Everyone’s a Critic

“The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.” ~ John Steinbeck

I thought it would be appropriate leading off this jumble of ramblings with a quote, since I’ll be using a few for illustration purposes as we go on. Particularly since I thought we could take a look at the bane of the writer’s existence, (especially speculative fiction writers), criticism.

Most writers are not immune to that baneful bug, in fact; none of us are. The disease as caused flame wars before the computer existed, and suicides before the media decided it was a popular method of inspiring sympathy for a just cause. But maybe, with a little perspective, we can take a bit of the sting out of the sharpened tongues which haunt our collective nightmares.

While, as per the above quote, there is no guarantee that our work will inspire hordes of readers to pour cash into our pockets; erect statues in our honor; name libraries after us; nor insist that our boring, out-of-date works be essayed in high school English classes throughout the country, the taking of a single criticism to heart is as silly as the fear of the dust bunnies under the bed. (Especially so if the source of the criticism is “a professional.”)

Consider these criticisms, and who they were directed to:

“As a work of art, it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks.” ~ Clive James on Judith Krantz’s The Princess Diaries.

“Virgina Woolfe’s writing is no more than glamorous knitting. I believe she must have a pattern somewhere.” ~ Dame Edith Sitwell.

“Henry James has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” ~ T.S. Eliot

“Of Dickens’ style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules… No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens.” ~ Anthony Trollope

Did you notice that some of that criticism came from equally famous writers? People who would be considered “a professional?” Didn’t seem to make the writer they directed it at vanish into literary oblivion, did it? It may have, if the writer it was directed at took it to heart and acted on it, but, obviously they didn’t.

Given this, how much worse is it to take the critique of someone whose only claim to literary fame is being a professional critic? Have they ever produced a best seller? A hit movie? A Top Ten song? Not to my knowledge they haven’t. So, before you take the word of these “experts” to heart, consider the source.

Now, I’m NOT saying that all criticism is bad. It can inspire, show you where you need to tighten things up, and where you may have screwed up royally. We do know when a critique is right, because we’ll usually say, “Damn, I missed that.” But taking it to heart is probably the most counter productive thing a writer, or any artist for that matter, can do.

As Danielle Steele said:

“A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”

Again, referring to my opening quote; no one in this business knows what will capture the public’s imagination, and what won’t. The business of speculative fiction is something of a lottery; and getting pissed off, or depressed at someone who’s opinion shouldn’t matter one whit is just plain silly. At least not if you’ve put in the work, and done the best you can.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.”

So roll those bones, bust your anus, take your chances, and pan the critics. After all:

“The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” ~ Mark Twain

Later Gang!

Pete

It’s in the Details

I was reminded today is my day to post and could only think crap in a sack. Yesterday we spent the day driving to and from O’Hare in Chicago so I’ve nothing ready. Forgive me if this is kind of rough.

My blog is entitled It’s in the Details because the small details can really make or break a manuscript. Details add life. They show a character without telling. Small points enrich a story and make it real. They give readers something to grasp at and say ‘oh, yeah, I’ve seen a person like that’. Adding in the details is like putting frosting and sprinkles on top of your cake.

I have a scene where a girl crouches naked in the weeds. (You might have seen it from this week in the marathon.) At first, it was a decent scene, but it needed more. So I went back and gave the weeds names: thistles, milkweed, garlic mustard plant. A thistle scratched her bare skin. I put in a strategic sharp rock. A garlic mustard weed crackled under her as she shifted, giving off a sharp scent when she tried to escape the rock that poked her bottom. Now I had something real. Who hasn’t sat on the ground and got poked by a rock? That shows she’s human, a rock annoyed her. That’s the core of world building. You might have wizards or vampires, manticores or zombies for excitement, but the small touches make it real.

Another example might be having a cloud of gnats pester your main character as they ride along on horseback or a cloud pass over the sun which sends your character into dark thoughts. There are infinite ways to use the environment to set the mood of a character, and it’s all about using those details to breathe life into words.

Which sets the mood better?

A single candle was in the room. She sat on her big bed and looked at her expensive paintings.

Or.

She focused on light from the night candle as it played over the wood of carved furniture and displayed silk and brocade fabrics. On the walls, paintings and tapestries were thrown into shades of gray, their colors muted. The flickering light cast dancing shadows over exposed skin.

And you can and should use details to flesh out characters. As example I have a minor character who is a high bishop in a fantasy world. I could say he was pudgy and old and had a high opinion of himself. Or I could show his character with details. Dressed in his violet robes and wearing his miter over his scant gray hair, the bishop held out his golden ring of office, topped with a two caret ruby, to be kissed. His jowls shook when the queen hesitated. Those two lines show many things about him. Gray hair-older. Big flashy ring and bright clothing-grasping and ambitious. Jowls shook-pudgy and concerned with his precedence. Probably not someone you’re going to like.

Without the right details, you have only the shell of a world. It’s all about expanding your senses and noticing things around you then adding those things to your story.

Donning the Dragon Scaled Armor

(No dragons were harmed in the making of this blog post)

We are in full swing at the AQC Speculative Fiction Critique Marathon, and though the critiques are helpful, they can also sting.  It takes a great deal of courage to have the first chapter or so looked at, and give it to chance that it may or not be torn apart.  The marathon is not for the faint of heart, but then, being a writer is not either.

Each of us, as writers, need to grow some sort of thick skin or, as I like to think of it, donning the armor.  As much as we love our creations, we need to expect the worst out of the reaction of others.  To expect the worst is put on the armor and prepare for the words that will hurt the pride the most.

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It’s not always easy.  Sometimes we’ve had a rough day, or simply just can’t find our armor. (Crap, did I bring it to the cleaners again?) The rage builds up from the harsh critique and thoughts like: ‘This person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.’ Or ‘How could they say that, don’t they ever read?’ to ‘I’m horrible, I should never have put down a word of this dribble.  I can’t do this! I can never write again.’

I know, I know, that’s a bit melodramatic, but you get the point, we either get angry and defensive, or we get depressed.  When a critique hits you the wrong way you need to step back, don’t keep reading the words that are hurting you.  Move on. Do other things. Come back to it when you’ve donned your armor, those words may be the key to your improvement.

In the form of the marathon, there are a lot of people who look at my work, and not all of them have good things to say.  When I first started showing my chapters during the theme months my first reaction was not a good one.  I forgot to don the armor and I regretted it.  I couldn’t show another round of my work for the rest of the month.  I missed out on a lot of helpful critiques that could have caused growth because of my pride.

I had to step back and realize that I still have a long way to go.  Now, when I look at each crit from my fellow speculative fiction buddies, (some of them have blogs! Check out the Contributors Blogs on the left.) I look at it in a different perspective. I ask myself, why did they say that? If I do as they suggest, will it help or hurt my plot line? Am I taking away from the reading? Am I giving enough information so that they understand what’s going on? 

These people are there to help, they take their own precious time to view each chapter that they crit.  I have to say, I feel pretty honored when they take the time to look at my chapter.  As I said, I still have a long way to go.

How about you? What do you do to prepare for a critique from a crit-parner? Do you don the armor, or do you let it hurt at first, then walk away, only to go back to it with a thicker skin? We would love to hear your ideas!

Gorebags! The New SpecFic Party Favor!

Wait…what?

For the less video game savvy of our readers, there is a game called Fallout 3.  In this game are bad guys called super mutants and raiders.  Whenever you take down one of their encampments you are likely to find sacks of gore strewn about their ramshackle place of residence.  That’s right, gore.  Just sitting there.  For the easily befuddled, it’s even called a ‘gorebag’.  As a player you can choose to stick your hand in that gore and see if there’s anything worthwhile inside, like ammo or bottle caps (in-game currency) or maybe some drugs like stimpaks (health), y’know, typical end-of-world paraphernalia.

Sometimes it’s worth the effort, sometimes it really isn’t.  Add to the ick-factor the game makes this horrible ‘squick’ sound when you look into the bag.

Why would anyone ever want to stick there hand in there?  I don’t know, why does a lot of SpecFic literature these days, especially in the fantasy genre, seem to be constantly trying to out-gross the last hard-hitter?

Don’t get me wrong, I write dark fantasy, I’ve put my characters through quite a bit, quite a graphic bit, so I’m certainly not against horror or gore in our fantasy works, I’m only asking you to ask yourself if it serves a purpose.  Does it, in some way, advance the plot?  Do we discover more about the characters’ weaknesses?  Their strengths?  Is it more than BadGuy kicking puppies and killing messengers to prove how ‘bad’ he really is?

Let’s use Brent Weeks’ Way of Shadows as an example, because it’s awesome and I love it.  It’s pretty horrific in those beginning chapters, and not just in a flat out blood-splatter kind of way either.  I’m talking abuse, rape and poverty all dealing with children between the ages of 8 and 14.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  But it’s more than just a desire to say ‘Well, these are the slums and stuff is bad.  See, look!’  We’re shown just how evil the BadGuy characters are and how much our Hero has to endure so that when the BadGuy makes his dramatic re-appearance years later, we’re just as terrified as our Hero.  We know what BadGuy is capable of, we’ve seen it.  We know what our Hero endured, we were there with him when the blows landed and the tears fell.  It’s real to us.  That is a gorebag with ammo and a stimpak inside.

Here’s something else to consider: there’s more to horror than blood and guts or raping and pillaging.  There are episodes of The Twilight Zone that still scare the crap out of me using black & white TV, Rod Serling’s voice and some damn good characterization.  What about the horror of a situation?  Overcoming fears?  The power of suggestion is amazing so let your readers put their imagination to work.  Have you ever been in a situation where you had to confront someone or something?  You knew it was coming, but you spend the hours leading up to it dreading all the ways it can go wrong?  How often was your imagination, fueled by your irrational fears, more terrifying than what did come to pass?

I’m noticing what could be called a trend in some of the SpecFic works out there where it seems as though everyone is trying to one-up the last guy.  Characters, significant or otherwise, are killed for shock value.  How many books lately have opened with someone either dead, dying or in the process of being killed?  It’s not a bad thing, my own current WIP opens with a bar fight, but I think there needs to be more balance.  I think it’s a fine line and some writers are crossing it in an attempt to be more shocking, more bloody, more everything than the last guy, while their plot and characters sit forgotten on the curb.

Like anything else in your story, your horror aspects must be integral.  They must serve a purpose.  In my opening scene, I need you to see just how far my MC is willing to go to get what she wants, because the shit hits the fan pretty quick and we need to see what kind of girl we’re working with.  Do I succeed?  Not sure, guess I’ll find out.  What I do know is that if I removed that scene and started the book from the next one, no one would have any reason to believe this girl could hold her own.  It has a purpose.

What about you?  Do you include aspects of horror or the disturbing in your SpecFic?  How do you feel about books that do?  Is it purposeful or trend-ful?  Would a zombie fat unicorn scare you?  ‘Cause it would me.