Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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Thoughts on Writing

#05: People Are Going To Be Mean To You: Take Two

by Seanan McGuire

Does this seem similar to our last topic? That's because superficially, it really is. It's only when we start digging down beneath the surface that the differences become really apparent. Get your shovel, and take a look at the original thought:

People are going to be mean to you: that's axiomatic. And sometimes, those people are going to have good and vital things to say. But people who are being mean for the sake of being mean have the potential to do more harm than good, and when you encounter those people, it's okay to walk away. Don't refuse to let anyone tell you that you're flawed. That way lies madness and pretentiousness. But don't stand around to be told that everything you think is fun is a steaming piece of shit, either.

So last time we talked about cruelty and the fine line between tough love and people being dicks just because they can. This time, we're talking about the fact that you do have a right to assess the critique you're given for its innate value and walk away when it's necessary.

Let's begin.

Didn't You Just Say That People Had the Right To Be Mean?

In a way, yes. My previous essay was very focused on the fact that sometimes, as writers, we genuinely need to listen to the things that we don't want to hear -- the things that will sound cruel no matter how gently they're worded, because they're basically big red flags shouting 'you are wrong.' The statement 'it has to hurt if it's to heal' also applies to writing, as does 'no pain, no gain.' Almost every piece of good, strong critique I've received has been painful on some level, either because I hadn't realized how flawed my work was, or because I really should have seen it for myself.

If you have asked someone to read your work, you have given them permission to be mean, within the limits that you set for critique. Please note the phrase 'if you have asked.' People are going to be mean to you pretty much period, but you only get to control their cruelty when you're the one who requested it. If I ask Vixy to read something, and tell her what kind of critique I'm looking for, I have put limits on how mean she can be without crossing the line. If she goes outside my requested boundaries, I'm entirely within my right to say 'hey, I asked for X, you gave me Y, you've hurt my feelings.' If, on the other hand, Chris just strolls into my room, picks up a chapter from my desk, and goes, 'wow, this is total crap,' I have no controls. I set no limits on how mean he could or couldn't be to me, because I didn't solicit his cruelty; it was spontaneous.

That's very much the kind of cruelty we're going to be looking at today: the spontaneous kind. Now, spontaneous cruelty can still have value; if Chris is saying something is crap, he may have very good reasons, and he may even be right, for all that he's not phrasing things in a way that I want to hear. You can't reject all critique you didn't ask for. But you do need to learn to weigh it for its actual worth, to consider where it's coming from, and to learn how to shrug off the things that are either harmful or non-productive. That's the cruelty you have to get past if you want to keep working.

Wait -- So I Need To Take Critique, Except When I Don't?

In a word: yes.

In a less annoying exposition: look. As an author, you will have people telling you that you're a genius. You will have people telling you that you must be so impossibly creative to make things come out of your head. You will have people telling you that your vision is so amazing that you should never ever ever change a word ever. We're going to talk about this more later in the essay series, but for right now, you really do need to be braced to take critique, because if you reject everything you don't like, you're screwed. When you refuse to let anyone tell you that you might be flawed, you open the door to madness and pretentiousness and generally sucking like a broken vacuum cleaner. You don't want to be the guy who never admits that he makes mistakes; you don't want to be the girl who dismisses all critique as coming from the uninformed.

At the same time, there will always be people ready and waiting to tell you that the things you write, the things you love, and the things that you enjoy are total crap. Speaking as a reader, rather than as a writer, I'm a huge fan of Stephen King. I don't think everything he's ever written has been perfect, but he makes me happy. And I can't count the number of times in my life that I've been told I need to stop reading 'that trash.' That I could improve my mind if I would just start reading quality fiction. When I tell people I write fantasy, horror, and even -- gasp -- romantic comedy, I get told that I could be a great writer, a real writer, if I'd just start working on something serious. These aren't people who have ever seen my material. They're not criticizing me based on any actual failings of mine. They just don't like what I'm doing, and they feel that their dislike of the genres that I'm working in is enough to say that I can't possibly be any good.

Even if you're the best writer in the universe, there are always going to be people standing by to be mean to you. It's axiomatic. Maybe especially if you're the best writer in the universe, because backlash is a genuine, if sometimes tedious, part of human character. If too many people say something is wonderful, there's going to be someone who feels compelled to say that it's terrible, just because 'the crowd' can't possibly be right. If you pursue a writing career, someone is going to dismiss you just because of who you are. Maybe they'll dismiss you because they dislike your genre. Maybe they'll call you populist crap for writing something too many people like, or elitist crap for writing something that's too obscure. Maybe they'll just dismiss you because they needed to dismiss somebody today, and your name was at the top of some mysterious list. And those people are capable of being really, really mean to you.

Solicit critique. Take critique. And yes, look at the unsolicited critique, because there may be value there -- sometimes the cruelty of honesty is very important. But don't let people critique you based on factors that are more about them than they are about you.

Cruelty Is Hard. How Do I Filter?

All right, let's assume you've hit the stage where your work is running free and wild. You've published a book, you've syndicated a story, you've done something. And sadly, the things people are saying are hurting your feelings. Now, clearly, you're not a hack; you got published. You're hopefully getting the sales to get published again. But people are being nasty, and you want to know what you need to work on, but you don't see how to find out without exposing yourself to the trolls and jerks of the Internet.

May I recommend that most glorious of things...the assistant?

You don't need to have the money to hire one, or the status to need one full time. But you can turn to a close and trusted friend (in my case, generally poor, put-upon Kate) and say 'hey, I want to know what people are saying, but I got my feelings hurt last time I looked.' They can go out and see what's being said, and while they may get angry for you, they won't be likely to take it as personally. And then they can come back and go 'look, all the negative reviews had ______ in common,' which gives you something to consider and work at improving.

None of us will ever be completely immune to the pain of seeing our work called into question, even when we're the ones doing the calling, and it just gets harder when there are strangers doing it. People who have no context! How can they understand the deep philosophical meaning of that pillowcase when they don't really know us? The answer is, of course, that they can't. We live in a context-free world, we produce our works and send them out into that world, and we hope for the best, but we need to be aware that no matter what we do, someone is going to judge us based on factors we don't understand. We deal. We acknowledge that to someone with a different background, things we think of as totally reasonable may seem utterly insane. And we look through the negative for the things that can be improved.

No one gets to tell you that you're so terrible that you're actually causing damage to the art of writing. We improve by doing. Listen to critique, weigh it for what it is, and keep what can be kept. The things that are needlessly cruel, the things that boil down to 'I don't like romance and you write romance so you must suck,' the things that are about you as a person or the commentator as a person, rather than about the work? You can let those things go, and make more room for the stuff that can help.

There are people who will help you, and there are people who will hurt you. Only experience can really teach you how to tell the difference, but if you're determined, you can stay in the game long enough to learn.

It's worth 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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