Monday, September 21, 2009

Todd Newton "On Criticism"

Foreword: As you might have noticed the steering wheel has been taken from my hands and pretty soon posts will pile up from so many different directions your head will spin. However I super grateful for the small vacation and work on some super secret projects. Anyway today I have an author buddy of mine Todd Newton, whose novel "The Ninth Avatar" I reviewed a while back. He received my commentary very professionally though I certainly baked during my delivery of the review, so I invited him to speak about criticism.

Being a writer requires thick skin. This doesn’t mean you should ignore criticism, merely that you should filter it. Weigh it, and its sources. Used properly, criticism can actually improve your work. Used improperly, it can prematurely end your career (at least in your own mind).

Writers, by our very nature, are insecure people. It’s practically in our DNA. As such, our calling is both a blessing and a curse. We are encouraged to create, to push boundaries and explore where others dare not tread. At the same time our enterprise is not a private one; our work is meant to be viewed by others.

With viewing inevitably comes criticism. Criticism is nothing new but, when it comes to writing, it can feel like the word has been redefined specifically to make your life miserable.
Writing is personal, whether it is a poem, magazine article, or novel. It is an expression of the author and, as such, any perceived attack on the writing could be construed as an attack on its creator. Funny how this doesn’t necessarily work the same when the work is praised, but praise is not criticism.

Critics have a license to be harsh—that’s their job. Your job, as the author, is to accept it. Not necessarily to feel obligated to believe or act on it, but in no universe is it acceptable to argue with it. Protesting criticism makes you look petulant, immature, and unprofessional—no matter how scathing the original remarks were.

I frequently see two types of criticism: malignant and constructive. The former is the negative kind, the “this story sucks” kind, while the latter is more like “this would have worked better had we been told why Character A wanted to kill Character B.” There is no proven method to ensure you only receive the second kind; therefore you must confront both.

The way to deal with criticism is confidence. Not arrogance, mind you, but a sense of self that words can’t destroy. It is perfectly acceptable to be imperfect in someone else’s eyes. Subsequently, it is more than acceptable for your work to be viewed as imperfect.

Our initial drafts, by their very definition, are supposed to be imperfect. The misconception is that our final drafts have sloughed off all possible mistakes and can now blind us with their shininess. Critics exist to reintroduce us to reality, specifically the realities that everything can be improved and that everyone has different tastes.

The way to react to these things is not by assuming failure, but to accept a person’s opinion for what it is (and what it is not). Numerous blockbusting films have had plot problems, not to mention bad writing and acting. Bestselling books have been blasted by critics and fans, alike, but continue to sell. At the end of the day, what ultimately matters is that you completed the work. No critic can take that away, no matter how famous they are.

Do they have their influence? Sure. So do sales figures, and neither is necessarily indicative of the quality of the work—or of the work’s creator. Use your criticism as fuel, to improve your work or try harder next time, and succeed.


Kristan said...

Very eloquent and mature way to think about criticism. I love the way y'all are both coming at this with such open minds and cool heads.

Harry Markov: daydream said...

We are quite special like that now aren't we. We are both writers and that is the thing that certainly has been different in communication.

Mark David said...

Excellent. I completely agree with everything Todd said, specially this line: "Critics exist to reintroduce us to reality, specifically the realities that everything can be improved and that everyone has different tastes."

It's true, writers have to tough. It's simply a fact of life that not everyone is going to like your work no matter how much heart and effort you put into it. That's just the way it is. But a writer also has to use that criticism for something positive, regardless if what's said is constructive or malignant. A stone on the ground that's big enough to cause you to stumble is also big enough to be your stepping stone. Just move forward and continue.

Harry, as always, you have this keen ability to get excellent thoughts out of people, which in this case was accomplished by you asking just one question. That's why your interviews are very interesting :)

Harry Markov: daydream said...

I love the stone analogy in this. A great new angle or shoudl I say addition to what Todd has said.

I am very flattered Mark David that you would think that of me. I myself am adamant to say that I practice the high art of being extremely curious and not backing off, but extracting my secrets with a calm charm.

As Ana sould have inserted here: *NINJA, whoa*

Mark David said...

yeah, Ninja :)

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