Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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Thoughts on Writing

#28: For the Critics

by Seanan McGuire

In case that's too boiled-down to make sense, here's today's expanded topic:

Kevin Smith said "this isn't for the critics" when he was talking about Jersey Girl, and the critics savaged it anyway. There's a lesson here. You can't write to some imagined critical ideal, but if all eleven of the people you trust to review your first drafts say "wow, this makes no sense at all, what the hell is going on here?", you should maybe consider taking another look. Pandering is bad. Being accessible is not.

"Not for the critics" is an interesting concept to me, because it implies that anyone who's going to be in the least critical of a thing doesn't have the right to enjoy it—and more, that I don't get to have an opinion about a thing I love if it isn't entirely positive. Slither is possibly my favorite movie in the world, but the zombie deer looks damn fake. Hairspray would have been even more fun if they'd kept "Cooties," since taking it out renders Amber toothless. Stephen King has written some stuff I didn't like. Does that mean these things weren't for me?

Pandering and accessibility are two different things, and none of us are ever above critique. Honestly, that's a good thing. With me so far? Good. Let's begin.

Everyone's A Critic.

We hear the phrase "everyone's a critic" all the time, usually said dismissively after someone has expressed a feeling of discontent. "Mary had issues with the fact that I filled the living room with green slime. Everyone's a critic." "Paul said dinner contained too much arsenic. Everyone's a critic." Now, sometimes Mary asked for the green slime and is just whining because it was the wrong shade. Other times, Mary honestly didn't expect to come home and find that her house guests had managed to summon the Blob. In short, sometimes Mary has every right to be a critic.

Criticism is an interesting concept in the modern world. On the one hand, no one really likes to be criticized. I think we all secretly—or not so secretly—want to be perfect every time, above criticism or reproach. Which is a great goal and all, but it's basically unachievable, because everyone's definition of "perfect" is different. For me, "perfect" is a night of bad horror movies, cold Diet Dr Pepper, tomato sandwiches, and infinite art supplies. For others, this would be boring and unnerving by turns, and might cause nightmares. Kate loves clubbing. I would rather eat centipedes. The list goes on. If something fits my definition of "perfect" and "above critique," it may well be the most horrific thing you've ever heard of. And that's okay! If everybody liked the same things, I'd never be able to find a Diet Dr Pepper, and the world would end in fire.

So perfection is impossible, and that makes all critique subjective, right? Well, no. Some critique is valid, no matter how harsh it may be. For one thing, you lock yourself into a certain set of standards when you choose a subject or goal. If I tell Vixy I'm going to cook her dinner, she has every right to be critical when I serve her rabbit stew (Vixy being vegetarian). If I tell Kate the movie we're watching isn't going to be particularly scary, she has every right to be critical when the title screen for Evil Dead II appears. Even without getting into whether it's a good stew, or a good movie, we've earned valid and legitimate critique.

Yes, everyone's a critic, all day, every day. I don't like pointy-toed heels. Mary over there doesn't like the fact that I have bright orange fingernails. The beat goes on. The real questions are a) how subjective is that critique, b) how valid is that critique, and c) has the critique been invited in any way?

Publishing a book invites critique.

Just in case you wondered.

Why Does "Subjective" Matter?

Have you ever noticed how there's always one guy who reviews for your local paper who's just wrong all the damn time? Or maybe one book blogger whose writing style you adore, but whose opinions leave you snarling and reaching for the nearest blunt object? This isn't because one of you has bad taste (necessarily). This is because you're coming from different subjective positions. Let me give you a few examples:

I started seriously reading Stephen King when I was nine. I chewed my way through everything the man had published, because I was obsessed, and because it pissed off my mother. I really enjoyed a lot of it, too, which explains why he's still my favorite author. Other books struck me as boring, even nonsensical, and promptly got put on the "do not reread" list. Life's too short to waste time giving bad books a second shot, right?

Only I went back to all those same books the year I turned twenty-nine, celebrating two decades of reading by going all the way back to the beginning. I read them all, even the ones I had previously dismissed as not worth reading...a list, by the way, which included The Dead Zone and The Shining, two incredibly well-written and suspenseful works of horror. I was literally stunned to discover that the books I'd been dismissing for so long were actually remarkably good. I simply hadn't been prepared to appreciate them when I first approached the material. I was, subjectively speaking, not ready.

When I was about seven, my mother rented a video from the local store to keep me distracted and out of her hair (and not watching horror movies) for a little while. The video was called The Winds of Change, and was a very, very early example of Japanese animation re-dubbed for an American audience. It was basically a bunch of animated Greek myths, presented in episodic form. It could be argued that my lifelong obsession with the Greek myths was born that night, watching a video that I remembered for years as being incredibly well-done.

So, um, yeah. I tracked it down while I was in high school. And, having seen it again, I can safely say that if you have mythology-obsessed seven-year-old kids who aren't all that picky about the quality of the animation they're watching, or the quality of the voice acting—and aren't bothered by SUDDEN INEXPLICABLE DISCO MUSIC (oh God the disco)—this movie is...it's...you probably won't have to leave the house. Especially not if you've already learned to tune out Playhouse Disney.

I could keep giving examples—things I dismissed as a child and loved as an adult, things I loved as a child and loathe now that I'm older—but I think the point has been made. Subjectives matter. A newspaper critic who reliably praises romantic comedies and pans horror movies is probably not going to give a very good review to that new Resident Evil flick that you've been looking forward to. You should never ask Kate where the best swamp in the area is, or ask me where to go for tasty French food. We're coming from different perspectives, and that's going to change our answers—not necessarily in a way that will actually help you find what you're looking for.

So What Do You Mean By "Valid"?

The validity of critique is tied, in some ways, to the subjectivity of the person giving it. We're going to put that aside for a moment, and assume that we've all started looking at reviews with an eye toward where they're coming from. At the same time, you won't always know where a reviewer is coming from. Sure, you know that I'll give a higher score to a zombie movie than to a slasher flick. You also know that I'm going to be much harsher on a zombie movie that lets me down. If you're looking for a middle of the road review, you don't give me a zombie movie. But that guy Dave? The one who says he does horror reviews? You have no idea.

Beyond the limits of personal taste and subjective opinion, one must also consider actual exposure to the material when considering a review. People judge books based on their cover art, and based on their thirty-second "elevator pitch" descriptions. We all do it. That's why a compelling cover illustration and interesting back-cover description is so essential to a book's success. Yes, it's what's inside the book that will handle everything but the "opening weekend" sales, but there are going to be people who dismiss or select a thing from nothing but the way it looks on the shelf. Oops.

Does this mean you get to dismiss any critique you don't like because "oh, the critic wasn't coming from a valid place"? Nope. It just means that you need to weigh the reviews you get against what's actually being reviewed. The ones that say your plot has holes, that your language needs work, or that you need to make more of an effort in your characterization of centaur/human tensions? Yeah, those are the reviews you should probably be paying attention to. The ones complaining that your romance had no chainsaw killers, that your gritty urban fantasy had too little nudity, or that you actually killed people in your horror novel? Those are the ones you can probably safely ignore.

(It's important to take a moment here and note that every writer will respond differently to reviews, both good and bad. We'll be dealing with this more as the series goes on, but I want you to start thinking now about how you handle critique. Is too much good critique going to make you cocky? Is a single bad review going to have you hiding in your closet for a week? If the answer to either of these questions is "yes," consider getting someone to read reviews for you, and filter out the important parts. Make sure it's someone you trust to tell you the truth in a way you can handle, and more importantly, in a way you can hear.)

Inviting Critique.

Everyone's a critic. All day, every day, everyone's a critic. The reason Kevin Smith failed when he said that Jersey Girl wasn't "for the critics" boils down to this simple reality: everyone's a critic. We critique each other inside our heads. We critique the world around us. As I type this, I'm passing judgment on the television (entertaining enough to keep on), the cats (extremely silly-looking in their current positions), and even my own taste in food (I need to make some dinner). None of these critiques really matter, and none of them have been invited, so I'm not bothering to put them out for consideration by anybody else.

I do not invite critique by putting on a ratty pair of jeans and walking to the store. In fact, I get mildly to severely offended when people decide to comment negatively on my choice of clothing or the things I decide to purchase. I didn't sign up for their criticism, I just signed up for another bottle of Diet Dr Pepper and maybe some strawberries. I do, however, invite critique by writing this essay and making it available to the world. You may think I'm completely wrong about everything. You may think I have some good points, but don't really understand what I'm saying. And that's okay! I've invited your critique! I made this a part of the public record, and I have to live with the consequences of that.

When you make a movie, you invite critique. When you write an essay, publish a book, hell, even submit a piece to an editor, you invite critique. You can say you're writing for yourself, for your "fans," or for your cat, but at the end of the day, you've invited critique, and the odds are good that you're going to get it. Take a deep breath, put your big kid pants on, and get ready to deal.

Considering Critique.

Since critique is inevitable, unavoidable, and a natural part of the creative life cycle, you need to be prepared to handle it. You can't stick your fingers in your ears and go "la la la" until the critique goes away. Well, I suppose you can, but when the critique leaves, it will probably take the majority of your audience with it. Just so you're aware.

So what do you actually do with critique? You...study it. You...consider it. And at the end of the day, you figure out which parts are subjective and which parts are necessary to your growth as a writer. If every review you get says "wow, the ending was a let-down," you should probably study the ending, look at other endings you've written, and try to figure out where the problem is. If the main critique you get is about the quality of your dialog, or the fact that your magic system doesn't seem to have consistent rules, or your abuse of the semi-colon, study your work, and figure out where the critique is coming from.

The odds are good that you have somebody who looks at your work before you release it into the wild—some sort of review committee, whether it be one person or one hundred. The odds are also good that whoever looks at your work before you set it free will have opinions about it; that is, after all, what the initial readers are for. They back-stop our mistakes by catching them while the audience is still small. Listen to your initial readers. Listen to the things they have to say, and to the things that they aren't saying. You can learn a lot that way.

Pandering vs. Accessibility.

There's a line between "pandering to your fans" and "making a work that is accessible and interesting enough to hold the attention of an audience." You don't need to completely scrap your planned plot because your initial readers think it's not sexy enough, or doesn't have a sufficient zombie density (everything's better with zombies). You do, however, need to admit that maybe doing your entire manuscript in ancient alchemical code isn't such a good idea, and that handwriting fonts even you have trouble reading are probably not going to be well-regarded by an editor.

Weigh the critique you get. Run it past the people that you trust. Don't let it destroy you. None of us is perfect, and we all have such a very long way to go before we reach the limit of what we're capable of achieving—if we ever reach that limit. As long as you allow critique to be a tool that supports you, rather than a weapon tearing you down, it will build a better world, and that world will be all yours.

But you'll never be allowed to say something isn't for the critics. Because the critics are us, and we are everywhere.
© 2010 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. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published five novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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