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
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.
The More He Hurts Me...
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.