Monday, January 05, 2009

Put Your Armor On

by M A N

One of the most difficult things I've had to learn how to do as a professional writer is deal with criticism. It's a very important part of the job and is absolutely essential in making one a better writer. But if you have an ego as gargantuan, fragile, and as in desperate need of validation as mine (and honestly, don't ALL writers?), it can either send you dancing naked through the streets or leave you weeping in the fetal position while you nurse the remaining drops of whiskey from the bottle clutched in your trembling hands.

I think the trick to dealing with criticism (aside from growing a very thick, impenetrable skin) is to learn which criticisms to take to heart, which to accept with a grain of salt, and which to just simply ignore. At first, my default rubric for accepting or dismissing criticism was usually binary. If the criticism praised me and my work, I accepted it. If it didn't, I dismissed it. That approach made sleeping at night a bit easier, but it didn't help me use those criticisms to better my writing.

Criticism that comes from my colleagues is the kind I quite often take to heart. Editors, fellow writers, teachers, professors, etc. usually have an understanding of what makes writing and/or story telling good (this is not true in all cases, obviously--there are hacks, dolts, and saboteurs in every walk of life). But another thing these people all have in common, other than experience with the written word, is that they genuinely wish to see me succeed. They want to help me write the best story that I can by telling me how I can improve. I'm fortunate to have befriended a group of professional and freakishly talented writers who have no problem telling me where I'm falling short. And that's the key. They're honest. Brutally honest. Yes, it can be heartbreaking when a person whom you respect and whose work you admire tells you that your latest attempt is, well, garbage. The nice thing is that they're willing to tell you WHY it's garbage and help you find a solution. Mind you, not find the solution for you, but guide you to finding the solution yourself. Teaching a man to fish and all.

The criticisms that I find myself taking with a grain of salt are the ones that come from friends (outside of the entertainment industry) and family. Their opinions are almost always suspect. My parents' opinions seem to fall into one of two categories: 1) Lukewarm praise or 2) I still don't understand why you didn't go to medical school (holiday dinners tend to be a bit awkward--"Stop encouraging the boy and tell him he needs a backup plan!"--raise your hand if you feel my pain).

My friends, however, are always positive. Always. No matter how ass-tastic I know the story is. This is nice whenever I'm feeling down and need an ego boost, but if I ever need help improving a story, there isn't much they can offer other than unconditional support.

But the criticisms that I find most difficult to deal with are ones that come in the form of reviews. Especially BAD reviews (and I've had my fair share of them. My absolute favorite bad review came from a reader who said that money spent on my comic was money better spent on a taco--a TACO!). It's never fun having someone tell you that you are suck incarnate, no matter how colorful their criticism might be (I've been told time and time again to never EVER read reviews, but I just can't help myself).

The difficulty comes in determining if the review has specific issues with my writing or if it's just angry rambling over my epic suckitude. For the longest time I never even saw a difference. I was so blinded over not being viewed as the greatest writer in all of space/time that I sneered a "What do they know?" before drowning myself in a vat of cheap grain alcohol.

But over time I've learned to differentiate between reviews that are deliberately caustic and those that might have legitimate reasons for being negative. The caustic ones never have anything constructive to say nor any insights as to where the story may be falling short. So I try to ignore those zero-calorie rantings (which can be very hard as the urge to hunt some of the meaner people down and stuff their esophaguses to bursting with rat feces can be quite overwhelming). However, if a reviewer complains that my story is difficult to follow, I'll look to see if other readers have the same comment (even if those comments are nasty). If there are then it's most likely an issue of poor story telling and something I should keep in mind when writing my next story.

Granted, you can't write for critics. You have to write for yourself. But sometimes even the meanest comments can be illuminating and helpful in their own way. There's definitely a heirarchy when it comes to which criticisms carry more weight, but quite often the most painful criticisms are the most beneficial. Certainly not always, but it's a good idea to look for faults in your story before looking for them in the reader.

16 comments:

Denita said...
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Vickita said...
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Denita said...

Good afternoon!

I wish I had some powerful insight into the subject of criticism but I don't. I think you pretty much said it all.

Alex Epstein said...

My parents didn't really get why I'd want to write for TV and movies until I wrote a book about it.

A book, THAT they understand.

Winterman said...

Wait. Writers are allowed to have friends?

Rob said...

"But if you have an ego as gargantuan, fragile, and as in desperate need of validation as mine (and honestly, don't ALL writers?) [...]"

Wait, that's normal? Well, hell. My pathetic need for validation, which could be fairly compared to that of a fourteen year old girl, has kept me closeted as a writer for years. (You mean the pride parades aren't mandatory?)

"My friends, however, are always positive. Always. No matter how ass-tastic I know the story is. This is nice whenever I'm feeling down and need an ego boost, but if I ever need help improving a story, there isn't much they can offer other than unconditional support."

Odd. I've never been comfortable being that friend, and most of my close friends, tellingly few though they may be, openly value that I would rather risk them not speaking to me for a few days than mislead them when they specifically ask for a sounding board.

It's not easy to do, and it did greatly complicate a particular past relationship with someone who subsisted almost entirely on a diet of effusive but misplaced praise (and Oreos), but most times it is appreciated, and I encourage "outsider" friends to try it. The golden rule applies here in spades. If you ask a friend whether your breath stinks, don't you want the real answer? After all, that's the whole point of asking a friend first.

The Minstrel Boy said...

back during my soundtrack and hollywood days i mostly hung out with the writers.

they really didn't understand the mechanics of making music and recordings, i certainly didn't understand the mechanics of writing.

this we knew though. both of us were tasked with the creation of something from nothing at all.

we were taking ideas, and through words and sounds turning them into stuff that made people feel. often it was a totally shameless thing to make somebody feel like buying a hamburger or having another beer, but you know what? those 20 second jingles are some of the most powerful music you'll ever experience.

we also didn't do much criticism of each others stuff. we didn't know about it enough to do so. we compared paychecks a lot though. if we didn't meet so often in public places we would have gotten around to dicksize.

also, writers knew that having a musician in the posse meant that some of them would get laid almost by accident of proximity. that, and access to dope that was only rivaled by defense attorneys.

good to see your stuff up mike. fuck them all dude, i loved "Dingo."

Darius Kazemi said...

I'm with you on this one. When the first game I worked on was released to the public, I learned that, despite the game only being like .001% the product of my own work, it still hurts like hell.

M.W. Schock said...

You got some good points. However in my case, I find it is most helpful in rewriting to approach feedback from the perspective: "The reader is never wrong," or in the case of a finished film "The audience is never wrong." It's kind of the same as when a business says "the customer is always right."

Let me explain: In many cases in the in past I've seen people get defensive against criticism and start explaining things to the critic as if they were just too stupid to understand what they were going for. Wrong. Their feelings and opinions are just as real and valid as your own. Everyone is an expert when it comes to whether your work was effective on them. One must never forget that as a STORYTELLER, your RESPONSIBILITY is to serve the audience, not the other way around. If the audience fails to understand something, or fails to find whatever in your story interesting, entertaining, or original, it is because you, the storyteller have in some way failed in communicating this great story you want to tell to your audience.

The key to receiving feedback is to never take it literally. Take the impression that you WANTED your audience to have and compare it to the reaction it actually DID have on them. Then, search out the reason for the communication breakdown. What CAUSED them to get the wrong impression? Your critics (unless they're professionals) will never say things like "your story spine is incomplete", "your conflict failed to develop in the second act" or "this certain plot point was not made clear enough to the audience." They will instead just say things like it was "dull," "pointless" or "confusing." Feedback just provides the symptoms of your problems, its up to you to diagnose the disease that is afflicting it.

Sorry for being long-winded. I may expand this into a blog article of my own.

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Stellar Drift said...

But how can you trust that they know what is garbage? Perhaps you really ARE better than them? :)

(If the goal is to be artist - if its to pay the mortgage you listen carefully to the colleagues ;-)

"My friends, however, are always positive. Always."

Wow, must be great to have friends.

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