Friday, February 20, 2009

Let's Get Critical

A bit early this week to make up for the time off.

Anyway, let’s return to that mechanic analogy I used a few weeks ago. I’d like to explore it a bit more, because it works really well.

Let’s say you get up tomorrow morning and your car won’t start. The engine will turn over, the headlights and radio work, but that’s it. Unless you happen to be very repair-minded yourself, odds are you’ll contact a mechanic, because working with automobiles is what he (or she-- we’re progressive here) does for a living and they know a lot more about it than you do. Car repair is, after all their field of expertise, and they’ve been working in it for a while.

Now, when the mechanic tells you the car’s head block is cracked and it needs major work, would you start to argue? Would you say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Or she doesn’t understand your car and then march off in a huff?

What if you took your car in for a tune up and the mechanic told you the brakes were shot and the steering column was dangerously close to failing? Would you ignore the warnings and head out on that cross-country road trip? Perhaps take the car to your cousin Chris, the butcher, with the hopes he’ll give you an answer you like the sound of more?

Hopefully not. It would mean you’ve probably bought a lot of cars in your time. And maybe had some hospital visits in there, too.

If you ask someone with more experience than you for an opinion on something, it’s kind of silly to then ignore that opinion. If an expert gives you advice from their chosen field, you should probably at least consider what they’re saying.

And yet... how often have you heard the angry amateur writer complain the editor/ professor/ contest judge was an arrogant so-and-so who didn’t get their story? That these people were so hung up on perpetuating the system-- with stupid, inconsequential stuff like spelling and dialogue and believable characters --they didn’t see the inherent ART!!!

Now, some folks may argue that writing and auto repair are quite different, so my analogy doesn’t really hold up. Writing really is an art, after all, and art is more subjective and gray than, say, fixing a cracked head block, which is pretty black and white. You can’t apply hard-fast, black and white rules to writing.

Well... yes and no.

Based off my own experience (which is not gargantuan, but sizeable enough I feel safe using myself as a reference), I would guess about half of most rejections are because of the small, basic elements of writing—and those are black and white. Spelling and grammar. Punctuation and dialogue. Characters that are little more than cardboard cutouts. I’m not talking about the odd typo here or there—that’s completely understandable. I mean the ones where your eyes are bleeding two pages in.

A short story...

I once ran the builder port for an online text game. At its simplest, we were constantly writing dungeon room descriptions, like the ones for old D&D modules. “This chamber has been carved from the living rock of the mountain, and in places the walls are still raw stone.” That sort of thing. The game amounted to tens of thousands of individual files (a simplification), each one containing five or six (or more) hopefully-coherent sentences forming a solid description. Being who I am, I held the rest of the builder staff to a pretty high standard when it came to spelling, grammar, and continuity. A few of those folks read these little rants, and I’m sure they can tell you I was close to a dictator when it came to such thing.

Well, one time I got an application from a fellow who ignored all our forms and just sent me a huge list of stuff he had done for other games. His first room description had six typos in it. There were seventeen grammar mistakes on the first page. Two days later he began asking when he could start on the builder.

When I explained he couldn’t, and why, he was furious. Where did I get off saying his writing was no good? It was good enough for other games he’d worked on, wasn’t it? And when I tried to explain why-- what gives me the right to tell him he needed to work on his spelling?!

Needless to say, after his passionate and strongly worded response, I did not invite him to try again later.

Now, there is a flip side to taking criticism. When it comes down to it, you shouldn’t listen to everyone, and there are some people who you should ignore altogether. Not every single opinion should count. You should be considering who you’re asking and what their own relationship to the material is (you may remember a while back when I talked about the downside to getting opinions from certain folks). Neither of my grandmothers is really qualified to judge rap music or torture porn films. My best friend is not the guy you go to for a review of your girly young adult romance novel, and he’ll admit that, too.

Another story...

Years ago I had this one client, a beautiful woman who wanted to write a specialized exercise book. Well, who wanted me to write an exercise book for her. I tried to explain non-fiction books are more about pitches and proposals, but she really wanted to see a manuscript. And she was paying well. So, over the course of a month or so we did lots of interviews where she talked at length. Then I would go home to edit, do some research, and arrange it into drafts I could show her.

The problem arose when she would then show the draft to someone else and take their opinions as gospel. Her husband the real estate lawyer. Her best friend. A personal trainer she knew. So every time I came to talk to her, she had a new list of things that “needed” to change in the book. Once she even insisted on showing a copy to an acquaintance of hers who was a literary agent—a copy we’d covered with red ink and editing notes. I begged and begged her not to, she did, and much to her surprise (but not mine) the agent said it looked like it still needed work. The six drafts I did for her ended up being six page-one rewrites.

At least, as I said, she was paying well.

So, a few helpful hints when it comes to criticism.

First, ignore anyone who can’t give a why or how for their opinion. Just toss their notes out the window, delete them from your inbox, or turn up your iPod if they happen to be sitting in front of you. If someone’s just going to say “this sucks” or “you suck” or “you’re a sucky writer”... shrug it off. It’s tough, but let it roll off your shoulders. An opinion needs to come with a few concrete examples to back it up if it’s going to have any weight. “This doesn’t work” doesn’t help you at all. “This doesn’t work because you didn’t set up a relationship between Yakko and Wakko” is constructive criticism, because it lets you look back at something specific.

Second, once someone’s given you specifics, pay attention to them. If someone explains a problem that runs through A, B, and C, look at it. You don’t have to agree with them, but if they’ve taken the time to list a handful of what they see as particular trouble points, you should at least have the decency to look at what they’re talking about. This is one of the biggest problems I see—people who are closed to receiving any type of constructive criticism.

Third, be clear on the different types of feedback you’re going to get. Some things you will have to change. Spelling. Grammar. Formatting. Structure. These are the black and white things we talked about up above, and that I often talk about here. There are no maybes or howevers here. You can yell ART as loud as you want but apostrophes still have nothing to do with possessives and black hair cannot compliment blue eyes.

Other things are more fluid. Story elements. Characterization. Locations. And that brings us to...

Fourth, take suggested changes with a grain of salt. Especially those story and character-based ones. In the end, you’re the one telling the tale. It really doesn’t matter if your best friend thought Yakko and the nurse should’ve gotten together in the end. Or if another one of your critics felt Dot should’ve killed Wakko because of that thing with the girl. Or if somebody expected the story to be about zombies and it turned out to be about clones, so it didn’t seem as good. These are personal preference matters. You’re the person writing the story, and if in your story Yakko and the nurse go their separate ways, Wakko lives, and there’s a swarm of clones wandering around... then that’s the story being told. There are lots of other manuscripts floating around out there in a variety of different formats. Just because your story wasn’t what someone wanted to read does not mean your story is wrong.

On which note, shouldn’t you get back to writing that story? You want to polish it up before you show it to anyone, right?

2 comments:

Rakie said...

as always, i do love that you use Yakko, Wakko and Dot in your examples. :D

also (tangent!), my sister was told her car would last for maybe three more months before it broke down into its component parts. She promptly took it on a tour of Europe. Two years on, it's still on the verge of falling apart, but it IS still going. Technically. :)

Samantha N. said...

Aw, Pete, I think describing yourself as a "dictator" when it came to spelling and grammar in room descriptions is being too hard on yourself. You were more like an emperor, with me as your obsessive-compulsive empress - the Alexandra to your Nicholas, if you will.... ;)

But, oh! If you ever write a rant about editing a story for length, you should use the anecdote of that one chick who flew off the handle because we told her her description was too long. You remember her? Good times, good times.