Writers, Criticism, & Rejection – We’re ALL In This Together

Writers are writers, and in some aspects it really doesn’t matter if you’re into novels, poetry, blogging, or songwriting.  What we’re all doing is taking that stuff that’s boiling around inside us and dragging it out into the light, squinting and scratching and whimpering, and trying to make it presentable and offering it to the world.  Some of it comes out like an eager oiled eel, and some of it takes a block and tackle with a crowbar thrown in for good measure.  And that’s the same for all of us.

Another thing that’s the same for all of us is that what’s boiling around in us and needs to come out is a part of our souls.  It’s deeply personal and nobody else really knows what you’ve got like you do.  You have to have faith in what you’ve brought into the world and go with your heart.  And you’ll find rejection and criticism that will stop some of the beauty and joy of life from being discovered by the world, because some feel that like a brick wall to the face, and it just stops them in their tracks.  It doesn’t just happen to you…it happens to almost all of us.  It’s how you respond that determines the fate of all that beauty and joy.

This is a really good article by Paul Zollo of American Songwriter magazine.  It’s specifically about songwriting, of course, but it struck a chord (see what I did there?) with me because it applies to every other kind of writing, and, really, about so many other facets of life in many ways.  If you’re a writer, almost every word of this applies to you.  It’s worth a read to know some perspective from other aspects of our craft and understand how we’re all in this together.  ALL of us.

Songwriter U: Rejection & Criticism As A Songwriter

Paul Zollo

-February 12, 2020

“As long as you don’t stop, you’re unstoppable.”

Being a songwriter in the world is the best of jobs and the worst of jobs. It’s the best because we make songs. We make order out of chaos, and find harmony within the dissonance. We give meaning to an increasingly crazy world, and create something timeless in a time when nothing seems to last more than a moment. And we get to live inside of music, which remains one of mankind’s most beautiful forces, as mysterious as ever, and powerful. 

But it’s also the worst job in many ways, not only for the decimation and reconstruction of this industry we once knew, but because being a songwriter is a vulnerable position to be in.  To be a songwriter in this world –a creator of music – requires a singular sort of person. It takes someone who feels things deeply, deeply enough to reach down into that well of emotion and swirl of ideas, and capture it with the abstractions of music combined with the specificities of language.

Of course, the kind of person who wants to do that – and is capable of it, even creating an entire career of it – is the kind of person who feels things deeply. Who might overthink some things, or all things. Who might linger often on the edges of obsession if not in its very core. Such is the source of art. Everyone knows sorrow, among other dynamics, is often at the heart of songs. And someone who connects so directly with sorrow, or any intense emotion,  is deeply hurt by criticism and rejection. So this songwriting thing can be painful. But it’s necessary pain.

It takes real courage to do what we do.  It takes chutzpah, as my mother would say. Creative courage. This is the business of putting your heart and soul out in the world, where everyone feels free to criticize and tear down what you’ve done. And it hurts. Songwriters, except if they’re genuine hacks, feel this stuff to our cores. And when somebody tears into one of your songs, it’s like an arrow straight to the heart. Because, as Randy Newman told me, songwriting is “life and death.” It’s everything. Nothing means more. Few things achieve the kind of bliss a songwriter experiences after completing a great one. And few things hurt more than unwarranted criticism.

Sure, constructive criticism is good and even necessary. Not always invited, and should be offered only when asked. But destructive criticism, well, that is quite a different matter. Any kind of rejection can be hurtful. Yet this is a business, not a humane organization created to coddle songwriters. This is an industry, and those in charge necessarily want something from you they feel will sell. And they determine what will sell by what is presently selling. At this very second.

Which means they aren’t going to be looking for your most experimental work. As great as we know it may be. They are not looking to stretch the envelope in any way. They want something that fits directly into that envelope. As those of us who have done this for more than a few days knows well.

So your challenge as a songwriter becomes not only the writing of songs, but the ability to withstand criticism and rejection. If you are not derailed by it, you can stay on track. If it does stop you, however, you won’t make any progress. Louis CK, the great comic, spoke of bringing this wisdom to life – the wisdom to withstand circumstances that don’t work well for you. “As long as you don’t stop,” he said, “you are unstoppable.”

Character Craft

The Creative Penn is a website with a wealth of helpful stuff that every writer should take a tiptoe through from time to time.  There are articles, podcasts, links, books, downloads, newsletters…well, like I said, a wealth.  If you can’t find something there that’s useful to you, you already know everything.  I wish I was in that boat, but while dog-paddling around in the turbulent waters of wishfulness, I do find a log to cling to here and there.  Logs abound at the Creative Penn.

Here’s a great article from a guest writer who ties a lot of story aspects together while discussing characters.  Some writers focus their stories around character, and some around plot, but neither will get and keep audiences without compelling characters who have believable motivations and interesting conflicts that propel the narrative convincingly.

There are a lot of aspects that some people just don’t think about.  David Griffin Brown is a writer and editor who has a deep understanding of the factors you have to bring into balance within your stories to keep readers’ attention and give them satisfaction.  Give it a look and a ponder or two.

Writing Tips: Creating Memorable Characters

August 2, 2019

When we read, we may love well-plotted books, but what we are connecting with is the people involved in those plots. In other words, the characters. In this post, David Griffin Brown offers five ways to make your characters more compelling.

Fiction editors encounter manuscripts at all stages of development. A typical issue we see in early drafts is where one narrative element is given more attention than another.

For example, with works of historical fiction, it’s common for writers to showcase their research at the expense of plot and character. On the other hand, with a character piece, the plot often drags in the second act. And in high-paced, sharply plotted thrillers, characterization can lag behind plot development.

That being said, most manuscripts will benefit from close attention to character conflict, motivation, and relationships. But first and foremost, it’s important to let your characters act, react, and interact.

Drop hints and clues about personality and underlying emotion, put your characters on a stage, and let your intuitive readers get to know them.

Emotions in exposition

Let’s start with the basics. It’s a maxim that all writers have heard, but many have yet to master:

Show, don’t tell.

Imagine your best friend Jack, with a straight face, tells you: I’m really sad right now. Now imagine Jack doesn’t say anything, but instead bursts into tears the moment he sees you. The second scenario is bound to evoke a stronger emotional reaction.

What if it’s someone else updating you on whatever Jack is going through? The emotional distance in this case is even greater. Of course you still feel for Jack, you are still concerned for his wellbeing, but your personal emotional involvement will be greater when you observe Jack’s sadness through his actions, expression, and body language.

This is a simplification, but the concept is critical to effective characterization. When a narrator states how a character feels, the emotional impact is minimized. Even more, emotions in exposition prevent readers from getting to know the character on their own terms.

You could tell me all about your best friend Jack, but until I meet him myself, I won’t be able to grasp the essence of his energy and personality.

Where fiction meets real life

We come to love and despise people in our lives because we have spent time observing them, interacting with them, and then coming to conclusions about who they are and what motivates them.

The same is true in fiction. When a narrator states who a character is, what they want, and what they think about a particular issue, readers are not able to observe and come to their own conclusions. This means a lost opportunity for readers to bond with the character.

Consider the difference between a scene with a young man up all night studying for an exam versus a statement in exposition that he is very studious and hardworking. The statement can be taken as narrative truth, but it doesn’t get you any closer to the character.

However, when you observe the late-night cramming session, you can imagine yourself in that seat, pouring over those notes. This connects you to the character’s experience.

Always aim to show your characters’ emotions and personality through their actions, interactions, and choices. Let your intuitive readers observe, gather clues, and make their own judgments. Your story’s immersion and sentimental appeal will be all the stronger for it.

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