December 20, 2017 / 4 Comments

Critical Hit

            Okay, first of two posts this week, as promised…
            So a while back at the LA Writers Coffeehouse we were going to talk about criticism.  All the directions it can come from.  What it’s like from either end. How to put it out there.  How to receive it.  We never got around to it there, so I thought I’d talk about it here.
            Just to be different, though, let’s approach this from the tougher angle, in my opinion.  Giving criticism.
            I know that’s hard to believe—that giving criticism can be the hard part.  I mean, just check out any social media site.  Over the past week or so there’ve been tons of people offering critiques of… y’know, different stories.  Often for free. Usually unasked for.
            And, most of the time, not very good.
            Criticism—actual, constructive criticism—is a bit more than ranting online.  It’s being able to state quantifiable, true, relevant facts about a work.  There are a lot of folks who consider themselves critics who really just… spout their opinions a lot.
            I saw one of these recently.  Directed at me.  Someone had read one of my books, loved the first two thirds, but then it had an “action-packed, nonsense finale” that the reader didn’t like.  Which was a shame, because the rest of the book had been pretty good.
            I’ve talked a bit about this before, one of the first things to learn about giving criticism..  Me liking or not liking something isn’t really criticism.  It’s irrelevant.  That’s just a subjective opinion.
            This can be a tough thing to figure out sometimes.  It took me years to be able to separate my opinions from actual facts and observations about the story I was reading.  There are a lot of books and movies I didn’t like, but I can also acknowledge that doesn’t make them bad.  It just means they’re not for me. 
            So that’s lesson one in offering good criticism. Separating my opinion from actual facts.  Anyone can say “this sucks.”  If I’m trying to offer valid criticism, I need to be the person  who can explain whyit sucks.
            And remember—“I didn’t like it” isn’t a reason.
            This should bring us to the second point about giving criticism.  It should be constructive, not destructive.  The goal isn’t to rip something apart, it’s to explain why and how it can be better.  Yes, sometimes this might mean a couple blunt, harsh truths will need to come out.  But even these don’t need to be designed to make the writer cry for weeks.  If that’s why I offered to critique someone’s work, well… I’m doing this for all the wrong reasons.
            Here’s a good rule of thumb.  I shouldn’t point out problems if I can’t offer some kind of actual solution.  This is also a good way to figure out if this is an opinion-vs.-criticism issue.  It’s tough to change opinions, but if something’s actually wrong, it shouldn’t be hard for me to figure out some way to fix it.
            Keep in mind, this doesn’t have to be a good solution.  My editor—a very high ranking editor at Random House—freely admits he’s great at spotting problems, awful at coming up with solutions.  But he’ll always have an answer whenever I ask about something.
            And I shouldn’t offer these solutions unless the writer specifically asks for them—it’d be rude of me to start explaining how someone else should be writing their story.  I mentioned helping a friend with her travel book a while back, and twice or thrice in the notes I’d point out an issue and say “I have an idea that might help with this—let me know if you’re interested.”
            Which is a great lead in to my third point.  If I’m going to offer criticism, I should know what I’m talking about.  This is a tricky one, because it means a lot more than “I read a book every week” or “I’ve seen every Best Picture winner.”  It especially means more than “I just want to read it early.”
            Being able to offer a good critical analysis means being able to juggle a lot of hats.  I need some actual knowledge and understanding of different structure forms and grammar.  I need to have read more than two or three “how to write a bestseller” books.  It wouldn’t hurt if I’ve sat and thought about this knowledge and absorbed it a bit.

            And just book-learning isn’t going to cut it.  I also need a lot of practical experience.  Lots and lots of reading.  Not just the classics. Not just the NYT bestsellers.  Not just the “good” stuff.  I need a broad-yet-solid background in the subject matter—no one should be asking me to read their hospital-based romance, and if they do I should be clear up front this isn’t quite my area of expertise.

            There’s also an empathy issue here, too.  I’ve mentioned a few times that writers have to have a good sense of empathy—if I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes, I’m going to have a tough time as a storyteller. Same goes for critiquing a story.  I need to be able to see what effect the writer’s going for andbe able to predict how people are going to react to it.  If I can’t do this, my whole critique is going to collapse.
            And that brings us to the fourthand final point.  This one’s going to sound obvious.  If someone’s going to trust me with their work, if I’m going to tell them I’ll critique it… I should.  They’re asking for feedback and I should make an honest effort to give it to them.  There’s few things more frustrating for a writer than waiting weeks for feedback and getting a one line email that says “Yeah, I liked it.  It was fun.”
            You may laugh but…  I’ve had beta-readers do that.  Which is why they’re not beta-reading for me anymore.
            Likewise, comments that are too vague to help… don’t really help.  I shouldn’t be writing things like “I saw a couple typos—you’ll probably catch them next time through.”  Again, if I’m doing a critique, I should be noting all this stuff.  Getting caught up in it isn’t an excuse—I’m not supposed to be reading this for fun.  I should take my time and do it right.  As the man says (paraphrased), treat them the way you’d want to be treated.
            Now, with all that said… here’s two positive things about giving criticism.
            Oneis that it doesn’t need to be stiff. Unless I’ve been hired as a professional, I’m reading/critiquing for somebody I know.  Possibly someone I even consider a friend.  I can have fun with this.  It can be conversational.  It can be funny/snarky/flirty whatever.  I don’t need to change my relationship with someone to offer them criticism.  They want it from me, not from Professor Huffy von Formalnotes.
            Twois that… well, I don’t have to read it all.  No, I don’t.  Really. I’m not getting paid, I’m not doing this as part of a formal submission… I don’t need to read all 815 pages. 
            At least three or four times I’ve read books for friends who wanted feedback and forty or fifty pages in it was clear there were… inherent issues.  Things that weren’t going to change.  Things that were going to kill the book’s chances if an editor or agent read those first fifty pages. So I stopped there.  I gave them all the notes I’d made up to that point, and then explained the bigger problems I was seeing.  And that was it. My time is valuable—and so’s theirs.  They don’t need to read twenty pages of notes from me repeating the same things over and over and over again.
            And again.
            There you have it.  Some tips to giving better criticism.  Maybe even a few tips about dealing with it if you read around the edges a bit (and follow some of the links).
            Next time… well, we’re closing in on the holidays, and after all this criticism we could probably talk about some good stuff, yes?
            Until then, go write.
            I really like this title, even though it makes me think of the conservative talk show host in V for Vendetta.
            So, a question was posed in the comments a few weeks back—how do you deal with criticism?  Specifically, how do you tell good, useful criticism from questionable opinions, and how do you weight those opinions to tell which are worth listening to and which are just… well, wrong.
            I think that was the question, anyway. If I’ve completely missed it, Chris, feel free to point and laugh at me in the comments. Until then, though, this is what I’m going with…
            This is kind of well-timed, too.  Back in May I handed in my new book to the publisher, and near the end of the month I got back notes from my editor.  Lots of notes.
            Pagesof notes.
            I won’t lie.  It stung.  It never feels good to have someone pull out lists of reasons why months of work needs… well, even more work. 
            Here’s the thing, though.  He was right on about 85% of what he said.  And I knew it.  My editor’s a smart guy, and he picked up on a lot of things—small things, really—that didn’t work in the story. But these small things snowballed into three or four big problems. 
            (Which I am now about halfway through fixing…)
            So… how did I know he was right?
            Assuming I’m actually open to receiving some honest criticism, one thing I can immediately look for is if this criticism is objective or subjective.  Is it a factual, provable point, or is it just a reader’s opinion.  If I use the wrong spelling of canon, drop commas in weird places, or don’t have a single transition anywhere… these are real problems that have a right or wrong answer.  This is objective criticism, and if I’m going to get argumentative about something like spelling, well… my writing career is going to take a while to get going.
            Which takes us to subjective criticism.  This is when my editor or beta readers express their opinions on my writing.  And opinions can be taken with a grain of salt. Or several grains.  Sometimes a spoonful.
            For example, some opinions are informed.  My agent doesn’t think this is a good time to try selling an urban fantasy book.  He spends his time talking to different editors and looking at recent market trends, so he’s probably got a pretty good sense of things.  That doesn’t mean selling a UF book right now is a guaranteed failure, but it’s probably a good way to approach things for now.
            On the other hand, some people’s opinions are a bit… less informed.  I think zombies suck.  Maybe you could give her a dog?  Or a cat?  I feel like this sex scene could be cut.  Have you considered ending the book on Chapter Six and just making it a novella?  Have you considered giving this up and going back to investment banking?  These are all critical statements, but there’s nothing backing them up except one reader’s opinion.
            And don’t get me wrong.  Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, and their opinion is (usually) totally valid.  But at the end of the day, some opinions carry more weight than others.  Neil deGrasse Tyson’s opinions on moon colonies carry more weight than mine, even though I once did a whole month of research for a zombies-on-the-moonbook.  Pretty much every woman on Earth has better thoughts than me about the struggles, barriers, and sexism they encounter as a woman.  On the plus side, my opinions on G1 Transformers and Micronauts carry more weight than my brother’s (he was more into sports when we were kids…and as adults, too).
            But how do I tell objective feedback from the subjective stuff? There are so many rules and accepted standards!  It could takeyears and dozens of drafts to learn them all!
            Well, here’s one easy rule of thumb.  If I’m giving you feedback for something, and my notes have a lot of phrases beginning with–
            “I think…”
            “I feel…”
            “This didn’t do it for me.” 
            “I just don’t…”
            –my critique probably isn’t that objective.  Just because my personal reading preference may be for casual dialogue, implied sex and violence, or clever twists doesn’t automatically mean these things are right for a given story.  And it doesn’t mean a lack of them is wrong.  So when I’m saying “I think you need this,” I’m not offering advice based on facts or rules, just off my own thoughts and feelings.
            Yeah, there’s always a however…
            As I’ve mentioned before, some people will try to soften the blow with criticism because they don’t want to hurt my feelings when I read their notes. So even though they’ll have a perfectly valid, solid point to make, they’ll lead it with one of those phrases I mentioned above.  “Not 100% sure, but I think you may want to check if Schwartzenagger is the correct spelling.”  I’ve done this to other writers.  Readers have done it to me.  It’s just human nature.
            The flipside of this is the people who don’t realize they’re just voicing their opinions or some half-understood advice. And these folks will declare with absolute certainty that I must change this character’s name or move that comma or turn all my zombies into witches because, seriously, who still writes about zombies?  It’s over, people. Witches are the new hot thing.
            So when I’m wading through my feedback, I need to be able to sort good opinions from bad ones.  And real objective criticism from heartfelt opinions.  That’s part of my job as a writer.
            Now, all that being said… there are times someone’s personal opinion might hold a little more weight.  If some producer wants to pay me to rewrite my screenplay to include an alien love-child, or to rewrite the main character of my civil war slave story to be a white guy…that’s their call.  If a publisher wants to buy my Agent Carter fan-fic with all the names and a few genders swapped, I probably won’t tell him no.  If someone wants to pay me actual money to do something that could very well ruin my story…  well, getting paid is nice.  A lot of writers cover their monthly bills that way.  Especially in Hollywood.
            Y’see, Timmy, the bad news is that a huge amount of knowing how to sift through criticism and make these choices is just plain experience. It’s the ugly process of writing, getting feedback, rewriting for the feedback… and realizing two or three drafts later some of that critique could’ve been ignored.  Then having this happen again… and again.  And again.  The only way to learn this is through writing and rewriting and learning exactly how all of this word-stuff fits together and then writing some more and having it suck a little less.
            Also, it’ll help a lot if I read more.  Lots of things in lots of genres.  If I can name a hundred manuscripts that have done the same thing as mine with a character, with structure, with dialogue, that’s probably a good sign that what I’m doing is acceptable. But the only way I’m going to know that is if I’ve read lots and lots of material. 
            By the same token, if I read a hundred books a year and not one of them has done what I did with dialogue… well, it might mean I’m a visionary, but odds are it means this isn’t really an acceptable practice.  If I find one or two out of that hundred that do it, they’re probably the exception than proves the rule.  Again, though, the only way I’ll know is to read.
            Yeah, this sounds like a lot of work.  It is. I didn’t figure all this out overnight, or even in the eight or nine years since I started this blog.  This is actual decades of experience, stretching back to the early ‘80s when I first started screwing up this stuff with fanfic, comic book scripts, and lizard man stories.  And I screwed up and got rejected a lot.
            As I’ve mentioned before, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.
            Speaking of not getting what you want…
            There will be no post next week because I’m going to be down at San Diego Comic Con.  If you happen to be there Saturday, though, I will be part of a panel on worldbuilding and storytelling, so you could show up and mock me in person.
            And I’ll probably put up a few photo tips to make up for the lack of actual post.
            When we do meet again, though, I’d like to talk about chefs.
            Until then… go write.
January 10, 2015

The Friends and Family Plan

            Running a little late.  Sorry.
            Hey, last week there were two posts in a row.  You’ll survive.  Really.
            Anyway, let’s talk about the system you’re using.
            I think one of the harder things to find is an honest opinion.  Odd to say, I know, with all the folks who like to shout about the truth on the internet, but I think there’s a certain level of honesty that’s difficult to get from people.  Most of us don’t like saying “No.”   Everyone worries about offending someone and the possible ramifications it could have, especially these days when so many comments are taken out of context and so many folks are ready and waiting to be offended by… well, anything. 
            My time in Hollywood taught me that a lot of folks have almost brainwashed themselves against saying “no” or offering any kind of negative feedback. My differing opinion can get me fired, after all, so I keep it to myself.  The person asking “Do you like this?” could end up deciding whether or not I get health insurance and a new office next year, even if they’re just the office PA right now.  They don’t always say yes, but pretty much nobody says no.  No is all but forbidden.
            Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has a partner, writing is something we have to do alone.  The odd conundrum here is that one of the very few ways we can improve as writers is to get feedback.  People need to read our work and express their thoughts and opinions about it.  I need to have an audience. A realaudience.
            What counts as a real audience?  Well, it’s people who will give me an honest opinion.  People who are willing to say no.  A solid beta reader, as they’re often called, won’t mince words or spare my feelings, because they understand I need to know what’s wrong with my work so I can improve it.  Kindness and white lies don’t help me at all.  They only undermine my attempts to get better.
            A little story…
            When I was a kid, my mom read pretty much every piece of half-finished crap I wrote.  And believe me, I wrote a lot of it.  She slogged through at least three versions of Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth between third and seventh grade. There were also a few good-sized pieces of Boba Fett and Doctor Who fanfic (long before there was such a term).  Plus a bunch of short stories and a truly awful sci-fi “novel” called A Piece of Eternity that had cosmic rays and mutants and cute little robots and bug-aliens that were shamelessly ripped off from the old Marvel Micronauts comics.
            Now, there’s no question in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am today if my mom hadn’t kept reading this stuff and encouraging me to write more.  None at all.
            I eventually realized something.  My mom was pretty much always going to say she liked what I was writing because she’s my mom and that’s what good mothers do.  It didn’t matter if the material was good, bad, or borderline nonsensical, my mom would congratulate me on it.
            Which is when I realized I needed to start getting other opinions.
            Now, granted, this is an extreme example.  I’m not saying my mother should’ve told the eleven-year-old me that my writing was childish and predictable and I didn’t have a chance of ever getting published.  That would’ve just been cruel, and also a bit unfair.  In one way, this blind kindness was a good thing.
            However, this kindness can also be a trap.  And many people, willingly or not, fall into it. 
            Dot, for example, surrounds herself with people who won’t give her honest opinions.  She’ll only show her writing to immediate family members, or friends who are so close they’ve got all the same interests and background.  Parents, siblings, friends, lovers—people with a strong desire not to hurt her feelings, and, on some level, a vested interest in keeping her happy.
            Is it really that surprising to learn these people all say Dot’s writing is great.  Her mom and dad think it’s wonderful.  Her friends got all the jokes.  Her brother Yakko loves it.  Her boyfriend (or maybe girlfriend—Dot’s very open-minded) thinks she should send it out to some magazines or agents.
            Are they all lying to her?  Possibly not.  There’s always that chance Dot is the next Harper Lee or Ernest Hemingway, unable to produce anything except Pulitzer-level material when left alone with a word processor.  Maybe she really is a writing savant, able to put down words on the first try that are going to make the Nobel Committee weep tears of joy.
            But, as they say in Vegas, I wouldn’t put money on it.
            Worse yet, sometimes these well-meaning folks will tell Dot to ignore the good criticism she is getting.  Did Phoebe’s feedback sting a bit?  Did it make Dot question her abilities a little? Well, just ignore it.  What does she know, anyway?  She’s just one person, and she’s probably jealous of Dot’s talent.  That’s why she’s tearing the story apart like that.

            We all start out rough.  Our first works suck.  Usually our second works, too.  But we can’t get past that until we admit it and really consider some of the feedback we’re getting… and the people we’re getting it from.

            Finding a real, honest audience for your work can take years.  Some folks mean well, but are coming from a place of no education and/or no experience.  A few of those folks are coming with no education or experience and they’ll ask you for money.  And some of them… well, let’s be honest.  Some people are just jerks.  They like to look down their noses and criticize people—sometimes for no real reason, sometimes so they can feel superior. They’ll give an opinion and expect you to treat it as fact.
            Over the years since Mom read all my stories, out of the hundreds of people I’ve met in the film and publishing industry, I’ve found maybe a double handful of people whose opinions I really trust.  They have the education, they have the experience, and at the end of the day they want to see my writing improve almost as much as I do.  Several of them are merciless and blunt to a point that could make small children cry, and I consider myself lucky for that.
            And, for the record, Mom still likes a lot of my stuff, too.  But she only sees the final version.
            Speaking of my mom, next time I’d like to tell you my story. It’s the most interesting thing ever.  Really.

            Until then, go write.

October 17, 2014 / 3 Comments

My Thoughts On Criticism

            I am running soooo far behind.  Very, very sorry.  It turns out my new book is going to get a hardcover release which is making me feel even more pressure than normal and I’ve been freezing up a bit.  Plus I was out at the Books in the Basin festival last weekend (which, granted, was a lot of fun).  And my editor and I just did another back and forth over the manuscript.
            So, alas, still no Clint Eastwood.  But it’s coming.  Next week for sure.  And it’s going to be fantastic.
            For now, just so I don’t keep falling behind, I wanted to offer a few of my thoughts on criticism.
            I’ve mentioned a few times how important it is to get good feedback from people, so here’s a nice simple rule of thumb about criticism.  If I have to include myself in the critique, there’s a semi-decent chance it’s not valid criticism.  If I’m giving you feedback for something, and my notes have an abundance of statements that begin like this–
            “I think…”
            “I really…”
            “This didn’t do it for me.” 
            “I feel…” 
            “I just don’t…”
–or with some similar (or more emphatic) phrasing, my critique probably isn’t that objective.  I’m not offering advice based on facts or rules, just off my own opinion.  And while opinion has a place in criticism, it’s also something that needs to be weighed and ignored sometimes.
            My editor just sent me back a 540 page document (okay, really 270 because I crushed it to single space for efficiency) with all his notes and comments on it.  I think this is our third pass back and forth, but there are still a couple things we’ve been wrestling with on our respective sides.  I’d say there’s probably about thirty-five or forty solid comments throughout the whole manuscript (plus some quick corrections on the odd typo or tweaked descriptor).
            Out of all these, maybe four or five of them use “I think” or “I feel.”  Maybe ten percent of his feedback.  There are a few places he’s telling me how he feels about things, but for the most part he’s pointing out things that needto be adjusted, and giving me reasons why when it might not be clear.  Very little of his notes are opinions.
            And again, that’s not to say opinions are bad.  But opinions are subjective.  They’re “soft” criticism, not as useful because they revolve around a single reader.
            So be clear about the criticism you’re getting.  And giving.
            Next time, I absolutely swear, Clint Eastwood.
            Until then, go write.