Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Some Thoughts On Criticism

Every writer has one.  Or two.  Or several.  They are something that cannot be avoided.  Until you as a writer can learn how to please every palette in one story, there will always be negative critics.  You can't escape them.  Sometimes their voices drown out the positive ones.  There are ways to live with them and still be a success as well as learn from what they have to say.

I've been in situations where I've had my work torn apart only to have the person tearing apart my work swoop in to try to take away my opportunity to use for their own gain.  I had a teacher tell me that my work sounded like something for a soap opera or a Made For TV Movie.  I had a classmate type a page of hateful criticisms towards my work that were so bad, I was able to turn them into my teacher.  He said my work sounded like something from Desperate Housewives and that I didn't care about my characters among other things.  I've had family members try to tell me what jobs I should be working instead of writing--twice.  I'm sure other insults have been tossed around behind my back.  But these are what I've heard.

I believe writers should support each other and not tear each other down.  I'm not perfect at this (more on that later).  I also think if someone tells you about an opportunity they're pursuing, it is unethical to critique their piece--good or bad--and then pursue the same opportunity.  In this case, it was a contest and neither of us won but I learned a valuable lesson about who to trust and how to respect other writers.  I am now much more selective of who gets to read my rough drafts.

The teacher who criticized my work had very little experience in the subject he taught and I was able to take additional classes from teachers who had more experience and better reputations.  They built me up and kept in mind that I was a beginner.  The class I took with the critical teacher was a beginning level class and he was grading as if we were a room of veteran screenwriters.  Just because a teacher tells you that you're doing a bad job doesn't mean that they are right or that you can't change.  I was also able to prove that he played favorites with his students and I wasn't one of them.  I could have turned him into the school but I chose not to.  I didn't think it was necessary.  From what I understand, he has changed a bit since I was his student and I can only wish that is the truth.

The classmate was a beginner just like I was.  I don't remember most of what he said about me.  I preferred to forget what he said.  What he said wasn't entirely wrong.  He was right that my characters were underdeveloped.  He was wrong in saying that I didn't care about my characters.  I cared very much about them.  The story he was criticizing started as a scene written for an assignment in class.  The story can now be found in prose form on my blog The Charm or The Strikeout.  It's still not perfect but I love the story and the characters. What I learned from the critique and writing the stories have carried into all of my future work.  And the idea that my work sounded like something out of Desperate Housewives?  It may not have started out as a compliment but I later took it as a compliment.  I loved the writing on Desperate Housewives.  It was one of my favorite shows.  This person later apologized and as far as I'm concerned we're okay.  He got to see me go from a rough newbie to a polished writer over two terms.  While it was painful at the time, it was one of the biggest lessons for me as a writer and I am grateful for that.  It has helped me to be constructive when I'm critiquing a draft that may not be very well written.  I now make sure what I say to another writer is something that can help them improve and not give up.  Giving up after a less than perfect piece of work is the LAST thing that any writer should do.

As for the family members.  They meant well.  I believe that until someone has tried to go through the submission process for a piece--whether it's a poem, a novel or a screenplay--that person has no authority over what any writer should be doing with their time.  It would be like me going on a talk show and telling the audience how to raise their children.  I have taken care of children in the past but I've never raised a child so I have very little place to speak on the subject.  Thankfully, I have very few family members who feel this way and I'm usually able to quiet them when they see how hard I work.  I ask myself, "What authority does this person who is critiquing me have over my work?"  Unless it's a literary agent or a publisher, I take their advice with a grain of salt and consider the source.

I did not use these examples to call anyone out.  I wanted to show that every writer hears criticism.  It is not always a bad thing.  There are healthy ways to criticize and unhealthy ways to criticize.  I have had both.  Once I'm published, what is said about me is out of my hands.  Thankfully, most of my critiques have been very positive and I have a lot of very supportive fans who lift me up and are eagerly anticipating my work.  That is what keeps me going.

Criticism is a part of writing.  Not everyone is going to love your work.   Not everything that is said about you will be true.  What I have learned from criticism is that it is something to learn from, grow from, and come back from.  It does not always feel good.  You won't always have a teacher to step in for you.  But it is not something that should stop you from writing.  When writing stops being fun for me, that's when I'll consider a new path.  But that hasn't happened yet.  Even on a bad day I still feel like I have the best job in the world.

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