Friday, January 13, 2006

Critical Thinking

While a part of me feels strange talking about In a Cabin in the Woods so much, this blog is supposed to be a record of the rambling thought that go through my head, and as those who've been in close contact with me for the last couple of months can tell you, while working on Cabin there wasn't room for much of anything else in there. So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that, while not always at the forefront of my brain now, it still occupies much of my idle thoughts.

When it comes to writing, I think I'm very much in the Stephen King school; by that I mean that the way I write the stories is very much like how he's described his own writing process, wherein the characters sort of take over and lead him down paths he had never expected. I definitely am not comparing myself to him in terms of my writing skill or ability to write a suitably chilling horror story, as Flunky will be glad to tell you.

Oh, did I forget to mention that I got feedback from Flunky? Yup, we chatted online the other night; he was very forthright in listing all of the many, many flaws he saw in the piece. As for the positives, he was very complimentary of the bits of poetry I came up with and . . . well, that's about it. Oh, wait, he also said he was in awe of how much I wrote. So, to recap: I’m a wordy bastage who should stick to poetry.

Remind me again why I wanted feedback?

Okay, before we go any further, let me preface it with this: are there any words scarier to the potential recipient of criticism than "let me preface it with this?" Yes, the preface statement is generally of a positive note, but it's also usually an "okay, here's a little bit of nicety up front that you can look back on fondly while I rip the heart and soul out of your work" sort of thing. Well-intentioned, but occasionally nerve-wracking. I mention this because so far two of my reviewers have started thusly; I felt like I was on the Superman ride at Six Flags, the sinking feeling hit my stomach so hard. If you'll notice, I kind of subverted the standard use of the preface statement above; I'm a rebel, I am!

It took me a few days to decide whether I wanted to talk about my chat with Flunky: on the one hand, it pretty much consumed my thoughts for the next day or so, which makes it prime blogging material. On the other hand, I was afraid that my talking about it might come across as (a) Flunky bashing (b) passive aggression (c) fishing for compliments (d) all of the above (e) insert own negative connotation here. But the gripping hand is, it was either indulge in some cathartic blogging or drown in my own cycle of composition. So, after taking a couple of days to gather my thoughts, here we are.

One thing I want to stress here, if just because experience has taught that people tend to read the worst intentions in my work (which I suppose shows what they think of me, but that's a paranoia to be chased some other time), and I really don't want this to be one of those times, so, please, bear this in mind: the purpose of this post it to explore my reaction to criticism in general, using my discussion with Flunky as an example; this is in no way, shape, or form a condemnation of Flunky or his critical appraisal of my work.

Now that that's out of the way, on to the evisceration of my pride and joy!

All kidding aside, Flunky's critique of Cabin was exactly what I was wanting: an honest reaction, pointing out what he saw as the problem spots. Flunky basically said "these are the problems/questions I had as the reader": example A was clunky, example B was confusing, example C was annoying, example D used "dirt" instead of "soil*," etc., etc. I can't say that I agreed with all of his points, but I was able to see where he was coming from on most of them. Would I have been happier if the positives outweighed the negatives? Well, of course, I'm not that big of a masochist. But, better truthful criticism than phony praise; or, so I keep trying to convince myself . . .

Although he had something critical to say about every story save one (which I suspect just slipped his mind), the bulk of the problems he addressed centered around one story in particular; for now I'll leave it to those who've read Cabin to guess which story holds this honor. To be honest, the singling out of one story didn't surprise me: it was the story which I had previously described as the one I was the least happy with. It also (not coincidentally, I'm sure) was the first story I finished. I was never fully satisfied with it, but I was so fixated on getting the other stories written by my deadline that I never found the time/energy to do much editing or revision. I had convinced myself that it was fine as is; I now know better.

Since the critique was done through IM, I had a chance to respond to his comments as they came along; that's an awkward situation in and of itself. I had to make some sort of response, lest he start to think that I was ticked off and sulking, so I found myself overloading my responses with emoticons to make sure they didn't come across as a kind of "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" style reply; the perils of online communication and its lack of verbal and physical cues. I read each reply three or four times before hitting "send," analyzing it to an insane degree; was I being too defensive? Too flippant? Too touchy? Too too? Yes, the neurosis was in full swing. The advantage of the conversational format was that I was able to prod for clarification on some points; of course, the downside is that there were a couple of conversational deviations that detoured us from the matter at hand, a problem that wouldn't have occurred with an emailed review.

Some of Flunky's criticisms were accompanied by suggestions for ways to "fix" the problems; I don't think there was a single one that made me go "yes, that's the answer, well done, my friend, well done!" In fact, most of them provoked more of a "no, that would never work, never, do you hear me?!?!" reaction. Not because the ideas were bad, per se, but because they didn't gel with my (for lack of a better (and less pompous) word) "vision." Not to mention my tendency towards "sorry, if it's not my idea, I can't use it" behavior; call it pride, call it stubbornness, call it fierce independence, call it borderline OCD, stick a feather in its hat and call it macaroni; I'm sure there's bits of truth in each of them. Well, except that macaroni bit. Flunky would say "You could do this," and I would callously brush off his well-intentioned advice with a high-handed "But that doesn't feel right," only to follow it up with a "But what does feel right is this" response. So, while his suggestions themselves may not have taken root, they did spur my thoughts in other directions.

Following the demolishing of my ego, I jokingly told Flunky I was going to go and cry myself to sleep; his response was “Don’t you do that every night?” Touché, my friend, touché. And while I wasn’t quite an emotional wreck, I have to admit that the whole process left me . . . I don’t want to say “upset,” which carries a connotation of anger which doesn’t fit. Depressed? Out of sorts? Beside myself? Something along those lines; as welcome as the criticism was in terms of self-improvement, there’s just something about having one’s shortcomings enumerated that takes the wind out of one’s sails. Unpleasant as it is, it’s a necessary evil: without constructive critiques, I would never have an opportunity to truly improve my writing.

I haven't been able to work up the nerve to give Cabin a good once-over after talking with Flunky, but I fully plan on it; right now I'm regretting sending Cabin out to as many people as I have in its less-than-perfect condition. Of course, if I waited for perfection, nobody would ever get a chance to read it. Although, that would mean that nobody would ever critique it either . . . hmm, maybe I'm on to something here . . .

Oh, who am I trying to kid? We all know that I’m too big of an attention whore to keep from shoving my stuff in people’s faces.

*Trust me, if you know Flunky well, the dirt/soil thing is hilarious; I only wish I'd done it on purpose. I prefer my Flunky-baiting to be done intentionally.


Anonymous said...

Mister Neurotic,
How many people did you send your obsession to anyway? I would not think that you, who have countlessly burst out in popular song should obsess too much over how many critics are cutting away at your masterpieces. By the way, does that mean...when you go back to your "works" does this mean we can expect more from the desk of our neurotic friend?

Cap'n Neurotic said...

Believe me, there's a world of difference between getting up in front of a group of people, many of whom are strangers, to sing some sillly little song and submitting something you've created yourself to others, all of whom are friends and family for approval. If people don't like my singing, well, too bad for them, I never claimed to be Sinatra or Elivs. But if there's a flaw in my writing . . .

Let me put it this way: when people say they don't like parts of Cabin because it's not the sort of thing they read, that's one thing; I can handle differences of taste no problem. But when people point out specific problems with clarity, continuity, believability, etc., that's another; that's an indication that I have failed to some extent as a writer. Again, I want (or, perhaps more accurately, need) to know about these problems, but anytime I'm first faced with the reality of a weakness that I hadn't previously been aware of, it's going to throw me for a loop for a little bit.

Cabin is currently in the hands of arond 15 people; I'm hoping that this post doesn't discourage any of them from being open with me about their thoughts.

And yes, there probably will be more from my neurotic desk sometime in the not-too-distant future.

elphotographo said...

I am now wishing I had read this before I emailed my thoughts on The Cabin. At least I was being honest and you know that I generally stick to romance novels with the occassional Steven King thrown in. Don't get discouraged! Just do your improvements so I can get my copy signed by "the Master" as soon as possibly possible!

Cap'n Neurotic said...

I'm really not all that discouraged; I've had more positive responses than negative so far, which helps, and even the negatives have been in more of a "there's some potential here" vein. Of course, out of the nearly 20 people who have access to it now, I've only received full-on feedback from about 5 of them so far, so I don't know if that's a statistically large enough sampling to mean diddlysquat.

Intersting tidbit: the story you pegged as one of your favorites was one of the ones Flunky and Flunky Lover pegged as their least, and vice versa.