Monday, January 30, 2012

Do's and Don'ts of Accepting Feedback

Greetings, Bloggerinos!

I wrote this post from 35,000 feet in the air. Last week, I was in Florida visiting the folks and lounging in the sun. Considering I left Chicago in the middle of a snowstorm and 14-degree weather, the trip couldn’t have come at a better time. In between tanning, eating, and swimming, I made some time to begin revisions on my WIP. The week before, I had met with my writer’s group who critiqued the first draft. I’ve been on both sides of that discussion, and every time, it’s still nerve-wracking. Here we are, giving our prized work, drafts that we spent countless hours perfecting, to others to rip apart. Receiving feedback is never easy, and from my experiences, I’ve learned some Do and Don’ts to surviving critiques.

DO seek criticism, not validation. Sitting around and talking about how much readers loved your draft makes for a great night, but an awful critique session. Some of your readers may be close friends and family who don’t want to hurt your feelings, and so they will only tell you nice things. Don’t let them. Hearing the good won’t get you to pinpoint the bad. If you are only seeking compliments from your writer’s group, then you aren’t letting them do their job. You wrote an entire book. That’s validation enough. When you are talking with critique partners/beta readers, get to the problem areas. You can save the backslapping for the end.

DON’T defend your book against criticism. In an old writer’s group, one of the writers would always jump to her book’s defense if you ever brought up a trouble spot. “No, you don’t understand.” Or “I made that clear in this section.” She had an answer for everything. It’s commonplace to get defensive or frustrated when a reader gives you criticism you disagree with. But resist the urge to come back with an answer. Don’t talk. Listen. If someone didn’t understand a plot point you thought was crystal clear, then guess what – he or she won’t be the only one. You can’t sit next to every reader who buys your book and answer their questions. Find out why your group was confused; don’t dismiss any feedback.

DO ask open-ended questions.  You need to let the criticism flow naturally. Let them bring up issues you never realized.  When you ask a leading question, it skews the feedback. Let’s say you’re worried that your MC doesn’t have a strong enough motivation in X Scene. Don’t ask the group “Was the motivation strong enough in X Scene? Could it be clearer?” That will instantly taint your readers’ feedback. You’re coercing them into giving you the answer you want, not the one they have. Maybe the readers thought that scene was fine as it is. Instead, ask “What did you think of X Scene?” Use open-ended questions as much as possible. If you are resorting to using such leading questions, then all you are seeking is confirmation of a problem you already know exists.

DON’T take it personally. Our books are an extension of us, plain and simple. Someone not liking our book feels like someone not liking us. We will always feel this twinge when we hear negative feedback. But don’t take it personally. Make sure your critiquers are people you trust, so you always knows what they say is coming from a positive place. To paraphrase Meg Cabot, your book is not a $100 bill. Not everyone’s going to like it.

What are some do’s and don’t’s you have whenever giving or receiving criticism?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

5 Ways the Golden Globes Can Help Your Writing

Today is one of my favorite days of the year, because today is...The Golden Globe Awards!!! (live on NBC at 8pm EST/7pm CST)

Yes, I am an awards junkie, and we are in the thick of awards season. The Golden Globes are my favorite awards show, more than the Oscars, for several reasons: they're fun and not stuffy, they celebrate movies and TV, they're the first show of the year, and they serve as a snapshot of where the top films and performances stand in the Oscar race. And there's pretty dresses, too! For those unfamiliar, the Golden Globe Awards are voted on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a group of 85 freelance journalists. The HFPA has no overlap with the Oscars and have drawn controversy for selling awards to the highest bidder and nominating stars from lousy movies so they can rub elbows with them. But despite this, the GG's remain very popular with viewers and Hollywood folk.

Even if you don't watch the show, there are some valuable lessons that writers can learn from the Globes' success:

1) Pack your show with stars. The HFPA loves nominating big stars, even in poorly-received movies. Last year, they nominated Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for the critically-panned film The Tourist. George Clooney is nominated for four awards tonight, Ryan Gosling for two. Sure, they also nominate the lessen-known actors (like Jean Dujardin), but they'll also throw us a Kate Winslet. The HFPA is smart. They don't just nominate big stars to feel cool, but also to drive ratings. People will tune in to see their favorite celebrities. Likewise, write characters that people will want to read. Make them interesting and exciting and funny and dynamic. Surround them with vivid supporting characters. These are the stars of your book, and they will attract readers. We've all read books where the plot was so-so, but the characters kept us hooked.

2) Only give out awards viewers care about. Unlike the Oscars, the Globes don't drag out their show with technical awards like Best Sound Mixing or multiple montages. The Globes only give out best show/movie and acting awards, with a scant handful of writing/directing/score categories -- the categories viewers care about. They've cut the fat that bogs down most award shows, and as a result, the show is remarkably streamlined. Think of awards as plot points. Only include the most necessary parts in your novel. Keep the story moving. Don't pad; don't add fluff. Readers can tell, especially young readers.

3) Save room for comedy. While the Oscars rarely recognize comedic films, the Globes split the movie categories into drama and comedy/musical, guaranteeing funny films will be represented. Many awards-bait films aren't as widely-known to viewers as popular comedies; it's nice to have a movie like Bridesmaids thrown into the mix with The Artist and Shame, among others. Likewise, in your story, don't forget the funny. Comic relief is always welcome. Even if you are writing a serious book, it doesn't hurt to write a humorous moment or character here and there. Give readers a brief chuckle amongst the epicness and somberness. They'll appreciate it.

4) Let your characters know they aren't perfect. Ricky Gervais is the first host the Globes have ever had, and he is a marked difference from the genial Oscar hosts. He openly mocks celebrities in attendance, as well as the HFPA, bringing them down a peg. Many were outraged by his antics, but audiences seemed to like it, and the HFPA invited him back. Your characters can't float through the story infallible and unharmed. You need Ricky Gervais-esque characters or situations that will rough them up and point out their flaws. Make it uncomfortable for them.

5) Keep it entertaining. Handing out awards isn't the most important facet of the Golden Globes. It's more of an afterthought. NBC bills the Golden Globes as the party of the year, placing the emphasis on drunk celebrities, humorous acceptance speeches, and pretty dresses. They aren't stuffy like the Oscars. When writing your book, remember above all that it's meant to entertain. People read novels for pleasure. Even when they read serious, issue-driven books, they want to enjoy reading. So in the midst of your plotting, world building, and character mapping, make sure that you're creating something people actually will want to read. And if you have a character or two in a pretty dress, even better!

I will leave you with my pick for best dressed from last year's show.

And the worst...

Monday, January 9, 2012

Questioning Your Taste: Is it them or me?

In the spring of 2010, the low-budget comedy Tiny Furniture premiered at the South by Southwest Festival and was hailed as a brilliant, insightful, funny coming-of-age story. It won the top prize, and its writer-director-star, 24-year-old newbie Lena Dunham, was called a fresh new voice in comedy. Critics adored the film. Judd Apatow is now producing a TV series Dunham created, Girls, which premieres on HBO in April. After hearing all of this hype and adulation for Tiny Furniture, I decided to watch it one night, excited about what I was going to see.
And I hated it.

The movie wasn't awful, but it was slow, plotless, and not funny. I was so confused. How was this film being hailed as the new coming of comedy? Why was Hollywood going gaga for this film and for Lena Dunham? Was it them or was it me?

Taste is subjective, but nowadays, it seems that it's only subjective if your opinion matches general consensus. If you don't like it, then you are not smart enough. Or you just suck. We see it with Oscar season. Critics fall over each other to slather a film with praise, and then I see it and am unimpressed. I always second guess myself: maybe I just didn't get it, maybe I have lofty expectations. Recently, I saw The Descendants with George Clooney. It's a frontrunner in this year's Oscar race, directed by Alexander Payne who did the sublime Election and Sideways. My reaction at the movie's end was "Meh." I couldn't understand why critics were drooling over this. Just like I couldn't understand why they loved Sideways -- a movie which I found good, not great.

My pet peeve is when people criticize me for not liking something they did. Last month, I saw The Muppets. Again, I enjoyed the film, but I didn't LOVE it, putting me in the minority amongst my friends. And at a party, one of the guests called my morals and my soul into question because I only liked it. Judging by the way The Muppets has nosedived at the box office, I wasn't the only one. Just because I don't like or love something doesn't mean I'm a heartless snob. When it comes to art, people were not meant to be lemmings.

I used to be like them, though. I used to get up in arms when someone didn't like a movie or book that I loved. I took it personally a little. But now I've learned that we all have different opinions, and nobody should make you feel like yours aren't valid. The key is backing up your opinions. Many times, we don't think about why we like or don't like something. We go with our gut. Since I've gotten into writing, I now work to articulate my reasoning. All writers should do this. Next time you read a great book, think about why you liked it so much, and not just because everyone else liked it. This will help you in your writing to figure out what works.

Over Christmas break, I read Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. Catcher in the Rye is one of my favorite books, and I also loved Nine Stories, so I was excited to read F&Z. And I hated it. I rarely hate books, but I hated this one. I was afraid to say that, because F&Z is such a classic, it must be me. But this is why I so disliked the novel: It was 200 pages of people having extremely long, rambling conversations that went nowhere -- a short story idea that Salinger strained to stretch into a full-length. Maybe this just isn't my type of book. I realize that I prefer plot-driven novels. But that doesn't make my opinion invalid or my taste "off." 

What books/movies/shows have you hated that everyone else loved? And if you have opinions about any of the movies and books mentioned, please share!