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
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
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
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.)
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.
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
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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