Sunday, March 11, 2012

Being Your Own Best Critic

My vision, how I imagine the story in my head, doesn't match what's on the page. Sound familiar? I'm pretty sure I'm not the only writer who has thought this or had a writer friend say this.  What advice do you give to others when this happens?   Maybe, it just might be a good idea to listen to yourself since, believe it or not, you have the experience to be your own best critic.  Or, at the very least, you can turn around being your own worst critic.

Some time ago (before all my college classes became science), I ran across a version of this "vision not matching what's on the page" in my set design project for a theatre class. (I talked about this is in a blog here, The Writer's Perspective: Making Connections in a Setting.) I had to sketch a set for a play, and when I finished, I was happy with what it showed me about the play's plot and characters.   In this process, I learned an awful lot about matching setting to a vision.

But my vision got a little murky when I brought in my sketch to class and I saw what others did. It turns out other groups did collages and didn't attempt to draw!  One group even used a computer program.  How could my hand-drawn crooked chairs compete with 3-D graphics?  I felt silly and thought I had to apologize for the drawing quality.  So I did.  I pointed out every flaw.  In a way, I was expressing that writer's lament, "My vision, how I imagine the story in my head, doesn't match what's on the page."

Only this time, it was an apology.  The more I talked, the more feedback I got for improvements from my group members and the instructor and I clearly remember how I was a little hurt that my drawing (when drawing quality "didn't count") wasn't good enough.  I left the class kind of bummed to go back to fix something I thought finished.  I had no enthusiasm to go "back to the drawing board," so to speak.

It took me a while to realize what is rather obvious to me now.  Can you guess?  I'd brought a large portion of criticism -- constructive as it was -- on myself.   THEY weren't saying it wasn't good enough.  Instead, they were feeding off of what I was saying...hence, the word "feedback."  It comes back to you like a wave, fed by voicing the tangible flaws that are the only reality the critics can know.  They have the reality of a sketch.

I also realized it wasn't only the dread of extra work I wasn't happy about, it was knowing revision wasn't going to change the *vision* of what I'd figured out for the whole; how these pieces of setting work for character and plot.   Sure, it was "rough."  It was, after all, a "rough draft."  But the essential pieces were in place, crooked lines and all.  The sketch was not the vision, it was a necessary tool used in crafting the vision.

So I didn't change a thing. 

But that is not to say I was finished.  For the final presentation, I added a script and used my original drawing for my visual aid.  By then, I had a story to tell.  My project was voted the "winner"  by the class and I'm still as thrilled as if I'd won a Tony award.  I like to think "character" won the day.

I try to remember this experience in my advice to myself for the next time I lament (or apologize!), my vision, how I imagine the story in my head, doesn't match what's on the page

Try to remember the big picture. Pieces of the big picture might seem to miss the mark, but they work for the whole and DO match the depth of the vision. Try to remember that one part taken out of context doesn't have to carry the full load of what you're trying to say.

Hmm.  If anyone else told me that, I'd nod and say I like that advice.  But the same advice only touches me when I make it my own.  This time when I hear it I can relate.

This experience with criticism in a group did not turn me against sharing a work in progress, but I do have a new perspective of "feedback."  I think when I share my work I've become more careful to consider whether what I'm sharing is, in fact, a "tool" for my vision.  And if the work in progress I'm so strongly tempted (or required) to share is delivered with hints of an apology, whether I realize it or not, I can expect negative feedback. 

Maybe the criticism of many voices suggesting changes to "what is on the page" are valid.

But this is when we have to trust our ability to be our own best critic.  We're the only ones who know the big picture.  We're the only ones who can say when  "wrong" is right. 


What advice do you give yourself when you lament your vision doesn't match what's on the pageHave you experienced sharing a "sketch" of your vision too soon?

4 comments:

  1. I love this. In fact, it's my second time reading it. :) After I read it the first time, I had a chance to put it into practice. I was sending a new novella for a first read to the other writers in this group -- we're each writing a story based on a concept, for a potential anthology.

    I wanted to tell them everything that wasn't quite right about the story -- to let them know that I was aware of its problems. But this post made me realize I wouldn't get THEIR opinions. I'd be getting their thoughts on stuff I was highlighting. And maybe they wouldn't mention other impressions they had, because they would be focusing on what I'd pointed out.

    So I sent it off, and I'm glad I followed your advice. :) The first response I got was a lovely one, and it included compliments AND suggestions.

    I think pointing out the flaws ahead of time is our way of protecting ourselves from potentially harsh criticism. But as you've said, maybe we're bringing it on without meaning to.

    Great post!

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  2. Hi Donna! Yes, it can be tricky "bringing on" feedback. I guess it's all about being aware of what vibes we're sending off and what we want to bounce back at a certain time. When we ask about a problem area because we really want to focus on fixing that area, then I think my advice goes out the window. LOL! But, like you said, maybe the rest will get overlooked.

    Your anthology sounds like a wonderful project! :)

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  3. I forgot to say congrats on your project being the winner. :) Congrats!

    I don't think your advice flies out the window if we ask for specific areas -- maybe we just have to try to be neutral about it. Maybe something like, "What do you think about the pacing? Too fast, or too slow?", rather than "the pacing sucks, doesn't it?" LOL

    The anthology is a fun one. Right now it's called STRANGERS ON
    A TRAIN, and there are five of us, each writing a different romance novella, each one set on a different train. It all started on Twitter after one person posted a pic of a hottie sitting on a subway train. . .and well, you know how romance authors are. LOL It kind of took off from there!

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  4. Donna, I love the concept of strangers on a train. Now that is getting MY imagination going!

    Your distinction of being neutral when asking for feedback is perfect. I was thinking I was contradicting myself...which wouldn't be the first time. LOL

    Thanks for the congrats on the project. :)

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