Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Pitfalls, Spokes and Ropes (Part 3)

By Wayne Squibbs
Copyright © 2009 by Wayne Squibbs, All Rights Reserved

The Growing Critter

The situation: You've seen old stories tightening up under your own guidance. Your fingers now hit the keyboard with solid purpose, you know the difference between a first draft and something that has been edited to death, and you're developing your own polishing schedule to hit the sweet spot. Everything is coming together and you want to share, share, share what you've learnt.


Pitfall: Overwhelming the Author

Picking up on every single fault in a novice piece of work will horrify the writer and it'll be virtually impossible for them to digest every lesson.

Solution: Consider: you give a critique in which you talk about reworking dialogue, using more description, adding more action and strong verbs, altering the pace of the piece, eliminating back story and exposition, going deeper into the characters, strengthening the resolution, and altering much of the sentence structure. The overall picture is of a hopeless story which needs completely reworking. The author isn't likely to tackle that and will probably ditch the story and learn nothing from the crit.

However, if you pick up two or three major points and throw in a few little 'uns as you go along, your crit will be easier to take. Mention, for example, the dialogue and back story, touch a little on exposition, and alter the text here and there for more impact. The author is much more likely to run with this and learn new techniques by subsequently applying what you've discussed.


Pitfall:  Passing on what you've learned with the insistence of a high-speed train.

You believe that a writer should never ever, ever, ever start a sentence with an 'ing' word and that any use of 'was' is unforgivable. People could easier wrestle Catholicism from the Pope than separate you from the rules of writing. Having appreciated the value of honesty in critique, you charge forward with advice like: 'Change everything! How can you not see it? You should read more, you need to do x, y, and z, and do it now!'

I've been on the receiving end of advice such as: 'Never write a sentence longer than the width of the page.'  (!) 

Rules, conventions, and notions that you've picked up, even the ones which make perfect sense and can be easily explained, can act as straightjackets if taken too seriously.

Solution: Try to crit a surreal or Dadaist piece and you'll see that the rules don't always apply. Surreal stories are an extreme example and obviously most conventional rules simply wouldn't help. However, it's also the case that some generally accepted notions of writing are not absolutely essential for regular prose.

Even grammatical rules can be broken to good effect. Strictly adhering to learned beliefs is a temporary phase, a necessity. Briefly, this phase will have a heavy influence on your writing and critiques, but in the end any decision over how seriously you want to take the rules is a subjective matter. Therein lies the brake mechanism for your charging train -- all advice given in critique, no matter how sound-seeming, is a reflection of other people's approval and disapproval and favoured beliefs. Any critique, when you get right down to it, is a purely subjective appraisal.

Critiques are heavily influenced by the critter's own writing style, especially if said critter is going through a 'keen on rules' phase. Awareness of the inherent subjectivity of critique isn't enough to guard against it -- you cannot attain objectivity in critique. Every part of every critique will always be subjective.

Grammatical rules are not based on opinions; these really are objective. Even so, it can be argued that flouting the rules of grammar is a style choice which, of course, returns you back to subjectivity. 

There is no solution, as such, but the subjectivity issue can be openly acknowledged. A lot of critters include reminders like 'I don't have direct access to the truth of all literature,' or 'Ignore me if you think I'm talking twaddle.' Everyone develops their own way of saying it. Knowledge of the inherent subjectivity of critique can help a critter to ease back on the rules.


The Experienced Writer

The situation: Now you're motoring. You've made a few sales. You may have received the ultimate one-word accolade in critique -- a 'wow!' response. People are regularly lavishing praise on your work. The friends and family who used to say your writing was good have now said, 'Crikey! You really can write!'

New critters can't find fault with your writing, mid-range critters can, but you don't listen because where you've broken the rules you've done it with panache. Experienced critters no longer pick at your prose and merely offer a little brainstorming on the central concept of your story.


Pitfall: "Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaaa!"

Solution: Enjoy!


Pitfall: "No, really, Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaaa!"

Solution: Okay, the 'top of the world' thing can be taken too far. In fact, you should still listen to new critters, whose reading overview will be a good indicator of how the public might react; and you should also listen to the mid-rangers, whose reminders and cajoling might catch you on something you've forgotten, or become blasť about. And you should definitely listen to the experienced critters because, hell, those guys know what they're talking about!


The Experienced Critter

The situation: Now you da man! (Or da lady!) You recognise voice and style choice, and touch lightly on areas of concern while offering plenty of advice and decent explanations. You read each piece at least twice before offering comment, pick up loads of niggles but offer only what the writer needs at their current level of ability along with plenty of encouragement. Sometimes you jump in to correct someone else's critique or clarify a vague comment to keep a novice on track.

You may or may not have received a 'wow!' response to your writing, but you've collected reams of 'wow!'s from authors gushing about your critiques. It feels good!


Pitfall: You don't know when to stop.

It's easy to figure that because something is up for critique, it must be inherently crittable; i.e. that it has weaknesses. That isn't always the case and it can be difficult for experienced critters -- who could probably provide crit-points on most published works -- to remember that.

Solution: A story which has been posted on a public forum, or read aloud in the local pub, comes with much less authority than a story which has been published, especially one published in the form of a hardback or paperback novel.

It might be the case that what you're looking at is of a higher quality than a lot of published works.

First, you have to accept that this is possible. Of course it is -- every novel that has ever been published went through a brief existence as a polished piece of writing which was 'yet to be published.' The only difference between those two states was a little time and the fact that an industry professional recognised the market potential in what was there (and likely a little post-contract editing). The point being -- the quality was already present, in an unpublished work. You might find yourself reading such a piece in your crit group.

It'll help in recognising the market value of what you're critting if you keep an eye on the markets. This will allow you to make comparisons. Obviously, reading novels and short stories in your preferred genre will be helpful to you as a writer, but knowing what is out there will also be helpful in recognising the point at which someone else's work is ready to fly.

There are two types of paying market: semi-professional and professional.

Semi-professional markets usually pay in the region of US$30 for a short story. A lot of semi-professional ezines/webzines have archives, or at least teasers, available for public viewing. By reading some of these you can get a good handle on what is being accepted.

Every author should look first to the fully professional markets. There's no point in aiming low. Don't even consider the semi-pro until you know, for sure, that the pros aren't going to take the piece that you're offering. Having said that, if you've got a quirky, profane, extraordinary, or otherwise 'out there' piece which you wrote for a laugh and which you know, for sure, won't go down well with the pros, the semi-pro market probably has a home for it.

Professional markets pay good money. For a short story written by an established novelist they'll pay into the thousands. Less established or first time authors can expect anything between $50 and $1,500. Often, formulas are used -- 3c/word or 5c/word, with minimum and maximum payments established in the submissions guidelines. These markets, too, sometimes have material freely available to browse. If they don't offer freebies, it can be worth purchasing their product to improve your understanding of what they're paying for.

By looking at the markets, an author can gain knowledge of what may be acceptable and where. They'll also notice that crit-points come to mind as they read published work. No piece of writing is beyond critique.

The knowledge of what is acceptable to the markets will help in knowing when to ease back in critique and say, 'This is good to go.' Most writers are not professional editors, and never will be, but knowing a seller when they see one will help in their own writing and when giving critique.


Final Pitfall

Pitfall: "I'm not selling anything. Really, I'm not. Everyone says my writing is sound, even my crit-partners. What the hell is going wrong?"

Solution: Keep submitting, keep learning. Get to know the markets you're submitting to as intimately as possible -- it's likely that you're submitting to the wrong places and your stories don't sit well with the theme/house style/conventions/guidelines of the places you're sending them. 

Also remember: Nearly every author is awed by the sheer scale of journey ahead, no matter how much ground they've already covered. That's a good thing because it means whatever you're writing now is highly unlikely to be your greatest work. Serious achievement is good motivation for taking your craft forward. Take yourself far enough and sales become inevitable.


Final Words

Learning the craft of writing is a fantastic journey and exchanging critique is one of the most rewarding aspects. Unfortunately, an awareness of the pitfalls in critique doesn't necessarily mean that you can avoid the occasional slippage. Never to mind: while some of the holes have steep sides, none of them are inescapable. Most writers have landed awkwardly at the bottom of quite a few, scratched their heads, climbed out -- or been helped out -- dusted themselves off and continued on their way. Hopefully the pointers here can accelerate the escape process, or even encourage some nifty side-stepping.