Monthly Archives: November 2014

Everybody Is a Critic–And That’s the Problem

When I think about how I react to criticism of my writing, an image comes to my mind. It’s a fish I saw once at an aquarium—the porcupine fish, or puffer fish.

Porcupine fish are armed with key survival equipment. They have the ability to inflate their bodies by swallowing water or air, thus reducing the range of predators to those with bigger mouths. They also possess sharp spines, which radiate outward when the fish is inflated.

I wish my defense mechanisms were as effective. The truth is that criticism hurts. There’s no way around it. And it hurts emotionally. Our writing is personal. We invest our emotions in what we write. So when a critic trashes a book by leaving a one-star review, accompanied by vitriolic words strewn across cyberspace for the world to see, the pain is palpable. I’ve heard stories of authors who were so shaken by a bad review that they couldn’t write for months. We take criticism to heart because all good fiction writing is personal.

But there are two types of criticism. There is well-intentioned, honest, and specific criticism. The critic is knowledgeable about literature and renders an informed opinion of the story’s shortcomings and backs it up with specific examples and constructive suggestions for how the piece can be improved. Writers should welcome and encourage such criticism.

Then there is the other type of criticism—mean-spirited, vague, venomous, and hurtful. This type of criticism is usually penned by anonymous individuals. I can only speculate as to their motives, but my theory is that many of these critics have low self-esteem and leaving a bad review makes them feel superior to the defenseless writer.

During the recent Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, a highly respected professional critic led a session entitled, “Criticism. When to Listen. What to Hear.” Porter Anderson, a veteran professional critic who is a Fellow in the National Critics Institute, made a distinction between consumer reviews and literary criticism. Writers should ignore emotional testimonials (“I loved it,” “I threw the book against the wall”). Anderson has no use for ratings, either (thumbs up/thumbs down, four out of five stars).

Likening consumer reviews to a mixed cocktail, Anderson said they tend to consist of:

–Three parts instruction (read it or don’t read it),

–Three parts dumbing down (how many stars), and

–Three parts emotion (“This book stinks!”)

“Most reviews benefit readers and customers,” he said. “What authors want are reviews that tell them something about their work.”

He advised writers to:

–Scour reviews for specificity,

–Ignore emotional reactions (positive or negative),

–Duck “buy” or “Don’t buy” messages,

–Pay as little attention as possible to the symbolic ratings (how many stars), and

–Watch for consistent reviewers, readers who turn up to review more than one of your books.

Reviews should offer feedback that is specific, identifiable, and actionable, he said.

And, lastly, he cautioned authors to never engage the critic. “Bullying by reviewers and of reviewers is not new,” he said. “It’s been going on for years…Anger and hostility shouldn’t be happening. As an author, don’t engage the bully critic.”

Several hours after Anderson’s session on criticism, something extraordinary happened. There was a planned session after dinner in which authors in attendance were invited to read aloud the worst review they had received. I expected to be staring at an empty podium. On the contrary, author after author strode to the podium to gleefully read poorly written, grammatically incorrect, and often incoherent reviews of their work. I couldn’t imagine doing that. It took unbelievable courage for writers to stand up there and read these reviews. There was an element of pettiness to nearly every bad review. I couldn’t help but think that these reviews reflected more on the reviewer than the author being reviewed.


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Story is Internal & More Wisdom from Lisa Cron

One of the many highlights of the recent Writer Unboxed Un-Conference was the “Wired for Story” workshop presented by Lisa Cron, writing instructor and author.

The workshop was based in large part on Cron’s excellent book, “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.”

One of the major points of Cron’s workshop was the focus on story as internal. The writer must identify the protagonist’s inner struggle by developing the character’s back story before she begins to put words on the page. This doesn’t mean the writer should draft a detailed biographical history of the character. It means the writer must know the main character’s internal goal and what will prevent her from reaching this goal, and how the main character will be transformed by overcoming challenges that stand in the way of achieving this goal.

Citing the techniques used by advertisers and preachers, Cron said every major decision people make is based on emotion. Emotion comes from feeling and feeling is a physical sensation, she said, a chemical reaction that the brain then translates into emotion. Writers must make the reader feel that emotion through the characters. “If the reader isn’t feeling what the protagonist feels in the moment on the page, as she’s struggling with the difficult decision she has to make, the reader’s not going to be reading on.”

She gave this excellent definition of story: “Story is how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change as a result.” She broke down the definition. Story is how. What happens is the plot, but that’s not what the story is really about. Affects someone: the protagonist. This is the person whose skin the reader is in. Everything that is in the plot derives its meaning based on how it affects the protagonist in pursuit of a difficult goal, which is sometimes referred to as the quest or the story question. In pursuit of a difficult goal. Story is about change and all change is difficult. And how they change as a result. This is the key to a powerful story. And that is why the writer needs to know the protagonist’s back story before she begins to write.

Protagonists come into a story with two pre-existing conditions, Cron said, something they want and something they must overcome to get what they want. She described this in terms of a “misbelief,” something the main character clings to in difficult times and something that colors her view of the world. The writer must challenge the character and put this misbelief to the test because the transformative growth will force the character to confront and ultimately overcome this misbelief.

“We don’t come to story for the surface world. We live in it,” Cron said. “What we want to know is what goes on beneath the surface.”

There is a tendency among writers to come up with a plot first and then figure out the characters who will populate it. This approach, Cron argues, will give the reader a series of unconnected events with no story to give it meaning.

“Story is about an inner change,” she said. “And you can’t construct a plot that will force your protagonist to earn new eyes unless she begins seeing things through old eyes. She can’t see something for the first time with new eyes if you as the writer don’t know how she saw it to begin with.”

And that’s why the writer needs to know the character’s back story before beginning to write. The key elements the writer must know about the character’s past is the specific event that knocked the protagonist’s worldview out of alignment, creating the misbelief, and the event that triggered the protagonist’s desire to attain the goal and what gives it meaning for her. And once the writer has worked out these, she must put it in scene form.


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The First Writer Unboxed Un-Conference: Unbelievably Valuable

I returned Friday night from the first-ever writer’s conference sponsored by the popular blog, Writer Unboxed, and my head is exploding. Thousands of writing blogs exist, but Writer Unboxed has always felt different and special to me. WU is a warm, welcoming community. It feels like family. And meeting all of the members of this community in person for the first time re-enforced that feeling.

There were so many take-aways from this conference that I don’t know where to begin. After each workshop, I found myself wanting to rush to my laptop and revise my work in progress, right then and there.

Unlike many writer’s conferences, the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference focused its workshops solely on the craft of writing, as opposed to marketing, agent meetings, and the publishing industry. The quality of the writing is what we as writers can control. There were also numerous opportunities to engage with other writers and even read work aloud during the bedtime stories sessions that concluded each day in the library of the historic Hawthorne Inn in Salem, MA.

The sessions featured seasoned presenters ranging from writers to writing coaches and literary agents. Here are some highlights:

Wired for Story, Lisa Cron: The author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Cron said many writers don’t spend enough time figuring out their character’s internal goals and struggles before they sit down to write.

“A story is how what happens effects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change as a result. That is what your story is actually about. Story is internal, not external.” Lisa urged writers to fully develop their characters, starting with the internal needs and goals, before putting words on the page. She covered the five layers of story, which I will cover in another post.

Voice-Finding Your Self and Your Subject, Meg Rosoff: Writers must dig deep into their unconscious brain, where the dark stuff resides, to bring power and depth to their writing. “Finding your subject is a matter of looking into your head and finding those places you need to explore,” she said.
“We’re looking for places of denseness in the unconscious mind. They are the scary and dark places–the places that have not yet been opened up.”

How Good Manuscripts Go Wrong, Donald Maass: Literary agent Donald Maass has read thousands of manuscripts and he can spot the flaws and places where they go wrong. “What is it that causes us to really fall in love with a book? You are welcomed into the world of the story,” Maass said. “There is a confidence to a good opening that tells you the author knows what’s going on here. I can relax. I’m in the hands of a good story teller. You feel a sense of comfort, that the author is in control of the story.”

Even good openings can go south in the soggy middle of the manuscripts. That’s where the author either keeps the reader engaged or causes the reader to put down the book. Here’s the key.
As you continue reading, you stay interested because “there’s always some new insight, some deeper level of feeling. It’s never uninteresting. The middle of the book continues to surprise and intrigue and keep you engaged. As you finish you get the feeling there is a reason I read this book. There’s something that’s important, something that touched me, that illuminated something for me ”

Write On-On Perseverance, Therese Walsh and Jael McHenry: How does a writer keep writing through the doubts and disappointments, through the early rough drafts.

“For me it comes down to the characters. If the characters come alive for me I want to spend two or three years with that character,” Walsh said.

McHenry said one must keep the goal in mind.
“Continuing to work on your novel doesn’t guarantee you will get published but quitting guarantees you won’t,” she said.

These snippets don’t do justice to the depth of wisdom these excellent presenters shared and I will cover several of the topics in more depth in future posts.

For now I want to express my thanks to Writer Unboxed Founding Mama Therese Walsh and her husband, Sean, and all of the dedicated WU’ers who organized this fabulous conference. I’ve made many friends in this amazing community and I look forward to future opportunities to engage with this awesome community.


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