Be Earnest, They Are

It’s no secret in my family that I write.  So whenever someone has a grammar question, a ‘Rules-of-Storytelling’ question or just basic, can you proofread this, I’m the go-to-guy.  Some time ago, my little sister (the 7-year-old) shows me a piece of paper and asks me ‘Does this story sound like it’s going good?’

It’s literally 2 or 3 lines of 7-year-old writing, which is it’s own category all together.  All I can gather is it’s about a cat that steals stuff, sneaks around to steal stuff and tricks people to steal stuff.  (She watches us play Skyrim, so think cat-person).  Now, she’s 7 so I’m not going to tell her that there’s no real concept of a plot yet, her grammar & spelling is in the pits and I have no attachment to this character what-so-ever.  Instead, I told that it sounded good so far, but there wasn’t much for me to go on yet.

As she’s skipping away I wondered how often the rest of us fall into that trap.  We get an idea, we’re eager, we write a couple of chapters (or maybe even finish the piece) and then run off to show it to a few betas and expect substantial feedback.  To some degree, I can see why.  We want confirmation that our awesome idea is, in fact, awesome.  That first ‘Yay!’ or ‘I can’t wait to read more.’ is critical, it’s an esteem booster.  But what happens when that ‘Yay’ becomes a ‘Nay’?  Then what?  Do we rework those first few chapters so that they’re more awesome?  And if so, what standard are we trying to meet?  Our own or that of those first betas?

This is particularly detrimental if we haven’t even finished the entire work yet.  If you have an entire MS and Beta-Gal doesn’t understand what’s being hinted at in chapter 3, then you’ll pull out the ‘Oh but wait until chapter 56!’ (Which is a whole ‘nother topic.)  If you don’t have your MS finished, then you can’t pull out that ol’ standby because you don’t know what’s going to happen then.  Yeah, you have an inclining, but it hasn’t been written yet.  And let’s face it, things change.  Plots change, characters change, characters die, fat unicorns give out candy–anything can happen! Personally, I don’t believe it’s wise to extensively edit your beginnings when you have no idea what’s going to happen in the end or even the middle.  (*Note I say extensively, some editing as you write isn’t bad at all.)

With my own WIP, there have been parts in earlier chapters that betas told me they didn’t get or it seemed confusing.  My CP even told me an entire scene was good but hard to believe, I was asking the reader to suspend their belief a little too far, a little too close to breaking.  Which sucked because I had no other idea how to tackle that scene.  I NEEDED the characters to go in that direction, but if it wasn’t believable no reader would go past that chapter.  It pained me, but rather than stress that scene, I kept writing.  I’ll admit, part of me was being stubborn.  Part of me wanted to believe that just ’cause it was hard to believe didn’t mean it was impossible and that I could leave it as is.  Well, I kept writing and as I got further in the story something changed.  CharacterB decided to go a different route.  In order for me to make that route work I had to go back to the beginning and add in certain scenes, leave certain hints and guess which scene got caught up in that wave of change?  I wound up re-writing it and I think it works much, much better.  (No word yet from my CP though 😉 )  If I had stressed over that scene earlier and made changes, it would have been for nothing because eventually I would reach the point where CharacterB goes that different route.

Schrodinger’s cat argues that it’s possible I may never have gotten the inspiration that made CharacterB go a different way which changed everything else.  My response?  Exactly.  Anything is possible, until you write ‘The End’ anything is possible.  Just as I couldn’t jump for joy over my sister’s cat-person-thief, you can’t ask a beta to give you appropriate feedback on an incomplete piece, it’s not fair to them or you.  Finish your work, put your all into it, let your CPs read and re-read those various versions, they’re built for it, but give your betas a piece that is as close to finished as you can get it.  Be Earnest, They Are.

What do you think?  Is it better to make extensive changes as you go based on other’s feedback, or to finish the piece, making changes as you go when you feel the need to, and then seek feedback?  Would you rather be eating an ice cream than thinking about editing?  Yeah, me too.

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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