Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
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Thoughts on Writing

#04: People Are Going To Be Mean To You

by Seanan McGuire

You are a person, and you have a right to the ball! Just make sure that it's the right ball before you really get attached. Committing to the wrong ball just makes everyone sad. The original thought:

People are going to be mean to you. Full stop, absolutely, people are going to be mean to you. Some of them will be mean because they like what you're doing, and they want to see it work. Some of them will be mean because they feel like being jerks. Learn to see past the mean and get to the actual meat of what's being said. 'I don't like romance' is not the same thing as 'this scene makes no sense,' and they don't have the same potential to benefit your work.

That's right: today we're talking about cruelty, and the fine, fine line between tough love and being an absolute asshole. Because that's the sort of thing that keeps us entertained around here.

Let's begin.

The More He Hurts Me...

As a writer, you walk a very odd and interesting line. I mean, here you are, offering up the things that came out of your head -- offering up your babies -- and both hoping that everyone adores them and that you'll get functional critique to help you get better. Honestly, only two things have ever improved my writing. Practice, which I get just about every day, and criticism. If everyone who reads one of my books says 'wow, this made no sense to me,' I'm going to work twice as hard on the next one. Editors and agents exist partially to make sure you're given the critique you need to produce the best book you possibly can. And if it's good critique, you can learn from it. I still make a lot of the same mistakes, but I can recognize them as I'm making them, and either fix them on the spot or make a note to go back later. (With pacing problems, I'll often flag the issue and keep going rather than breaking the 'flow' of what I'm working on. It's a thing.)

Good critique, no matter how well-intentioned, can be painful. You're being told that a story you invented, something you made up, is flawed in some way. It's like having parent-teacher conferences with dozens upon dozens of teachers, some of whom will contradict one another, all of whom may or may not be right. And as you may well remember from your own parent-teacher conferences, the best advice is often the advice that hurts the most. To switch metaphors, every time a writer seeks critique on a piece of work, he or she is putting on their very best clothes, stepping out in front of a jury, and asking, 'Does this make me look stupid?'

Some people will try to be nice. They'll tell you that you look great, no matter what. Other people will try to be nasty. They'll tell you that you look horrible, even though they're the belle of the ball.

And some people will tell you the truth.

The urge to listen to the people who are being nice is going to be strong, and we're going to talk about that later. For right now, we're going to talk about the fact that honest critique is often painful, and can thus be difficult to distinguish from the lies. No one really wants to hear that there are problems with their children, and given that we know that some people are mean for the sake of being mean, it's very easy to start writing off any critique that we don't want to hear. Here are a few ways to write off uncomfortable critique:

"Oh, you just didn't understand my vision."
"You're not sufficiently familiar with the genre."
"The language must have been too complex for you."
"Your tastes run on very different lines."
"Well, that's interesting, and I'll consider it."

Look at all those no-fault ways of jamming your fingers into your ears and going 'la la la la la'! It's awesome! Except no, because if you're never going to risk hearing uncomfortable things, you're never going to improve your work. The people that like us the least, or are the most jealous, will be cruel for the sake of making themselves feel better. That's a terrible thing. It doesn't change the fact that the people that like us the most, the ones who are the most interested in seeing us succeed, will also be cruel. It's the motivation that makes the difference.

Good Mean vs. Bad Mean.

At this point, we basically have two forms of 'being mean' that we need to consider: being mean for constructive purposes, and being mean for the sake of being mean. You can argue that being mean for constructive purposes isn't actually being mean, and you'd probably be right. That doesn't change the fact where people are getting their feelings hurt by the process, and so we're going to stick with the 'being mean' label. I hope you understand the reasoning behind it.

Now, constructive cruelty is one of the most important tools a writer can have, and learning not to be excessively thin-skinned about your writing is a vital step in becoming better. One of the issues with writing on the Internet is that we have a large population of people whose primary religion is the Cult of Nice. They believe that you can never say anything even a little bit harsh about writing, ever. There are situations in which this is true -- I don't want people critiquing my punctuation when I'm just out there having a good time, no matter how badly I abuse the Oxford comma -- but it becomes a blanket philosophy all too quickly. 'Never, ever, ever be mean to anyone.' Why is this a problem?

Because it causes any correction, however gently given, to be viewed as cruelty, and more, it encourages those writing-off techniques outlined above. The Internet has given us an amazing number of tools for social networking and cheery, non-invasive self-promotion, and it's entirely possible for a writer to completely surround themselves with people who really, really, really believe that author's work to be pure and unadulterated genius. It doesn't matter whether you write fanfiction, medieval poetry, or full-length novels; with a little effort and some clever community building, you can create a space where you are hailed as the savior of all writing. No matter what you do, that community will support you. And that is fabulous...except for the part where that community will also enable the writing-off of all harsh critique. Why should you listen to me telling you that your pacing needs work when you have fifteen people demanding we skip the voting stage of this year's Nebula Awards and just give you the trophy now? I'm outnumbered, and I'm saying uncomfortable things. Clearly, I must be wrong.

Let me add that this doesn't mean that all uncomfortable critique is automatically right. I once had someone tell me that he would have really liked Rosemary and Rue if it didn't have faeries in it. Now, this made me uncomfortable, it's true. And it wasn't intended as cruel. But it also wasn't correct. The book is about faeries; the faeries were staying. It just means that not all uncomfortable critique is automatically wrong, either, and that if multiple people are telling you the same things, it might be time to listen.

Learning to take critique and correction is a very important part of growing as a writer. Sadly, there's no universal 'if you do this and exactly this, you will magically be able to take critique without getting your feelings hurt.' If there was, I'd give it to you. Everyone has their own limits, and discovering where they are can be a painful process. The worst part is that -- like anything that causes pain -- there can be scarring, and if those scars are in the wrong parts of your psyche, they can make it difficult to get past.

A few tips that have worked for me:

1. Set limits to how much critique you're seeking, and explain them. I request, firmly, that no one give me pacing or story edits on first draft text until the work is finished. I regularly wind up rewriting the first four to six chapters of something several times as I figure out that story's individual 'flow,' and being told that my pacing sucks before that's had time to happen naturally just upsets me. I know my early pacing sucks. Now back off and let me fix it.

2. Choose readers you trust, at least until you've developed a thicker skin. I know that the people who read for me aren't trying to be cruel, even if they do occasionally manage to hurt my feelings. That means that when they do hurt my feelings, I can step back, figure out why they've caused me distress, and then tell them 'look, ______ doesn't work for me, can we try another way?'

3. Ask people to criticize the work, not the writer. I am totally okay with 'this scene makes no sense.' I am absolutely not okay with 'wow, you really sucked on this scene.' (And yes, if you seek enough critique, you're going to hear both statements over your lifetime as a writer.) Tell people that you really don't want personal critique as part of a text review, and that if you do want personal critique, you'll ask for it.

4. Keep samples of really good critique to show to people who want to know what your standards are. Showing someone a piece of critique that worked for you, both as critique and as a way of being mean without being cruel, can really tell them how to approach your text.

There are thousands of critique tips and tricks; you'll need to find the ones that work for you. Just try not to let a little bad critique turn you off the idea of being reviewed. And there's one major benefit to encouraging this sort of system -- when my editors tell me something is clean, it matters so much that it's not even funny. I've literally had tears in my eyes because someone whose critique I value says 'good job.' So while critique injures the ego, it also builds it up in an amazing and deeply fulfilling way.

So what about the bad mean? Look: I'm going to try to be as straight as I can, and that's going to mean being a bit blunt. Not all critique is good critique. Sometimes all of the writing-off techniques I talked about earlier actually apply.

I don't read industrial thrillers. I don't know their tropes, I don't know their cliches, I don't understand how the genre works. If I tried to heavily critique an industrial thriller, my critique probably wouldn't be terribly useful. So yes, it's possible to miss the point of a genre, or miss the point of a scene. And if you tried to make me critique something outside my genre, I'd probably get frustrated enough that my critique would turn needlessly cruel. There's a reason that most editors specialize, as do most agents; you want to work with what you understand.

All of us are human, which means that all of us have probably experienced jealousy and the urge to be mean to someone else to make ourselves feel better. Sometimes, people will say 'this sucks' just for the sake of making you feel a little worse about yourself. I wish I could say this wouldn't happen, but I can't. Is there a way to protect yourself completely from groundless critique? No. It's going to happen. People will say your work is terrible based on the cover they put on your book, the back cover blurb, even the way the book is described to them. What you can do is learn to filter out the needlessly cruel from the potentially accurate.

Does the criticism have anything to do with the actual work? Is it clear that the person has read what they're talking about? Does it have substance? There's a huge difference between 'I don't like books with faeries' and 'there's a pacing problem in the first half of the book.' Sometimes even substantial critique will be vague -- it's possible for someone whose opinions you trust to say 'there's something wrong here that I just can't put my finger on' -- but it should be in some way grounded in the story. People will also critique your use of language. Again, look for substance, and consider whether or not that substance is founded on actual patterns in your work.

So It's Okay To Be Mean?

Yes and no.

As writers, we need people to mean to us, because often, the harshest critique is the critique we need the most. We need people to voice the unwelcome opinions, to say 'I didn't like your main character' or 'the pacing just falls down in chapter five.' So we need to learn to take critique that seems mean, and to take it smiling. Sometimes people will be meaner than they intend, and those are the times when you may need to sit down with a bag of candy corn and a friend to cry on, but this is still what makes it possible for you to improve.

At the same time, sometimes people will be mean to be mean. Not all of them are trolling. Not all of them are jealous. Not all of them have any idea who you are, because the balance of the Internet's Cult of Nice is the Cult of Nasty, which just wants to ruin your day and then run off giggling. Once you learn to let the incidental cruelty go, you can embrace the cruelty that's meant to make you grow.

Deep breaths. And let them be mean to you.

You can take it.

© 2008 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. Her first studio album, Stars Fall Home was released last year, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in 2009.

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