Thursday, April 08, 2010

I Control My Words -- Words Don't Control Me

A Final Observation on Critiques and Criticism

The content in Tuesday's post, Advice or Attack: Thoughts on Giving & Getting Criticism, coupled with the receipt of a form rejection has caused me to muse a bit more on my responsibilities as a writer...

One of the hardest things to do is distance myself from my words far enough to be able to objectively consider their real merits. I use several techniques for creating this objectivity. One of the main ones is to imagine I am reading my rival’s work instead of my own. This little mental exercise is often all I need to break the parent / child connection I have with my words and see them for what they really are...

My words are just that: words. Ink on paper. Pixels on the screen. They cannot be humiliated, embarrassed, angry, proud, vain, or self-conscious. They are inanimate objects.

Ah, but stones and arrows are also inanimate objects. Like stones and arrows, words must be wielded with restraint.

I recently made the mistake of reading and commenting on a co-authored script as if I had written the piece by myself but was critiquing it as if it were from a rival. I was ruthless. I marked every place where things didn’t ring true, where the dialogue was stilted, inane, or dead-on. I shredded assumptions. I questioned motivation. I made the snarkiest of snarky comments.

In short, I forced objectivity and ripped the script to shreds – all with the intention of highlighting weak areas in order to rework them and make them strong.

I critiqued the heck out of the script. But I neglected to take my co-author into consideration.

My co-author has worked in the film industry for years. He has a very thick skin. He didn’t take my comments personally. But he didn’t take them well. He wanted constructive criticism and me writing repeated variations of ”I hate her right now. She’s a selfish, whiny, spoiled bitch!” about a character didn’t help.

(A side note: This kind of self-criticism does helps me when I edit my own work. When I go back to make changes, I take the negative comments and use them to build upon. However, I NEVER write such things about other people’s work. It’s just too harsh and people become defensive. I know better. There are better ways to say “This doesn’t work for me” than “This SUCKS!”)

I don’t need to handle my co-author’s words with kid gloves. But I do need to treat them with dignity. Because no matter how much we writers say we want criticism – and we do! – we do not want to be criticized.

The magical thing about the words I write, however, is that they can affect people – myself included.

And that is so COOL!

The words I write have the potential to move you, inspire you, entertain or intrigue you. They can open up a whole new world and invite you to explore it. They can cause you to look at this world differently. They can introduce you to people who are more real than the people you see every day. They can change your life.

But this can only happen if they are done right.

Wielding words is a lifetime learning experience. In the same vein, the ability to decode the intent of another person’s written words can also take awhile.

Forms Don’t Fuel Fights

Literary agent Janet Reid (a.k.a. the tough but fair Query Shark) commented on Twitter last week:

I see some very clever ideas just flattened by telling, not showing. I have forsworn remedial interaction after several unhappy scuffles.

When I read that, I felt the community of still-unrepped-but-hopeful-and-hardworking-writers (to which I belong) had lost a valuable resource. An agent who once freely dispensed advice on how to improve one’s craft is no longer doing so because the writers she was trying to help mistook her criticism of their work for criticism of them.

Ms. Reid is not alone in her unwilling participation in the aforementioned “unhappy scuffles.” I follow many editors and agents on Twitter. At least once a day, one of them will comment on receiving a rejection rant. Personally, I consider it the rejected writer’s way of committing career suicide.

For shame! Critique notes, no matter how pointed or painful, can point out a heckuva lot more that needs to be improved in my writing than a standard form rejection.

If I submit something for representation there are many reasons why an agent might send me a form rejection.

• My query may be inadequate, with so-so writing that doesn’t do justice to my book.
• The agent may be swamped with queries.
• The agent may have enough clients at the moment.
• I may not have done my homework well enough and submitted a query for a genre the agent doesn’t rep.

A form rejection does nothing more than tell me to “move along” in my quest for representation. It’s the easiest way for an agent to say “No.” Plus, they don’t fuel fights.

If, however, I can get an agent or intern to look at my query and take the time to critique it, then I feel like I have a Golden Ticket.

It’s up to me to decide how to play it. I can tear it to shreds, fling it in the air, and hurl epithets at the agent who gave me the Ticket – because what I really wanted was a pony! Or I can shelve my pride and my ego and consider my writing through the Ticket’s filter.

Of course accepting someone’s criticism of my work is difficult to do. The fact that it’s necessary doesn’t make it any easier. That’s why, when I proffer criticism of my own, I must remember that though it’s meant about the Work, it will first affect the Writer.

How do you handle giving or getting criticism? How do you distance yourself from your work to allow it to benefit from another’s perspective? Comment below and let me know.

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