On Writing – The Man Who Falls Asleep

twain

Years ago, I came across a nifty video recounting Mark Twain’s method of testing out new material and ideas. He described the sampling of people from his neighborhood he’d invite over: a smattering of couples of various demeanors and ages, children of various temperaments etc. However the sum of the whole moral was that Twain trusted no critic more than the man who always, without fail, fell asleep.

Twain takes an extreme measure here: if the man falls asleep within two minutes, he says he burns the book. If the man can stay awake for inside of ten though, he knows he has something.

I apologize for not including the video that is the source of today’s topic (I found it back in the good old days of the internet and recall watching it with AOL Instant Messenger open beside it), but suffice it to say there’s something to learn from one of the greats who values negative feedback more than the dozens of people who would likely fawn over his writing and humor.

I’ve said before that resolve and belief in one’s work and message is key. While everyone needs encouragement to keep gas in the tank, it’s also important to subject your work to the kind of tempering that only comes from constructive criticism. If you really believe in it, you’ll believe it’s worth making better and having someone point out your work’s flaws (a labored start, for example), is invaluable.

I think being able to take and appreciate criticism is an art in and of itself. Especially when our characters, world or beloved plots are being nitpicked or deconstructed, it can be easy to become defensive.

There’s a classic trope that in improv comedy, the way to advance a scene and build for absurdity and humor is to use “yes, and...” Whatever the premise you walk into, don’t fight it or just stand still, give it a “yes, and..” to both commit and build on the improvisation.

In writing and accepting criticism, I’ve trained myself to face criticisms with “yes, so…

…if I introduced this character earlier? …if I dialed back the description? …if I shortened the dialogue exchange?

Accept the criticism and look for ways to address it to make your reader gel more with it. Beyond just the method by which one responds to criticism, learn to value criticism. No work is ever perfect, but it can always, always, always be improved.

While the friends who think your work is great are great themselves, don’t undervalue the friends who will spend two hours on the phone telling you everything they noted was wrong with your writing (thanks Sarah), or point out even spelling errors and missing words .

Most important: find yourself your own “man who falls asleep” and keep that person handy and in your good graces.

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