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9/31 The Editor is Tired

Once up on a time, I took a Clarion workshop in which the instructor, a published author of speculative fiction, did That Thing to a friend of mine.

The friend submitted a promising story in a style beyond her skill level--a good idea naively executed. The instructor singled it out as the one submission in the class that was simply too bad to be critiqued. As far as I know, my friend never wrote anything again.

Anyone who loves stories enough to try to write one deserves better than what that lazy, thoughtless published author did to my friend all those years ago. That's why I felt compelled to spend three hours last night commenting on the novel whose author was spamming us all yesterday.

Now I need advice. When the author solicited "comments" I think she meant "praise and encouragement". When I asked her to clarify, she said she would welcome any feedback I wanted to give. I think my comments provide a concise fiction-remediation course, but she might see it differently.

Here's a representative sample of my remarks. Should I send them or not? Too harsh? Don't bother? Waste of electrons? Give it a shot? Helpful? What do my fellow writers think? How would you feel if these were comments on a story of yours? Would you get any value from them, or just feel bad? Am I wasting my time? Tilting at windmills?

Feedback is genuinely welcome.

  • Is any of that important? I feel a bit like I'm supposed to focus for a moment on fine china, porcelain, and crystal, as if it's some kind of clue to what's going to happen next. If these mentions of the dishes are designed to make me realize that [Character] is a collector, or lives with his grandmother, then they're working. If note, I'd limit myself to a single mention.

  • A) brunette is feminine and B) don't say "the brunette" OR "the brunet".

  • A gaze can't have a color.

  • Extraneous purple prose that repeats what you said, more clearly, in the previous sentence. Far from adding mood or setting the scene or revealing character or advancing the action, this type of description just brings the story to a halt.

  • This and the previous paragraph suffer from too much detailed action. We don't care that the bottle lives behind the microwave. We don't care that the glass is crystal. We don't need to know that he crossed the room, corked the bottle, or put his glass in the sink. None of that builds plot, scene or character as far as I can tell.

  • I just don't see a good way of shoehorning in that his blood is silver [that his eyes are crystal blue/that his hair is silver/that his cheekbones are high]. You're in his point of view: would he say these things about himself? In the middle of a fight?

  • I get that you're trying to convey fury, a killing rage. I just don't think "shredding away at the dead heart" quite gets it done.

  • Anytime you find yourself reaching for poetic alternative terms for something you've just said (like "heart" and "the organ under the beast's ribs" here), you are almost certainly repeating yourself anyway.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 9th, 2013 02:34 am (UTC)
I hope you don't mind my two cents. I've lurked on your journal before; don't remember if I've commented or not.

I edit fanfic and professional m/m fiction, and I'm probably even more interested in this topic in general than I am this one specific example. It's a really good idea that you've negotiated to provide feedback on some sample pages--you're right that it would be daunting (for both of you) to see the same kinds of writing flaws identified over and over again.

I agree with the comments on dreamwidth--some positive feedback will (or should) help the critical notes be less painful. I thought the critiques themselves were excellent; could perhaps be toned down a little, but for the most part were fine.

A couple other suggestions to consider (which may be more time-consuming for you and that's not what you're looking for!):

I once edited a fanfic that was guilty of many of those weaknesses and the author had convinced me she was game for a fairly ruthless edit. (And it turned out she was!) In some cases, esp. with purple prose, I actually rewrote the paragraph in question as an *example* of how it could be made more effective, and I think that really helped her see the difference. You might try that.

If you have a link to an online writing resource that discusses things like "the brunet" or "the other man" (or whatever point you're making), providing that URL might help the author realize that [a] she isn't the only person who makes that mistake, and [b] you aren't just being ridiculous (while continuing to think that of course her readers wouldn't mind "the brunet".) I think I most recently did that on a professional gig to persuade the author not to call eyes 'orbs'.

Good luck!

Oct. 9th, 2013 06:13 am (UTC)
Your two cents are welcome and valuable! Thanks for weighing in.

I spared the DW/LJ community the really long comments where I actually did offer a rewrite, but there are at least half a dozen of them in the full critique. Personally, I need examples to understand concepts--I have a very concrete mind--so it's well worth the time for me to write a few of those for the author.

And funny you should mention the link, because my very first comment is a link to a pretty good and rather funny article about purple prose.

Another tip that I often give is to read the work out loud. In the early stages it can catch egregious mistakes and repetitive phrasing, and in the later edits it's the only way I know of to nail down rhythm and cadence. As with "the brunet," a lot of readers (the primarily-visual majority) won't be bothered by poor rhythm, but the auditory ones will be. On the other hand, nobody is bothered by good rhythm, just as I'm pretty sure nobody is actually bothered by good SPAG. Why not make the effort to include as many types of readers as you feasibly can? (And besides, everything is being made into audiobooks these days--why not leverage your work accordingly, just in case?)

I'm wracking my brain to remember which novel it appeared in, but I remember a scene in which the devil demanded a sacrifice of "two orbs" and the character (a male) had to choose between losing his eyes and losing his testicles. He chose testicles. That is only time I can think of where "orbs" for eyes ever worked. :D
Oct. 9th, 2013 03:33 am (UTC)
I can't believe the assholery of that writing teacher who said the story was too bad to be critiqued. He deserved to be fired on the spot.

I sympathize with your irritation at the story you are critiquing, but I do think your irritation shows through in a way that will make the critiques hard for the writer to hear and listen to. Is there a way to rewrite them more neutrally, as suggestions, such as: "I suggest minimizing description that does not forward the plot, such as...."
Oct. 9th, 2013 05:47 am (UTC)
You're among several people who've made a similar observation, so I'm taking it to heart. I know I left in some of my initial irritation, and it really needs to come out or any good I intend will be lost in meanness.

I looked up the author who led that long-ago Clarion workshop and she had a blog post that clearly showed me that she's become much more humble and open since then. It was nice to see.
Oct. 9th, 2013 04:56 am (UTC)
I think a lot of this is fine to say. But I also find that when critiquing it's important to have something positive to say, too. I mean, there must be something, even if it's just about the valor of the attempt to use vivid description. I find people can hear the negatives much better and with more equanimity if you can leaven them with some honest encouragement. I also think it's helpful to offer alternative suggestions on how to achieve effects that are clearly not working. For instance, you do a good job of explaining that a character isn't going to describe himself, especially during a fight, but she might find it even more helpful if you could suggest when and how it might be appropriate to slip in such description - if the pages you're doing include such an appropriate time, that is.
Oct. 9th, 2013 05:55 am (UTC)
I got a fantastic comment on DW from a friend who teaches writing to young adults, and he gave me his basic pre-editing pep-talk, which I'm going to steal. It covered the courage and talent of anyone who has actually written a whole story, the fact that nothing unedited ever got published, the idea that rewrites are the real business of writing, etc.

I feel that if I express some of that, along with my genuine sense that the story idea is interesting and original, my editorial comments won't be so much a bitter pill as an interesting challenge for her.

I spared LJ and DW the really long comments where I did offer example rewrites, but there are half a dozen of them that I hope the author will find useful.

Thanks for weighing in. I appreciate it. It's really helping me clear my mind on this strangely compelling little saga.
Oct. 9th, 2013 05:38 am (UTC)
Yeah, I agree with the above. Hopefully you can praise something because while your critique may be very accurate it is also well, to spin a purple phrase, 'cold and sharp as a knife to the heart.' And really, first time writers are usually hoping for more encouragement than filleting. LOL. It takes them a while to grow rhino hide.
Oct. 9th, 2013 06:02 am (UTC)
Sometimes I forget how really cold I am. If my middle name weren't Elizabeth it'd be Spock, I swear. It's frankly what makes me a good text-doctor, but my bedside manner definitely needs work! I'm glad I asked publicly--I've learned a lot.
Oct. 9th, 2013 07:34 am (UTC)
LOL! I hear you! My mother always used to admonish me with the old "If you can't say something nice..!" To which my reply (even as a wee wild haired sprout) was always "But its the TRUTH." In other words I spend a lot of time with my mouth shut in public. Some examples:

On my sister's new hair style: "You look like a skunk." (Remember streaks?)

On the presentation of my aunt's new baby: "Oh, he's so cute! He looks like a little monkey!"

*facepalm* At least I keep my mouth shut now.
Oct. 9th, 2013 08:47 pm (UTC)
LOL! Back when I was first studying astrology, one of the common things said about Sagittarians (me) was that we're blunt but well-meaning--kind of clumsy with not much of a filter, and I never felt that fit me.

But later I read somewhere that Sagittarians with Scorpio rising (also me) are critical and insulting on purpose, after careful deliberation. That was more my style. It's a pricey personality trait--cost me a lot of friends before I learned to control it. It still rears up now and then.
Oct. 9th, 2013 09:55 pm (UTC)
Ouch. YOUR prose has managed to convey in 72-pt type STAY AWAY FROM THIS BOOK. "The brunet"? AAAARRGHHH.

Perhaps try out one or two remarks on the telephone or when you see her, rather than hit her with the stuff in black and white? This should tell you whether she can take useful critique or not.

Edited at 2013-10-09 09:58 pm (UTC)
Oct. 9th, 2013 10:21 pm (UTC)
Heh. Yeah, I'm afraid my first, second, and third responses to the text were, basically, stay away. Suspending critical judgment enough to see the potential in the piece was an act of will and patience, and took a lot of help from this community.

Tonight or tomorrow night I'm going to start from scratch with a much different and, I hope, kinder and more generous, approach.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )



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