Sunday, April 13, 2008

Slings and Arrows

About a million years ago, I was an eager student of rough and violent men. One of my teachers felt the only proper way to learn nerve strikes was to experience them. Another worked us til we puked, then worked us even harder. Still another taught knife-fighting with live blades.

Those lessons were... memorable. I suffered at their hands. I never enjoyed it, but I did learn. And when I fought, and won, I was grateful.

This week has given me a fresh perspective: I've had the Tiny Dynamo reading my latest and reviewed the portfolios of a couple of aspiring artists.

The read hasn't been easy. Little D immediately pointed out a couple of major flaws. Major. Flaws. I didn't see them, because I'd spent so long, so close to the work. It was like being told that I had my fly open and spinach between my teeth. Of course, that's the beautiful thing about that First Read: the time you want to hear about the spinach and the zipper is BEFORE you leave the house!

The portfolio reviews weren't much fun, either. Two young artists, hardworking and talented. Type who've grown up being 'the best artist in school'. Two young faces, full of eager light and accustomed to praise.

Reminded me a lot of myself at their age.

One couldn't draw feet or hands. The other had this weird thing with shoulders, the arm seeming to sort of grow directly out of the neck. Both did everything in their power to avoid backgrounds.

The reviews went something like this:

How bad do you want this? These creative careers, they're not for everybody. It's a lot of hard work and heartbreak, with no certain reward.

You've got talent, plenty to have fun with this as a hobby. But if you're serious, if you want a career, you need work. You need to quit basking in your strengths and look hard at your weaknesses.

I don't know if my advice will do any good. One kid (the hands and feet kid) tried to argue with me: I got an earful of wounded pride. The other was sad but determined. I remember that feeling. Heck, I was in the middle of it with my current novel!

Bad reviews suck. One common trait among creative types is a certain... Luciferian pride. Our swollen egos crave praise. But what's good for the ego is not always best for the soul.

Steve's Full Throttle Guide to Slings and Arrows

1. Do. Not. Argue. Even if you win, you lose. Honesty is a rare quantity without attacking it. Besides, it's not a good look.

2. Consider the Source. Sometimes it's a matter of taste. Some readers hate the clipped sentences of James M Cain and Shirley Jackson. Others can't stand the endless run-on sentences of Faulkner or Cormac McArthy. I can't stand those slasher movies where all the victims do is run away. (FIGHT, for fuck's sake!!) You can't fault your critics for their taste, but you don't have to take their tastes to heart, either.

3. Consider Motive. There are people in this world who run around ankle-high trying to gnaw everyone else down to their level. Petty cruelty is their stock and trade. On the other hand, some of your harshest critics may also be your biggest fans, those who honestly want your very best.

The problem can be telling the two apart when your ego is wounded.

4. Admit the Truth. Even the meanest-spirited snake may still be telling the truth. Heck, a certain personality considers cruel truths to be their sharpest weapons. Whether or not it hurts (and it always hurts), being honest about your weak points will help you overcome them.

and finally...

5. NEVER GIVE UP. No retreat, no surrender. Not if you want anything more than a hobby. Keep upping your game and keep slugging. It's the only way to get where you want to go.

Nobody enjoys a harsh critique, but you can learn. And when your skills grow strong and sharp, you'll be grateful.


Bernita said...

Pretty well covers it.

SzélsőFa said...

Those reviews must have been hurtful, but useful, too.
What a hard way we have to come through to appreciate being told that about that zipper and spinach thing. I like your simile :)

Charles Gramlich said...

You laid it out clearly. I remember when I first started getting criticism on my writing I would sometimes try to "explain," before I realized that if I have to explain I didn't do it right.

I don't like criticism, but I've learned to take it. I can't quite get over the emotional hurt that hits me for a little bit, but then I start thinking and most of the time the results are a stronger work.

I know several of those people whose personality is to criticize in order to express their inner cruelty. These days I just laugh at them, although I've been known on occassion to give them a heaping dose of their own medicine. But they are so hurtful to younger folks who aren't so sure of themselves.

Lisa said...

I've had the good fortune this year to participate in some structured workshops where I was able to give and receive quite a bit of detailed critique. One thing I've learned is that providing constructive criticism is work, and much more difficult when the goal is to provide meaningful, helpful criticism, while at the same time, having sensitivity to the writer's ego and feelings. I truly appreciate good, thorough feedback and I think it's important to recognize the effort that goes into providing it. I would much rather get a manuscript back with notes all over it, than one with an obligatory "nice imagery" written here and there or some minor typo or grammatical error circled. The first gives me something to consider and the second doesn't help me at all. Your feedback to the young artists sounds spot on, and I'll bet you agonized a bit over how to offer encouragement along with a reality check. Whether we like what we hear about our work or not, I think it's important to keep in mind that someone who has taken the time to read the work and develop comments has done us a service and taken time to do it. I've been very lucky that so far in that all the feedback I've gotten in work shops has come from people who do seem to be well intentioned. I'll let you know how I feel about it the first time I get notes from someone who's just being mean :)

Steve Malley said...

Bernita, thanks!

SzélsőFa, bad reviews don't hurt near as much as those nerve strikes did. But then, I fell on my butt a fair bit too, back when I was learning to walk. :)

Charles, did you notice your reaction to criticism is a perfect sequel? You feel the pain, think about what was said, formulate a new plan and act on it!

Lisa, I think just about everyone who bothers to give detailed feedback is well-intentioned. Real meanies are rare, few and far between...

SQT said...

Criticism can be the best catalyst ever. If someone tells me I can't do something I will bend over backwards to prove I can. Criticism has prodded me to do some of the things I am most proud of.

...You learned knife fighting with live blades? That's crazy! I've done knife fighting with rubber blades and walked away bruised beyond belief. If a teacher tried to get me to use a live blade I'd think they were nuts.

cs harris said...

From now on, whenever someone criticizes my work, I'm going to picture Steve Malley fending off a knife-wielding fiend!

Steve Malley said...

SQT, Candy, to be fair, that guy actually taught in a safe and structured fashion. Very few injuries, all of them minor.

Come to think of it, none of those guys hurt us too bad. Just kind of, you know, focused the attention.

Like a bad review, I guess!

Lana Gramlich said...

Great advice. It took a long time for me to come to terms with a different one; "If it hurts my feelings, it's probably a valid point." It wouldn't hurt my feelings if it weren't, y'know?

Shauna Roberts said...

Good points. I would add one more:

6. Sleep on it. Sometimes one can't tell whether a comment is valid or a suggestion is an improvement until it's had time to percolate in the brain for a while.

RK Sterling said...

Sigh. I think the criticism that bites the most is the one we know, deep in our hearts, is the true.

The first bad review I got stung because I knew the observances of my weaknesses were spot on. I just hated to have to admit it, and worse yet, acknowledge that someone else saw it too. Not just saw it, but had the nerve to point it out. Publicly. :)

AvDB said...

The criticisms from people I respect are the only useful ones for me. The closer they are, the bigger the sting, but the better I take the advice in the long run. I've tried drop-in workshops, but they never did anything for me; I didn't know enough about those people to care about what they were saying. There was nothing for me to judge their competence/motives by.

"I would sometimes try to "explain," before I realized that if I have to explain I didn't do it right." I've been there many times, Charles.

Steve Malley said...

Lana, when it comes to an honest critique, I definitely let that 'ouch' factor be my guide.

Shauna, you are one clever lady!

Kate, GREAT to see you!! Miss your blogs! My first published work (a now-out-of-print graphic novel) got TRASHED by critics but sold well and got lots of fan mail. *And* the critics were absolutely right in everything they said about why they didn't like it.

What I call the James Patterson effect...

Avery, I've never done the workshop-thing, either. And one of the most important things that happens in those first reads is a game I call What Confused the Dynamo?

If she don't get it, a less insightful reader will be lost!

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