Mark Terry

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Writers & Criticism

February 6, 2007
I've been in a funk the last few days. In theory it's all connected to one of my clients, although upon reflection, it's probably more to do with February and the fact that the temperatures have been below zero. Yes, Seasonal Affective Disorder. There ought to be a support group--in the Caribbean.

Anyway, one reason I was thinking about this was I took some criticism from this client and managed to brood over it and freak out and in general make my life and everybody's life miserable around me.

Then yesterday I received about 3 pages of "suggestions" to the third Derek Stillwater novel, ANGELS FALLING, scheduled for publication in February 2008, and I read through them and whipped back a reply that I'd get right on it. No angst, no anger, just, "I think they're right" or "I think they're good, so let's get on it."

Um... why the different reaction?

I very much have in my mind the idea that for fiction I take notes and make changes. (I try not to need it, but fiction is subjective, so it happens).

Why I don't have that in mind for nonfiction--at least with this one specific client--is a mystery.

It may have to do with my ambivalence about this client, who pays very well and gives me a ton of work, but often treats me as a staff writer. The money and work is so big it would be rather hard to walk away, which for a freelancer is part of what we delude ourselves into thinking we can do. (It's a perk; run with it!)

It may be that I love the novels and want them to be the best they can be and I really haven't run across any dopey comments yet that won't help the work.

And my attitude about the freelancing work tends to be a little more ambivalent in general, that I want to do my best work and move on to the next and the next and the next... that's how you make a living doing it, after all, not by dwelling on the last piece of nonfiction.

There's a quasi-permanence about the books, too. Yes, I know they can go out of print, etc., but people might re-read them, or they may be in libraries and read over and over and somebody may pick one up years down the line and read and enjoy it.

Nonfiction seems particularly disposable. There's so much of it, for one reason. Plus, would I re-read it? Unlikely. And since these are often business reports, some of them are practically outdated by the time they see print.

Much of it reminds me that there is a lot about a writer's life that is a head game. We have to convince ourselves we're good enough (as well as agents, editors, publishers, readers), and then we have to CONTINUE convincing ourselves.

I'm pretty tough-skinned about criticism, but when it bothers me, I sometimes think it's because I might actually believe the criticism, that the criticism goes beyond the specific work itself to include, well... me. It's not just that this particular piece didn't quite hit the mark for whatever reason, it's that YOU didn't hit the mark, that you're not good enough, that you're a talentless schmuck not worth the toner you're wasting and the bandwidth you're utilizing...

God, I can't wait for spring.

Mark Terry


Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Don't fret none. It's supposed to find double digits (above zero) tomorrow.

Funny you should bring this up. A certain writer friend of mine read my manuscript recently and made a lot of comments. Five years ago, I probably would have thought myself a failure. But now, I look at the comments and suggestions and say, "Oh yeah, that's right. I can fix that." (And I have been. It's kept me up late.)

I think it has something to do with passion. With fiction, it's more like art. Artists are passionate and they want their work to be the best it can be. They'll take advice and run with it.

Non-fiction, however, is more of a science (I am surely pissing off a lot of non-fiction writers now). It's done. It's right. Don't argue with me. I write a lot of brochures, owner's manuals, etc. for my current company. I tend to get hostile when customers critique my instruction manual on how to install a brake controller. After all, I'm a writer. What do they know?

8:57 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

That may be, Ron. And I don't doubt for a moment that a lot of my issues have to do with the fact that I love writing novels (and having them published) and will be quite accommodating to continue doing so.

I like writing nonfiction (I love some of it, but not this particular client's type of writing) and so if things don't go as smoothly as I would like I get a tad, er, grouchy.

I also was taught at an early age--high school creative writing--by a pretty good teacher, who said one of the things he wanted to teach us, possibly the primary thing he wanted to teach us, was that our stories and poetry weren't written in stone--they could be improved.

I'm thinking of my oldest son who wants to be a writer (and a band director, movie director and restaurant owner). One of his recent stories that he's working on is about a school for wizards in Canada and the school's five houses and...

And when he asked both my wife and I what we thought we both said, fairly gently, "It sounds like you're plagiarizing Harry Potter." And he got defensive about it.

Many of his story ideas are great and I generally feel that the more original they are, the better they are, but he really bristled when we said we thought he was writing a version of Harry Potter. Oh well. You got to learn to take criticism sometime.

10:19 AM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

You probably hate getting criticism from the paying client because you don't enjoy the process of writing their copy... so re-vising feels like backtracking over hot coals after you've already walked the gauntlet.

Maybe you could post copies of their cancelled checks (or your children's orthodontist bills) around your computer, so you can remind yourself why you do it.

And make an appointment for a tanning booth.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

It's been hellishly cold here as well and I've been trying to wade through legal work. I hate all Februarys but some Februarys I hate more than others!

Your feelings about editorial critcism of your books and criticism of your non-fiction are almost exactly like mine. The novels are mine (and Mary's). I want them to be as good as possible and all the editorial suggestions we've had have really only gone toward improving the books.

With my legal writing, I want and need to do a good job, but I don't, personally, care about the end product. What I care about is that the client is satisfied with my writing services. So if there's corrections to be made then I've already failed.

It hasn't happened often. If it did I'd be out of work because at least with legal writing there's a different attitude toward the relationship between writing and editing than there is in fiction publishing. Instead of regarding editing and writing as two different, necessary operations, legal publishers tend to consider editing as the correction of inadequate writing. Editing, in this view, shouldn't be necessary. If it is it indicates that the author is incompetent.

This isn't so bad when you're freelancing, although it makes for a lot tension, but you can imagine that as far as in-house writing and editing goes it creates a horrible adversarial atmosphere. Well, our legal system is an adversarial one!

10:39 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Is that a diplomatic way of saying "shut up and cash the check"?

Probably and probably you're correct. (As for the tanning booth, easy for you to say out there in California!) My wife, probably correctly, seems to feel this has less to do with the client and the jobs than to do with the weather and sunlight.

"With my legal writing, I want and need to do a good job, but I don't, personally, care about the end product. What I care about is that the client is satisfied with my writing services. So if there's corrections to be made then I've already failed."

That's probably accurate. I'm not sure I would want my client to understand the distinction. I'm proud of my work for them, but I don't exactly hang it framed on my walls.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...


Maybe it boils down to the nonfiction work is a job and writing novels isn’t. Someone once said that if you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

BTW, current temp outside my South Florida window is a balmy 69. Tomorrow we should get back to normal with highs in the lower 80s.


12:00 PM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Hey, tell your son that my first story was a Harry Potter rip-off, too! (It's rated Rx2, though ... you might not want to mention that!) Tell him I think music is an excellent training ground for writers, too. So many excellent writers are/were musicians! I theorize it has to do with rhythm.

I'm having one of those days, too. So no wise comments here, just sending you sympathy. It's just too cold to bear!

12:47 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I'd tell you to go to hell, except I'm flying down to Tampa tomorrow night for a business trip. I'm very glad to hear the temps are going up. I'll be stuck in meetings all day Thursday and most of the day Friday, but hopefully I'll be able to wander around outside without a coat for a while.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

Enjoy Tampa. A good way to thaw out. No one will blame you if you stay there until spring.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well, my wife and kids might, Joe. I have warned her... I may miss the flight back. :)

5:25 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

Criticism is always tough, no matter how thick skinned you might think you are. I spent years in Hollywood having my ideas and scripts torn to shreds by brain-dead "creative" executives -- and even though I knew they were full of shit (not ALL of them, of course, there are always exceptions), the criticism still hurt.

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Jamie said...

We are just pulling out of the deep freeze in Ohio. I fly to NY this weekend so I can do it all over again. Whee.

I can dig what you are saying Mark. When I do work for clients, I always look at corrections and getting my behind chewed as costing me money (in time) and that I ought to have done:

1) A more thorough specification
2) Spent more time checking out the client so that I could be sure they were only half-crazy.

After reflection, I usually find #2 to be more common.

3:34 AM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

My wife is a freelance copywriter and she looks at corrections slightly differently.

If she's charging on an hourly basis, that's more billable hours for the client.

If she's charging on a per-project basis, then she should've built in time for a round or two of client tweaks. If not, then she didn't charge enough for the estimate in the first place!

9:35 AM  
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