Tuesday, September 21, 2010

critiquing: it's not about you

I finished a story last week. The first new Trace story I've completed in five years, and one of only two stories I've written in that time.

I finished "Scapegoat" just in time to take to my writer's meeting last weekend. I love my writer's group. I've been in several, and this group is by far the most knowledgeable, the most comfortable with themselves as readers and critiquers, and the least likely to take anything personally.

They're all fans of the Trace stories, so I was getting a little complacent about taking them things. Before last weekend, I was starting to wonder if they'd accept anything Trace-related and call it good (after all, they'd been waiting five years!). Happily, I was wrong. There were pacing problems with the end of the story, and they let me know it. They all agreed, however, that the thing wrapped up well enough, and with some structural tweaking it would be fine.

And I trust 'em. They've certainly let me know before when I've put my foot in it.

We have a new member in the group. I've known her peripherally for a few years, and finally invited her to join the group, since I thought she was in the right mindset, and an advanced enough level, to benefit from the kind of critiquing we do.

I don't think my initial assessment was wrong, but there was another factor I hadn't counted upon. In fact, I'd come to take it for granted in the group--the ability to separate one's personal beliefs from the story at hand.

In college, I was trained as a formalist. I look at the text. When it comes to fiction, I don't give a hang about the author's biography or the political climate influencing the book: if it ain't in the text, it doesn't count. I'd even argue that formalism is the only legitimate way to approach speculative fiction, since SFF/H writers are always talking about "world-building." Yes, you can write contemporary political allegories into your novel, but somebody who's not hip to the politics of the 2010's had still better be able to read it and get meaning out of it.

My writer's group, at least what I consider the core of it, has the same attitude. I doubt they have a name for it, much less any formal training (they all learnt their writing chops on the street, as it were), but they adhere to it.

New Member had a problem with "Scapegoat." And she had a hard time saying what her problem was. She objected to use of the word "witch" to describe the villianness, despite the superstitious 19th century setting of the story.

She objected to the objectivism of Good and Evil... in a horror story. She protested that she'd seen 3000 years of that attitude and she wanted something more... What, she couldn't quite articulate.

She said that in badly written stories she could ignore it, but in a "good" story, like mine, she expected better. But she couldn't quite say what "it" was.

I tried to help. I did. I have learned that people often make up reasons to justify things they feel with their gut, and understanding those unspoken values helps me accommodate a wider range of readers. I asked if she would be happier with an X-Files type ending, i.e. 'It could be spooks, but here's a rational explanation'. No, that wasn't it. Every suggestion I made, every effort to repeat back what she was saying, to interpret, was shot down and another layer of finely-minced equivocation sprinkled on top.

"But you never explain why," she whined. "Was [the villain] abused as a child?"

I was rolling my eyes at this point (seriously--traumatic childhood is the most overused literary device of our age), but I pointed out the places in the text where it stated the girl had been taught badly by her mother, and had done Bad Things in the past. She was greedy, lazy, manipulative and deceitful--all traits supported by the text. Other members pointed out that the girl was not bad because she was a witch; she just happened to use her powers for evil.

But New Member was not happy.

After a couple days' thought I've deduced she wanted me to retcon my story (and coincidentally, nineteenth century history and morals) to accommodate modern attitudes toward witchcraft. And she didn't want to say so, because it would reveal her prejudices, and invite speculation about whether she is a pagan/wiccan/witch/whatever.

Y'know, I don't care a hill of beans what she believes in. All I care about is how fairly she can critique. And in a writer's group, you're not there to tell the writer what kind of story you want to see. You're there to evaluate what's on the page.

It's interesting to note, as well, that "Scapegoat" takes place in a "black town" in Kansas, c. 1880. Racist themes permeate the story. I knew, writing it, that SOMEBODY was going to be offended, however lightly I strove to tread. And I was sweating the reaction of another Newer Member of our group, a young woman of mixed race, who would've had a lot more legitimate cause to complain about the historically-accurate use of ethnic slurs in the story. But she's apparently more formalist--or maybe more sophisticated--than Old New Member, because her feedback was unequivocally approving.

I'm not saying everyone has to like or agree with every story submitted by every member. It's entirely appropriate to say, "I'm not the right audience for this story, but here's what I got out of it that you may find helpful..." In some cases it's even appropriate to say, "this offends me," because that can help the writer determine his audience better, whether that includes you or not. But say it and move on. Don't condemn the story for living in a different world than you do.