My movie ALGORITHM just passed 1,800,000 views on Youtube. That’s amazing. It feels really good. It’s a milestone on the way to 2 Million, which now seems like something that’s going to happen. That feels pretty good too.
As of this moment, it’s got 10,418 likes and 1,172 dislikes. Most people who comment love it. Some love it. Some dislike it.
Others hate it and express exactly why they hate it.
There are even some trolls who just argue and pick fights. I wasn’t sure at first what to do about them because I thought everyone should be able to have a voice. I eventually decided that I need to have a line and actively trying to pick a fight without adding anything to the discussion is that line. I’ve blocked a few trolls, after warning them.
But, that’s not why I’m writing this.
I’m writing this because I want to share how I read the comments, some of which are really harsh reviews of my work. It’s just me doing this part of things. I don’t have an assistant or an underling. Unlike larger companies, I have to read the comments and sometimes they hurt.
As an artist, as a producer, I have to believe that what I’m doing can be done and that I’m the best person to do it. Otherwise, there are plenty of other capable people in the world that I’ll leave the work to and I’ll find what I’m best at. Since I feel like I’m doing that now, I need a solution to how to cope with bad reviews.
* * *
I had the privilege to be a part of a writing group with some amazing women who taught me a lot. One of the biggest lessons was in categorizing critiques so that I could emotionally deal with them appropriately. It’s really about evaluating the source of the critique. They fall into several categories:
1. The critic is angry about something in their own lives and is projecting it onto my work.
2. The critic is angry at me and jealous that I’m doing something they can’t/wont.
3. The critic doesn’t have issue but doesn’t understand/like this kind of the story.
4. The critic and knows something needs work but can’t say what or why.
5. The critic knows what’s wrong and can say what it is.
There’s a lot in there so I’m going to break down each number for clarity.
* * *
1. We, all of us, when we see something, we see it through the lens of our own history.
We don’t see things as they are, in themselves. Instead, our brains try to fit the thing we’re experiencing into the context of our previous life events.
Very often, artists, aspiring or otherwise, will have intense emotional struggles that drive them to express themselves in art. Mental illnesses are common in the arts. Mental illness seems to produce the exact kinds of struggles that drive a person to the arts. That said, don’t make the mistake that mental illness, drugs, alcohol, poverty, or anything else is required to be an artist. Those are just tendencies.
Those experiences are painful. Quite a few people haven’t dealt with their pain in a healthy way and that internal pain often causes them to lash out at whatever is near them. Those kinds of people are often too blinded by their own anger to see anything outside themselves clearly. Thus, they are incapable of properly evaluating any artistic endeavor. They may occasionally stumble across a useful answer though, so always listen. Just don’t take it personally.
* * *
2. Pursuing art is hard. Not everyone has the constitution for it.
It requires a lot of sacrifices. Some say, if there’s anything in your life you’re not willing to give up for the sake of your art, you shouldn’t be an artist. That is almost true. In order to make art, our lives must be optimized for that purpose.
We must begin to look at the world differently: seeing shapes and colors, relationships between those shapes and colors; how experiences affect us psychologically; why we feel the way we do about things, which then allows us to intentionally cultivating that same kind of reaction in others.
Doing that requires rejecting many social norms. It may involve questioning every belief we hold to be true. It involves digging deep into our psyches and staring at the void, or whatever demons stare back at us, and then being truthful with ourselves and others about what we see.
It can involves saying no to money, to security, to various family needs. It requires questioning whatever religion we were raised with. I’m not saying any of those things have to be gotten rid of or abandon, but they must be questioned. Do they help us get closer to the truth or do they pull us away? Do they enable us to make better art or are they holding us back?
The answer to those questions is often extremely hard to deal with. And answering them usually takes a long time, usually without any results.
That’s a sacrifice most people aren’t willing to make. Sometimes the people who aren’t willing to make that sacrifice, or who are in the middle of staring at the void or their demons, they are in your writing group.
Identify them quickly.
2’s comments will often seem like 1’s comments, but they are qualitatively different. They will often have more specific and biting hate in them. Sometimes 2’s comments will bring up real issues that need to be addressed, but far more often than not, they are simply coming from active personal hostility.
If you know that the comments aren’t coming from a place of honesty and helpfulness, and if they don’t bring up any real issues, take the note as if it’s something important, but only in order avoid a fight. Then, when you’re home again, dismiss those comments later.
* * *
3 is about taste.
I wrote a sci-fi story for a short story class in college. The professor asked me to hone my skills with literary fiction rather than genre. It didn’t matter how good the story was; she didn’t like genre and so my story wouldn’t be liked by her.
Since that professor didn’t like genre, she wasn’t capable of recognizing whether my story was good or bad. She just didn’t have that skill. (That story wasn’t very good because I’m not very good at writing prose. My prose is way too brief, as if Elements of Style was the story. It’s not good enough for prose, but that brevity is perfect for screenwriting, where there’s no room for fluff.)
This one is really about knowing your audience. Understanding this point is really, really helpful when getting rejections from editors, producers, or anyone else. It may not be that your story’s no good. It may just be getting to the wrong people.
That said, most stories fail because they’re not good enough. Be honest with yourself and learn the difference.
And that’s a perfect segue to
* * *
4 is probably the most common because it comes from a lack of skill.
There are a lot of healthy people in the arts. Not everyone’s crazy. But, there’s a big difference between being healthy and having done something long enough to be skilled at it.
I ran into this problem early on in my writing days.
I had written a novel called The Academy. It wasn’t well-written because I didn’t have the skill to write it then, and I suck at prose. I realized it might make a good movie. So, I learned the format of writing movies and rewrote it in script form.
A friend was getting her MFA and wanted to become a producer in Hollywood. I sent her the script and she loved it. She said it was way more creative than anything she could ever do herself.
That’s high praise to a struggling writer!
For several months we went back and forth. I would write something and send it to her. She would write up comments and send it back to me. I would rewrite to account for her notes and send it back to her.
Eventually we reached a point where she wasn’t a good enough writer to see what the problems with the script were, and neither was I. I told her I didn’t want to work on this anymore and I was heading back to prose.
I continued that mistake for 2 more unpublishable novels. But, those novels were teaching me what good writing was. Even if I couldn’t write prose well, I was learning what good writing looked like.
People will critique a work and they’ll see that something’s wrong. They’ll write a note because they think they know what the problem is. But, that note will be wrong. It’s right because there is an issue, but it’s wrong because the critic lacks the skills to properly identify the issue.
Avoid all notes that include suggestions on how to fix a problem. If they could do it, they’d be doing it themselves. If the note happens to come from someone who is making art as their living, the critique will be valid and the fix might be a great one, but if you listen to all their fixes, then you’re not writing the story, they are.
* * *
5 is extremely rare because it’s really hard to do. Generally people who are that good at story analysis aren’t in writer’s groups because they’re too busy raking in money from their good writing. We all hope to be in groups that are filled with 5.
If you are, you’re probably a working writer and those other people are working writers too. I happen to be fortunate enough to have friends who are amazing at 5. It’s a blessed situation because I know the difference and I really value what I’ve got now.
* * *
Sometimes the comments are right, sometimes they’re not. Knowing the difference can save an artist from falling into despair.