Monthly Archives: April 2018

The Negative Review

So, as I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re looking for a good way to maintain momentum while trying to finish a novel, it turns out that reading negative reviews of your previous work is a pretty bad idea. I did this to myself recently, and on some level deserve it, because I was procrastinating doing something else. Around the same time, an author friend of mine was wondering on Facebook about when you should listen to someone’s critique of your work, and when you should say ‘no, the way I’ve done it is right, even if they don’t like it.’ So I’ve been thinking about critique and criticism, the last couple days.

There’s no denying that it stings, a little, when someone says your stuff is bad or that there’s a part of it that they don’t like. Ideally, everyone who read my stories would love them, and it’s always going to be at least a little bit of a drag to have someone say that this thing you created, that has so much of yourself in it, didn’t work for them. I think that’s also where the impulse to get defensive over criticism comes from – essentially, we’d like to convince everyone that no, they really did like our work after all.

Obviously that’s not a useful response, and I basically agree with Neil Gaiman that it’s best never to respond to one’s critics. In part because you can tear yourself to pieces in fruitless arguments, and also because people are entitled to their response and their opinion.

This is one of the hard things: not everyone is going to like what you wrote, not ever. Name any book, movie, TV show, no matter how critically acclaimed and beloved, and if we spent a little time digging around we’d easily find some people who don’t like it for various reasons. Just the same as nearly any book, movie, or TV show you care to name is someone’s favourite. People like different things, they often do so for intensely personal and intrinsic reasons, and you can’t change it. I can acknowledge that the objective quality of Breaking Bad appears to have been very high, but I just didn’t like it. (I could explain why, but it’s not important) So, part of being an artist and putting your work out there is that some people won’t like it. They’re neither right nor wrong, except in the sense that they like what they like and your stuff was not it, this time.

So you have to learn not to listen, a little, or (especially in person) to listen politely, and then to let it roll off. It’s ok to disagree about what works or doesn’t work in something as subjective as art, and sometimes a writer and reader are just not suited for each other. You move on. A big part of it, I think, is developing confidence in your work and in yourself as a writer, that yes, you’re good at this, and yes, your stuff is good, having that belief in what you created and how you wanted to write it. Not everyone will like it, but that doesn’t make what you did wrong. It’s good the way you did it, and more importantly, it’s the way you want it to be, and that’s important. Developing that confidence is hard. I’m still very much ‘work in progress’ on that one.

The even harder thing, though, is that sometimes you do want to listen, at least a little. You have to try to be honest enough about your own work (even as you’re confident in its quality) to be open to the idea that there are flaws in it that maybe someone else saw better than you were able to, and that there are ways you could either do that particular piece better or to do the next one better. Because it’s good, and you know that, but it’s not perfect. With some assistance, it can be improved.

That kind of usefully critical opinion is invaluable, which is why readers who will look at your stuff and tell you the truth about it in a useful way are such a precious resource. It is why I am so grateful to the Eager Volunteers who have helped me with my writing. I know they’ve found problems where I thought there weren’t any and my writing has been better because of it. I imagine I got to the point where I have things published because of it. So yes, sometimes you do need to listen.

Which brings us to the very hardest part, which is distinguishing between those times. Knowing when to let a particular opinion slide away and when to pick it up and try to work with it. I think some of that is knowing and trusting where the opinion comes from, and some of it is probably just another of those things we continually have to work on, as artists. I’m not really great at it, yet, which is part of why I can read a negative review and get a bit dragged by it, for a while, although I’m at least at the point where I can talk myself out of it relatively quickly.

Anyway, this is all dangerously close to advice, but honestly this is mostly me talking myself through this thought process again. Which I guess is what a blog is for. Thank you, as ever, for reading.

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Just an Update

It’s just going to be a very brief update this week – I’m a little sick, and a little fried from grading, and a little lacking in a clever idea.

I’m nearly 80,000 words into the WIP, which I am resolutely going to try to only call Heretic Blood henceforth, because it really is very nearly finished. I’m fairly certain. Most of what I’m doing now is assembling all the various out-of-order bits into the proper sequence and plastering over transitions. Of course every time I do that it adds about another 1,000 words, but I don’t believe I have too many major components to write from scratch.

Sometimes, though, in putting things together I’ll discover that there needs to be another scene (rather than just a line or two) that gets from one to the other, and so ‘cut and paste’ turns into ‘write furiously’. As a result, I can’t be absolutely positive how much more there is to do, aside from ‘not all that much, probably’. When I write it out this way, the process sounds insane. It may well be. However, it’s also how I wrote the two novels that I actually got finished, so I’m not terribly inclined to tinker.

I have a little bit of a deadline, because (without giving too much away) the agent who will be attending Can*Con as Agent Guest of Honour this fall might – based on their wish list – be interested in the manuscript. But of course, that means it has to be done.

That got me to thinking that originally the plan was to have this thing ready to pitch at last year’s Can*Con, which fell off the rails when that Agent Guest of Honour turned out to be one who would not rep this kind of book. So I am, arguably, about a year behind schedule with getting this book finished. Which, compared to the productivity of some writers I know, is a little bit of a downer.

On the other hand, leaving aside Real Life considerations, this has been a very challenging book for me to write. The main character is quite unlike any that I’ve written so far, and the focus of the story has shifted dramatically as I’ve been working on it. I think I’m trying to do more with this than I have with my previous books, and so I’m trying to take it easy on myself over how long it’s taken.

In any case, I think it’s in the home stretch now. I look forward to being able to share it with you.

That’s what I’ve got for this week. Thank you for reading.

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The Trouble with Alex

There’s been a bit of a fracas the last couple of days relating to The Simpsons TV show, the character of Apu and how the showrunners decided to respond to criticism of the character. I’m not really going to weigh in on that specific issue because I think others have done so with more insight than I could and because the perspective of Another White Dude is approximately the last thing anyone needs.

I do want to write just a little about my own (much smaller-scale) experience with receiving criticism on a character I wrote. The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures include a character named Alex Sloan who is mentally ill. Alex is one of my favourite characters from the books, he’s quite central to the plot, and so I really wanted to write him well.

I did some research and I did the best job I could, and I felt pretty proud of how Alex appeared. Then King in Darkness got picked up by my publisher and in the first round of edits one of the (many, many, many) requests for revision was reworking Alex. The editor told me that a lot of the language that I used was the kind that promoted negative stereotypes of people who struggled with mental illness, and that it needed to be fixed.

My first impulse was to write a long response explaining that it wasn’t my intention to cause any harm and that I was not intending to be in any way disrespectful in writing Alex the way I had, that I had loads of affection for the character, and that I had chosen the wording that I did for particular reasons that I thought made sense. Perhaps fortunately, I never sent that response.

Because the thing is, none of that matters, not really. My editor never said that I had been deliberately setting out to cause harm, and honestly my intent didn’t matter – if the language was bad and would hurt people, that’s what it would do, even if I was perfectly well-intentioned. All the rest of the stuff that I had originally thought to write was equally irrelevant; whatever I meant to do, the effect was a depiction that was likely to cause harm and pain to some of the people who would read the story.

So I rewrote Alex as best I could, according to the feedback I’d been given. I thanked my editor for pointing out where I had gone wrong, because they had truly done me a great service by catching my mistakes before they got to a wider audience. I said I was sorry that my initial effort hadn’t been better. The book went out and I am now like Alex’s character just that little bit more, because I feel like it’s one more people can hopefully enjoy.

It is, I think, natural to want to go on the defensive when we get criticism of our work, and maybe especially if someone points out a way that our work might be hurtful. Because we don’t mean to be hurtful, that’s not what we set out to do, and again I think it’s natural to want people to understand that and to want to believe that somehow whatever we did is ok as long as our intentions were good.

The thing is that the intention isn’t really important, and I think like 99% of the time people making criticisms are at least willing to credit that the intentions behind a problematic piece of work might have been perfectly fine. But that’s not the important part. The important part is that your fellow human beings are telling you that something is hurtful to them, and the only non-sociopathic response is to apologize and try to do better.

It’s ok to make a mistake. What’s not ok is to refuse to admit that you did, and to refuse to correct it.

Thanks for reading.

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The Wave

It’s finally somewhat approaching spring here (although as I write this, snow is falling outside, again) and so I got in my first outdoor run of the season on the weekend. (Yes, friends, another running blog. I know you’re delighted.) It’s much more enjoyable than indoors on the treadmill, of course. There’s much more to look at – I’m fortunate here in Ottawa to get to run through mostly very beautiful surroundings, there’s wildlife to enjoy – and the terrain is naturally varied. It’s also just outside, with the fresh air and the breeze. And, as I was reminded this weekend, there is also what I call The Wave.

It’s a little thing that runners do when we pass in opposite directions on the pathway. Nothing big. Just a little wave to the other person. No-one ever told me to do it or talked to me about it – I just noticed, when I was out running, that most of the other runners I met would do a little wave. So I started doing it as well. You don’t do The Wave to cyclists, and not to people walking. It’s just for runners.

I get a nice little kick out of it, every time. It’s a little bit encouragement – good job, out here – and a little bit acknowledgement, understanding that we are both meeting basically the same challenge, even if we’re going at different paces or over different distances. We’re all on the road. To me it always feels like a little understanding that only another runner, who also gets up early and out on the road, or spends part of a holiday weekend putting in the miles, can really provide. Someone who doesn’t think you’re crazy to be out there, or if they do, at least understands this particular species of crazy.

I think it works somewhat the same for writers, although obviously we never pass each other in the same way. But we tell each other about our WIPs and our word counts and there’s an reinforcement from the ‘well done’s or what have you that comes from a fellow messer-around with words that is especially valuable because it comes from someone who knows the same challenge of sitting down on the days when the words don’t want to come or you’re already tired or would really just have liked to sleep in but – gotta write.

I have found few things more helpful to me trying to grow as an artist than having a community of writers who both challenge me to do better but can also, essentially, give me The Wave. For that I’m very grateful.

And thank you for reading.

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