Friday, February 22, 2008

Modes of Encouragement

Natasha wrote a post on Encouragement today and I found myself frowning. She's right, but.... Well, yes, but.... Huh.

She says in part:

one of the things I love about DH, is he will read my stuff, tell me it's great, and tell me he's looking forward to the next bit.

I don't delude myself into thinking that he really thinks it's always great. I mean, he doesn't have much choice about what to say. If he doesn't say it's great, he gets a barrage of two thousand questions and we have to talk about it all the way home.

But even though I know it's a "canned" response, it keeps me writing.

And that's where I started squinting and pondering. I think it depends on the individual, really, because I wouldn't want my husband to read my stuff and just go "It's great, honey!" every time. I'd find that incredibly frustrating and annoying and pretty quickly I'd stop giving him stuff to read. :P

Do I like encouragement? Of course. But when it comes to my actual writing, to specific stories or pages or whatever, I want it to be honest encouragement, with reasons behind it. I want that back-and-forth discussion of what works and what doesn't work and why, and how things could be made better.

A bare, "Hey, this rocks!" is great when it comes from a reader who's posting a comment to a story or sending me an e-mail or something; they're strangers and it's great that they took the time to say anything at all. But for someone who's reading my work on a regular basis, someone I talk to every day, who's right there and available for an extended conversation, to just say "Good job, keep going," over and over again? Ummm. :/ No thanks, seriously.

Maybe it's just that I'm cynical about this sort of thing, but to me, having someone always claim to love whatever it is I'm doing, with no commentary and never any "But maybe this bit could've used some work," or "Actually, I didn't get why Joe did that in in this part here," sounds fake. Hearing "Great stuff, love!" every single time sounds like that person is just trying to boost my ego by giving hollow compliments, patting my head and telling me I'm a good girl and isn't that adorable? It comes across (to me, anyway) as incredibly patronizing and makes me angry much more than it makes me feel good or warm or fuzzy.

Which isn't to say I dislike any and all generic encouragement, of course. My husband respects my work and doesn't interrupt me when I'm writing, which is the encouragement version of showing rather than just telling. :) And on the telling side, he's said that he's proud of me for getting published after all this time, for sticking with it and finally fulfilling a dream I've had since I was a teenager. "You work so hard," or "You're so determined," or even, "Come on, you can do it -- keep trying and you'll find away over, around or through that roadblock in the story" -- that sort of encouragement is very cool because it says "I admire you" and "I believe in you," which is the sort of support I can believe and appreciate. But telling me how wonderful my writing is, over and over -- that page was wonderful, that chapter was wonderful, that story was wonderful, every word that comes out of your keyboard is absolutely wonderful -- I can't believe that. Maybe that's a problem, I don't know.

I'm not everyone, of course. I'm certainly not Natasha, and she's not me. I think it rocks that her husband gives her the exact sort of encouragement she needs and thrives on; it just shows that he knows her well and they fit together just right. But I don't think there's any one mode of praising or encouraging that's going to work with everyone. With people who are close to you, I think the trick of it is to make sure your spouse or parent or best friend or whomever actually knows what sort of encouragement you want or need. People don't read minds, and while it feels great when someone spontaneously tells you exactly what you want to hear, it can feel just as good to tell someone what you need and know that they're giving it to you because they care about you and really want to help you out by giving you what you need and have asked for.

Hopefully everyone can hook up with someone who'll give them what they need. Because every writer -- and every person, no matter what they're into -- deserves to feel like someone's there encouraging them and cheering them on.



Sarai said...

I agree Angie, when my DH reads my stuff he usually says wow you finished a book that's amazing but...
And I know it's time to shut of the well your not seeing it from this way and if you read this chapter then you would understand it, and listen to what he's saying. Otherwise all I would get is a that's great honey, good job. Which is his way of stopping a fight.
We all need fans and support but what I cherish most are the people I can count on to say. Nope it ain't working for me and here's why. Those I have now maybe I should work on the fans... any suggestions?

Angie said...

Sarai -- depends what you mean by fans. :) If you mean people who'll buy your book and then send you a comment, that's sort of serendipity and all we can really do is sit here with a set of virtual fingers crossed and hope. There are places around where you can post your fiction and people will come by and read it, and I've found I'm more likely to get comments in that sort of environment, although 1) the comments-to-readers ratio is always low, and a forum or whatever that's fairly low traffic won't get you all that many comments either, and 2) some kinds of fiction have more and busier forums/communities than others. Depending on what you write, though, if you're willing to put it out in public for free, you can get some good commentary, which is the sort of thing a newbie still working on getting published can often use. If someone I don't know takes the time to tell me how much they liked a story, then that means something.

This is one of the areas where fanfic fandom can be a great place to hang out. There are a bazillion places to post fanfic, depending on what movie or book or TV show it's based on. Fandom in general knows the value of comments and feedback, and is more generous with it than any other open community I know of. (I'm not counting writers' critique groups and such; that's a different animal.) This wasn't always the case -- when I first got online in the late eighties, I got more comments for the stories I posted (which weren't fanfic) than I've gotten on even my most popular fanfic in the last five years. But I've poked around a bit and haven't found any open place to post "regular" fiction that's anywhere near as highly trafficked or as generous with commentary as is fanfic fandom. I'd love to be wrong about that, and trip over a really great place to post fiction and get comments, but so far, no luck.

If you mean you're looking for people you know (family and friends) who'll just do the cheerleader thing without tossing in the concrit at the same time, I would think that if you talked to a few people you'd probably find it easier to get that sort of response than the other. You might have a family or a circle of friends full of writers, but most people don't have the knowledge to give really good concrit, after all, and often feel uncomfortable if they think they're expected to do a thorough analysis. Someone like that, someone who's a reader but not a writer and knows what they like and don't like but doesn't have the vocabulary or the specific knowledge to articulate exactly why, would probably prefer to just do the "Hey, great job!" thing, and might well be relieved that that's all you're looking for. :) If you ask around, you can probably find one or two people who are willing to be your "fans" and keep you stocked up on back-pats and such.

And I know it's time to shut of the well your not seeing it from this way and if you read this chapter then you would understand it, and listen to what he's saying.

There, I think it depends how you do it. I absolutely agree that writers who get all defensive and try to put the burden on the reader, like the "If you weren't such a moron then you'd get what I was trying to say!!" sort of thing, are annoying to deal with and aren't going to get much useful criticism. And if they don't want any, then there's really nothing you can do for them. [shrug]

But you can use the discussion in a constructive way, like "OK, I expected readers to be on Joe's side, but you're on Bob's side instead -- why do you think Joe is a jerk? What did he say or do that made you dislike him?" or something similar. If what you're saying is clearly, "I had a goal and obviously didn't achieve it, so I'd like to get some info from you and figure out where I went wrong," then most people (once they're very sure you're not about to pitch a fit or anything [wry smile]) are willing to talk about it.

I agree, though, that people are more used to writers (and artists and musicians and anyone else they know who does something creative) being all Sensitive Artiste and getting either angry and agressive or emo and wounded whenever they're criticized, or even just not praised enough, that it can take some time to convince someone that you really want to have a critical discussion. :) It took my husband a year or two to figure out that when I ask a direct question about anything, I want a straight answer; it's that sort of thing, where you have to convince the person you're not playing games or trying to lay a trap or anything. :/

I love getting constructive criticism about my writing, and whenever I see another writer asking, "So, what did you think?" and then pitching a fit when they get an answer, I want to smack them silly because they're just making it that much harder for the rest of us who really want to hear someone's honest response. [sigh]


writtenwyrdd said...

I don't like showing my writing to my nearest and dearest. I have trust issues. But my good friends who read my stuff keep me going by having enthusiasm for what they read. I have my one-person fan club in Susan; and I have a couple of writing pals as well as my online critique group. These are the folks to whom I give stuff for a reality check. Sue always says "gimme more" and gives little discussion about what she likes/dislikes and why; and the others will give the rest.

However it's really the deadline pressure that keeps me somewhat focused!

Charles Gramlich said...

The problem is confounded by the fact that writers don't always need the same thing.

Bernita said...

"I want that back-and-forth discussion of what works and what doesn't work and why, and how things could be made better."


Angie said...

WW -- I'm more deadline-oriented too, when it comes to working on and finishing a story. [nod] I'll admit, though, that if I get zero feedback on a story once it's out, I get discouraged. It's like you spend all that time and effort producing this stack of pages, and then you just toss them down a well. :/

Charles -- exactly. [nod] This is one of those situations (and there are actually quite a few) where the Golden Rule can lead you very much astray, because not everyone needs or wants or can even tolerate the same things.

Bernita -- I'd love to get more of it, but not quite enough to get back into heavy workshopping. Maybe some day. [wry smile]


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Angie, I am absolutely 110% behind you on this one. When people just give me vague inferences of this is great or loved it, without giving me specifics, I tend to completely write off their commentary. I need someone who can critically analyze my work and tell me what works, what doesn't, what sucks, whats good, where are the gaping holes, where are the plot malfunctions, etc. My DH is actually a little too hars on me and sometimes I don't give him my stuff because I'm not ready for him to tear it apart in a manner that is sometimes not constructive at all. You know what I mean, right?

Anyway, completely agree. Which is why all my friends who say can I read it? I say, when it's published!

Angie said...

Ello -- My DH is actually a little too hars on me and sometimes I don't give him my stuff because I'm not ready for him to tear it apart in a manner that is sometimes not constructive at all. You know what I mean, right?

Sure. [nod] Even the most well-meant criticism isn't useful if it isn't constructive. We need something to grab onto and examine, specific comments, hopefully with specific examples, that'll help us get a handle on exactly what the problem is and why, what caused the malf, etc. Comments like "The plot is stupid" or "I hate your main character" are completely useless IMO because they don't give the writer any info on exactly what went wrong or where or why.

I can get into the vaguer sort of comment ("Great story!") from people I don't know. That's 99% of what I get from readers, after all, and I'm absolutely delighted to hear from every single one of them because it's usually the only reader feedback I get. But if I let someone read one of my stories before I send it out into the world (which I do rarely anyway), I expect something more concrete.

I'm not saying writers who like or need that sort of encouragement pre-submission are wrong -- everyone needs what they need. My point is that different people need different things, and it sounds like you and I prefer the same sort of comments. :)