say, acting, an artist’s competition can be anyone. What’s more is that we can’t expect the aged ones to necessarily be better than the young ones.

High school forces a broad spectrum of experience onto its students, but after graduation day, that outside power stops. A person may not write for 40 years and his abilities hasn’t changed since he stopped. Or he may have been writing for 40 years and those who have been working for two are going to have to still try and be better if they want to get noticed.

Ageism is something that high school doesn’t prepare you for. We learn that the older someone is the more authority someone has. We don’t foresee how we will have to soon enter into the peer group and soon start to compete with not only people older than us, but people younger than us.

We will be up against people with a lot more experience than us, with bosses who want to be more experienced than us, and with a much wider variety of peers than we’ve ever had before.

High school tries to prepare us for the future, but in its attempts to make us reach our potential, force us to be the best we can be, show us the path, and encourage our abilities, it doesn’t discuss the world that attempts to stop our potential before it can become talent, that isn’t made to give us opportunity or success, and competes with us in every way imaginable.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Namedropping (I Finished a Book!)

Last week I typed the final words to the first draft of The Former Self. At 105,000 words, the fantasy novel took four years and a lot of sidetracking to be finished.

The manuscript started as a National Novel Writing Month in November 2013, haphazardly named The Clone as a working title. I “won” that year, finishing November with the first 50,000 words. I wasn’t doing well, honestly. I found 2012 to be much more productive, having gotten down the first 60,000 words of The Dying Breed (a manuscript that would become 180,000 words over the course of five months) in twenty days.

I graduated from college in January ’12, and found my writing slowing way down. Back in high school, I was successfully writing almost every day, finishing four novels my senior year. I had some plays and short stories done during my university days, but not a lot.

The Dying Breed started for the Writing Month, coming out easily compared to anything else I’d written. (Funnily enough, most of those first 60,000 words that were so obvious to me did not survive the later cuts.) I started working on The Dying Breed seriously for publication for the first time, something that I finally acted on this January after years of edits.

The Former Self was my next attempt. I started stories and wrote a little, but a lot of my time was taken up in theatre. I didn’t finish anything, nothing came as easily or as naturally as before. In November, I again picked up my pen and kept up with the quota demanded of me by an internet graph.

For several years, National Novel Writing Month was the only time I really got any work done. I have pulsed through the first 50,000—though painfully, but never finished any until last year I finally managed to put the finishing touches on the first draft of The Vicarious Saving of the World.

Summed up, I started The Dying Breed in November 2012, The Former Self in November 2013, and I believe the Vicarious Saving of the World in December 2013, drawing my attention away from The Former Self  until I finished it in 2016. In the meantime, I wrote numerous other books, many for the Writing Month, but didn’t finish any.

I had been hoping for a while to get back to my prolific writing style, but have been unable to do so. I blame depression and a lack of enthusiasm for life; 2014-2015 was a terrible time in my life.

Recently though, I’ve been getting ahead. On my web comics, on my Stories of the Wyrd, on my blogs. On the same day I finished my book, I also finalized a quilt top, and got five comics ready for scanning, as well as worked on my painting for a long-term project, Making the Horizon.

Do I like working on these projects all at once? Somewhat. Not entirely. I find that the long duration of writing a book sucks out some of its inspiration. There’s also a natural continuity that is encouraged when you remember what you’re doing. When you take so long to finish a book, you don’t remember what you were going for, what you’ve done, or even hold the same inspiration for it.

So why do some stories need to be finished while others don’t? In honesty, it is tempting for many authors to always start something new rather than continue to work on the old. I personally recommend trying to stick with a manuscript until you finish it, and prefer the results of having my head in one game.

On the other hand, switching back and forth can also increase motivation. It is easier to write five pages in five books than five in one. When you get stuck, you can switch over. When you get inspired, you don’t have to.

But why did The Former Self beat out all of the others I have open? What about it made it need finishing? Well, for one thing, size does matter. The closer to the end something is, the more likely I am to prioritize it. Finishing a first draft feels good. You’ve accomplished something! And it’s something that you can accomplish on your own accord. Unlike all the other hurdles (getting picked up by an agent, getting published, getting lots of sales, getting awards), it’s something you can achieve by sheer will alone.

But The Former Self also has a beginning that keeps me reading for the first 20 pages, even if I’m supposed to be writing. The concept, unlike most of my other books, is decently pitch worthy, more easy to sum up. It was one of the three books I cared about, for whatever reason, but it had the most marketability.

A young merchant girl comes to find that the man she loves is actually nothing more than a supernatural shadow, created by the aristocrat known as the Coffin Prince.

I’m not too fantastic at my pitching or blurbs, nor am I inspired with the one above. In fact, I don’t have any attempts at a query letter or any sort of sales pitch going. I just know that it has more of a concept than either The Vicarious Saving of the World or The Dying Breed.

As of right now, I’m not too satisfied with it either. It comes off as too young adult for me—a style I’m trying to get away from. There’s a traveling scene—a conflict I’m trying to get away from, and some places in which I need to bring it way down while others I need to pump it way up. To make it more adultish, I need to add to the sexual tension, but surprisingly, I want to take away some of the violence. The Coffin Prince (whose name came up recently and I’m not sure I’m too thrilled with, depending on the direction I want to go) actually, I think, needs to be less cold blooded. Though the antagonist, I believe it would serve that instead of massacring his copies in murderous ways, he actually absorbs them back into his blade, making it clear why he doesn’t see it as murder, but still painting a terrifying picture as their clothes and metal bones are left behind.

The nice thing about working on several books at one time is that it’s not as hard to transition to the next one. Usually there is a lag between them, and I’m not always inspired to write something the moment I finish with something else. It’s not as clean cut as that.

But looking through my works and how far along they are, I’ve decided to continue the next in line—the one that will be easiest to finish.

The Song Bird’s Lie (working title) had been started several months before The Dying Breed. I believe I had begun it after Silver Diggers, the manuscript that Stories of the Wyrd is based on, still in my one manuscript at a time stage. I stopped midway through because of the intense inspiration I had and the good timing of the Writing Month coming up, planning on picking it back up afterwards. I didn’t. I worked on it, of course, even making a detailed outline of 100 pages of what would happen. It still lacks an ending, but I have a summation of events picked out for me. At 55,000 words and everything that’s going to happen, I think it’ll be actually pretty easy to get it done soon.

If I was diligent (ha) and loyal, I could theoretically finish it at 90,000 words within two weeks’ time.

But no. I’m still working on The Plane (slowly but surely) like I said I would, am filling up my portfolio of Stories of the Wyrd to make my life easier in the future, plus know that my big project of Making the Horizon, needs to be worked on piece by piece, otherwise I’d be committing solely to it for the next decade, and that’s not going to happen.

My ambition seems to getting ahead of me, but I actually look at all the little bit I’ve moved forward—inch by inch, piece by piece—has progressed me towards something. I’m not as far behind as I thought. I’m pretty happy, even though I know Former Self is going to take some work to get it up there.

Right now I’m focusing my editing on Vicarious in hopes to get it ready for submission much faster than I did with The Dying Breed. Editing always takes a backburner, so does publishing for that matter, and I think it’s time to prioritize it. I might be okay with writing a bunch of different things, but I’m trying to zero in my focus.

So, you’re probably not going to be reading this any time soon. I am actively looking for readers and critique partners however. If you’re interested in traded manuscripts, giving me feedback, or just telling me how you responded, send me an email at and we can see what we can do.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Knowing When to Take Criticism

It is far better to make your own mistakes than someone else’s.

There’s a continuity to them, a meaning; everything you did you did for a reason. It might be a stupid reason, like you were just really tired and phonetically spelt out learn as luren (true story), or it might be that your subconscious knows something you don’t.

Even great advice, when misunderstood, won’t be any good to you. To implement something correctly the nuances of it huge factors in its success. It is so important not to make a generic, homogenized work, (It wasn’t even bad enough to be good!) which is what will happen if you take every piece of advice you get. Remember, people often comment on the different more than what’s important, and sometimes, different is exactly what you want.

And sometimes it isn’t. So how do you know when to take it and when not?

Do you see it?

It’s not about whether or not you agree; it’s about if you understand where they’re coming from.

Say someone tells you you overuse adverbs. When you look at your work, you really don’t think you used very many. In fact, you just don’t see any that you used at all.
1. Reputation. We all know that person who says they love Kafka to sound intelligent. This person is prone to deceiving others about what they like and don’t like in literature. “Name dropping” in critiques (a tactic I can’t stand), is where they’ll say, “Oh, you should read A Clockwork Orange,” simply because it makes them seem well read, not because it has anything to do with you.
While this person is secretly reading Fifty Shades and you couldn’t force to see a staged reading of The Old Man and the Sea, they’re still giving out Hemingway rules of writing; they’re pretending that things that don’t work for them do while incorrectly begrudging pieces that were successful.
I didn’t simplify all my prose, I simplified the important and extra wordy sentences. I didn’t explain everything, just added in a little more detail here and there. I made one scene from another character’s point of view, but left others the same.

Admit this. It’s hard, partially because people are so terrified of looking like the asshat who can’t take criticism, but not saying what you really think will prevent further communication, and the truth is there’s a reason you can’t see it and further conversation will help you find that reason.

This has happened to me probably about six times in the past. Someone would say something—“You need to set up the scene more.”—and I felt strongly that I didn’t need to, that I had done whatever they said I messed up on fantastically.

So I explained to them what I thought. “I believed I had set up the hut really well. I thought it was vivid and grounded, you could see where you were…”

Every single time, every time, there had been a miscommunication: “Oh, no. You set up the hut perfect. I was talking about the world. Like are we in outer space?”

Or, more often, “I was complimenting you, you idiot.”

If you don’t think their perception on your book is true, it’s likely because how you’re interpreting it isn’t what they mean. It might be that you saw the word “scene” as different than the scene they were talking about, or it might be that they misspoke. You don’t really have a lot of adverbs, but when you do use them, they’re noticeable.

If you don’t see what they’re talking about as being true, you can’t really move on from there. If you do get where they’re coming from, it still might not mean they’re entirely correct (it’s possible they just have a petpeeve about adverbs), but you’re at least starting from the same base.

Do they believe what they’re saying?

Start with the philosophy that no one is stupid. Their opinions have some validity, but the context in which it is valid might not be the context in which you’re working in. Under this belief, the only time someone is outright “wrong” becomes when they themselves don’t even believe what they’re saying. No one is stupid, but there are liars.

Why would someone lie about that?

Usually an immaculate lie is rare. Generally speaking, if, say, I had a vendetta against you and wanted your book to suck, I could find something that truly did bother me and blow it out of proportion. I’d be lying about the magnitude of the problem, but there’s still some honesty to what I’m saying.

There are three common motivations for a person might lie which you should listen for:

Sometimes, people lie about what you need to fix simply to sound informed. It can manifest in many ways and can often be hard to catch. You should look for hypocrisy and inconsistency. They love Shakespeare but hate when you toy with words. They say you use too many adverbs and yet theirs is riddled with it. It’s not an end all, but you’ll start to catch some patterns in their contradictions and know it’s not just a simple mistake.

2. To segue. Similar to reputation, but slightly different, people will often use the topic at hand to jump onto the topic they really want to talk about.

So while Joe is complaining about your over use of passive-sentences, Susie hears the phrase passive-sentences, and she’ll immediately jump on it, going, “Yes, Stephen King once told me my book was fantastic except I overuse passive-sentences.”

While it sounds like she’s agreeing with Joe’s assessment of your writing, but what she’s really saying is, “I once talked to Stephen King and he likes my book.”

3. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Obviously the individual is afraid of looking stupid or disagreeing with either the crowd or a more intense/experienced member of the group. They avoid saying what they really think for fear of being judged or making themselves a target, so they say nothing, implicating they agree when really they don’t. Or worse, they’ll actively agree with the powerhouse to get on his side.

Look for inconsistency in behavior. Most groups have one member who the others are afraid of. (It might be you.) If someone never talks, it probably means nothing, but if a chatty Kathy shuts up when Mr. Snuffy is speaking, don’t take her silence as agreement. In fact, silence is rarely agreement. It’s either disinterest, shyness, or passiveness.

There are reasons to lie, and if you are suspicious a person is lying to you, then it’s a good sign that you shouldn’t put the work before them.

But, more importantly, if you get the feeling that they truly believe what they’re saying, that’s who you should listen to, no matter their experience level.

What is the problem they’re trying to solve?

The biggest reason constructive criticism gets confusing is that people talk in solutions, not in problems.

A solution is an action you can take, (or an implication of an action), whereas a problem is the effect your book had on them. I define “bad” writing as when the reader as a reaction he doesn’t think he was supposed to have.

Going off of that, first and foremost there are five common reactions people often don’t want to experience:

-Being jarred out of the story.

Boring and confusing are obvious. No one ever thinks they’re supposed to be bored, and usually people don’t think they’re supposed to be confused. When a book rambles on and on and sounds like it’s just talking for the sake of talking, not only is it boring, but it feels like the author is deliberately wasting your time. A meaningless book is one that ends with you going, “So what?” Condescending books are ones that insult the reader, and jarring passages are where you are distracted from what is important, brought back to the real world, and forced to think about the writer and what he’s trying to do. Immersion is ruined.

The problem is far more important than the solution for a lot of reasons.

One, the solution could solve myriad of different issues, but if you try to solve the wrong one, it won’t be implemented correctly. For instance, they say you have “Too many characters.” Well, for starters, you can tell this is a solution, not a problem, because of the quantifier. A problem is a problem no matter the magnitude. Having too many characters is very different from having too few characters or even just having characters. But being too boring and being boring is exactly the same thing, where as not being boring enough doesn’t make sense. Solutions have contexts, problems rarely do.

So let’s argue that the reader was bored because you went off on all these tangents about characters he didn’t care about. When he says you have, “Too many characters,” however, you hear that he was confused, not able to keep track of them all.

You go through your manuscript and cut and merge characters that are forgettable, making everything about the main five. It’s possible you cut the most boring characters, but it’s also extremely possible that you didn’t touch the offending issues at all. You needlessly cut and merged all these characters (often adding to subtle continuity slip ups, like calling someone by the wrong name which hasn’t come up in the story before or after), and people are still bored.

Two, as Neil Gaiman says, “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

I say you can always use any piece of criticism given honestly. But it requires you to take it apart, find the root of the idea, then understand the context, and through that you will find something useful. Sometimes the benefit isn’t worth it, but it’s a required process for a lot of feedback.

You might use the advice without using the solution. It might not be the best solution to their problem, it might not be a solution you want to take at all. You have the right and ability to make any of your choices work, but you have to figure out what’s not working first.

When you understand the problem (“I was bored by most of the characters storylines.”) You don’t have to take their actual suggestion (“Cut them.”) but can still fix the issue. And you’ll probably be your most creative. (“Go through and make the storylines have higher stakes, more in-depth characters, find some moments for the readers to become empathetic to them.”)

Sometimes you might realize it’s not worth the work, but at least there’s the option there.

Three, most problems won’t be solved by one solution.

On the first book I really got a lot of different eyes on, I found little consistency in their responses. One person would say to “Simplify everything,” the next only said to change the point of view. Someone else asked for more description. When they pointed out words they didn’t like they were never the same ones. I gave three chapters to over twenty different people and the only thing they had in common was three of them didn’t like, “He clamped his mouth shut.” (“With what?” they said.)

For several months I found myself frustrated and mixed-up, but at the end what worked was when I started to find the common denominator—they were confused—and the solution was just doing a little bit of what everyone said.

People will try to give you a blanket solution that wouldn’t have solved the problem on its own, and, implemented too strongly, would cause even more issues.

It was my understanding of the feedback that enabled me to work effectively and efficiently.

Four, you might not give a shit. Pardon my French.

For my senior thesis in college I wrote a play called, Molly Aire and Becca Ette Do Theatre. The very first thing my professor said to me was, “You need to clarify they are not lesbians.”

The plot was very Mystery Science Theatre 3000, old guys from the Muppets style. Two girls at a play, making fun of it. Nothing homoerotic about it.

This might have frustrated me if I hadn’t heard it before. Truth is, you write about women, everyone wants to know who they’re having sex with. If there are no men around they must be having sex with each other. Someone has made this comment on three of my plays before. I mean, it’s possible that I am unconsciously having lesbianonic overtones, but I can’t deny the literature in which it is being compared to.

I told him that trying to prove someone’s assumptions untrue always just made them question it further, that going into these girls’ sex lives was not relevant to the storyline, and finally, if a director wanted to take it that way, then I was fine with that. Okay, it’s a date. Directors love making characters gay anyway.

My professor was the sort of personality type to back down, immediately, so the subject was dropped. Over the course of the semester, he kept giving me strange feedback that I didn’t really understand, like “Add in a third character,” and “Talk about their external life more.”

Adding in a third character would mean a complete rewrite. Because the two only speak to each other and had very different personalities and a dynamic (that I thought was the most successful part of the work) that would have to change with a third person involved, it seemed like a lot of work for what I thought was just him trying to add his two-cents.

I had forgotten about the conversation at the beginning of the semester, and so it wasn’t until the end that I started to connect the dots. Every suggestion he made could be tied directly into proving it was not a date.

The problem, to him, was that they might be lesbians and he thought they weren’t supposed to be. This was not a problem I cared about, and the effort required for his suggestions really made it all the less appealing.

Sometimes you won’t know if you agree with a criticism until after you truly understand it.

If you don’t understand, stick a pin in it.

Don’t try to take advice one piece at a time. Details make up the big picture, but it’s still about the big picture in the end. If the forest looks fantastic then there’s no reason to freak out over a misplaced leaf. Especially because quality of creative writing isn’t linear, and so that mistake might be exactly what makes the picture look real.

If you thought about a piece of advice—even if you feel like something’s there and you just can’t figure out what it is—don’t worry about it. Set it aside. If it’s important, it will come up again later. If it’s not, you’ll forget and move on to more important things.

Fixating on something can warp your view on it. It’s like saying the same word over and over again; it loses its meaning. If you start focusing on every adverb you use, you’ll stop hearing the cadence of the whole sentence. It is important to let things go.

How do you know it’s pride or your gut?

Saving the biggest issue for last, when we are most fraught with taking a piece of criticism, it has to do with our ego. Mainly that we don’t know if it’s our ego or not.

Someone implies you did something wrong, an innate part of you balks. It’s our nature to want to be right. But a big part of you wants to create the best work possible, and you’re willing to push your ego aside if that’s what it takes. Yet, on the other hand, their advice seems wrong, somehow. Your gut is rejecting it. How do you know it’s you’re instinct or just your need to be right?

The best way, unfortunately, is to be wrong. A lot. The more you are wrong, the faster you will recognize when you really are right.

Unless you’re planning on self-publishing tomorrow (which if you’re having an internal conflict, you might want to wait a couple of months, otherwise you’ll get the truth from the public.) then there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Don’t be disrespectful, you don’t need to announce you’re not taking their advice, but you should stick with your gut. Either it is your pride, and you will become more accustomed to telling the difference, or it is your gut, and you’ll have made the right decision.

Sometimes it’ll just be the person telling you. Someone more respectful might be better apt to convince you. Sometimes it’ll just be the shock of hearing something you didn’t expect and letting it die down for a while will make it easier to swallow. Sometimes you need to do more research, and sometimes you just need to figure it out for yourself.

Most problems aren’t severe enough to destroy your story. There are often a lot of solutions, flexible perspectives, and enough context in your book that allowing a few mistakes to survive through a few more beta-readers and editors and an agent isn’t an issue.

The trick is to not be impatient, the answer will come with time.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Think for Yourself

You don’t think you’d have to suggest this to a group of writers, and yet I unfollowed a blog for the first time this week because of the writer’s adamant declarations about what is acceptable in writing. After a few times, I couldn’t even begin to read her articles without getting peeved about her outlook. In that vein, you should know that I am, in fact, pissed off, at the moment. And, as I told my ex-boyfriend, I’m mad, but I’m not mad at you. I’m gonna rant here, don’t take it personally.

Her advice was cliché, lacking personal response or addition to rules already parroted by numerous of other authors who often rarely followed the ideas themselves. Learn the rules to learn to break them, as they say.

As someone who had a hard time following orders but has been writing long enough that eventually, statistically, I’ve had to do what I was told, I could tell you all kinds of anecdotes when following the rules led to my success just as much as I could regale you on the times they’ve screwed me over. So, from my perspective, anyone who listens to their own advice and practices it accordingly should have a similar series of personal insights about context.

Writing is not about getting permission. It’s not about doing things the “right” way. It’s not a science, and that makes it all the more important that people filter in other’s opinions and then analyze them. It’s perfectly understandable and useful to wonder how a decision will be received by readers, but it’s a whole other matter when you start asking, “Am I allowed to…?”

If you were to follow the rules, you would be playing it safe, be homogenized, and be ridiculously limited, and you wouldn’t necessarily be writing anything that anyone cares about. That does not mean they’re not useful at times.

The internet does not need another blog telling us that “using said” is the best way to fix dialogue. It isn’t. Stop fixating on easy solutions and start going a little deeper. Writing is about illustrating a new perception on God-aged ideas and experiences, so why, when you are a writer writing about writing, are you saying something that is older than God?

Writing advice is like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Camel’s back got broken. What happened just before it broke? You put a straw on it. So don’t put straws on camels’ backs, obviously. And even if I don’t know the camel’s back got broken, someone I highly respected told me not to do it, and so, when giving advice out to others, I am going to give you the opinion that “matters.” Not my own, because theirs must be better than mine; they’re famous after all! So I’ll repeat the idea that I don’t really understand because it came from a source I trust and am completely unable to put it into context.

The important part is, of course, that the camel’s back got broken at all, and if I’m asking for a quick solution off the top of your head and that’s what you come up with, that’s reasonable. But if you’re repeating the advice for something you’ve allegedly being doing for twenty years, then I have to severely question how much you’ve actually been thinking during that time.

A real expert would be able to say, “I too have broken the camel’s back. If you remove the straw, this is what will happen. If you move the 90 pound statue, this is what would happen. Here’s why I recommend this option…”

Overuse of the word said, overuse of synonyms for said, are the surface level projection of a deeper problem. What is that problem? Finding that problem over just using a simple trick to lessen the problem will solve your issues in one sweep. Putting “cover-up” over a few obvious words will… well, look like you did what you did.

My first advice to someone struggling with dialogue will never be about the tags. The tags are a separate issue all together, usually stemming from lack of variation in general, or—more often—come from someone having said, “Never use said,” or “Always use said.” The writer, focusing on it, makes it unnatural, and thereby noticeable.

My first advice to someone trying to be a better writer is not about adverbs. Adverbs are the symptom of a larger problem. If the larger problem does not exist than the adverbs aren’t a problem.

My first advice would not about deleting semicolons. It might be a part of a laundry list on how they act pretentiously or they jar me over and over, but an excellent writer who I trust will gain my acceptance of the strange device over time. If semicolons really are the biggest issue, we've gotten to the stage where the book is fantastic and now we're just polishing. But if you hate the character and have questions about gaping plot holes, talking about those issues trump the easy fixes.

If I were trying to edit a book for someone, I wouldn’t be discussing word choice. Not at the early stages. I’d focus on the largest problem—This is why I wasn’t in love with it. The issue with this tactic, however, is it requires authors to think for themselves. But, if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to do anyway. Yes, it’s easier for me as a teacher to go through and say, “Change this word and this word and this word,” but it’s more effective for me to say, “If you want this result then look for these influences.”

Here’s my writing advice: Intention, intention, intention. And variation. That’s it. Vague, no? Yes. That's the problem. Critical thinking is complex. It's hard to teach. There's no real quippy phrases to clarify how to do it. You learn from experience. But those experiences can be taught, discussed, and learned from, which is why it's so important to go into them instead of summing up a overly simplified solution.

When is it bad to only use said? When it looks like you’re trying to only use said. When is it bad to not use said? When it looks like you’re trying not to use said. When it looks like you don’t actually know what the word means. When it looks like you couldn’t find a better fit. When it looks too much like you’re trying to be Hemingway without understanding him. Or when you’re doing one or the other too much, when it looks like you don’t know any other way to say it, or are too lazy to figure it out.

What does too much look like? How do you know what intention your readers are seeing? Well that’s up for the writer to decide. He has to think about it. But I know that most people can do it. And if they can’t, if they are incapable of thinking for themselves, then they have bigger problems.

It’s hard, but analyzing the complexity of the real issue of “why” will end up being far truer, far more effective, then “don’t.”

I know some people believe that adverbs are the devil’s work, and they have every right to believe that. But if you only believe it because someone said so, if you haven’t tried it out, or have, but never paid attention to the results, you’re not an expert. It is damaging for someone to push an untested theory onto fresh minds without reminding them of alternative opinions and options.

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