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Writing Excuses 7.10: The Importance of Criticism

Writing Excuses 7.10: The Importance of Criticism


Key points: your first large work should be a murder mystery. "Your job is to make the reader late for work, unable to sleep, unable to do their homework. You want to make them unable to feed their kids." CITOKATE: criticism is the only known antidote to error. Writing is the only true magic, with incantations in black squiggles that produce almost anything! Preserve the mad genius. "Take that scene that made you cry and retype it."

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, live at the World Fantasy Convention. We're going to be talking about the importance of criticism.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart. I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.

[Dan] Today we have our guest, David Brin.
[David] Great to be with you two.
[Dan] Wonderful. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, about your books?
[David] Oh, well. I've been a science fiction author since 1980. My first novel, Sundiver, was a science-fiction murder mystery. I tell my students when I teach writing, no matter whether they want to do science fiction or romance, Westerns... Always, their first novel or their first large work should be a murder mystery. Because I think it's a purist form of storytelling. When you write a science fiction novel, you can stick in gimmicks to sort of hide the fact that when you find out whodunit, when the mystery is resolved, in the parlor scene, two thirds point, end of the second act, you didn't really know how to deliver it very well. In a romance, there can be a lot of kissing going on, and you miss the... In a murder mystery, when you find out whodunit, there are only three possible reactions. One is, "Huh? Where the heck did that come from? It was not foreshadowed at all." Number two is, "Of course. Yawn. I saw it a mile away." What you want is the third possible reaction. That is shocked dismay on the reader's face, pounding their head saying, "Of course. Of course. Of course. Of course." Hating themselves for being just five IQ points short of figuring it out. They would have been disappointed if they had figured it out. You want them to rip the book in half, throw it out the window and dive after it. That proves that we have a sadomasochistic relationship. Your job is to make the reader late for work, unable to sleep, unable to do their homework. You want to make them unable to feed their kids. If you do all this to them, they will buy your next book. So it is genuinely sadomasochistal. That's why I tell my students to always do a murder mystery first. That's why my first novel, Sundiver, was a science-fiction murder mystery. We'll talk about my second, but I've had a bunch of them, and I've just handed in my first novel in five years, called Existence. Which is a great, big, near-future real extrapolation, mature for grown-ups, like my novel Earth was, and then I'll go back to talking dolphins.
[Dan] Nice. All right. Writing as social irresponsibility. I love it.
[Mary] Absolutely.

[Dan] Okay. So we want to talk about the importance of criticism. David, this was a topic you suggested. Tell us about it.
[David] Well, it's really very simple. I've spread an aphorism around, that criticism is the only known antidote to error. CITOKATE. Look, when you have as large an ego as I have, or as a lot of the writers I know have, and especially as big a mouth as I have, you have to have compensating traits. The most powerful compensating trait is a sense of humor. But second only to a sense of humor, the ability to laugh at yourself, the ability to welcome criticisms from others is the second trait. That is, we all are easily fooled. The person who can fool us most easily is us. In our profession as writers, we are liars. It's the only true magic. We have talked civilization into teaching 98% of people to be literate enough to scan with their eyes these squiggles on these pages, and to decrypt these incantations that we're the masters of. To decrypt them into star spanning explosions, deep human insights, and emotions and all these things. We're the magicians. We're the reliable product-delivering magicians. But that makes us liars. We can fool ourselves. So the only way you can get product quality control is with criticism. But here's the problem. There's nothing human beings naturally hate more than criticism. So you naturally hate and evade the thing that you need the most. So you have to take this hard-nosed attitude of "Bring it on! Bring it on, it's the only way I can get better." If your ego is large, but confident, then you'll say to criticism, "Bring it on! Of course, I can be even better than I am!" If you take that attitude, then you'll get the criticism you need. You'll do the workshops. Nowadays online there are all these wonderful workshops. Mary will tell you about them. You can join them and you can trade things off. We used to have to hunt people down at our level to hold these wonderful workshops. That is the key thing. You get better if you treat it as craft, but you don't ever let it squish that corner of your brain which is the mad creative genius artist wizard. That part must never be crushed by the criticism. You have to build this adult, sane, professional editor inside your own mind who takes the criticism. Every morning, you sit down at the word processor, and that editor sighs and says, "Oh, God, what did the genius do last night?" Has to just groan and go through, fixing and tidying and editing and getting criticisms for this wonderful stuff that's created by this mad genius. You preserve that mad genius. You give that mad genius the night.

[Mary] One of the things that I was curious about as you were talking was... You said... You talked about the importance of criticism and the difficulty of finding people. I'm wondering, do you use the same readers? Like, what is your process for getting criticism and feedback? Because I use beta readers... I use actually alpha readers and then beta readers.
[David] Absolutely. I don't use... Very few of the readers I thank at the back of my books now are the same. Partly because my life has moved on, I get a lot of them off of my blog, Contrary Brin, and sometimes I've simply moved on beyond them. But I'm one of the only authors at my level who you'll see who has 40 or 50 names in the back of every book. Because I consider that a sign that I'm challenging myself. I'm trying new things. I know... I can't count the number of authors I know who stopped getting the feedback after they one day looked in the mirror and said I'm a professional writer. Well, I know I need it more than most people. A, because I'm constantly taking on challenges, things I've never done before. But B, because with an ego my size? My God! I need it. Fortunately I married a woman who is quite capable of stoking my frail male ego when it needs it, but also putting the dampers on when it...
[David] So, in any event... Next?

[Dan] Well, let's... We're actually going to stop right here, and talk about our book of the week, which is one of yours. Tell us about it.
[David] Oh, well. Startide Rising is offered on wonderful audible recorded books basis. By the way, my neighbor, in my neighborhood, Richard Dreyfuss, has offered to read my next novel. I think that'll be cool.
[Mary] Ooo...
[Dan] That's exciting.
[Mary] Nice name drop.
[David] But Startide Rising was my second novel, and it really, really boosted my career. I mean, what do you expect something to do when it wins the Nebula, the Hugo, the Campbell, and all the awards. I, for a little while there, was the hot, young... I'm told it's G rated here. I was the hot young guy in science fiction for a while.
[Dan] Hence now the ego that you were just talking about.
[David] Exactly. It's basically dolphins in space. I mean, who could resist dolphins in space? It's got its serious aspects. I go into the biology, the ethos of dolphins. I tried to fabulate... I knew a lot of the researchers in the field... I try to fabulate what their character might be like if they were given special, technological abilities. Just boost it up that last little bit, called uplift. So Startide Rising follows the adventures of 150 dolphins who have been given their own ship, plus seven human advisors and one chimpanzee for comic relief. They get into a lot of trouble. I've been told it's poetical, that it's nicely written, but that it's a rip snorting adventure to read.
[Mary] I'm going to back him up on that, because it is one of my favorite books.
[Dan] Fantastic. You can get a free audio book of it by going to, signing up for a free trial membership, and you get a free book. So there you go. Startide Rising by David Brin.

[Dan] Now let's get back to talking about criticism. Where are some of the places that our listeners can go as they seek criticism for their work?
[David] Well, there's... Let's see now. There's fan fiction, of course. You can publish your own works and get feedback. There are some of the more organized sites, like critters. Now, mind you, I haven't used either of these. I'm a little bit too busy, and I have my own coterie of fans. I don't have to spend my turn in the barrel, so to speak. Although there are some cryptic ways I will not announce that I end up doing about 40 reads of young authors every year. They have to go through a little bit of a process, but I feel I owe it, to pay forward. Whether or not this is what most authors do.
[Mary] You can find... Do you mind if I jump in?
[David] Go ahead, please.
[Mary] Being a younger author, I've had to... And younger, I mean career...
[David] More recent. You know the tech stuff.
[Mary] Yes. So there's... critters is a great resource. There's also Hatrack River. Then, nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, is a great way to meet a lot of other writers.
[David] My daughter did this. You have to, within one month, write a 40,000 word novel. Oi! She did it.
[Mary] Actually, 50,000 words.
[Dan] For adults. They break it down...
[Mary] But it's only 2000 words a day. It's not that big a deal.
[David] [laughter] I have done that. When I did the last Isaac Asimov novel, his widow, Janet, was very kind and said that of all the people who channeled Isaac, mine was the closest to his. That was very sweet of her. But when I did that, I was writing that kind of amount per day. [Inaudible] But that's beside the point. The fact is that you go to these sites, you can find them online. You find the community, you write to some of your favorite authors. You can find the ways of doing the criticism.

[David] A couple of the other pieces of advice that I've had. I talked about writing a detective story. Here's another. You want to write like X, in a certain way. You want to write dialogue like a person whose dialogue brought you to tears. You want to write... The absolutely quintessential best thing about Robert Heinlein was the first 10 pages of any of his books. Because he would bring you into the world assuming the assumptions of the character who you're writing along. So you learn point of view. He explains nothing that the character doesn't glance at. Or comment sourly about how that unit isn't working. You learn about it just by passing. If you want to learn how to do these things, here's the trick. Don't study and read these passages. Because, remember when I said you're a magician? These are incantations. If you read these passages, by a master who you enjoyed, the incantation will take effect in your brain. You'll feel the deep human insights, you'll cry, you won't notice how she did it.
[Mary] I'm going to take exception to that. Because I do exactly the opposite thing.
[David] You do read...
[Mary] Absolutely. Because I'm writing Jane Austen's style, so I will actually actively read before writing. I actually think of it, and you're going to laugh, I think of it as uplift.
[Dan] [laughter]
[Mary] Because I think of it as a brain patch. It's... Because I pick up the rhythms, and that becomes part of the way I'm...
[David] Then my already great respect for you went up. But I think you miss the point. You are able to turn off the incantation, or turn down the temptation response in your brain, and look at where she put the comma. But most people can't. So my advice is, take that scene that made you cry and retype it. That way, it's going through a different part of your brain, and it's going through the fingers. I have had responses from many people who have said, "Ah! That enabled me to step back just enough so I could see the incantatory process of the black squiggles that she made."
[Mary] You can't see me on the radio nodding a lot. I thought you were going with a different... To a different place when you are saying don't read the... Because I completely agree with you on the typing, because I did... I sat down and rekeyed some Austen before I started.
[Dan] So you're both in perfect agreement [inaudible arts?]
[Mary] Yeah. In art school, that used to be the way you learned the great masters, is you copied them. Part of the reason is so that you don't... You're only having to deal with one aspect. You aren't having to try to juggle everything all at the same time.
[David] Don't worry about it destroying your creativity, for crying out loud. If you've got creativity, you'll learn their techniques and then you won't repeat their mistakes. The fundamental premise of science fiction as opposed to fantasy is the notion that children can learn from the mistakes of their parents. Not that they will. That's why science fiction tragedies like On the Beach and Soylent Green are so fabulous. 1984. Because it didn't have to happen. So if you are creative, go ahead and copy some scenes. Go ahead and crib. Wince about it when you do your second or your third or your fourth novel, and think I was cribbing too much. Because you will stand on the shoulders of the giants you admired.
[Mary] Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, this became really clear to me when I was in puppet theater. I was in a production of Wizard of Oz. They were doing a broadcast, big-screen, of the original film. The rest of the cast members were like, "Oh, no, no. I don't want to go. I don't want to accidentally pick up anything. I want to have my own unique performance." I'm like, "Oh, yeah!" Wait a minute. I'm playing Toto.
[David] [laughter]
[Mary] Actually, picking up the details from the dog would probably be useful for me. It made me realize, it's like, the thing that happens when you pick things up is if you... You are influenced by those things that you admire. Why wouldn't you want that uplift? Why wouldn't you want that patch on your own writing ability?
[David] But you know, I have some sympathy for people who take that point of view. You have to believe that you can stand on the shoulders and do something new. In which case, by all means, imbue yourself in the past. Rent the wonderful 1930s sci-fi film, Things to Come, for heaven's sake, and see how really clever they were. Because if you really are brash, if you're brash and creative, all it will do is make you more creative.
[Mary] Yeah. This, I think, brings us back around to the notion of criticism. Because once you've done these things, having someone who can stand outside that process and look at you and tell you, "Okay. That's lovely. But do you realize what you've done? Do you realize that you just copied down a scene exactly?" Like, oh. Or say someone who is very familiar with the topic. Having someone to check you after you've done the incantation, I think, is incredibly valuable.
[David] Absolutely, Mary.
[Dan] Okay.
[David] It's been an honor being here with you two. You're doing wonderful work, and helping some of these wonderful new writers out there. The problem they have getting published today is that we are in a civilization that has empowered so many brilliant minds. So there's good news. We're listening. The bad news. There are so many of you.
[Mary] That's true.

[Dan] All right. We want to give our listeners a writing prompt before we finish. David, do you have a writing prompt for them?
[David] Well, a lot of writing comes from dreams. So what if dreams became so much more vivid that when people woke up in the morning, for an hour, they couldn't tell the difference? What if you're in that world, where you basically had to mechanically lock your door with a lock that you had to keep poking at for an hour after you woke up, in order to not go out there and assume you had the superpowers that you just dreamt? But how creative people might be! Now, I just thought of that in real time, everyone, so...
[Dan] That sounds very cool.
[Mary] I'm like, "I would read that, so you guys go write it."
[David] Please don't promote... Please don't broadcast that, I'm going to use it.
[Dan] All right. Well, you'll have to work fast, David, to beat our listeners to the punch. All right, listeners, you've got it. You're in a race with David Brin now. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: citokate, copying, criticism, incantations, mad genius, magic, murder mystery
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