An Honest Critique

focus photo of yellow paper near trash can
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

On Thursday I posted the second half of my story Harold and Caroline, and then promptly admitted that I had some problems with it. To be clear, there are things about it that I liked, and there were new things I learned from the experience. Also it’s true that most stories have some degree of disappointment for their author, its just that this one was more than usual for me.

The thing is, I think Harold and Caroline could have been better. It wasn’t flawed clear through to its core. In hindsight I have found specific things that if I had done differently I would have been more satisfied with the work. Let’s take a look at those.

No Sideplots)

The main problem with the story is that it establishes its central conflict with the very first scene: Harold and Caroline do not get along, but it never evolves on that idea until the very end. Basically it is a series of disconnected sequences that only serve to express that same initial tension over and over until the final scene brings a moment of reconciliation. Because of the lack of development or escalation in the body of the story, I felt that conclusion felt particularly limp. Sure, Harold is donating his kidney to Caroline’s son, but I just don’t care very much.

Which was quite a letdown for me, because I was quite excited at the initial idea for this story. Basically I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be interesting if two office workers hated each other, but were anonymously doing one another a great service? On the surface that sounded great, it had shades of both Shop Around the Corner and The Gift of the Magi, each of which are wonderfully satisfying tales in their own right.

But after seizing on that premise, I simple couldn’t find the right narrative thrust to carry us from the initiating scene to the surprise conclusion. Every story needs some form of a forward momentum to carry the reader from one end to the other, but I couldn’t figure it out for this one. Harold and Caroline has a beginning and an ending, but absolutely no middle.

I previously mentioned the film Shop Around the Corner. It was remade more recently as You’ve Got Mail, and both versions are quite good. In each interpretation we have a man and a woman who are writing to each other under assumed names. These two also happen to be interacting in real life on a daily basis. While through their written correspondence they are falling in love with each other, their face-to-face relationship is filled only with revulsion. Of course they eventually find out one another’s true identity, feel the whiplash from that, and then resolve their conflicting feelings for each other.

Why that story maintains interest from start to finish, though, is because their real-life interaction is based off of a store that is of mutual interest, one that is tottering on the edge of collapse. The store is made up of a colorful cast of characters, which provide a constant stream of drama for the two protagonists to get enmeshed with. Each side-plot is amusing in its own right, but also provides a new backdrop for the dueling lovers to continuously mount the stakes against one another.

In Harold and Caroline there isn’t a single one of these side-plots for the reader to get lost in. I started to develop something about Caroline’s friends putting together a fundraiser for her, but then I drop that thread almost immediately. It could have been a Trojan Horse that had its own satisfying arc, while smuggling in opportunities for Caroline and Harold to spar on the side.

The Duel)

But that brings up to another problem in my story: Caroline simply won’t spar. Going back to the example of Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, both protagonists in that story are hotheaded, full of pride, and dish out their insults rapid-fire. It makes them endlessly entertaining to watch from start to finish. The secret to a successful give-and-take is that it needs to go both ways. Each character needs to be able to take the criticism and return a volley of their own.

Consider how in real life we tend to be drawn to those that exude the strongest personalities. We like to follow individuals who are confident, regardless of whether they are right or not. Drama, therefore, most commonly springs up when two strong personalities are unwilling to yield to one another. The two alphas fight for dominance, and their peers watch with rapt attention to see the outcome.

Whether a story features a battle of wits, a popularity contest, or a tense shootout, this sort of tension will only be sustained if both sides feel evenly matched. The reader must believe that either side might pull ahead. Sadly this wasn’t the case at all with Harold and Caroline.

In my story the male protagonist was pretty sharp-tongued while the woman was a mouse. Their interactions don’t really go anywhere because she never stands up for herself. The criticism only ever flows in one direction. It isn’t a battle of alphas, it’s a leader picking on the runt. As I thought of the beginning and the ending of the story this character-type made the most sense for Caroline, but once again it left me nowhere to go during the middle.

Easier to Critique Than Write)

As I paused to reflect on Harold and Caroline these two flaws were the ones that stood out to me the most. Either would be sufficient to doom the story on its own, let alone when combined together. But if I’m able to pick out these flaws, why did they ever manage to get in the story in the first place?

I think there’s an important lesson here: that it is always easier to critique a story than to write one. It is easier to say that the story needs to have more sideplots than to actually craft intelligent and meaningful arcs. I can say “Caroline should be a stronger character” in only six words, actually giving her a distinct and powerful personality takes many more.

Really, though, it is a blessing that we have powers of analysis stronger than our power of creativity. It means we will always know the path to improvement, the next steps necessary to elevate our work. I might not have written Harold and Caroline very well, but I do know what I need to write the next story better.

And speaking of next stories I’ve decided that I’m going to a do-over. My original idea was to write a story where a character despises another, but then comes to see him in a fairer light. Later this week I will post my new interpretation of that theme. In will be an all-new character with an all-new setting, but it is going to borrow heavily from the lessons we’ve discussed here today. Hopefully it will be a lot more successful as a result! Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Critique UP

close up of text
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So here we are at the start of a new series. Each time I finish a session of stories I am well aware of all the shortcomings in my work, but they don’t bother me too much. The fact is that three days is a very quick sprint to bring a story from initial concept to polished conclusion, no matter how short it may be. Almost every Thursday morning finds me setting aside a long list of improvements for my story, just so that I can meet my deadline. Not every creative effort has to be targeting perfection, after all, and its never been my ambition for this blog to produce top-quality narratives that are ready for publishing. Really I just wanted this blog to be a constant stream of ideas and experience, knowing full well that for every nugget of gold there’s going to be a lots of dirt clods along the way.

But not all of my work is meant for practice, I do also write other stories that I am trying to polish and mold into their best possible forms. In these situations I have to seriously weigh every shortcoming and flaw that I see in my work, and even open myself up to asking others what problems they see in it as well. Opening up one’s work for critique is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it’s hard to not get emotionally wounded by the criticisms that inevitably follow. I don’t really want to focus on the proper way to receive those critiques, though, I feel there are plenty of resources available that cover that end of the exchange. Instead I’d rather take some time for the other side of things, discussing how to give helpful and nurturing feedback if ever you are asked your opinion on a piece.

We’ll begin by looking at the wrong method for providing critique. Unfortunately, it is the more common method, our culture has developed a trend for sharp and cynical put-downs whenever evaluating other people’s creative efforts. We even provide this “service” to the creator when they never even asked for our feedback. The title of “critic” is all too accurate, and many who carry this title seek nothing more than to cut stories apart for the entertainment of others. Indeed at times it seems that professional critics view themselves as performers, whose purpose has more to do with amusing the audience with their biting wit, instead of actually providing a fair and meaningful dissection of a work. With the advent of social media and a “comments sections” at the bottom of most internet articles we’ve even taken the meta a step further with the audience critiquing the work of that critic.

In addition to this penchant for snark, our culture is also very competitive. Our main method for appraising a work is to compare it to another and see which is better. Art schools and creative industries have very little patience for any but the top two percent, and cuts from the programs are quick and severe. Perhaps these methods really are the best for producing revenue, I don’t know, but I have a hard time believing that they are ideal for cultivating happy and creative people.

I actually spent a short stint of college in one of those art programs, and quite frankly I did amazing. That’s not to say that I “succeeded” in the program, quite frankly I was in the bottom half of each class I took and I never had a prayer of progressing to the more specialized projects. But I say that I did amazing simply because I developed and improved. I listened to the instruction that was given and I went from drawing shapeless lumps to recognizable figures. I don’t care that no one was ever going to pay me for this stuff, I was better than before and that was enough for me.

I think that’s a fair and honest critique of myself. It doesn’t make my work out to be something more than it was, but it also doesn’t discredit the good that was accomplished. So can we develop a method for a kinder form of honest critique like this? I believe so. Really it all comes down to intent, intent of the author and intent of the reader. When we have these sorted out, nurturing feedback will follow naturally.

Appreciating the intent of the author has two branches, the first of which has to do with understanding their intent in even writing the story. When we provide feedback for a story our default metric seems to be “well do I like it.” But we all know that “liking” something is often subjective, and that there are many things which we do not like but which we can still acknowledge were well made and which seem to have accurately captured the author’s intent. Perhaps the author’s intent was even to make something which, by nature, was unlikable. Should we say they did a poor job because they succeeded in the very thing they set out to do?

Another question we should ask ourselves is what was the author’s intent in even seeking our critique? The simple truth is that not all people that request critique really want it. When my three-year-old son shows me his latest drawing he does not really want to know what I think of his picture, he just wants to know what I think of him. You might be tempted to say well that is a three-year-old and a grown adult is a very different thing. I’m afraid I would disagree. We may have learned how to be more subtle with our years of experience, but we very often play the same games we employed as children. To be clear, I am not advocating that you coddle others or give them disingenuous praise for their work, I am merely suggesting that you reflect on what their true intentions are and then use your own wisdom in choosing how to respond.

But now let’s assume a scenario where the author truly is looking for constructive criticism. More than anything they want to improve so that their work can be the best it can be, and you could do them a great favor in helping them to hone their craft. How can we do this in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of kindness?

As I’ve tried to find a way to express this sort of positive critique my mind settled on mathematics of all things. In order to provide any review you first have to identify three values related to it. We have to know the value of what was written, we’ll call that value 1. Next we must know the value of the ideal, or the potential of what could have been written, we’ll call that value 3. And finally we have to know the difference between those two values, obviously that is 2. Now with these three values there are two ways we can express their relations to one another. The first way follows the pattern of “This is what you should have done (3), but these are all the things you did wrong (2), and this is what we were left with as a result (1).”

3 – 2 = 1

The is the pattern of the cynical and competitive methods mentioned above. You can recognize it in a review by the abundance of that middle term “these are all the things you did wrong” in all its various forms. As the mathematical equation suggests, this sort of critique is literally a negative perspective, one that pulls a work down to a lower term.

But now for that other way of expressing these values. You could instead use the pattern of “This is what you’ve already accomplished (1), and by incorporating these other elements into that foundation (2), this is what you your work could become (3).”

1 + 2 = 3

This sort of approach is literally a positive perspective, one that looks to lift the author to a higher term. Please note that all the same information has been conveyed with this approach, we haven’t had to leave out any of our recommended improvements by expressing things more kindly. I think we sometimes forget that brutal honesty is not the only kind of honesty, and it is not a more honest form of honesty because of its brutality. Uplifting honesty is just as honest, and greatly more helpful.

I want to stress here the importance of the first term “this is what you have already accomplished.” In either form of critique we need to establish a base metric, so why not do that with the good the author has already accomplished? A truly fair analysis of a work should be willing to give equal attention both to what is good and what is lacking, not solely focused on the negative. I think you’ll find you are far less likely to convince anyone of how they can grow in their work until you first convince them that you see the work which has already occurred.

For the second term, notice how in the positive form we are stressing a relationship between what they have done and what they could do to improve. Incorporate these elements into your foundation. We are suggesting that this better form of writing belongs in their story, whereas the negative approach suggests that all those good things are apart from their story which makes their situation seem hopeless.

And of course in the third term we leave them with a vision, an invigorating glimpse of what they can become. In the negative approach we leave them at the lowest positive value of the equation. It all comes down to the direction you want your critique to flow it, are you going to use it to drag them to the lowest possible point or uplift them to the highest?

I sincerely feel that the thoughtful critique of creative work does so much more than improve the work in question, it has the potential to improve the very soul who authored it. As writers, we of all people should understand that our words can have great power, both to break and to build, it is our obligation and privilege to do the latter.

On Thursday I’d like to present a short story on which I will immediately provide a quick analysis. I will try to do so in a way that is honest and fair, which takes into account all of its flaws and shortcomings, but which presents them in a way that is kind and encouraging. Obviously that all sounds quite self-serving, but you know something? I don’t think there’s anything  wrong with that! Feel free to come back then if you want to see me be nice to myself 🙂