Saturday, January 31, 2009

how to piss away a critique

Well, it didn't take long. I dropped out of Authonomy today because it was driving me crazy. If I could envision a level of hell specifically designed to torture writers, Authonomy would be it. You are forced to read other people's bad fiction, but you're not allowed to critique it honestly or effectively--for one thing you can't copy & paste text from their story to do line edits, and for another thing everybody is too busy circle-jerking each other to actually read or critique.

The gimmick of the site is that Authonomy takes the top five peer-ranked novels and provides a review by one of their professional editors. Mostly these reviews involve describing why the thing isn't good enough to publish. So you get the torture of watching your novel climb into the single digits, only to be slapped down at the top.

Don't get me wrong, here--I'm on the side of the editors. It's not as if they WANT to destroy every writer whose hopes and aspirations waft across their desks, but having seen more than enough amateur fiction myself, I can't blame the editors for getting a bit terse. In fact I wonder why the hell they agreed to this experiment in the first place--transparency? To show all the writers out there how bad the slush really is? (And the stuff on Authonomy is actually amoung the better efforts out there. I didn't see anything on the site that was actually incomprehensible, or suggestive of mental deficiency.)

The problem with the transparency plan is, no writer believes that *her* work is as mediocre as the stuff she's reviewing. Every writer up there undoubtedly believes that *her* book is the one that will break the mold, despite seeing the top five get shot down week after week after week. And after weeks of artificial buildup, to be brought back to cold hard reality--as I said, a special hell just for writers.


Last week, one of the top five was a SF thing written by a woman named Patty. Patty is popular on the site--posted to all the forums, read and promoted like a madwoman; had a thousand friends. She played by the rules. I didn't read her book, but I read the editor's remarks, which Patty was brave enough to make public. They told her, in part:

"[your novel's] take on science fiction is naïve and simplistic ... reads like a book from the 1960s or earlier."

"SF has moved on from cheesy concepts [such as] “Nations of Earth”, “spacefarer’s dialect” and the “Union of Galactic Entities”. Moreover, the political descriptions do not convince. I was reminded of old thrillers like The Man from UNCLE, and found it confusing when reading them with an informed, up-to-date world view. [...] the author, although setting the book in the future, has done little to update the world from our own times – the settings are straight from central casting."

"...there is nothing wrong at all with referencing the styles of older pulp novels – [which] at their best can have a tremendous joi de vivre and embrace some truly mind-boggling concepts. But I do not believe that the intention here was to deliberately pastiche that sort of science fiction to make a particular point or create a specific effect. If that was the case, it’s not worked."

"falls far short in bringing anything new or original to science fiction."

Of course, Patty promptly went to the forums, and her blog, and posted a rebuttal--and what did she seize on? The last line--"does not bring anything new or original to science fiction." Her bitter rant was familiar to me--I'll paraphrase:

"How can I write anything new when all the new stuff is about quantum physics and nanotechnology? How could any non-scientist keep up with that? And why would I want to write about bleeding-edge tech anyway? I don't want to read all that technoporn! I want to read about people! Star Trek and Star Wars are still popular despite being outdated and cheesy!"

So many wrong notions, so little time. When somebody tells you that your scientific and political tropes are out of date, that means you need to do research, pure and simple. Science fiction is probably more demanding than any other genre in terms of research. You need to know what has been done before, what is being done now, and what will probably be done tomorrow. If you're going to write far-future space opera you need to be thoroughly versed in contemporary astronomy, physics, space exploration and sociological theory, just as a start. Even if you don't intend to USE that research in your book, you need to know what's happening in those disciplines and accommodate it, because otherwise the fans will nail you as a poseur in a heartbeat. There is nothing SF fans love better than to tell you you're wrong.

But beyond that--surely you've heard this one--SF is a literature of IDEAS. The trappings of space ships and ray guns are not enough; you have to provide some new way of looking at the human condition, via an extrapolation of its inventions (whether mechanical, biological, sociological, artistic, etc.).


Lemme tell you a quick story: When I was twenty-six I joined the writer's group I am still a part of. Rob Chilson was nice enough to read my space opera novel, the one I'd been working on since high school. He said pretty much the same things as the editor told Patty: Decent writing, but the technology and the sociopolitical stuff were cheesy and unsophisticated. He even used the same "central casting" reference--it's a familiar phrase among SF editors.

I was furious. I was wounded. I was frustrated to think of all the work I'd put into the story and now Rob wanted me to tear it all apart again? Who was he to judge? Clearly he didn't get the point. My story wasn't about politics or technology.... etc., etc.

I said all this to my mother, who read both my book and Rob's review. My mother, who has never been one to apply superficial sympathy, said matter-of-factly, "Actually Holly, this is a pretty good critique."

Stopped me dead in my tracks. Made me realize how childish I was being. Made me stop and look at the thing with a cold, clinical eye, and envision how the book might be different--and stronger--if I took Rob's suggestions seriously.

I never did rewrite the book. Oh, I fiddled with it for a couple more years, in-between working on other things. But once I separated myself emotionally from the words on the page, I realized that the problem with the book was in its conception: it wasn't built on a solid foundation. It was, to exhaust the metaphor, merely cardboard scenery on a semi-lighted stage. And I realized that to make the book work I'd have to start from scratch, re-conceptualize it. I might keep the characters and their basic conflicts, but it would be a different book when I was done. And I realized I just didn't care that much about the story anymore--I'd moved on to new loves who were less maintenance.

My husband says it's far less work to build a house from scratch than to gut an older house and rebuilt it from the inside; the same is true for prom dresses and novels. I may, someday, rewrite Escaping Ariston, but it will probably have a different title and it will undoubtedly be about something very different than I was writing about at twenty-five.


I mention Patty's review and rebuttal in the larger point of demonstrating how to piss away a good critique. Yeah, your ego is going to smart when you read the bad news, but push it aside. Really *read* the damn thing and take it to heart. Everything that a reviewer can say about your story is a little bit true, no matter how off-base it may seem--from their point of view it is true. And their point of view is valuable insomuch as they are a potential reader that wants to be pleased by your story. Accomodating their desires doesn't make you a whore, it makes you a good lover.

I made a list of responses a writer tends to feel (or say) in response to a critiquer who has panned their story. If you find yourself thinking any of these, banish the thought from your mind: they are obstacles your ego throws up to prevent you from learning. And for Pete's sake don't actually *say* any of these things to the person who burnt a few hours of his life to read and comment on your story.

"You didn't get my story because this isn't the kind of thing you usually read/write/publish/edit."

Unlikely. Most critiquers will tell you right up front if your work isn't the kind of genre they normally enjoy, but it's largely irrelevant. Outside of certain genre tropes and conventions, good writing is good writing. Confusion of speaker tags, inconsistencies in pacing, tedious prose--these are universal.

Furthermore, most readers--and all editors-- read a wide variety of stuff. Even if a genre is not their favorite, they have a certain sense of how that genre should read. In fact a reader who is inexperienced in your genre is likely to be *more* lenient with your mistakes than someone who really knows what to look for--as witness the SF example above.

"Who cares about all that grammar and punctuation stuff? It's the true *soul* of a story that matters. Besides, that stuff is for the editors to clean up."

Wrong. In the first place, bad mechanics will discourage most readers from ever discovering the true soul of your story. Which gift would you rather unwrap, the plain brown paper sack sealed with duct tape and smeared in offal, or the pretty shiny gift bag with the bow on top? Presentation counts, doubly so because publishing houses can no longer afford to pay for extensive editing and copyediting services. They want manuscripts that are in near-publishable condition.

"Well, you did the same thing in *your* story!" or "That famous author did the same thing in *his* story!"
That famous author may have used the same technique as you, but he did it skillfully. You didn't. Also, to a lower level of skill two techniques may *look* the same but really aren't. For instance, there is a difference between one character making a descriptive statement about another, and the author inserting "tellisms" to describe his viewpoint character.

"Well, you're not so great a writer, either/You're an editor, what was the last thing you wrote?"

In the first place, the work of the critiquer is not at issue. We are talking about *your* work. Secondly, one does not have to be a renowned artist in order to be a master craftman. It can help sometimes, but it's not a prerequisite. What counts is skill acquisition. It's the difference between talent and hard work.

There are some very fine teachers and editors out there who are not the greatest writers. They're not trying to be; that's why they are teachers and editors. They know that the writers they are looking to publish are far more gifted than they will ever be. It takes a great deal of knowledge and experience--and humility-- to recognize where one is in terms of skill. People with the least skill/knowledge/experience invariably overrate their own abilities.

"What right do you have to say nasty things about my story?"

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you ASKED for an opinion. Don't EVER slap back at a reviewer or editor who gave you an honest answer. In fact, don't respond to critiques at all, except to ask a question to clarify something. Unless the critique was personally abusive, always thank the reviewer for their time. Leave it at that.

"Well, that's only your opinion."

Correct. However: your goal as a writer is to win as many readers as possible. That means you should accommodate as many weird little quirks and prejudices as possible, within the parameters of your genre and ideal audience. Clarify every point of confusion, no matter how dumb. If one person says it and another one disagrees, try to find a compromise. Take into consideration all the opinions you can get. They are valuable. Don't discard them.

"Being so blunt is just rude!"

Not deliberately, it isn't. A blunt critique is a heartfelt critique. Sometimes reviewers see the same mistakes over and over again, or they get frustrated because a work is *so close* except for that one glaring shortcoming. If somebody hauls back and slaps you in the face, swallow your pride and consider it a wake-up call.

"Well, you're only saying that because you're jealous/mean/ greedy/ignorent/etc."

Whatever you do, don't read psychological subtexts into the reviewer's words. They are probably not tearing you down to build up their own egos. They are certainly not tearing you down to promote their own work (how would that serve, anyway?). Peer critiquers will review your stuff either because they are hoping for reciprocation, or because they love writing and reading and they understand that critting somebody else's stuff is the best way for them to learn to be better writers. Professional editors, on the other hand, genuinely want to find good stuff. If they tell you you suck, it's because they want you to improve. Even if it seems they are being brutal, it's to crack open the notorious writer's ego and allow a little reality in. You will never improve if all you hear is praise.

Well, 500 of my closest friends think this is a great book and said they would read it!

Um... who are these people? Are any of them writers or editors? Are any of them good writers or editors? Do you secretly think you are a better writer than they are? If so, why would you trust their judgment?

Did they pay for the priviledge of reading your book? Did they come looking for your book? Or did they only read it because it was handed out for free? People will consume honey-covered pig shit if it's handed out for free. Try asking those 500 people if they'll contribute $10 to help you self-publish the thing.

"Well, there may be some truth to what you say but I consider this story finished and I won't be changing it."

Might as well add "nyah, nyah, nyah," to the end of that--it's about as mature.

So what do you say to a negative critique?

"Thank you for your time."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

despair; vitriol

Ok, now I remember why I dropped out of Critters--because I just plain couldn't find anything positive to say anymore. How could I go on pretending to give a shit about the same overwritten prose, the same bad pacing, the same tired storylines?

Authonomy is already setting my teeth on edge. Spam from other writers whose sole purpose is to get my attention and ask me to read their hackneyed shit. Mamby-pamby mealy-mouthed "oh, I loved this!" praise from people who can't put together a coherent critique--so you're going to trust their opinion that your work is actually good?

Oh, I know there are good editors/critiquers out there, but they are as few and far between as good writers. The rest are delusional.

I tried to say a couple of constructive things to a couple of authors. In the first place it was difficult to find anything I wanted to read. In the second place as soon as I started reading I wanted to say No.... NO! Write like you $&#^%*ing talk, for God's sake! Prologues are for amateurs! Ever hear of commas? Why are there twelve modifiers in a fifteen-word sentence? You think this is new? Original? Intriguing? Suspenseful? The answer is NO. And your foreshadowing sucks, too.

It is better, far better, for me to say nothing at all. I'm just going to leave the story up there and see what happens. If nothing, then I'm no worse off than I was before.

On a slightly more positive note, I followed a link through the blog of a fellow spewer of vitriol, and landed on this guy's page: 6 Pieces of Fiction Writing Advice Often Ignored. The first paragraph sums it up in a nutshell.

Writing fiction is hard. Bringing to life a series of manufactured events with pretend people in a world that only exists in your head—it’s a kind of mental origami that takes years to master.

Mental origami: yes. That's precisely what it feels like. That's the first time I've seen anyone succinctly describe what goes on in my head.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

running the gauntlet as a form of self-promotion

I'm sick. Not very--just got a thickness in my throat and a general feeling of malaise. The SP has it too, but he mega-dosed himself with vitamin C at the first symptoms and he seems to be fending it off. My gut doesn't tolerate raw C very well, so until we get some buffered stuff I have to make do with tea, oranges and sleep.

But I'm up now, it's Saturday and I skipped class to sleep in; now I'm a bit bored. I was perusing the blogs on my sidebar, some of which I haven't visited for a week, and Danger Gal had up a bit about (--sorry guys, but lousy title), a sort of public-filter Pop Idol-esque reality blog for aspiring authors, sponsored by HarperCollins. It's similar to what Baen's Universe was doing with their message-board submissions: authors post their stuff, other members get to read, comment, and recommend; if a work garners enough attention, the first readers ferret it out and pass it under the nose of a real editor.

I still have mingled scorn and admiration for this kind of system. The scorn comes from the idea that anyone should let the public-at-large be arbiters of taste in anything. And a bit of self-hatred for wanting to post there and be voted Most Popular.

On the other hand, scratch a reader and find a writer, right? And this is truly trial by one's peers--you have to be registered to comment and promote. Furthermore these are people nominating what they like and enjoy, and I'm a firm believer in the highest common denominator; the cream will rise to the top. And, uh, "End of the Line" got selected and bought via this method. So it must work, right?

Anyway, it's free, and the fact is I've got The Curse of Jacob Tracy half finished, if I can just work out the second half of "Printer's Devil." The first four stories, Sikeston, EOTL, Parlor Games, and Horseflesh together total 71,000 words, and Printer's Devil is looking to be another twenty thousand; 90k is enough for a skinny novel, if I and my hypothetical editor decide to break it in two volumes. I figure I'm about halfway through the plot, so figure 140k, maybe 160? That's a little fat, but these days the publishers like them that way.

And like I said, I'm bored. So I slapped "Sikeston" and "Parlor Games" up there for public consumption. I may put up Horseflesh, too, since it provides a sort of resolution to the first half and a lead into the second half.

The difficult thing about Trace is what genre to put him in. "Supernatural Western--?" Whoever heard of such a thing? I selected four categories: fantasy, science fiction, horror, and historical novel. That about covers it, hm? I'd have selected "Steampunk" if that had been an option.

I was intrigued to notice how many of the featured novels were cross-genre works. Editors have a hard time with cross-genre works because they're difficult to market--at least I say that based on a couple of rejections I've had. So even if Trace wins popular acclaim, it doesn't mean anyone will buy it.

Hmm. Now that I look back at my title I'm struck by the aptness of my sarcasm to describe contemporary celebrity, or at least wannabe celebrity--people getting infamous from reality TV and so-on, usually by offering themselves up to ridicule and slander. Again I say, is it really a good idea to let the public arbitrate taste?

Call it the Mencken principle: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. So maybe HarperCollins is onto a smart thing, here.

Friday, January 09, 2009


Just when I think people can't surprise me anymore, I get a note like this via my Etsy inbox (in regard to the Harley Quinn Costume Pattern).

$29.00!! Sheesh, the economy is in a rut and you want $29.00 for paper? Could you make the costume for me? I would pay you for your labor or at least bring the pattern down to $17.00, I'm a college student on a budget. The convention is in February...okay I'm babbling. Sorry, finals are next week.


p.s. I even [opened] this account for this pattern.


Hmm, where to start? First off, the $29 is not for the paper--it's for the pattern, and the skill that went into making the pattern, which you apparently do not possess or you wouldn't be looking to buy a pattern and/or a costume somewhere else. If you did possess a modicum of sewing skill you wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the work of others.

Second, my regular fee for making a costume is $330, but since this is a rush order (my schedule is full through January, and orders take at least 4 weeks to fulfill) it will be an extra $100. If you had done a little research instead of being so quick to tell me off you would already know that.

Seriously, were you drunk when you wrote this? This is the rudest, most ignorant letter I've received in the two years I've been doing this.

I've got no sympathy for you and your budget. This is a JOB for me. A SECOND job, at that. I do it in part because I am STILL paying off my college loans. Budgets do not magically go away after you graduate.

And by the way, I'm assuming you're not an economics major or you'd have some sense that demand regulates prices. I sold well over a hundred of these patterns last year, to people who seemed to feel that the price was quite reasonable. This is because it's the only such pattern available, and people who want something nice see the value of it. And I have no sympathy for you wanting a lower price on something you don't NEED anyway. If something means that much to you, expect to pay more for it.

I hope to God you don't use your new Etsy account to insult other crafters the way you have me. People like you are the reason why skilled crafters can't make a living wage. Grow up.


p.s. Do not bother to order from me--I will not sell you a pattern or a costume. Good luck finding what you want elsewhere.


You know the funny thing? It doesn't even really make me angry--just sort of righteously indignant. And tired. And slightly incredulous. Even though it shouldn't, by now. And the sad part? This chick had no idea how rude she was being.

Monday, January 05, 2009

an hour a day

I don't make New Year's resolutions.

This year, however, I am making a plan. You see, I have 28 weeks until the Legends of Kung Fu Tournament next July. Sit wants me to try for Grand Champion. Basically that boils down to beating 30-something other women in my division, and beating the winner of the men's division.

No pressure, there.

I've never been much for competition. I have this weird superiority/inferiority complex. I know that I have certain natural gifts--athleticism, flexibility, smarts... and, um, a certain lack of humility, shall we say--but I feel somewhat guilty about them, because they aren't anything I chose or earned for myself. Nevertheless, I know that with a certain amount of discipline and practice I can beat 98% of the people out there. I know this because I've done it, time and time again in my life.

The problem is, I also have a long history of coming in second. Often for stupid reasons--internal politics, for instance, or because I seem *so* capable that the judges thought the other person should be given a break, just this once (I kid you not). And that has made me somewhat gun-shy. So I sabotage myself, either by not being prepared, or by not trying at all.

Pathetic. I know.

Nevertheless, I have decided to compete. And I am going to make myself prepared. Partly because Sit deserves it; he's a skilled, generous teacher and he doesn't deserve to have his students blow off competition year after year, or blow him off to go teach--badly--in another part of town. He's made a plan of his own, to start teaching an evening class one day a week. My plan is to make myself ready to teach at his school in the next two years--and help him start a school, if necessary.

It would make both of us look good if I had a Grand Champion under my belt. But that's not why he wants me to do it. He wants me to try for it because like every other teacher I've had, he's exasperated with me--in his silent, Taoist way--because I'm such a chronic underachiever. See above re: pathetic.

"It doesn't matter if you win," Sit has said, to me and others. "Winning is karma. You might have good judges or might have bad judges. It's about training for it. So you have a goal."

It's also, in my mind, about doing one's personal best. Not in a namby-pamby "we're all winners!" kind of way, but in a "let's see what this baby can do" kind of way. I want to test what I know. I want to test my body before I start thinking I'm too old to do it. I want to re-establish good habits before I lose any more ground to indolence.

So I have made the decision to work. I used to be pretty good at praticing on my own after work every day, and it's not as if I can't push myself to finish what I've committed to doing (Hello? Six Harley costumes in seven weeks?). It helps to have a deadline, too. You can push yourself to do an awful lot if you know there's an end in sight.

Sit says that to prepare for a tournament you need to do your form at least three times a day, every day. A single form repetition is 3.5 minutes, max. That's 10.5 minutes for three reps. Simple. Nothing.

I plan to prepare six forms for the competition. That works out to 63 minutes of forms practice per day. It's probably more like 75 minutes a day, by the time you work in warm-ups and water breaks, but that's still no big deal since I do it all in my living room.

There are 28 weeks until the tournament, give or take a couple of days. I have class 2 days each week, so that leaves 5 days a week to practice on my own. In 140 days I can do 420 repetitions of each form. Times 6 forms, that's 2520 forms done between now and then.

An hour a day. For two thousand and a half forms in half a year.

Someone--I think it was Rudyard Kipling or one of his contemporaries--said you have to write a million words before you can begin to claim to know what you are doing. I once calculated I had arrived at that landmark somewhere around the time I graduated college, at age 25. There was definitely a leap that took place around that time.

The old masters say you have to practice a move a minimum of ten thousand times before you can use it in application. It's much harder to tabulate that threshold but I figure I'm getting close in some things--Brush Knee, for instance, and Single Whip. The next six months could put me over the top.

Sigh.... Cue the Rocky Theme.