Expert Authority and Critics

I had an exchange with a person I’m sort of “friends” with over on deviantART the other day over critiquing someone’s work.  (Think Facebook or MySpace “friends” here.)

This person’s been a very active, prolific writer for a couple of years now, and she’s grown a lot in the amount of time I’ve known her.  She cowboyed up and joined a couple of online critique groups and watched and learned from the critics.  She stopped writing so much fan fiction from Avatar: The Last Airbender and started working on her own creations.  I don’t read her work – she writes what she calls “romantica” and it’s not my taste at all – but I do read her critiques from time to time.

A little background.

Some months ago, deviantART implemented a critique system, by which artists can rate and critique other artists.  They give from one to five stars on vision, originality, technique and impact.  While useful for critiquing literature, dA – like most other online critique forums and sites – isn’t conducive to providing a method of critiquing a full piece unless it’s very short.  So the critics end up giving copy editing advice and corrections on spelling, grammar, word choice, punctuation, show vs. tell, and passive/active tenses.  Oh, and POV sometimes.

This particular lady has been an active critic on dA for quite some time.  She’s usually first on the scene and goes line-by-line through the piece inserting her “corrections”.  A couple of people have sort of taken her to task on this.  They feel this is copy editing, not critique.  She doesn’t offer much input on story issues, characterization, plotting or anything which requires a larger context to work in.  For one because she can’t with a system wherein authors are submitting their pieces one bit at a time (a chapter, for example, or a scene/partial chapter).

I didn’t know she’d been called out on this before, so when she posted a how-to on critique – giving and receiving – I told her I thought she did a good job, and while I didn’t agree with every point she made, I did think it was a good, useful guide for people.

She got very defensive.  She implicated that because she was part of more than one critique group, she has the knowledge about how it’s done, and this (her method) is how it’s done, period.  And instead of attacking her critique method, why don’t I join a crit group and go crit someone?

I stepped back, reiterated how valuable I thought her input was, and pointed out that not only did I join a crit group, I helped found (a now-defunct) one.  And I wasn’t attacking her critique method, only stating that making spelling, grammar and punctuation corrections is copy editing, not critique, and that I felt critique went beyond the available scope provided.  I explained how critique is generally done in Story, Section, Scene, Sentence and Word scopes, but only the latter three are available when the piece is submitted in small segments.  (There are probably more aspects, those are just the ones I can recall in descending order of magnitude and importance.)

I stand by my statements, and didn’t apologize for them.  She can get defensive if she wants, but the fact is, copy editing is very helpful to writers struggling with those aspects of their writing.  But correct grammar and diction and style and usage and punctuation in a story with huge plot issues and arc problems is useless.  Both weaknesses will get the author rejected.  She also moves from the assumption everyone she reads is seeking publication – something she’s not doing to the best of my knowledge – which is incorrect.

What do you think, writers?  Those of you who utilized crit groups, did you get feedback on your overall story, or just the immediate section, be it a chapter or two or a few scenes?  And if you’re a critic, what do you look for in a piece you’re critiquing?  Less – i.e., a small portion of the story?  Or more, meaning a bigger portion so you can see the larger contexts/problems?

Sound off, everyone.  Let me know.

-JDT-

All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
ALL rights reserved.

Confident Insecurity

Stephen King

I’ve seen some dramatic improvement in my writing skill over the last year or year and a half, and I’ve worked pretty hard to improve my prose.

Now, granted – nothing improves like practice, be it golf, poker, sex or writing.  Still, learning new aspects and putting them into practice helps too.  I learned a lot about writing from other writers early on, and took a couple of tail spin plummets into “I stink at this” along the way, but in the end I always managed to get wind back under my wings and climb to new, higher heights.

Stephen King’s heavy influence on my adverb-sparse writing forced me to take perhaps the biggest step forward.  While I don’t exercise adverb-control here in my blog posts, I find myself automatically cutting them and rewording sentences on the fly when I’m writing fiction prose.  Ernest Hemingway’s maxims about short, punchy sentences goes far with me, though I have varying degrees of success working with those.  (Something I hope to remedy as I go forward, actually, and will be targeting specifically in my next piece.)

Initially, my writing was adverb-heavy and my word choices weak.  The first writer to point out my dependence on modifiers also gave me bum advice (she told me it was ADJECTIVES which were to be avoided, not ADVERBS), but the point carried through.  And I learned a lot about offering writers feedback from my buddy Sherri over the time I’ve known her.  She’s now editing for a company on a contractual basis, and she knows from whence she speaks.

I picked up a lot from the first self-editing book I ever read too.  Not as much from the first plotting book I read, though; the author lost me in his explanations of things.

But lately, I’ve found myself unable to find much on the ‘Net about writing I haven’t either read already somewhere else, and I don’t find as much value in the input and feedback I’ve gotten lately as I used to.  I’m not sure why.  It feels arrogant and at the same time scary.  I have so much left to learn – so very much – and I know that, but I’m having the worst time taking another step forward.

I’m on a plateau, which frightens me, because I feel I have to get better.  I mean, this can’t be the top of my game, the best I’ll ever be … can it?

On my deviantART page, I get a lot of encouragement and accolades about my work.  It’s a nice feeling.  Occasionally, I get a “critique” from someone who takes the work line-by-line and points out areas they don’t like, or which could be improved.  It hasn’t happened very often but when it does, I’m always grateful.  Problem is, about 90% or more of what they say makes me chuckle and shake my head.  I’m pretty dismissive of the input, depending on who’s providing it.  From some, I’m grateful to listen, to act upon the advice they give, and feel the story’s improved.  From others … not so much.

Overall, though, I’m starting to see the value of a few trusted beta readers and I’m becoming pretty dismissive of “critique” from anyone else.

That’s cocky.

At the same time, I’m scared to put my work into the hands of the people who are the self-designated gatekeepers of literature.  I’m afraid it’s not good enough – I’m not good enough – and the thought of being told I still have miles to go (I do) makes me shy away and hold back in fear, worrying over how to get better.

I’m very secure and yet … insecure.  I have confident insecurity.

Is this a common thing to all writers?  Is there ever a point at which the insecure part goes away and the confidence remains?  Are we doomed to stagnation if we do?  And how does one go about improving prose, getting stronger and better?  How do we develop our style as writers?  Is it really just a matter of throwing more words out of our heads over and over and over?  It seems to me that won’t work if we’re not somehow getting new ways and means to state the things we want to say in better, clearer, more descriptive, more artful, more [insert whatever you go for here].  Or is this where talent separates writers from wannabes?

Writers, what do you think?  Am I off my rocker, or do you only really accept input from a select few?  Are your critics who matter a specially defined group or are you open to hearing from pretty much anyone about your work?

Sound off, writerlies.  I’m genuinely worried.

-JDT-

All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
ALL rights reserved.

What’s YOUR Standard?

How well I could write if I were not here!

I read a fair amount of online fiction.

Every time I do, I find things in need of “sharpening” – whether it’s typos, misspellings, errors in structure/grammar (I’m not as hard about this as most people think), or inconsistencies in the story.  Sometimes I’m knocked clean out of the story by the things I see; other times I can overlook them and keep up with the story.  (By the way, Al Bruno III has published a piece on his blog called “Tater Bugs” which I loved; you should check it out.)  I’m sort of harsh this way; if I’m too distracted by mistakes and things, it’s easy for me to give up on a story and drop it.  (That says nothing of plain ol’ bad stories, though.  Those go without saying to me.)

I know I’m guilty of it too.  When I get close to finishing a piece, sometimes I rush through and might overlook things I would find annoying about someone else’s writing.  It’s a horrible double-standard for which I feel awful.  Still, I can’t help it.  In my own work, I’ve taken to making sure I don’t publish anything anymore until and unless my wife has read it over for me.  I just can’t take a chance on becoming everything I hate about writing.

For me, there are a few standards and priorities in writing a piece to be presented to the planet for scrutiny:

  1. Story content.  Is this any good?  Would I enjoy reading it?  Would others?  Did my beloved like it?  Why or why not?  What should be changed, deleted, or inserted to help?
  2. Show, don’t tell.  Have I done that?  If I do tell, is it as a summary or as a way of moving the scene to the next critical action bit?
  3. Is the dialog realistic?  Sound?  Normal?  Over-wrought, under-wrought, believable, unbelievable, farcical?  Does the reader have to translate my transliterated dialect?  (I’m really bad about this last, by the bye.  I go way too far with it.  Sherri tipped me off to that problem.  Thanks, Sher; love ya.)
  4. Grammar, punctuation and spelling.  I don’t want to embarrass myself.  Not at all.  So, I’ll read it; I’ll re-read it.  I’ll ask my love to read it.  I might ask for a beta reader (no, I haven’t done this yet, but I will) or two to help (Sherri’s an excellent beta reader, by the way, and has done it many times for folks, including me).  Is everything okay?  Double-check if I can, look up things I’m uncertain of, fix if necessary, re-read again and pass it back through the aforementioned loop.
  5. Style.  Am I using proper punctuation in appropriate areas?  This goes beyond the stuff above, like periods and commas and semi-colons.  I’m talking about use of em dashes vs. ellipses, and using them properly and in the right places.  Should this be an em dash to indicate the statement is cut off, or an ellipsis to indicate it’s trailing off?  Things like quotes – are they correct and closed properly?  Am I using proper CMoS (Chicago Manual of Style) formatting?  I know, I know – this isn’t priority for a lot of people but it is for me.  What can I say?
  6. Visual appeal.  If it’s a long entry, I’ll break it into pages, try to keep the reader(s) from facing a huge wall of text which might look insurmountable.  This goes back to standard blog practices if I’m publishing online – keep it short.  Try not to let the individual pages get too long, try not to have too many pages in a single entry for multi-page entries.  Is there enough white space in the piece?  Does the eye move along easily?  Do I need to use italics for emphasis anywhere?  Too much?

So that’s how I break it down.  Formatting is last, but I think it could probably be rolled in with “visual appeal” if I wanted to.   There are other things, but I can’t think of what they are.

In the end, it’s the writing that matters, but to me, these things are part and parcel with story and plot and character development.

What about you?  If you’re a reader, what sorts of things are you looking for in a story you read?  How important are good style, punctuation, spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc., to you?  If you’re a writer, what sort of scrutiny do you put your work through?  Do you have a favorite tool to help you get it done?

Just some thoughts about online publishing and writing I thought I’d toss out.  Sound off, y’all.

All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
ALL rights reserved.

Belly-Aching 101

Can you spare a minute?

I’ve got to get something off my chest.  I have some work I have to wrap up before things fall apart for me at the end of the month, but you know what?  I’m going to take some time and vent here.

 

Hey, it’s my blog; my corner of the Internet.  If you don’t like what I have to say (and you know who you are), wtf are you doing hanging around my page?  Get off.  Mind your own business.

 

That being said, if you don’t like bitching, move along, Sparky.  This ain’t for the faint o’ heart, all right?  I’m in full-on bitch mode.  Click away if you want.

 

Click here to see the bitching … and not otherwise

The Sun Breaks Through

So here I am, complaining about being too chicken to submit my work to a critique group for shredding review, when LO! and behold, Courtney Vail, a fellow writer whose blog I found through the “writing” tag on WordPress and visited and commented to, pops by my blog and sees my whiny little wimp-fest.

She left me an encouraging comment, and a link to The Next Big Writer website, which has critique groups you can join, and then she took it a step farther.

Click here to read how far