Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Advice or Attack? Thoughts on Giving & Getting Criticism

The Story Thus Far…

Yesterday (Hooks & Sinkers: The Writing Advice that Sparked a War of Words) I explained how a blog post by James Scott Bell on Things to Avoid in Your Novel’s Opening Page that I recommended on my Facebook Fan Page hit a nerve with one reader who took issue with the way the advice was presented.

(Mr. Bell critiqued an example of What Not To Do with several variations of “I don’t care.”)

The reader, who is an aspiring novelist, was so incensed that she blasted Bell and gave him a hefty piece of her mind.

A lively discussion ensued.

The Conflict: How DARE You Not Care?

I commented that I felt Mr. Bell’s bluntness mirrored what I have heard from many agents when discussing aspiring writers’ work. They want to care about the characters they read about - but their time is limited and they are quick to dismiss something when they don't feel engaged.

The rejoinder was eye-opening:

It was the "I don't care" bit that so disheartened me this morning... He sounds like an angry, supercilious, impatient know-it-all.


We writers want advice. We need it and we know that. Most of us aren’t so in love with our words as to imagine that they could never be better.

(Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the Twitter entries for #stuffmymusesays, and you’ll realize that we’re not delusional when it comes to our abilities. Most of us press on in spite of the fact that we feel like imposters and are often filled with downright self-loathing.)

But some days, we confuse advice with an attack. We mistake broad, general suggestions for targeted, heat-seeking missiles honing in on our hearts. It’s easy to do.

You see, every time I query an agent, I feel like I'm offering my child on the auction block and praying that he fetches a hefty price.

I am responsible for my writing. I am the parent of my text. I want it to grow up big and strong so it can withstand the arrows of both critics and regular readers and take the world by storm. And it is all too easy to blur the line between my Work and Me.

The Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency included these wise words in a post that addressed Why Some Advice Makes Authors Angry:

Is it possible the...author has hit too close to the truth?... Yes, getting too close can irritate; however, instead of being angry, first try to analyze why the message bothers you before composing a stinging comment in response.

How do you distance yourself from your words in order to benefit from well-meaning advice? Is it important to you that criticism or advice be softened and “nice” in order for you to act upon it? Feel free to comment.


RedHeadedQuilter said...

Personally I don't want 'soft' criticism. It doesn't help me learn or grow as a writer. There is *always* room for improvement in every writer's work.

That said, criticism should always be polite and it doesn't hurt to find at least one good thing to say along with the bad.

I know I'm guilty of being nit-picky with other people's writing and not always having something good to say about it. I'm trying to get better at it - really!

On the other hand it's extremely rare (basically unheard of) for me to read a passage and just rave about it. Every now and then I find a book I really like, but I am still working on figuring out what exactly I like about it. If I can't explain it to myself, how can I explain it to the writer?

James Scott Bell said...

Well, I never expected to start a little firestorm trying to help writers get published. Of course, this sometimes happens when one blogs with a strong opinion. The words can be taken the wrong way. I looked back at my entry, and the key words "I don't care." What I was trying to be was not "supercilious" (and I certainly am not angry about any of this) but like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. That line always gets a laugh. Tommy Lee Jones is saying, It's not my job to judge your guilt or innocence. My job is to bring you in.

In the same way, it's not my job to pass judgment on any individual's writing or style (unless they ask me to). My job is to help writers get published, and that's what I was doing in that post. (Also, the follow up, which clarifies some matters).

The "I don't care" was directed at the character in the example, not at writers qua writers. And let me say that I never dis individual writers. I never make it personal. All writers striving to get better are my friends, even if I haven't met them.

My articles on writing technique are usually couched in positive terms. Every now and then, though, to make a point, I express something with a little more heat, and that's what I did here. Why? Because I see this particular error all the time in manuscripts, and I want to alert folks that it's going to hurt their chances of getting an agent. I would hate for the overall point to be lost: readers don't sympathize with a character is doing nothing but experiencing emotions, alone, doing innocuous things. If you do that on page one, your chances of getting your proposal read drop precipitously.

I appreciate the discussion, Ami. Onward.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Thanks, Mr. Bell, for dropping by.

In the opening sentence of your third paragraph, I believe that you have hit the proverbial nail head-on. Criticism is directed at the writer's words. It is not directed at the writer. Sometimes, it is difficult for writers to make the distinction, but it's one that is necessary to our survival in such a competitive industry.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. And criticism does not kill us (though sometimes it stings a bit...).

Onward and upward, everyone!

Margaret DeAngelis said...

Here is what I wrote on Ami's FB page last yevening (with a typo corrected):

"Just back from the library. I picked up James Scott Bell's *Presumed Guilty*, so I would be able to 'blast' with some credibility. The Prologue (first two pages, about 350 words) is a guy sittin' around thinkin' about the events of the past year which put him where he is, which happens to be a jail cell. 'I remember what I was wearing [that day],' followed by a description of the clothes, the view out the window where he sat that day, and a reiteration of what he was thinking that day.

"I'm just sayin'."

Really, Mr. Bell, I do know the difference between criticism of writing and criticism of a person. I've been at this a long time. As I have said elsewhere,about a Very Famous Novelist who was clearly bored not just with my work but with me, I don't mind criticism that makes me wish I'd written the piece differently. I do think,however, that criticism that makes me wisdh I hadn't been born serves only to display how oh-so-clever the speaker of the criticism thinks he is. It is one thing to say, "This character is not engaging on the page because so far we know only what troubles him," and quite another to say, "Sorry pal, we all have troubles, I don't care about yours."

The novel I am working on concerns matters of faith, and how differences among family matters concerning these things compkicates an already complicated situation (the sudden death of a young member). I will be interested to see how the Reverend Ron Hamilton manages to stop thinking and start doing.

James Scott Bell said...

And more power to you, Margaret. I wish you well, truly.

Just to clarify, I was talking about proposals and what an agent said about the first page. In my second post in the series, I did say that "style" may be what you're after, and that's okay, but just consider first starting with a scene, especially if you're trying to get an agent.

I do apologize, Margaret. My intent is never to make other writers feel small, or make myself seem "Oh-so-clever." Keep writing, and may your book be a great success.