The Three Types of Criticism

As I shuffle through pages of beta feedback, and as I read or re-read writing manuals in preparation for a brutal Draft Five edit, I’ve come to a  realization – writing is subjective.

“Duh, Michelle,” you snort. “Of course art is subjective. We all know that!”

That’s not what I speak of. We all know that our response to art is subjective. Rather, I’m talking about the methodology of our craft, and how it is seriously analyzed by ourselves and others.

Which leads me to the title – the three types of criticism that a work can receive. Keep these in mind when you’re reviewing the comments of beta readers, or analyzing your self-critique.

1. Critique due to taste. I do not like epic fantasy. No huge reason – I just don’t. So I dislike the Lord of The Rings, but that doesn’t mean I think LOTR is bad or invalid. I can still respect that Tolkien achieved something monumental,  and that his work is good. When betas or consumers read your story, hopefully they can self-identify which elements they dislike due to taste, and they won’t dock stars from their review or expect you to change it. If your betas are unable to do this, make sure YOU realize which comments are due to their taste. (This is a big struggle with Dad. He thinks all his comments fall into 2 or 3, when some of them are certainly 1).

2. Critique due to rules. These are the critiques to heed, because they’re the foundations of the craft. Show,  don’t tell. Spell words correctly in narrative and keep spelling consistent.  Follow a three act structure. Cut out the boring parts. Keep your word count competitive to the market.  Make your opposition stronger than the lead. These rules may be tossed if you’re doing experimental or metafiction, or if you’re world famous,  but most of us aren’t. A good deal of criticism will fall into this category,  and it’s honestly the easiest critique to hear. It’s the least personal. Lit rules are usually broken by mistake or ignorance.

3. Critique due to personal philosophy. Here is where you decide what kind of writer you want to be. These are the philosophies that YOU think every writer should follow,  and they’re how you deem other works “bad” or “good.” However, I promise that most are subjective,  and some may even be dated.

I’ve said before that James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure  is a great tool. It’s also becoming dated. JSB recommends opening your book with something like a phone call in the middle of the night,  or an action prologue. This may have been good advice once, but most agents today would cringe at a prologue, or a hook with dreams, waking up, looking in the mirror, or phone calls. That method became oversaturated and passe.

John Gardner and Ayn Rand,  I’ve realized, have personal philosophies that are almost too literary for me. Both believe that the best novelists are people whose language and style sing. Pat Kubris and JSB think that simply telling a good story is the mark of a great novelist.  Who is right? No one. This isn’t a matter of simple taste like #1, where you can brush it off and say “that’s not for me.” These are valid opinions on the “correct” way to write, supported by more than gut feeling.

They don’t have to be from pros either.  My betas certainly have opinions about what makes a book good,  and I have plenty of agreements and counterarguments. But even though I might disagree, I still take note of their philosophies and respect the evidence.   Maybe they’ll change my mind someday.  Maybe they’re on to something. Or maybe I’m good where I am.

As authors, we get to pick any of these sides in order to shape our writer’s identity. As daunting as that sounds,  it’s somewhat exhilarating.  It means that no two writers are likely identical in how they approach the craft. Cool, huh?

Writing,  like all other fields, is rarely black and white. And it’s in the gray where we figure out who we are,  and how to tell our stories.

Advice On Beta Readers – Yes, They CAN Be “Too Harsh”

This is a long one, folks.

As writers, we prepare ourselves for inevitable truckloads of criticism. This may come from editors, agents, family members, or some jerk on Good Reads. It’s important to develop thick skin, and to realize that harsh truths help us improve.  I don’t believe that writing “what’s in your soul” automatically deserves publication, or that “there’s a reader out there for everyone.” I believe in formulas, literary traditions, and that being skilled in your craft is what makes you worth reading outside of your friend circle.

That being said, “too much criticism” can happen. And so can wrong criticism.

For my whole life, my dad has been the patron saint of red pens. Even when I was 11, he wasn’t afraid to rip apart what I’d written. Honestly, he’s probably the reason I never finished anything until I started writing fanfic. Whenever I got excited about a new WIP, or gave him the first couple chapters to read, he popped that balloon of joy and brought me down to the realism of “hey, this plot makes no sense and your characters suck.”

As an adult, I felt I could handle his harsh words. More than handle them, I felt like I needed them. That I’m ready for them. And as I’ve been writing proficiently for a while now, I felt like I’ve escaped many obvious pitfalls he noticed in my childhood writing.

However, as I just received Dad’s 100% negative and perplexing critique of my first 30 pages – and the notice that he’s basically given up reading the book and he’ll probably be skimming the rest – I came to a disappointing and important realization: just because criticism is harsh doesn’t make it good.

For example – my father claims to “rarely invest mental energy in ensembles where six politically correct and diverse characters do the work of one protagonist.” That is obviously a matter of taste, but he makes that claim like there’s something wrong with stories like Independence Day, X-Men, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, or The Goonies. Shoot, even one of my –our – favorite movies is It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. These are the stories that shaped me as a storyteller, and keeping that tradition alive is not a flaw. It’s not even a choice. It’s the heartbeat of my work.

Not to mention the  overt sexism, racism, and homophobia in such a statement. My protagonist is a half-Iranian gay man. His sister is half-Iranian. One of my characters has a severe leg disability and walks with a cane. Another one of my protagonists is an attractive, seductive woman who is just as powerful, good, and important as the virginal sister character. First of all, representation matters. Period. Second of all, these aren’t arbitrary characteristics thrown in for diversity’s sake. In the case of Hephaestus and Aphrodite, that’s just who they are in the lore. In the case of my human protagonists, Connor and Clara, their diversity is realistic (rarely is an American just ‘white’ these days) and both their heritage and Connor’s sexuality tie into their character arcs. Connor was a Special Forces soldier who got hit with the consequences of DADT. It’s not exactly the type of gay character that’s often represented, and that fall from grace is what kicks his story into motion. Additionally, their mixed religious heritage contributes to Connor and Clara’s open-mindedness about the mythological figures they encounter.

So I must realize that it’s not my story’s problem if Dad wants to make one all-powerful 45-year-old white dude save the day by himself. I am interested in writing about the dynamics and relationships between people, not just a single flat hero solving some plot points. This is something I know I must stay true to.

Thus, beneath the cut, I have a few more words of advice when it comes to picking beta readers – and how to be a good beta reader.

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