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How do you listen to yourself?

I'm putting together a workshop on following your internal cues for creativity.

Question for authors and other artists: do you have a technique for judging whether a critique is valid or totally off-the-mark? What's your mental process?

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( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
engarian
Sep. 4th, 2013 09:55 am (UTC)
Critiques, to be valid for my own writing, have to actually deal with the product (story, novelette, novel) specifically and not the author. If people have a problem with me as an author, that's not a critique, that's a personal criticism.

I gladly accept well constructed and thoughtful critique because that's how I learn to be a better author. General crits like "I don't like your character," or "XXX would never act that way," are uninspired and generally not very helpful. If XXX would never act that way, prove it. If you have a specific reference to back you up, quote it. Don't just speak out of the corner or your mouth, speak with wisdom or don't speak at all.

Helpful? Maybe. But you asked...

- Erulisse (one L)
jordan_c_price
Sep. 5th, 2013 12:33 pm (UTC)
Do you feel general crits are harder to deal with? "I don't like your character," seems like it could do a lot of damage in terms of making an author doubt herself. How do you help it roll off your back?
engarian
Sep. 5th, 2013 12:46 pm (UTC)
I actually find that general crits are a lot easier for me to ignore. The "I don't like your character," says far less than "I don't like H because the way she acts when her sister dies is unrealistic." the second statement makes me re-evaluate that action in terms of the character and make sure that it does ring true. But the first statement is a matter of opinion, not criticism, and yes - I'll allow it to have a small blip in my universe, but then I'll ignore it.

I have had people who refuse to read my work because they have told me they don't like the way that I write. Well...I'm not going to change the way that I write, I'll just try to improve the methods by which I tell a story. I will always deal with the dark side. I will almost always have an undertone of humor when I can. I like description so I'm not going to drop that although I might tone it down. But that's the way I write and I will never be Chaucer or Proust or Tolstoy - I'll be me and that's what I should be.

I know I'll piss people off now and again, I'll try to honor each crit by reading it and trying to learn from it, but honestly - some crits are so much better than others.

I have two beta readers I send my work to. One is a professional copy editor who is a good friend and she reads my work through with the eyes (and red ink) of a really good editor. The other is a content person - she'll tell me if a story hangs together and if the plot and characters are believable. She never edits for content. Between the two I get a fairly well balanced look at my work. Thank goodness for friends :-)

- Erulisse (one L)
tcregan
Sep. 4th, 2013 10:03 am (UTC)
Take all criticism with a grain of salt, whether valid or not. Make sure you're calm first before you read, and keep an open mind.

My biggest thing to identify a valid critique is if someone offers two things: 1. A reason why X doesn't work and 2. A solution for X that might work.

This is true for me not only for writing but for every aspect of life. If they don't provide that information and you ask for clarification and they just say, "I don't know, I don't like it," get a second opinion because it might just be a personal preference. You're never going to please everyone, so having friends/editors/etc with a wide variety of tastes is essential.
jordan_c_price
Sep. 5th, 2013 12:34 pm (UTC)
I like the idea of getting varied input. How do you handle opposing criticisms -- someone's favorite part is the part someone else hated, for instance.
tcregan
Sep. 5th, 2013 01:12 pm (UTC)
At that point I think it's right to listen to your characters. Is this what they'd do in a situation? Does it fit with, and ultimately advance the storyline? Is it engaging to the person who hates it, or do they hate it because they find it boring? (You can hate stuff and still find it entertaining, this is why we have a glut of reality TV that is ultimately brainless - my girlfriend loves America's Next Top Model because of how stupid it is. And let's not forget horrible, cheesy horror films that have a cult following BECAUSE they're bad. Bad, but entertaining. I'd rather be bad than boring!)

And ultimately, who are you writing for? A target audience, or yourself?

I remember Rowling once getting a letter from a parent who wanted her to add something to her next book, and Rowling's response was more or less, "Thank you for the input but these are my books."

I suspect being published, you have to walk a fine line between wanting to please your audience and wanting to just write for yourself. But too much on the first side and you're a sell out (pandering to your audience, giving so much fan service that you lose your characters because they've been turned into fandom facsimiles of themselves), and too much on the other side and you end up with a book that either no one or hardly anyone likes because they don't get it. (Which I think is the problem with a lot of high fantasy stories - the author has an entire world in their head and it ends up being more like a child with their imaginary friends and a big backyard. Looks like fun, but no one else gets it)

Sorry this was long-winded. I don't think there's a good answer for that question. Deferring to the cheesy, "Write what's in your heart."

Which is why I'll never be published, I think. I either want to please everyone or write solely for myself and haven't yet found a nice balance.

If you have a niche audience and they like what you write, they'll tell other people. Some will like it and some won't. If the ones that don't like it offer you construction criticism, take it in and see if any changes to subsequent scenes or books will ultimately add to and improve the book. (I think this is the answer, right here, amidst all my rambling)

If it's just their personal hangups? Not much you can do about that. There's a whole bookstore filled with stories they can read. And if they ultimately enjoyed the entire series but there were one or two parts they hated, I still count that a win.
an_sceal
Sep. 4th, 2013 10:03 am (UTC)
It helps that I'm usually pretty firm on the feel and emotional arc of a story. If a criticism hits home for me, keeps bugging me even if I initially dismissed it, I go back an examine it again.

I'm usually pretty open to critique on plot and mechanics, but I know how my characters will react to a situation, and it's harder for me to acknowledge when someone spots something within the emotional arc of a story.

My general practice if someone points something out that I think might have validity is to examine it outside the context of the particular scene.

* Does it alter the character's growth in a way that isn't consistent with the rest of the story?
* Does it bring to light an aspect of the story that wasn't clear enough to the reader?
* (Perhaps most important) Does it fundamentally change the story I meant to tell? If it does, I will often discard the critique in a larger sense, while making sure that I refine the character's motives and reaction. To me, that's the difference between me or my crit partner writing the story.
jordan_c_price
Sep. 5th, 2013 12:37 pm (UTC)
Are there times when completely invalid critiques (like random internet sniping from a person with no credentials) make you question yourself? Even when you know they're dead wrong? You seem really well-seated in your intentions and the execution of your ideas so I'd be interested to know if the really pathetic stuff ever gets to you :D
an_sceal
Sep. 5th, 2013 01:07 pm (UTC)
Oh my GAWD, yes, absolutely. In fact, that's the stuff that gets to me more than valid critique! There was a particular review* of our last book that said it was clearly nothing but rewritten fanfic for a show, and even though my mind is thinking, "Right, because certainly, being charming isn't a facet of the personality of EVERY con man.", my heart is going, "Shit, what if I'm a fraud and I never noticed?!"

In the context of my work, I'm pretty flexible and sure of myself. In the case where it winds up feeling personal, like someone is accusing me of cheating, it's a lot harder to shake loose from.

*- I want to note, knowing this is entirely my own fault for looking at reviews, and this person is absolutely entitled to have and share their opinions. The fact that it felt more like a slam on me as an author than a review of what didn't work for them in the book is my own problem.
dysonrules
Sep. 4th, 2013 10:58 am (UTC)
For me, there are two kinds of critique - those that I expect and those I don't.

The first kind is basically a validation of my own feelings; I might think the scene isn't quite right or the dialog doesn't fit, or something is just "off" about it. When someone points out the same thing I already suspected, it's basically an, "I knew it, okay, I'll fix it."

The second kind is the hard one. A critique will mention something and my reaction is "What?" or even worse "WTF???" Those can send me into an instant rage-spiral, but I always mull them over in my head for a few days. Sometimes weeks. And after the gut reaction dies down and I can look at it more clinically, it's easier to admit they were right and do some work on it. Or, conversely, reject the criticism as invalid and move on.

What I've noticed is that I prefer the second kind, even though it's difficult to hear, because hard-hitting critique is what helps you grow as a writer and generally makes you look at your work with a more critical eye.
jordan_c_price
Sep. 5th, 2013 12:39 pm (UTC)
I love that you value the second kind. I think it makes the rage-spiral less imminent!

Sometimes the second WTF-kind is valuable and sometimes it's baseless. That makes it tricky for me.
dysonrules
Sep. 5th, 2013 12:57 pm (UTC)
True, and in that case you have to go with your gut. Although I like the checklist idea from an_sceal up there.
an_sceal
Sep. 5th, 2013 01:34 pm (UTC)
Aw, thanks. :) Trial and error, plus being a Virgo. I dig lists and not freaking out over valuable criticism.
lou_harper
Sep. 4th, 2013 05:30 pm (UTC)
When it's feedback coming from critique partners I know their intent is to help me improve. I especially trust my beta reader. Often times these critiques bring up points I was suspicious of myself. Or maybe nail me on something I thought I was getting away with.

If it's a review, it depends. Stuff like "I didn't like the characters" is not useful. But there's every once in a while a good, analytical review that makes me think.
jordan_c_price
Sep. 5th, 2013 12:40 pm (UTC)
How did you determine your crit partners were a good fit for you? Trial and error?
lou_harper
Sep. 5th, 2013 01:06 pm (UTC)
I met my beta reader, Jo Myles, back in fandom. Out of the blue she offered to proof my stories. I'm guessing she liked them but was horrified by my many errors. We clicked.

Otherwise, I belong to a crit group and reviewing each others' stories is voluntary. Some are better than others. When I get one that's really good, I often contact the person directly next time.
elin_gregory
Sep. 5th, 2013 03:32 am (UTC)
I have a big difference in how I react to crit from crit partners and from reviewers. A critique partner is trying to hep me and, even if what they are saying means a big rethink about the story or changing a character I'm fond of, I'm very grateful for it and will go along with it if I agree that it will make the story better.

Reviews are more difficult. There's nothing to be done to improve the work being criticised - it's out there in the wild fending for itself - and generally reviewers are saying why they personally didn't like the story. I'm sad if someone didn't like it but accept that I can't please everyone. But if several say the same thing it's a real wake up call. In my case it's usually 'not enough romance' also 'not enough explicit sex', which is a fair cop.
jordan_c_price
Sep. 5th, 2013 12:43 pm (UTC)
Do you read all your reviews or just reviews at certain places? I'm interested in things like, "Not enough sex," because that was obviously an artistic choice you made, how much on-page sex to include. It's not like you thought you were writing a sex scene and unbeknownst to you, you wrote a gardening scene instead :D

How do you handle the desire to please people versus the knowledge that you can't please everyone? While it is a valid saying, sometimes it's hard to internalize.
lou_harper
Sep. 5th, 2013 01:15 pm (UTC)
You know when someone gives a "not enough" comment I investigate the reasons. When someone says not enough romance, there's a good chance that for them romance means a story revolving around the inner emotional turmoil of the protagonists. That's not what I write and I will never be their cup of tea. However, there are occasions when reviewers zero in on a week point. For example, I have an incredibly hard time writing violence and consequently often rush through those scenes. It's something I secretly suspect when I do it but manage to suppress. When a reader points it out I know I'll have to improve there.
elin_gregory
Sep. 6th, 2013 10:16 am (UTC)
I don't seek out reviews but then I don't get that many so new ones are a novelty. I do check ratings on Goodreads, but only if I'm there for some other reason. I'm a newbie author and still haven't got over the gut feeling that if I've let a reader down it makes me a terrible person, so Goodreads is not a good place to be.

But some critique is very useful. When it comes to historical research there is ALWAYS going to be someone who knows more than you do, alternatively they may just have read a different interpretation of the facts. It's possible for both parties to be right. One can only do ones best and if you get something wrong take the crit in good heart and make a mental note not to get that wrong again. Likewise for characters, emotions and relationships - I tend to understate things because I'm scared of melodrama [and British] and a friend has pointed out to me recently that if I want to be published again I really need to go with the industry norm and paint with a much broader brush. There's no point in being subtle about sexual attraction and romantic feeling because that's not what the reader wants. They want dewy eyed looks and declarations of undying passion rather than 2 uptight men at armslength refusing to look at each other while admitting that they would be a bit cut up about it if the other one died, which is what I tend to write. Another friend has pointed out that because I use the correct term for historical things - necessary in cases where there is no modern english equivalent - and he doesn't understand them it throws him out of the story and made him feel so alienated that he couldn't finish the story, which he wasn't enjoying much anyway because not enough romance/sex.

Lou wrote,I have an incredibly hard time writing violence and consequently often rush through those scenes.

I feel the same about sex scenes. They are very uncomfortable and embarrassing to write - my mother did her job well and left me with a 1950s prudery about what I do [other people can write what they like with my encouragement and blessing] that I doubt I'll ever shake off - so I rush them or avoid them altogether. I have found that I'm halfway through a sex scene and the lads have knocked off to discuss their chances in battle or to investigate an odd knocking sound in the attic - not quite accidental gardening but close - so I figure that if I'm so uninvolved with the sexual shenanigans that I'm bored writing them they would be pretty boring for the reader expecting a bit of stroke fiction.
Also I'm not a romantic person and don't set out to write romances. There may be romance in them much as the relationship between Indy and Marion impacts on the plot of Indiana Jones/Lost Ark but I don't think anyone would market that story as a het romance. However, any book with 2 male protagonists who end up in a loving relationship tends to be labelled M/M which means it is judged against the benchmark set by erotic romance. Readers expecting a beautifully groomed racehorse zooming down the track to sexual fulfillment and a HEA aren't going to be happy with my shaggy little pony pulling a huge cart full of non-romantic plot. Their incredulous annoyance is perfectly valid.
jordan_c_price
Sep. 7th, 2013 12:00 pm (UTC)
However, any book with 2 male protagonists who end up in a loving relationship tends to be labelled M/M which means it is judged against the benchmark set by erotic romance.

Tell me about it! I think we're in the infancy of this genre and one day this will not be the case. Which doesn't really help the "not enough seeeeeex" squeals fall on the ears any easier.
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