Sunday, April 20, 2008

David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants--April 19, 2008 Dealing with Criticism

I saw this on the Fantasy Writers group. It's very true and I wanted to share it with any potential or actual writers out there.


I got a note from a promising young writer yesterday who was wondering if he
should just hang it all up. The note, a rejection on a short story,
basically said that the story didn't work at all. So the author's confidence
was a bit shaken.

Now, I've mentioned a little bit about having courage in the face of
criticism, but I'd like to talk about it in more detail.

The truth is that no matter how good you are as a writer, not everyone is
going to like you. I can guarantee that there will be books and stories
that win awards this year that I will not like. It happens every year. I'm
sophisticated enough as a reader to recognize that just because I don't like
it, that doesn't mean that the story isn't good for its type. By that I
mean, you might write a wonderful tear-jerking romance novel that everyone
in the world loves, but I probably still won't read it. Similarly, you
might make the world's best asparagus casserole, but I won't eat it, either.

That's not a criticism so much as a difference in taste.

But as writers we have to face criticism. No matter what you write, you will
have to face criticism at some point in your life.

My first criticism came from my father. When I told him that I'd dropped
out of pre-med and that I wanted to be a writer, he lamented the fact that I
wanted to waste my life. He suggested that if I really had to be a writer,
that I find a writing job that actually paid. He knew that I was writing
poetry, so he got the address for Hallmark greeting cards and even offered
to help me pen a few sample greeting cards in the hope that I might become
gainfully employed. (Fortunately, my first novel got some nice reviews and
hit the bestseller lists, so that my father's concerns for me were eased a
bit before he died.)

Many of you either go to writing groups or should go to them. Facing a
writing group will help you learn to cope with negative criticism. It will
help toughen you up.

But you should beware of writing groups, too. I've been in writing group
where certain members of the group became hostile to one another, and thus
gave unfair critiques.

Cliques will sometimes form, and the criticism can become vicious. I recall
being in one group where a young lady was in tears. (Her story was quite
good by the way, nearly publishable.) But her attacker--a low-life scumbag
who hadn't written a word in five years--told her that "This story sucks."
Then with all of the sincerity that he could muster, he told her, "You
should give up writing . . . now. You should just walk out of this group
and never come back." She did, despite the fact that I and several other
people begged her to stay.

Unfortunately that group didn't have a mechanism for kicking out anyone who
acted like an ass. Every group should have such a mechanism, a
sergeant-at-arms. The attacker in this case needed to be thrown out.

Of course, there are other ways to waste people's time in writing groups.
If someone in a writing group always tells everyone how wonderful their
stories are and can't see anything wrong with any story, you have a person
who either has absolutely no critical facilities or who is just too
cowardly to say what they really think. That person also, needs to be
evicted from a writing group.

The purpose of a writing group is to give you helpful advice. Telling an
author what works is helpful, but one should also look for honest ways to
improve the work. Personally, I like getting criticism.

But once you become a professional writer, you'll have to face some real
criticism--from literary critics who actually get paid by newspapers and
magazines to read your books and offer honest opinions.

I have always had a policy that I never respond to such criticism, even when
the critics seem wrongheaded. I try to look at the columns, listen to their
comments, learn from them, and move on.

I'm aware that even good critics sometimes err. I've read articles from
people that I admire who sometimes get the facts of my books wrong. In one
case, I even got a glowing review--with some interesting errors.

I recall writing a negative review myself for a small magazine years ago, in
which I tore into a book by one of my favorite fantasy authors. I didn't
like it. The protagonist was too weak. She just stood around doing
nothing, too frightened to respond to the challenges in her life. But a
friend of mine pointed out that she identified strongly with that
protagonist simply because that was the way that she handled her life, too.
She was always too frightened to go out to look for jobs, or to seek a
better job, etc.

Mea culpa. I was wrong. The truth is that the book as fine, I just
couldn't identify with the protagonist. I like chocolate, and that novel
was very much vanilla. So I wrote a retraction.

And that's the way that it goes. Critics are nearly always wrong. Years
ago, I went into the library and spent a few hours looking up reviews that
came out when books that are now considered classics were first released.
Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was considered trite by one reviewer who
noted that Hemingway hadn't dealt with a new theme in fifteen years. The
novel Dune was considered decent enough, but one reviewer wondered how in
the hell anyone ever got such a long novel published. And so it went. Not
a single one of those novels that are now considered classics got anything
other than a tepid review.

So don't expect your novel to get universally great reviews, either. The
truth is that the best novel written in the past ten years won't be
recognized as such until another forty years from now, when hindsight gives
us a clearer perspective.

Sometimes our personal tastes as readers and critics get in the way of sound
judgment. In science fiction, most polls will show that the novel Dune is
considered the best in the genre. Yet if you go onto and look at
reader reviews, you'll find people who will tell you that it's dreck. The
same goes with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or with any other novel that is
a classic in any other genre.

So is your story really bad, or is it the critic? That's what you need to
determine. You have to look both at the criticism and at its source.

If your critics points seem valid, then all that you may need to do is
rewrite the story, get rid of the flaw. That doesn't seem so hard to me.
The truth is that every author at one time or another tends to write
something that doesn't seem worthy of them. Yep, some of my passages are
brilliant, and some of them are less so. Shakespeare wrote reams of crud,
but quite often he shows over and over that he can be the best of all time.

There are things that I purposely do in my writing don't always work for all
audience members. For example, in the novel Brotherhood of the Wolf, the
Earth King Gaborn Val Orden warns the folks of Castle Sylvarresta to flee,
for a monster is coming that could destroy them all. But do you know what?
People don't always do what they're told. Every time a volcano blows, it
kills someone. It doesn't matter what the geologists do, there's always
some old coot who refuses to leave. Hurricanes, same thing. All those
folks killed in Katrina were warned over and over again to leave, but they
stayed. One third of the city stayed. So I have some of my folks stay, and
I have Gaborn's new bride, Iome, sending troops through the castle in an
effort to force an evacuation. As a result, she's still there when the
monster comes.

Well, my editor hated it. He said that Iome was an idiot to risk her life,
and it would serve her right if she died. He felt that people who are
idiots deserve to die.

But I disagreed. I think that sometimes you need to put your life in
jeopardy to help another person who is acting foolishly. Even people who
are stupid and stubborn need to be rescued in spite of themselves sometimes.
So I kept the scenes in the book--though I know full well that by doing so,
I probably alienated many readers who felt as my editor did. Well, too bad.
I'm trying to make a statement in that book, one that has to do with showing
compassion, risking everything, when you feel like giving up on the world.
We are trained to love and look out for people who have the IQ of a dog. So
why shouldn't we love and look out for someone who's IQ is only a few points
lower than our own.

That's the way it is with every story. We struggle to convey our ideas and
emotions, and sometimes the story is just too big to handle in that medium.
At times, we may just be too weak to get our point across.

If you get criticism that seems wrongheaded to you, then realize that other
critics are human, too. Even a good critic will have lapses in judgment. A
few years ago there was a wonderful book published full of scathing reviews
on novels that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, or where the author went
on to win a Nobel prize. The fact is that even great authors are often

Tomorrow, though, I will deal with some of the more subtle problems that
come with reviews. The fact is that there are indeed evil-minded critics
out there, people who will genuinely try to destroy you for their own profit
and amusement. I'll give some examples of what they do, and more
importantly why they do it.
Please feel free to share this email with friends. If you would like to be
added to this list, just email and say, "Kick me!"

No comments: