Saturday, June 23, 2007

On Criticism

I've been trying to think of what to write for my next post, and had felt particularly uninspired. I felt it best to be silent than to waste time by putting something frivolous on the blog.

Then I read an entry on one of the agent blogs that I follow. Jessica Faust wrote about giving honest critiques to writers at a recent conference.

BookEnds, LLC — A Literary Agency: Critiques

It was a negative experience for both parties involved. She was trying to convey her professional opinion to a writer who voluntarily chose to submit their work for critique.

Unfortunately the writer did not like hearing Jessica's criticism, and became hostile.

That is not the professional front that you should put forward with anyone in the publishing industry.

I understand the human reaction from both the writer's point of view as well as the person presenting the criticism. I've been on both sides of that equation. Well, except that I've never been an agent with fifteen years experience.

On the receiving end of criticism.

I remember vividly when I was a freshman in college and sat next to my professor's desk while he reviewed my paper. I stared at his red marker hovering over my words scratching them out repeatedly as he diagrammed all the failings he saw. Try as I might, I could not stop the tears from flowing at the sight of my paper being defaced in such a manner. After he finished his critique, he handed me the paper covered in crimson marks and declared that "he liked it." I was given an "A" on the paper, but was numbed by the ordeal. I staggered back to my chair with no idea what he said to me. I felt like a patient given a terminal diagnosis and couldn't focus on anything said past hearing the words "brain tumor." Even though I did well, I felt humiliated, and this was an Honors level class.

I tried reassuring myself that I couldn't have gotten into the class if I hadn't shown some talent. I could help others restructure and improve their papers, but his class made me feel inadequate when it came to my own.

The professor was an old man with a gray pallor who stood in front of the class hunched over like a vulture. He played with the keys on his belt while he lectured and I can't remember a single thing I learned from him. The only things I took away from his class were my fear of his red pen and the conviction that he was a human bird of prey.

Since I was a science major, I couldn't allow myself to become distracted from my core studies by obsessing over general education courses. The reason why this bothered me so much is that writing comes from your soul and your intellect. Writing is a permanent reminder of what your thoughts and how you articulate an argument or simply tell a story. It is not the same thing as learning to plug numbers into a mathematical equation and turn a crank to get a result. Writing is a reflection of the author, and when professors responded negatively to the product of my intellect, I decided to withdraw from submitting future work to their scrutiny. I took a test and "comped" out of my third term requirement for English. Those negative experiences in college class stifled my muse for close to five years of my life. I can't let that happen to me again.

I have developed a thicker skin since then, but I still understand how callous and careless criticism can wound rather than help.

Now, years later I seek out critique of my work in the hopes that errors that I cannot see will be spotted by a fresh pair of eyes. I also need perspective to know if I am achieving the emotional reactions from my readers that I am striving for in certain scenes. I want to know if the dialogue rings true, and if my pacing is too fast or too slow.

It is nice to receive accolades, but if there is something structurally wrong with my story, I need to hear it while I can still do something about it.

I've belonged to a critique group for several years now and it has for the most part worked well. However, you should never just take someone's opinion as a mandate to change things. You should always take people's suggestions as just that: suggestions.

A few months ago after a critique group meeting I found myself in a terrible funk. It was because one of the members gave me criticism that I not only found unhelpful, but damaging to my psyche. I started doubting my own ability to construct a sentence.

I was suffering from what my engineering friends would say is "analysis paralysis."

I felt as if everything I wrote or attempted to write was dreck. Now, I knew it wasn't true, but this was the level of the funk I found myself.

Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird refers to it as listening to KFKD radio. (Think of KF**KD).

As I read Anne Lamott's book looking for inspiration, I realized that she has some massively long sentences. Her style runs counter to Strunk and White's Elements of Style by a mile. One sentence was 94 words long. That can't possibly be thought of as concise. Yet, herbook is one of the most frequently cited favorite reference books by writers, even though she eschews concision in her writing. Why? Because she's funny.

A sentence is supposed to convey a thought, and sometimes thoughts are complex which then will need time and space to be developed adequately. Writers are also advised to have a variety in their sentence structure. Too many short sentences in a row are read as staccato and can be jarring to readers. Does this mean that from now on I will be emulating Lamott's use of humongously long sentences? No, but I'm not going to hang my head in shame if I write a sentence having more than X number of words.

One of my friends told me that he tries not to have sentences longer than 14 words. He literally counts the number of words in each sentence. I am not about to follow that practice. Instead, I shall gauge the effectiveness of my sentences by whether or not the meaning is lost by its end. If the logic train derails in the deep woods, the sentence needs revising. I shall also take into consideration the overall flow of the piece. If the narrative becomes snagged then I'll revise, but not because it went past an arbitrary word limit.

Giving out solicited criticism

I have offered my feedback to other writers and have thankfully not gotten such a visceral response as Jessica Faust received.

My critique group is structured so that we send our writing samples to the other members ahead of time. It allows us to print out and read the submission and make line edits. It also allows for us to have a broader view of the piece rather than a few sample pages being read aloud.

One of my strengths is in spotting continuity errors. That generally comes about when a writer has made some changes in a story, but forgot to incorporate those changes throughout the text or when the writer hasn't thought through all the implications of a plot choice. I questioned the age difference between two characters once because I didn't think that things added up correctly and my friend admitted that he had changed the little sister's age, but forgot to update it throughout his novel.

I've also given critiques to members of my writers club when they ask for my opinion on their writing. Recently I read the first attempt at short story writing by someone who has only written technical papers. He had become inspired by interacting with fiction writers and wanted to try his hand at it.

I had started reading his story and made some line edits before coming to the realization that structurally the whole thing simply didn't work. There was no conflict and therefore no drama. He had two talking heads in a room that were discussing a political issue. Neither character was defined, it was simply a way to have dialogue exchanged which allowed political beliefs to be espoused.

Nothing happened in the scene. It was only an excuse to dress up a position paper as fiction and use quotation marks in the hopes of informing people through entertaining them. It failed because it did not entertain.

I've written political essays in the past, so I know full well the urge to put forth my positions on issues that I am passionate. However, I also know and love drama. If you wish to mix drama and politics, the dramatic needs of the story must always come first.

I wound up explaining those differences to him and suggested he read Audition by Michael Shurtleff which I find indispensable when thinking of dramatic conflict. I also made a few suggestions of how could put his characters in peril. Then, he could slowly draw out the information in a police interrogation, should one of those characters choose to use methods other than peaceful, civil disobedience to further his political goals. By the end of our discussion, he thanked me for my time and my insight. I didn't give him any of my line edits, because I knew that very little of what he originally wrote would survive any second drafts he made on that story.

Sometimes it is the global problems in a piece of writing that is the biggest obstacle that must be dealt with before you get down to the sentence structure level of spelling, punctuation, grammar, pacing, and concision.

Offering Criticism to people you don't know

I became friends with John Granger because of my responding to his open invitation in his first book on the Harry Potter series, The Hidden Key to Harry Potter. He had included his email address in the back of the book and I wrote to him via email.

It wasn't a gushy note that laid the praise on thick. Nope. I wrote him a detailed message where I started out introducing myself and told him what I liked about his book, and then I mentioned errors that I spotted including page numbers for his reference. Some were spelling mistakes, whilst others were factual errors. I then shared my thoughts where I differed with him on areas of interpretation or speculation which could not be classified as errors but instead were differences of opinion. I backed up those reasons with citations from canon, but I was not dogmatic about it. I realize that my opinions on these matters might be proven in the future to be totally wrong. Therefore, I did not try to persuade him to the absolute correctness my theories, but rather to introduce him to other schools of thought on the matters under discussion.

I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible, because I felt that it was the polite thing to do. He appreciated how I comported myself and we have since then have corresponded via email for close to four years. There are many areas of speculation that we disagree on, but we are never disagreeable about it.
Not everyone who has read his books or online essays seems to share that same sense of propriety.
Prior to the Sonorus event, I met up with John and Mary Granger and had lunch with them. John bemoaned the fact that not everyone in the HP online fandom followed what he called the "Linda McCabe school of diplomacy" by contacting someone directly before critiquing their work in public.
That discussion came up due to several online fansites I read recently with topic threads discussing the concept of literary alchemy in the HP series. There were some people who had done a lot of researching and theorizing on the issue, and had been inspired to begin their inquiry into the subject by John Granger's work. However, the difference is that they never tried to engage him in a discussion and see if their underlying assumptions had any validity to them.

Some who posted mentioned his work in unflattering terms and dogmatically stated that he was incorrect in his interpretations, and that they knew how these things worked.
I've read enough on the subject to realize that alchemy is a complex subject that cannot be fully understood in an afternoon's worth of reading or even a month or year. It can and has been the lifelong pursuit of many people over the centuries. Alchemical symbolism is deliberately complicated and understanding it is not like simple mathematics where you place numbers in an equation and churn out a result. Nope, it is more like higher mathematics where there may not yet be a solution to given problem, but the trick is to try and focus your intellect on how to approach solving the problem.
Which means that when you are trying to predict future plot lines using the various characters in a series following a literary alchemy framework isn't as easy as it looks, and there are many, many ambiguities which can be resolved in multiple if not an infinite number of possibilities.
Only J.K. Rowling will truly know what influences she drew upon when she made her detailed plot of the series. Only JKR knows what details in her story such as the mention of the herb dittany is there for symbolic meaning or simply there to dress up the narrative.
She is like a magpie with mythology and takes things from a myriad of sources and then twists them to fit her own plot needs. She is not bound by any rules that force her to follow any predetermined formula. In fact, having unforeseen plot twists is exactly what her fans have come to expect from her. Expect the unexpected.

John decided against posting a rebuttal post in that forum to defend his scholarship in this area for he felt that the standards of polite discourse had not been followed. If they had tried to engage with him from the beginning in a discussion about Harry Potter and literary alchemy, he would have responded. Instead, they simply attacked him in a public forum and put forth their own interpretation as if it was the only credible possible explanation.

I enjoy having layered symbolic meaning to stories. It adds a richness and depth to its meaning. However, there can be more than one meaning derived from symbolism and it is wise to remember that.

Later, while reading my literary blog subscriptions, I came across a link to an article written about how best to approach people you don't know by email. There are a lot of good points in the article and I would hope that these precepts would soon become a standard part of netiquette.





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