Tag Archives: mystorydoctor.com

Dealing with Criticism

Dealing with criticism is a gracious art. It’s always important to know when to consider the criticism and when to let it go. If we don’t know the difference, we’ll always feel like something’s gone wrong and we’ll doubt ourselves. In yesterday’s post, Story Doctor David Farland talked about how to take criticism. Today’s post is on dealing with it. Thank you David for allowing us to reprint your sage advice!
Ace Jordyn

PS: read to the bottom to find out how you can download a free book with over 200 of David’s favorite writing tips!

A Guest Post by David Farland
www.mystorydoctor.com

I’ve been talking about how to deal with criticism, and I’d like to talk a bit about how to deal with criticism that you disagree with. There are a lot of reasons that people will dislike your work that have nothing to do with your work.

If you look at online reviews of Lord of the Rings, which is widely acclaimed as perhaps the best fantasy novel ever written, you’ll find a lot of people who hate it. Does that mean that the book stinks? I don’t think so. Does it mean that the critic is wrong? How can they be wrong in telling you that they don’t like it?

What it really comes down to is that the book isn’t to their tastes. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy adventure that is slanted heavily toward a male audience. It’s a metaphor for life during wartime during WWII, and so it’s something of a “buddy tale,” that plays strongly on beats of wonder, adventure, and friendship. It’s a great novel, if you have a taste for that kind of thing.

So when a critic speaks, you have to look at that critic closely. What is the person’s age and sex? What is their cultural heritage and religious background? What are their political assumptions? All of those things (and more) play into their critiques.

So just be aware that any critique may have more to do with a preference for chocolate over vanilla rather than the genuine value of the work.

Then of course you must ask, did the critic read the story properly? Did they understand it? Very often a momentarily lapse in the critic’s memory will cause the person to rant and rave for hours about how the author messed up. Even my own professional editors will often say, “Now wait a minute–I thought this character’s mother was still alive!” Then I have to refer the editor to that touching four-page scene that he or she forgot about. It happens to all of us. We get distracted by ringing phones or children or our own problems.

In fact, assuming that you really do tell your story beautifully, achieving the effects that you desired, then virtually all of the negative responses that you get from critics will typically fall into one of these two categories—the reader either has different tastes from you, or the reader made a mistake.

If you have “errors” that you can’t account for, it’s typically that you are forced to exchange one value for another. For example, you might find that in order to maintain your pacing during a fight scene, your character just doesn’t “have time” to explain the internal functions of the fancy new gun that he’s firing. You will have a gun enthusiast rail that “I really want you to explain why these Glocks have such a great recoil!” But you just don’t have time for it.

Other than that, you pretty much have to own up to any real “mistakes,” and just be grateful for readers who will point them out to you.

 

davidfarland_storydoctorDavid Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, as a screenwriter, and as a movie producer. You can find out more about him at his homepage at http://www.davidfarland.net/. Also check out more great advice in his book Million Dollar Outlines. And take some of his online workshops at http://mystorydoctor.com.


Now for the free book! Anyone who signs up for David’s newsletter can download a free book with 100 of his favorite writing tips–that’s over 300 pages of writing tips! Check it out at
www.mystorydoctor.com.

Taking Criticism

A critique or criticism from a critique group or a review can make an author feel like something’s really gone wrong, even to the point of doubting yourself. How do you handle criticism? Story Doctor David Farland has sage advice on the issue. He kindly agreed to let us reprint two posts: Taking Criticism (today’s post) and Dealing With Criticism (tomorrow’s post). Thank you David!
Ace Jordyn

PS: read to the bottom to find out how you can download a free book with over 200 of David’s favorite writing tips!

A Guest Post by David Farland
www.mystorydoctor.com

An author has to take criticism as part of his job. That isn’t always easy. After all, if you get too much criticism, a couple of things happen.

First off, you begin to doubt yourself. You might even want to surrender and quit writing completely. I’ve seen hundreds of people quit writing because they couldn’t take criticism—even very accomplished writers with dozens of novels under their belts.

The second thing that might happen is that you might begin to become too defensive, telling yourself that “The world is full of idiots,” none of whom recognize your true brilliance. You’ve probably all met that kind of writer before—all ego. Some of these writers are indeed quite gifted, but once you quit listening to others, inevitably as a writer your skill begin to diminish, until at last you shrink away into obscurity.

The third thing that might happen is that you find yourself confused just as to whom to believe, and so you find yourself running down blind alleys, trying to write works that please your spouse, your writing group, or anyone else—but which don’t really feel real and vital to you.

So you have to try to sort through the various critiques that you get and try to figure out which ones to respond to and which ones to ignore. I can’t tell you how to do that. I don’t know you as a writer, and I don’t know who your critics are.

I can tell you that if you’re getting advice from someone who seems mean-spirited, you had better watch out. I’ve known writers in writing groups who have tried to destroy one another, and in some cases they succeed. So listen to people who mean well.

But also be aware that there are some good reasons why even excellent critics sometimes misread a work.

The first reason that comes to mind is that your critic just quit reading or shut down too early. Something in your work might be perceived as an error when in fact it is not. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I once got the movie Inglorious Bastards and sat down to watch it with my wife. The movie starts out like a standard holocaust movie—beautifully shot and acted. Well, that’s just boring to me at this point in my life. Then we meet the Inglorious Bastards, a group of assassins who go out to scalp Nazis, and the violence was so over the top that my wife and I just kind of looked at each other and said, “Hey, let’s shut this thing down and go to bed early.”

A few weeks later I was talking to a friend who was very impressed with the movie. I told him of my own early impressions—both justifiable, both perfectly correct—and he said, “Yes, but you didn’t see what the writers were working toward. It has one of the most powerful and brilliant endings I’ve ever seen.” So we got it on video and watched it. Holy cow, he was right! The movie is in fact a starkly realistic fantasy about how Adolph Hitler is killed by the Jews in the movie theaters. It’s a metaphor for how one group of people will often dehumanize others. It creates perhaps the most brilliant and complex emotional states at the very end that I’ve ever seen, where the audience laughs uncontrollably while a dumb American soldier carves a swastika into the head of a Nazi. We laugh, even though everything in the movie tells us that this is wrong, that we shouldn’t be dehumanizing one another!

In short, I shut down a bit early.

The same thing happened to me a couple of days ago. A woman wrote and said that she loved one of my books, but she had closed it and tossed it away on page 199 because she felt that I had a “breast fetish.”

Well, that’s just perplexing. I’ve written entire novels where I’ve never mentioned breasts. However, in this case in my novel In the Company of Angels, I felt they were necessary. Part of the story is told from the point of view of Eliza Gadd, a woman whose family pulled handcarts across the prairie in 1856. She’s nursing twin boys at the time, and the arduous journey causes her to lose her milk at the same time that all of the other women in camp—and the cows—dry up. As a result of this, one of her children quickly becomes ill and dies. Her husband, guilt-ridden, begins to give part of his meager allowance of food to his other children, and he soon starves. Her ten-year-old son, trying to take over the responsibility of the man in the family, soon takes ill and passes away, too.

It’s a pattern that happened throughout the Willie Handcart Company as they trekked across the prairie. So I felt that it was important to write about it. The image of mothers struggling in vain to nourish children on this journey crops up perhaps half a dozen times.

Does that mean that I have a “breast fetish?” Probably no more so than any other confidently heterosexual male.

What it does mean is that I introduced an element into my story that I knew would make some readers uncomfortable. I did it in order to create a more powerful effect at the end of my tale. In this case in particular it seemed like the right thing to do. It introduced a level of embarrassment, of emotional discomfort, that I believe that the protagonist must have felt on the journey.

This is a trade-off that as writers you will find that you sometimes have to make, to sacrifice one effect in order to achieve another. Your story can’t be all things to all people. It can’t be a feel-good comedy and a tragedy, for example. So to make that trade isn’t necessarily a mistake, it’s just an artistic choice.

So as you dissect your critiques, be aware that sometimes there are valid reasons for a reader’s reactions. In short, you may both be right.

davidfarland_storydoctorDavid Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, as a screenwriter, and as a movie producer. You can find out more about him at his homepage at http://www.davidfarland.net/. Also check out more great advice in his book Million Dollar Outlines. And take some of his online workshops at http://mystorydoctor.com.

Now for the free book! Anyone who signs up for David’s newsletter can download a free book with 100 of his favorite writing tips–that’s over 300 pages of writing tips! Check it out at www.mystorydoctor.com.

Never Stop Learning

I don’t think I can count the number of times I’ve heard people say that some aspect of writing couldn’t be taught. My personal favorite is that you can learn all the technique you want, but you’re either born with the ability to tell a good story, or you’re not. That you can’t learn how to tell a good story.

I personally think that the people who espouse these ideas have either spent entirely too much time dealing with writers who aren’t willing to put the work in, or we’re all a little confused on what, if any, difference there is between technique and telling a good story.

Writing is a craft, after all, and no one’s born a master of any craft.

Of course, we will probably never be utterly fantastic at every aspect of the writing craft. Some have fantastic world-building but a slow plot. Others great characters but not enough setting. Stephanie Meyer, for instance, has long been derided on her writing style, and has even admitted herself that she’s not the best writer, but she’s does a hell of a job weaving emotion into every scene and tugging the heart strings of her readers—which is exactly what her readers want.

The point being, just because you’re not the greatest at something doesn’t mean you’re not a good enough writer to be published. At the same time, ignoring your weaknesses because “it can’t be taught” is a total cop-out, in my opinion.

Like most everyone here, I dream for that day when I’m going about my usual day, doing something boring and what-not, only to happen upon someone reading a book with my name on it. I feel the despair that I’m not quite there yet and hear the clock ticking away the time that means there’s one more day I haven’t achieved my dream. And yes, I’m a realist. I know a good portion of that is fear of putting my work out there, but I also know I’ve still got some serious weaknesses that I need to address.

When I was a teenager, I had a choir instructor who explained that he taught people who were tone-deaf how to sing. It’s in understanding the real root of the problem that allows something like that to happen. With the tone-deaf people, they had to learn how the notes related to each other to be able to figure out how to go from one correct note to another correct note without wandering off, so to speak.

With writing, I think, it’s much the same. If you understand what the real problem is, you can fix it. You just might have to look a bit harder and be a little more creative to get the results you’re looking for.

My personal demon at the moment is plot structure. Something’s always escaped me about how to put one event before another and have it work to engage the reader, move the story forward, and still service the characters.

As a discovery writer, I lean toward minimal effort spent on deep planning before writing. Unfortunately, I’ve been struggling with a few stories that I have come to realize really need to be plotted before I start writing in earnest. So, recently I decided to dedicate a good portion of this year in workshops and classes specifically geared toward pre-writing. Currently, I’m doing David Farland’s online prewriting class at mystorydoctor.com, and while it has done a fantastic job in helping me learn how to plan a novel before I write it, it incidentally opened my eyes as why plot structure has always eluded me.

For me, there was one exercise in particular that helped me figure out what the real problem was. The idea was to establish circularity between characters in opposition to each other, by writing out how each character reacts to the actions of the other. This forced me to find the cause and effect of the conflict…and suddenly I know how my plot is supposed to work and how the sub-plots interact with it. Suddenly, I get it.

So, that’s my goal for this year, to focus on becoming a better writer by taking my weakness and working to learn how to get better at it.

I refuse to believe that there are things I can’t learn. The only thing I was born with was a love of stories. The writing portion is a work in progress.