Friday, February 03, 2012

the hardest word

Elton John said it was "Sorry," but for a editor/agent/peer the hardest word to say to a hopeful author who's waiting, bright-eyed and strung tight with anticipation, is "Boring."

I rejoined my online crit group two weeks ago, to get my head back in the critting/ storybuilding gear. After all, the best way to learn something yourself is to teach others. I've read 5-6 stories so far, written crits on two of them.

They are all painfully dull.

This always surprises and disappoints me anew, for some reason. Five years ago when I was very active in online critiquing I probably read 30 to 50 stories and I remember 2 that were really good––one of them was written by a woman whose work I still admire, whom I consider a colleague.

But 95% of what I try to read is too dull and plodding to get through. I always have the feeling I am reading a Silly-Putty copy of a better writer's work--mangled and faint. On the rare occasion when the writing is lively and confident––or even unobtrusive, I'll settle for not-annoying––the story is always disappointing. The concept is worn-out, based on a faulty concept, played out illogically, or just plain peters out to a pointless halt.

Writing well is such a fine balance of putting out and leaving in, telling just enough at the right places, blending the fresh and the familiar. If a story is just a bit off, I can say, Tweak this, or I need more of this, but what about when the concept is childish or banal or just plain stupid? Often the best I can do with such pieces is to encourage the writer to think about the point s/he was trying to make, venture my own suggestions for a theme based on the text, and wish them luck.

Of course there are writers who are so desperate for ideas they embrace the stupid, presenting it as humor or cleverness-- but it's not funny or clever. It's still stupid... and insulting to the reader. Or the would-be cross-genre writer who takes a worn-out idea and tries to impose it into a worn-out framework, without bringing anything new to either. Trying to put classic literary characters in a contemporary context is very difficult to do well; recycling the names of classic literary characters without any respect to the characters' original contexts is rather like marrying Barbie to He-Man and having My Little Pony bomb the reception in a G.I.Joe plane. That stuff is okay when you're six. It's not okay when you're an adult writer trying to be taken seriously.

Hmm. I may have to create my own list of story tropes I never want to see again.

I have a new sympathy for agents and editors who send out form rejections that say, "Didn't capture my interest." Sometimes it means that the particular story just didn't appeal to them, but more often, I suspect, it's a diplomatic way of saying, "This is boring, kid."

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