Month: August 2020

A Study of Criticism: Cynicism and Negativity

Think about the last terrible book you read. I mean absolute trash. Maybe you didn't even finish it, or the only way you managed to get through it was by mocking its every mistake. Now, try to name one thing you enjoyed about it. If you do, try to think of another one. Try to think of ways you could improve it.

It's not easy, is it? We're, sadly, emotional creatures. When we see something we dislike, our natural reflex is often to mock or trash said thing. This book is so bad, no good could possibly come of it.

That takes us to today's topic: cynicism and negativity in criticism. It happens a lot, and it can ruin the reviewer's position and credibility. After all, how can we trust a reviewer to be genuine when they're out to trash our work? Sure, there are ways to look past it and understand what brought this reaction, but it's tedious and work that, quite honestly, can be avoided.

Let's start by looking at what an early draft is. It's an experiment. Authors will try things out, see what sticks. A lot of it won't make it past the first draft and won't ever make it to proofreaders. Some of it will get pointed out and fixed, and some of it will make it into the final version. Why? Because art is subjective. What one person considers to be trash, others might see as genius.

But let's go back to our example. You're given an early draft for a story. You go into it and, as expected, you find a lot to talk about. The problem arises when patterns emerge. Let's say, for example, that the protagonist befriends a troubled little girl, and the girl's parents are oblivious to her emotional turmoil. It's not that unbelievable of a story, except that the narrative paints the parents as good people, with no mention of them being negligent. This is exactly the kind of issue that often arises in early drafts.

So you point out the discrepancy the first time it shows up. Maybe suggest a way to fix it. Then you keep reading and the issue shows up again. It keeps showing up in every chapter. It gets frustrating, and you've had enough. You leave a comment after a line by the father: "what an oblivious moron." A few paragraphs later, another comment: "rolls eyes."

Are these comments helpful? Well, they show frustration, but that's it. They don't explain why, they don't offer lines of thought that could lead to a fix. They don't take context into account. They're negative comments fueled by frustration. It's something a reader would say, but a reviewer should know better. Remember, your job is to help the writer.

The one thing the reviewer failed to keep in mind in this example is that the author never saw the issue as they wrote the book. That's natural, and it's why we have to rely on proofreaders. That means that a problem can repeat itself. Yes, it can be frustrating to read, and it's okay to point out repetitions, but you have to do so in a way that's helpful. It's very likely that the first comment you leave will be enough for the author, and they'll fix the issue throughout the entire text.

Furthermore, allowing yourself to become cynical and negative as you proofread a story will lead to you missing important details. Think back to the example at the beginning of this article. When you read a terrible book, it's natural to only focus on the negative. If you allow one aspect to get to you, you risk embarking on a viscous cycle where you just look for ways to trash someone else's work.

Let's look at it from the author's point of view. You have pages upon pages of comments on why the little girl's parents are insensitive idiots. Okay, maybe there's a point to it. It's worth looking into. However, the more you read into it, the more it attacks your characters, and as a result it attacks your writing. You get defensive. Who the hell does this person think they are? These feelings have to be fought, of course. The reviewer is trying to help. The problem is that emotions got involved somewhere they should never have been. So instead of calmly fixing issues, you're fighting your own hurt feelings. Because cynicism is always hurtful, and that's the core of the issue.

It can get even more frustrating when a reviewer get cynical about a theme they dislike. Let's return to our previous example. Let's say that our protagonist is an official in the local religion. Now, let's imagine that our proofreader is an atheist who actively dislikes all religions. Both the author and reviewer are entitled to their opinion here. However, one should know what they're getting into when they agree to review something. Some big rant about why religion is stupid would have no place here. Criticism of the approach is definitely welcome. Again, it comes down to the same question: Is the feedback helpful to the author, or is it an emotional rant?

Staying away from cynicism and negativity isn't always easy. Books are meant to create an emotional reaction, and not everyone can distance themselves enough to provide the analytical proofreading an early draft requires. One trick I have when struggling with this is to write my angry rant, read it again, and then delete it. I get it out of my system, accept that it's how I feel, and then move on. Often, I'll come back later and explain the core of the issue in more sober terms.

The next time you feel frustrated with an aspect of a book you're reading, try to understand why it happens. What could the author have done to fix it? And if you're a writer, try to look past overly emotional comments. Overall, try to avoid cynicism and negativity in general. Aren't we all better than this?

Filed under: Federated

Approaching Diversity in Fiction

You know what's often a touchy subject when discussing writing? Diversity. No, wait, don't leave just yet. Let me explain. Diversity has, sadly, become very politicized when it shouldn't be. Really, it's just a question of having a more believable cast of characters. Diversity can be a good way to make characters interesting. It can give a character a unique take on a situation that would feel mundane to another character.

Let's face it. Storytelling is about putting different characters in unique situations. That can't work if everyone is similar, and that means pushing the envelope. I first want to look at how the mainstream approaches diversity. From there on, we can discuss what we can learn from it. I also want to touch a bit on my own personal experience with it.

Most corporate media tends to be ruled by fear of the unknown. Anything that hasn't been done before, that could potentially offend someone, is not something investors like. As a result, it tends to be very conservative in its approach. That's not to say that they're opposed to it, but they'll stick with diversity flavors that are proven sellers. Decades ago, the idea of a female protagonist in anything other than a romance story was unthinkable. Now, it's common and accepted by most people. (There's always ultra-conservative assholes out there, but we'll ignore them here. They're really just a vocal minority, and I will not give them a platform.)

There are multiple steps to diversity adoption. First, a form of diversity is shown by one mainstream project. Think of the Kirk/Uhura kiss in the original Star Trek, for example. We get something the mainstream audience considers to be brand new, and people talk about it. More recently, we saw the Doctor in Doctor Who transition from male to female. Again, it made the news and everyone talked about it. For a lot of us, the reaction was: "about time." For the average Joe, it was shocking.

Eventually, these things gain acceptance by the public. Progressive voices do tend to win in the long run. It's just a slow process, and conservative views don't dissapear overnight. As a form of diversity is accepted, it gets marketed. Authors try to adopt it and jump on the bandwagon. It's not always successful. There are cases of straight up exploitation. There's also people who just get it wrong. How many "token black guy" or "token gay friend" have we seen in movies? How many of these characters are little more than walking stereotypes?

Luckily, these things are criticized and slowly, as time goes on, diversity is normalized. Members of minorities speak out and inform the public on misconceptions. Eventually, diversity is seen as a normal part of fiction and is no longer exotic. It's no longer special to see female characters in positions of power. It's no longer a big deal to see gay characters, or heroes who aren't white.

That's not to say that misrepresentation ever disappears. Accidental sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. will always be around. Truth is, writing anything different from our own experiences is a challenge. "Write what you know" is a common saying, but one that, honestly, is bullshit. As a writer, I want to challenge myself. I want to use my writing as a tool to broaden my own horizon and learn new things. That means taking risks, and potentially making mistakes. That also means learning from those mistakes.

So what should we do about it? First, mistakes should be called out, but not ridiculed. I have a transgender character in Opt Out. Did I get anything wrong when writing that character? Quite possibly. What proofreaders pointed out, I fixed. Still, what I wrote is based off research, not experience. As it often does, it comes down to intent. Did the author try to include diversity, or did they write an exploitation piece? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell.

If you are a member of a minority and you feel you're being misrepresented in a work of fiction, my advice would be to reach out and point out the mistake. If you're being ignored or if your opinion is disregarded, then you can mock to your heart's content. Just make sure that you don't discourage a writer who honestly tried to give you some representation and happened to make a mistake. Writing involves a lot of research, and it's easy for something to slip by. That's not malice, that's an honest mistake. Keep the writer's experience and resources in mind as well. A major movie studio can afford a consultant. A self-published writer cannot.

If you're a writer, then do your research. Don't base your characters on what you see in fiction, but rather look at what real people go through. Social media can be a good starting place for research. I'm going to use a personal example here. This is a Reddit thread I started a while ago for a story I'm currently working on:

Creating this thread wasn't my first step. The idea is to lurk first. I want to write a genderfluid character. The first step is to create them as a fully fleshed out character first, and make sure genderfluidity is part of who they are, but not their entire identity. Then I read about it. I would take notes of experiences people posted online, get some ideas on how they perceived it and what they learned from it. I took plenty of notes. Most importantly, I kept an open mind and left by preconceptions at home.

After about a month, I started the thread I linked, where I asked for clarifications. This is something I highly recommend. Reach out to the community. A lot of people like talking about who they are, and they do want fair representation in fiction. Also, be mindful that some communities might feel threatened by what you're attempting to do. Some minority groups were often painted negatively in fiction, and are understandably wary. It's your job to convince them of your good intentions. Just be respectful. If a community doesn't want you asking question, then politely honor their request.

Overall, diversity in fiction is great. We do need more of it, and I recommend making the effort. Just make sure you do it for the right reasons. Don't be afraid to ask questions and push the envelope. Just be sure to do it right. Remember that what is a character trait to you is every day life to some people.

Filed under: Federated