Wednesday, November 10, 2010

First, Mind Your Own Business


Bear with the martial arts talk.  There's a pay-off. :)

When I was taking aikido, I like to worm up with some basic kung fu exercises.  I've never had formal kung fu, but I've studied enough longfist shaolin to know some a handful of basic forms, techniques, and exercises to a beginner level.  I selected a few that seemed to stretch appropriate muscle groups.

One of my favorites was the toe kick, in which you extend your foot  and kick upward, striking with the toes to the opponents groin.  As with any kick, during practice you kick higher than your target, so that in actual striking you would kick with sufficient speed and power.

With me so far?

Kicking up with my foot stretched out and pointed.

Note that our form of aikido itself included no kicks at all.

So, one day while I'm doing these kicks, a senior student came up.  Speaking to me from his taekwondo experience, he corrected my kick.  Never, he said, kick with your toes.  You'll break them.  He wanted me to do a snap kick with the ball of my foot instead.

I tried to explain my kick, tried to explain what I was stretching --

-- and he was having none of it.  "Just do some other stretches then," he demanded. "There is no point in practicing incorrect kicks."

To summary, I was practicing a kung fu kick before aikido class.  My aikido senrior corrected and scolded me in fully, righteous confidence drawn from his taekwondo experience.

Let me take out all the martial arts mumbo jumbo:

I was doing something.  Somebody who was more experienced in something else corrected me based on knowledge of yet something else.

I was ticked off and offended, and it still sort of riles me up.

But how often do I do the same thing to people?   I think it's really tempting with something like writing especially to jump in and correct people.  Even if you're not a jerk about it, it could be a misfire.

Advice can be correct, well-intentioned, and kindly delivered and still off-the-mark if the context is overlooked.

I did a beta read for a writer whom I'll allow to remain anonymous.  The book itself was outside my genre and my reading level, but it was in a dark tone.  I was asked specifically to look at voice and character.  I tried really hard to do that and not to stray with my comments into things that are really outside my own "expertise" (such as it is).

It was a strange experience to keep reminding myself, "Don't forget, you know next-to-nothing about this genre and you don't want to assume that such and such is the same."

The experience really brought it home for me, though, how often I do that just casually when I'm talking to other writers.  I offer suggestions or comments without thinking, "Hey, wait, what is they're writing?  Does this comment actually make sense for someone writing that?  Do I even understand how such and such works enough in that genre to make this comment?"

I try to do better about that.

I also try to keep that in mind when I receive comments from other people.  I didn't need to second-guess my shaolin toe kick because a senior student gave me an out-of-context tongue-lashing.  It's okay to say to myself, "You know, that comment from such and such is a great idea, and I know they were trying to help, but honestly it doesn't really have any bearing on my style or genre or reading level or topic."

So, here are your rules for tonight, put bluntly and harshly so they're memorable:

1) Mind your own business when you don't really understand someone else's.

2) Don't sweat it too much when other people break rule number one. They're not jerks, they're just trying to be nice.  But that doesn't mean they're right.



  1. I offer free crits on my blog. Everyone CHOOSES whether or not they want my opinion. I give my opinion, as a reader. I don't know every genre but I know what I like to read. I'm not an expert at grammar or spelling but I also don't give feedback on such things unless they have a lot of glaring errors. I think you're right, we need to mind our own business and I hope when people hear what they don't want to hear, they're nice about it. I just want their novel to have the best chance.
    Great post. Hope my comment made some sense. It's really early in the morning and I haven't had enough coffee.

  2. Clarissa, you seem to do a pretty good job with keeping your crits general, and because of how you offer and present them, I think you encourage the authors to understand that yours is just one opinion. By encouraging your blog readers to chime in and disagree, I think that helps the authors realize that, no matter how good your insights are, they aren't always the final word and it's okay if they themselves disagree with something.

  3. TKD people are serious about kicks! I learned the "proper" foot position for front and round kicks in my first lesson: point the foot, pull back those toes (and if your pinky toe goes its own direction, that's nothing you can do about it.)

    It's so true what you say about knowing where your criticisms come from and more importantly, knowing your own intentions for the decisions that are being questioned. More than once I've protested silently to people commenting on my piano teaching when I was a new teacher, "don't tell me I am doing something wrong before you know WHY I'm doing those things."

    Now I try to figure the intention and offer critiques presented as "from my perspective, this seems...."

    I am sure I still do plenty of judging without being aware of someone else's intentions--just ask my children--but at least I'm aware of it.

  4. While I read I couldn't help comparing the marital arts to ballet. Both require discipline and dedication and both have different goals. So too with writing. I am the moderator of a general genre critique group. We all write in different genre's. Some things are true no matter what. Voice, show don't tell, plot points...while other things are very different. Unicorns and machine guns, murder or wizards and spells...oh...those two might match. Harry Potter comes to mind. But you get the idea. Good point. It took me a long time to know when to ignore someones advice and when to embrace it.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  5. so true--isn't there some rule of feedback that if one person comments on something, maybe; but if more than one comment, fix it? Betas and CPs are invaluable, but in the end you have to go w/your gut. Yes? :o)

  6. @Yat-yee - Yeah, I've learned over the years not to get into a technical or strategic conversation about kicks with most TKD folks. It's their passion. :)

    I think you're on the right track. All we can do it try our best to understand their intentions and then admit in how we frame our feedback that it's from our particular perspective.

    @Nancy - There are definitely things that are common across most writing, but I would hesitate to say, "no matter what." Some writing is voicier than others, and that can be stylistic or part of reading level and genre. Likewise, I think some genres require and accept a great deal more telling. And what a plot point is often varies, too. That's not to say you can't help across genres; you certainly can. You just have to do so thoughtfully. From how you write and approach things, I'm sure you do a great job of that.

    @Leigh - Yes! It's your writing, not theirs, so in the end I usually recommend trusting your gut, not theirs. Especially if they're coming from another whole perspective or are one voice among a dozen.

  7. Very useful advice. I don´t really like beta reading for anyone else unless I am very certain I know what they want to do - and that I can help them get there.

    I have had several beta readers over the years, but again, it is extremely important that they realize whether I am trying to write a psychological thriller or a cosy mystery. My latest reader was just perfect; she asked some good questions, but she never stepped on my toes because she knew the genre so well.

  8. So true. I always cringe when I send back comments because I never know how the person's going to react. You have two good rules there I'll definitely keep in mind.

    Nice to see you again :)

  9. I do a lot of beta reading/critiquing, and have to remind myself a lot that just b/c it isn't done My way, doesn't make it wrong.

    And I alway preface my feed back with "Just cuz you asked my opinion, don't mean you gotta use it."


  10. You're right - I've had beta readers that don't understand the genre and they act as if they do. They question the MC's motives, actions and thoughts because my MC didn't act like one of theirs. Writing is tough enough. No one needs a critique partner with a closed mind.

    BTW - one of my critique partners was fabulous!! (Hint, hint)

  11. @Dorte - Yeah, I think someone has to really know my genre *or* my style *or* my technical approach to be very helpful at this point.

    @Diana - Nice to see you, too! And I know exactly what you mean. I always make really clear negotiations ahead of time so that I know exactly what they want from me and I address only that. It helps me be a little less nervous. A little. lol

    @Donna - So true! I think sometimes people feel guilty about not follow critiques.

    @Lori - :-D


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