Shelley McKibbon (coneycat) wrote,
Shelley McKibbon

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"Toxic Criticism" reconsidered, and a bit on self-critique

In a few entries I've spoken positively about a book called Toxic Criticism, mostly for the section on dealing with toxic criticism of one's own self. (I refer to this as the Toxic Room Mate In My Head, your terminology may differ.) I recently got the book out of the library again and it turns out I have reservations.

I still appreciate the section on why beating oneself up is pointless (among other things, it fools you into thinking you are doing something productive, when all you're doing is creating a bigger barrier between what you want to or should do and any chance of actually doing so.)

It's also got some useful tips about dealing with real or perceived direct criticism from people in our lives. And to some extent, the exercise of writing a letter to perceived critics is an interesting one. (A few are reproduced in the book. I personally would suggest not posting such things online anywhere--in fact, writing it out longhand and then setting fire to it might work better for me than anything.)

However, there are examples of being rejected as an artist, and it was at that point that I got a little worried. A few of the "dear critic" letters were to actual critics (or agents or editors), and those ones, probably because the writer didn't know the critic any better than vice versa, seemed likelier than the others to degenerate into the artist complaining about the credentials of the critic and assigning reasons why the critic did not appreciate the work.

Now, the author of the book is obviously a writer, so maybe the outrageous examples he cites ("Please stop writing!" scrawled at the bottom of a form rejection) are real. And he does note that the artist does have to consider whether the work is really not very good after all, but he only mentions that in passing.

And I have a problem with this because, it's one thing when a friend or family member makes personal remarks about your career or your hair or your spending habits. That really is personal.

But the author of Toxic Criticism is so focused on teaching people how to shrug off the harmful effects criticism can have (regardless of how it is intended) that the sections pertaining to writers address only the worst-case scenarios, and deal solely with how the writer feels about the fact of being criticized. And I have a few issues with that:

(1) In the "dear critic" letters, as I say, letters to people the writer does not know, who rejected the book or criticized it, tend to say, "I know you were feeling this and experiencing that and because of this in your life you reacted--" WHOA, NOW!

Maybe the reader is reacting to what she read, you know? I mean, it is possible that a reader who hates my current main character is having a bad flashback to having dated an adolescent pothead while in high school... but it is much, much likelier that either the person doesn't find the character appealing, or there is something going wrong with the way I write him. If a reader doesn't like my mystery novels, it may be because he or she isn't a fan of the genre and doesn't understand the conventions. But it is far likelier that the reader does like mysteries (having, you know, voluntarily read one) and simply doesn't think I executed it well.

(Okay, two members of my writing group, faced with the phrase "Les Paul," proceeded to pronounce it as if they spoke French and were referring to two or more guys name Paul, so I suspect they would not read my story if we weren't in the group together--but that doesn't mean they can't spot weaknesses in structure and plot.)

Sing it with me: writers create characters and ascribe motivations to them. That is what we do. But real people who read our stories are not our characters. They have their own motivations and reasons and reactions. Making up reasons for the reader to have a problem with your story (or mine) that let the story off the hook does nothing useful--it doesn't improve the story, and you're probably wrong about the reader's motivations. All it does is convince you there's nothing wrong with your writing--which, okay, may be soothing balm to the writerly ego, but it won't help you get published.

Related to point (1) above, is:

(2) If you do not consider criticism of your story, and I mean think about it specifically, you will not learn how to tell good advice from bad. I've seen this happen, and I bet you have as well (in fact, we may both have done it): the aspiring writer who refuses to consider any changes at all to a story, and then in frustration or desperation decides they have to do something and suddenly accepts every suggestion they get second-hand off the Internet, and makes things worse?

I was talking to a friend about this (and funnily, it's more or less popped up on another journal on my f'list and I need to go read that post more closely) and we think the problem there is, the writer hasn't learned to think critically about her own writing, and can't imagine other ways of telling a given story, so the first-draft form is the one she's stuck with. The idea of changing POV or beginning somewhere else or removing great blocks of pointless exposition and back story just doesn't compute. The writer doesn't see any difference between the manuscript effort and the underlying story idea.

And because this writer doesn't think about better ways to write an individual story, or consider it possible, the writer honestly can't tell the difference between input that's useful and that which is not. She's just never learned how to tell. So once in a while the writer decides to use the input he or she has asked for, uses all of it, and doesn't think critically about what part might work and what might not. It's more in the nature of a desperate search for a magic bullet than a sincere effort to become a better writer. And when the effort fails, the author doesn't realize that asking for help was not the waste of time. The waste of time was all that time spent not considering other ways to tell the story, and not thinking carefully about whether previous input was useful or not.

We all know people who, when they get a "why don't you try--?" suggestion, their eyes light up and you can see them thinking it over. A good crit suggestion is often, in my experience, one that I can immediately see myself using. A crit saying, "Why don't you drop the slow first chapter and start the story here" is often something I can use. A crit that says, "Your main character is not like my son of the same age, which means your character is not valid and real, and you should rewrite him completely to be more like I expect of young men his age"--that's almost certainly a useless suggestion, given that you wrote the main character the way you did on purpose. The thing is, I am now reaching the point where I can think about both kinds of input and I can decide which piece helps me improve my ability to tell the underlying story, and which would change that underlying story to the point where it was no longer the one I want to tell. (Sometimes we realize that no, the underlying story isn't going to work or we don't want to tell it any more, and we change the main character to a totally different person and it's all good. That can happen, too.)

And a crit that says, "Hey, your main character is normally A and B, but then in this chapter he acts all X and Y, that's jarring"--well, that is probably pointing out one of those sneaky "for the sake of the plot" moments where you (or I) got lazy and did something by authorial fiat rather than because we figured out how to make it make sense. Those crits, you've got to pay attention to, because they show places where your execution failed.

And when a crit says, "Your character is A and B, and I get that, but man, you overdo the A!"--also worth paying attention to. If you've made the point, don't keep hammering away at it until the reader hates you and the character both! (Um. Been there.)

The thing is: you can really only think like this if you practice thinking like this, and if you can detach yourself from your work. And it isn't easy. Figuring out what to keep and what to leave from a critique can be tricky, but it gets easier after you get yourself into the habit of seriously considering what the change would do to the story, rather than immediately going to the ego-saving option of assuming the reader is flawed instead of the story.

And detaching yourself from the work takes even more practice. Some critiques are easier to accept than others, because some people deliver them more tactfully, but I've found it handy to try and phrase the suggestions and criticisms in my own words, or even just (in a written crit) cut and paste them into a new document. That way I'm not reminded of the person who criticized me when I should be thinking about whether the criticism makes sense.

(Incidentally--in the early stages of trying to do this kind of thing... probably best to copy the comments word for word. When you rephrase critique into your own words, it's really important not to fall back into the trap of interpreting what you think the reader wanted or what you assume they were thinking... which can easily turn back into blaming the reader for not appreciating the story, rather than assuming there's something in the story that isn't working.)

So, to get back to Toxic Criticism, my problem with handling artistic input (which you may have asked for!) in the same way as we handle personal comments from people actually in our lives is, artistic input is not the same thing. And we need it to grow. Writing can be done all alone at the kitchen table, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. Eventually it's intended to be shared. (Which is where musicians have it all over writers, since so much of music is by its nature collaborative. I mean, George Martin was the one who told the Beatles to lead off "She Loves You" with the chorus, and leading off with the chorus is one of the reasons the song has that heart-stopping burst of exuberance from the very first note.)

By treating writing-related crit as if it was exactly the same as the nagging housemate saying, "You'll never amount to anything!" writers lose out on the chance to grow and develop. They simply go around and around, writing at the very same level and pleasing only themselves. Which is fine if that's what you want, but that's what diaries are for. A writer who wants to be published has to learn and grow and develop, and most of it can't do that in the absolute absence of input from others. And, while some of it will be useful and some not, the only way to be able to tell which is which is to think clearly and critically about all of it, at least at first. Ego defending "dear critic" letters, by deflecting the critique unconsidered, don't help the writing at all.

Most of us are not naturally great at anything. We have to put in the work. Sometimes it's unexpected kinds of work, but that's what makes life interesting.
Tags: rants, writing

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