Thursday, February 27, 2014

Self-Editing, Step One: Word Choice

Word choice is the most obvious and superficial level of the story. It’s the first thing that most, author and critic, look at and are disheartened by. The good news is that word choice is not as important as we make it, and easier to fix than we think. After getting passed the first couple of hurdles, word choice becomes much more about subjectivity, people only using it as a means to prove you suck when they want you to.

Of course it has a lot of influence, but most of that influence is a reflection of the actual depth within the manuscript. In most cases, trying to focus only on the superficial surface is like putting in contacts to cure jaundice. If you cure the disease, the symptoms will clear up on their own. That being said, the moment we overcome those typical and obvious mistakes is the moment we feel a thousand times more confident in our writing ability, which is why I am considering step one to the writing process.

There are a few quick rules to having “good” word choice:

1)      Don’t sound like you’re making it up.
2)      Sound like you’re speaking (although stylistically) not writing.
3)      Imply the appropriate tone.

Look for these common issues first, because they are typically what people think of as bad writing.

A story should sound like it took a lifetime, or even an eternity (for science fiction or fantasy) to orchestra. Many beginning books will tell the honest truth: Nothing has happened to these characters before I started writing, I don’t know what’s going to happen next, I’m stalling to figure out what is going on, I’m discovering information as I’m giving it, etc.

A story doesn’t necessarily need to sound realistic or like it’s being spoken in a traditional sense. It can be stylistic, and actually the standards of protocol demand for certain norms that would not make sense orally (How many times are you telling a story and you go into deep description what the people are wearing?) But there are certain choices beginners will consistently make that are unique to writing, and become typical enough that experience makes you slough it off, such as having long sentences, using larger words, and repeating words more often. Style is appropriate, but it is also something developed over time, not what the author happens to do. (Because that ends up being what other authors happen to do.)

And when a story isn’t coming out right, it’s usually the atmosphere at fault. Word choice is most influential when it comes to tone and ambiance, and many writers become discouraged because their dark and stormy night isn’t seeming as dark and stormy as desired.

How to fix it:

Pay attention to verbs.

Verbs are assumed to be the most important word in a sentence, until given reason otherwise. What this means is that if there is something wrong with a passage, targeting the verbs first will often solve it.

-If something is wrong with the atmosphere make sure most verbs imply the desired tone.

The cat walked down the street.

Dark:

The cat skulked down the street.

Quiet:

The cat padded down the street.

Cheerful:

The cat trotted down the street.

Tension:

The cat darted down the street.

Basic verbs (walk, sit, said) are malleable and useful, but don’t add to the energy of the scene.

-Make the verb correct, and the adverb tweak it.

If you don’t have a verb that means exactly what you want it to, then adverbs come in handy! Adverbs imply a more appropriate magnitude or a more exact meaning. And because they are far more flexible than verbs, they don’t have to be as accurate atmospherically or by definition. Adverbs are fine, but the verb itself always has to ring true.

The sun gently hit her face.

…is more oxymoronic than

The sun suddenly touched her face.

Match the verb as closely to what it’s trying to say and the adverb has some room to contradict any implication or assumption. But accurate adverbs with inaccurate verbs will sound like lazy writing, and people will be more inclined to think it’s a wrong word choice rather than a specific image. And, even in this case, it is often useful to find the right verb than to just stick on a correcting adverb.

Remember that using the verb “was,” and basic verbs will make the sentences more passive and less tense (which is sometimes what you want). If your scene is lacking intensity or tension, getting rid of the was’s and using stronger verbs will help.

-Pay attention to prepositional phrases.

Prepositional phrases are anything you can do to a tree, around, over, under, in, above, to. “I walked a dog to town.” “I went down the street.” “I looked back over my shoulder.

I’ve found that when people think a sentence is confusing, it’s often because they preposition confused them. If I change “in” to “on,” it might be all it takes for them to make sense out of it. You can use nouns creatively as long as the prepositions imply the right image.

They are also the reason why people get confused in longer sentences. If people think something is too complex, notice how many prepositions you have. They muddle what the inflection of the sentence is supposed to be. “He was the father of a young girl in college in Georgia at the time of the recession.”

-When in doubt, shorten the sentence.

Shortening sentences is a lot like restarting your computer. You don’t have to know the problem and it usually works. Which is to say there is nothing wrong with longer sentences, but if there is, shortening it will often fix it.

For those of you who don’t like the “I’ll just start hacking until it looks right approach,” there are actually two common reasons why a longer sentence isn’t working.

The sentence changes reasons for existing midway:

“Dorian’s leg was leaping up and down even as he sat in the office that Kera had fashioned from a disused library in the small house that she shared with her father.”

 The reader gets confused on how to read it (thereby what it actually means):

“Events many light years away complicate things for an expeditionary group sent to Earth to access the blue planet for acceptance into the interplanetary council, bringing some together while tearing others asunder as they try to find their ways home.”

Authors are likely to write long sentences because they don’t need the breath to do it. If the subject seems to stay on topic (seems being the operative word) and a reader can guess which words to emphasis on the fly, the sentence is perfectly fine being as long as it is.

And, for some contexts, it is important to remember that length of sentence implies duration of money. A sentence that takes a long time to say implies a long time to do. So, often, when wanting more tension, shortening a sentence will make actions seem quicker, and thereby have more action.

-Author’s intention is king.

This is the big daddy of having “appropriate” word choice, and that is the author’s intention.

First, it is extremely important to have the character’s motivation and the narrator’s motivation supersede the authors, i.e. the reader should be thinking, “Why did the character do that?” then “Why is the narrator telling me this?” and never, “Why is the author making this up?”

It is common for people to be honest in their word choice. They inform the audience that they’re lying and that they are dictating a story just by how they tell the story.

This manifests in, what I call, an explanatory tone. This is where the writer sounds like he’s delivering information accurately:

“One such traveler was a young woman, dressed in a dark gray dress which ended at her knees and kept her arms bare, but had enough material around her neck for her to use as a hood.”

When an author only outright delivers one piece of information at the time, it makes his intention clear, and does little for ambiance.

Unless the information is super important and the writer wants the audience to know it’s super important, the scene is better set up through clouding why he’s telling the audience.

Focus on action and reaction. You can say, “She was wearing a dress,” but that tells me it’s important to know she’s wearing a dress, and only tells me that one piece of the puzzle. If, however, you discuss how she “played with the hem of her dress,” it indicates the length of it, what she’s wearing, and gives me the slightest inclination about her mood or who she is. Also, giving me the ramifications of a decision, “The irons on his wrists cut deep grooves into them,” instead of, “His hands were bound by irons,” will give me more information when the character can’t interact with them, or isn’t thinking too.


Of course, the more you play around with this, the more the audience is going to have to speculate. It will leave more room open for interpretation.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Five Misconceptions about Beta-Readers

I think the worst part about writing is taking other people’s advice, and not because of pain or ego. The hardest part is the uncertainty, and when advice just adds to that uncertainty. Recently, I gave the first few chapters of a manuscript out to over twenty people, and each of what I got back had complete inconsistency with the others. It was up to me to find the common denominator, the subtle cohesion, and to really question my preexisting notions; I had to be the objective judge in something I was the least objective about.

Looking impartially at beta-reader’s opinions is difficult, especially when someone has been competitive or close-minded. To take advice you don’t understand can often make the story worse, even if the advice, in its original form, was good. If it wasn’t, then heaven help you.

I’ve found that by coming to terms with a certain few misconceptions I had, the process got a whole lot easier.

Misconception 1: It’s horrible to leave a critique without taking any advice.

It feels like a waste of time. You went in there, exposed yourself to possible ridicule, surrendering your power to others, and then left with nothing. Why go at all? Why subjugate yourself to that? And more to the point, you start questioning, “Do I not take criticism very well? Is it just an issue of me being unwilling to see that they are right?”

But it doesn’t matter. The reasons it doesn’t matter are vast and complex, but there are a couple of simple ones that benefit the author who waits before he randomly tries to fix something.

First, it sometimes takes a while to digest. This is true for me, and this has been true for many of my more stubborn students. No one can just recognize the truth instantly, so people will either immediately accept it until proven wrong, or reject it until proven right. Both tactics have their benefits and both have their consequences, so there’s nothing wrong with giving the advice a little time to sink in, especially when you’ve been given a hell of a lot of it in one sitting. I rarely know for sure what I think about something until at least three days later, when I’ll be sitting there and suddenly, bam, epiphany; I get what they’re saying, and I get how to fix it. Sometimes it’ll be months before I fully understand.

The other part is that most criticism tries to make the author normal, typical, and abide by the rules. This isn’t always a bad thing, but because it is so much harder to go from being normal to weird than from being weird to normal, and because so many people will balk at anything unusual without taking context into consideration, the author wants to error on taking risks and being noticeable. He will constantly be pulled back by everyone for just doing so. So, when he isn’t sure if he should use the expected word or the “creative” one, he won’t have a hard time finding people cautious about it. No matter the context, many readers err on the side of playing it safe. In reality, the criticism often isn’t as big of a deal as it seems, and leaving it isn’t going to destroy the story, and may not even change anything at all. Sometimes the reader’s problem will be solved vicariously by some other fix.

Lastly, sometimes it takes a lot of information put together to see what the real problem is. In the case of the chapters I gave out, a lot of the suggestions were simplified, blanket-solutions told in extremes that I had no reason or desire to take in that form. (“Simplify everything.”) The first person I got to review it said it was confusing, and I attempted to fix it. The next person said something along the lines of, “You need to describe everything a whole lot more,” the next person said to simplify my language, and the person after that said I needed to set up the world. Another person told me to use the character’s names every time, not physical labels. In context, none of these made sense on their own, (also keep in mind that these were tiny detailed advice scrunched in a pile of different suggestions) but when I looked at the big picture, I realized what they were all getting at. I agreed with them about the problem, but used their solutions gingerly. Simplified this sentence, added a descriptor here, used his name more often there. Had I just done what they had asked in the way they’d said it, the problem wouldn’t have been solved—what people were confused about was varied—and I would have sucked the creativity from the writing—which was not something I was interested in doing. Often times advice by itself isn’t useful, but when it’s tied in with other advice, it creates a bigger picture.

Misconception 2. It’s important not to argue with them about every little detail.

The mistake here is to treat your beta-readers like you would the editor at a publishing house. They’re not, and it’s a good time to get what you need before you can’t. It helps the author to really find answers he wants, which requires skepticism and extraneous discussion. Beta-readers grant him the option of not needing uncertain faith. It doesn’t really matter what they think of you, and it doesn’t really matter what they think you think of them. It’s really the only time to discuss why they find that word so awkward instead of just hoping they’re right and making the change.

The author should never talk in a way that makes the reader shut down. Yes, it’s the writer’s job to make the reader want to help him. That being said, it is also the perfect place to really analyze why you did what you did, bounce it off of another person, and come up with creative solutions that aren’t just what the beta-reader said. When an editor at a publishing house says something that seems inane, it’s the perfect time to demonstrate your faith in them. If it’s kind of a wash out no matter the choice, go with them. It’s better for your relationship, and being that they have a personal investment in the quality (probably), a higher experience level, giving them blind faith isn’t stupid. But when you have the feeling of, “Why do you care about this?” with a beta-reader, it’s the best place to actually ask.

If you’re going to argue with them, be upfront about it in the beginning. When I need to brainstorm, I often get my friends involved to discuss ideas. The problem is I usually need them because it’s going to be a hard answer to find, so most of their solutions are going to be rejected. I’ve found that as long as I tell them that, they are more likely to keep working with me and not get discourage.

Nuance is far more complicated than most critics will make it, and the time to figure out how nuance works is not with someone who you need to keep a good professional relationship with. Your readers, while valuable, on the only real interval for you to discuss those seemingly tiny details with in length.

Misconception 3. They have the typical perception on reality.

Here’s the question: How many people have to react a certain way for it to be the reaction the author’s concerned with? If fifty percent of the people hate a character, and fifty percent of the people love it, should the author change that character? How about if the first fifty weren’t in your target audience? Does that mean it’s bad? What if they were influenced by an especially bad review on the internet, not really developing the opinion for themselves? Does that mean the author should alter his methods?

Someone’s not going to like a choice you made. Someone’s going to interpret something differently than the author. Someone is going to not want to feel the way you made them feel. The question is, how many have to feel in how similar of ways for that to be important.

So here’s what happens: Author uses a word. Let’s say, “heave.” Reader interprets word differently. Author meant, “breathing heavily,” reader read, “trying to vomit.” Reader says, “It’s awkward,” implies, “You have to change it.” Author then questions whose perception is right. Other author says, “Why wouldn’t you just change it?”

The more you get critiqued, the more it happens. The author realizes that her perception of reality—what a word means, the image a phrase implies—and her reader’s perception is different. And no matter how many times she tries to change it, even altering it completely, there will be some reader who does not understand it the same way. “Fixing” everything that a reader has a problem with would often mean a lot of inane work, often times making it worse as she goes. So she has to, and should be, careful, about whose perception is determines is “normal.” We assume that beta-readers are normal people, but really, they may be the oddball out, and you may be the normal one. Just because one reader doesn’t understand a reference doesn’t mean the majority won’t, and it’s important to determine how many people constitutes “typical,” and then try to figure out which opinion falls into that category.

Misconception 4. The author shouldn’t explain anything because he can’t do that for his readers.

Again, this ties into treating beta-readers as what they’re not. Beta-readers aren’t just readers, they’re critiquers, and they should be used to their full potential.

Authors need to be careful when explaining what they meant to do because readers can be convinced, confusing them as to how they really feel. They also can use your words against you, trying to prove themselves right by any means, thus diluting the true reason why something should be changed.

 I think there should be a time in which the reader gets out most of his opinion before being influenced, but doing that, he’s making assumptions about what he thinks you’re trying to do, and so poses his suggestions accordingly. By knowing what you actually wanted, he can better come to an understanding about solutions, and even the problems. At first he was giving suggestions how to make a character more likable. When he realizes you didn’t want him to be likable, he can give suggestions on how to make it more evident he wasn’t supposed to be likable, for example, and consider why he didn’t think he was supposed to think the character was likable in the first place. If advice was always clear about where the reader was coming from and why he was saying what he was, and what he was saying, this might not be necessary, but the fact is you don’t always catch the assumptions the reader is making. Sometimes you need to show him the target before either of you realizes he was aiming you somewhere else.

Misconception 5. Beta-readers have the author in the palm of their hands.

The author is boss. As boss, he is responsible for the employee’s morale, but he is also responsible for the project, for making the decision best for the project, and gets to dictate how the process goes.

Many writers go through a stage where they supersede their needs and opinions because the person is doing them a favor. This can be in critiques or even real life jobs. The beta-reader is doing a favor, and of course needs to be treated so. It helps no one to treat him like an idiot. But that doesn’t mean the writer doesn’t know what’s best for his process, and if the author can sit down and develop a system to get himself to listen, to protect himself from feeling hurt, everyone benefits.


Because writers are notorious for lacking self-control, many places are set up to protect the beta-reader. But, in the same way you’re not in high school anymore (even if you are), you don’t have to deal with mechanically-created situations or bureaucracies developed to protect everyone. You get the option to say, “This is how it’s going to work,” and as long as you are considering your “employees” in the process, it’s not wrong of you. Sure, it’s better to make your own place over trying to overhaul another (some people might like the way it’s set up.) But remember you don’t have to put up with anything. Take charge, take responsibility, and create the environment that best benefits you. As long as you’re not being contradictory or selfish about it, many of your beta-readers won’t have a problem with it. People interpret being nice and palatable as being unprofessional and inefficient, but I guarantee that when readers say what they want in a way the author is willing to listen, everyone is better off. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Giving Criticism on the Internet

Before you start wondering if this is going to be an egotistical hissy fit about me being wronged by some foolish moron who doesn’t deserve to walk the Earth let alone read, I’ll have you know that’s for other posts.

While going through Stumbleupon, I came across website with a full header and comment section, which read, “URL does not exist.” I thought it was weird—probably my browser—before I looked at the comment and realized what had happened.

The college writing student had posted an essay to be read by the populace, and here’s the singular response he got:

[sic]

Well, it's got the emotion certainly, but the language is purple as a bruise, and the imagery a little confusing and unclear. I think maybe your language is muddying the water and getting in the way of what's happening. You can be emotional without being distracting
"I saw ... whole tides of sadness run atop her quavering glare..." What's a "quavering glare"? You glare at someone and your eyes shake? A glare's a look. How does sadness run atop a look? It's kind of a jarring image.
"I lost all fervour [sp]. All rage dissolved, fell and burst away as autumn leaves." Okay. The image starts out as energy draining away from you. That's good. But then you blow that draining away feeling by telling us it "burst away as autumn leaves." I don't know what that means. Autumn leaves don't burst where I come from. It sounds like you suddenly threw a tantrum or had an outburst.
And then you've got this space you "built" between you. Is "built" the best verb? Because then you're left with "tearing [that space] all back down," and the image of tearing down a space is a little weird. Spaces get filled up, not torn down.
I'd consider starting a new paragraph with "I'd broken her...", which is kind of the meat of the whole passage and deserves to be , and I'd remove the comma between "her" and "with my truth." Lose the half-quotes around "ok" and change it to "okay". Everyone knows what making something okay means. Change "cheekbone" to "cheek". Cheekbone sounds funny and you don't really want to feel her hair against your bones. And you have a tense mismatch between "I had broken her..." (past perfect) and "And yet all I wanted was.." (past tense). It should be, "And yet all I'd wanted was..." The way it's written now makes it sound like you'd been wanting to reach out and make her okay before you broke her.
But hey, it's good, and I don't mean to discourage you. I just happen to be a sonofabitch as a critic, which is kind of a curse. I'm even harder on my own stuff. My advice: Story, story, story. Tell the story first and worry about language and style and imagery later.



For those of you who would a more clear criticism on this criticism, let’s break it down:


Well, it's got the emotion certainly, but the language is purple as a bruise, and the imagery a little confusing and unclear.
“Well.”

I don’t know about you, but I can hear the sigh of exhaustion as he readies himself to deal with this story. This word has it all. The negativity, the condescension, the nonchalant coolness that comes from being a badass. Having it gives no benefit. At best, I would ignore it. At worst, it says you're disappointed in the author.

The critic is trying for the “sandwich technique,” where you give good criticism, bad criticism, then good again. I don’t like this method personally because it’s often obvious that’s what’s happening, and, in situations like these, spending three seconds on the compliment and twenty minutes on the negative does nothing.

Especially because the phrasing of the compliment ruins any of the positivity. If we were to take it out of context, and that’s all we were to say—“Well, it’s got the emotion certainly.”—would you really think he was complimenting you? It sounds backhanded to me, like there’s too much emotion. Which, considering how the rest of the comment goes, I think is exactly what he’s saying.

As for “purple bruise,” the whole sentence does nothing the next won’t do better. There are a lot of reasons why using cliché advice is less efficient, so I’ll just stick with these: It sounds like he’s trying to “win the competition” by being clever and well-read (in terms of literary criticism), and, from that point on, I’m not sure if he’s saying what he feels in that specific context, or was looking for what he was already told to think.

Lastly, the word “but” generally suggests, “Everything I just said was a lie.” Considering he’s using the sandwich method, and forcing himself to make a compliment, I’m sure that’s the case.

I think maybe your language is muddying the water and getting in the way of what's happening. You can be emotional without being distracting
“A little,” “maybe,” “think,” “kind of,” “sort of,” are all phrases people use to soften the blow. But, instead of making it not a big deal, these terms actually make the author feel like it is a bigger deal. When someone acts like he’s trying to soften the blow, the writer wonders why he thinks it’s supposed to hurt that bad, so, the writer thinks he’s missing something. Uncertainty hurts more than any bluntness could.

Again, for the third time, the critic says the same thing, still poetic about it. There is a certain irony in “your language is muddying the water,” that vindictive assholes might pounce on. But I’m too good for that. “Your imagery is a little confusing and unclear,” is the simplest and least insulting way to say it, and you’ll notice, also the least clever. If he had only said that, his criticism would have been blunt, but not condescending.

Rule of thumb when it comes to “quantifiers,” try to find the word that implies the exact magnitude. Especially when you don’t want to sound offensive, because saying, “a little confused,” sounds more like, “How do I not be an asshole about saying it’s confusing?” rather than, “It’s not that confusing.”

Here’s how to not sound like an asshole, by the way:

1. Be careful about using “your” or “you.” These sound like attacks. You did this. You did that. It’s pointing a finger of blame rather than trying to solve a problem. It's the difference between, "How did you wreck the car?" and "What happened?"

2. Say, “I feel,” instead of, “It is.” By stating the imagery is confusing, it implies it absolutely is, which is insulting (so the desire to say, “Only a little!”) First, you may be wrong, but, more importantly, acknowledging you may be wrong makes it less about the competition and more about the conversation. When someone gives the author an escape route, the author is more likely to stick around and actually listen.

"I saw ... whole tides of sadness run atop her quavering glare..." What's a "quavering glare"? You glare at someone and your eyes shake? A glare's a look. How does sadness run atop a look? It's kind of a jarring image.
Another pet-peeve of mine is when people say they don’t get it. Unless it is, “I truly have absolutely no idea what you’re saying here,” it’s helpful to be really specific about what you don’t understand.

In this case, (in the opinion of the critic), the desired image isn’t actually what the author said, and the critic is attempting to point out the sloppiness of it. Fine, that’s reasonable. Except that’s not an issue of understanding, that’s an issue of… grammar? I guess.

When I read a lot of criticisms on other people’s work, this comes up a lot. The critic says he doesn’t understand, but what he really means can be anywhere from, “It took me a moment to figure it out,” to “That’s not actually what you said,” to “I don’t agree with you.” I’ve seen it used in multiple ways, and the problem is each has their own solution.

And as to, “What’s a quavering glare?” the issue is not that the author used it wrong, but that he and the critic understood the definition of the word differently. This happens all the time, and it’s a very complicated issue because, often, neither side is technically incorrect. Sometimes one interpretation is more common than the other (and it could be either side's interpretation) and sometimes it doesn't really matter. The author was viewing a glare as a facial expression where the critic believed it was an expression limited to the eyes. A “quavering glare,” would mean the whole face is trembling to the writer.

As people say, you can’t explain it to an audience, but you can’t guarantee that the critic’s point of view is the one most cohesive with the majority. He might have the warped perception. Considering his next sentence is, “A glare’s a look,” he clearly believes he’s the norm.

Don’t tell me the obvious. Don’t tell me what I did. Obviously the problem is not him knowing what a glare is, so telling him what it is does nothing except make it sound like you think he’s an idiot.

Again, if he just said the third and fifth sentences, he would have expressed his point well and unarguably. “I picture a quavering glare as glaring at someone when your eyes shake, but I know that’s not right, so I was jarred out of the scene trying to picture it.”

"I lost all fervour [sp]. All rage dissolved, fell and burst away as autumn leaves." Okay. The image starts out as energy draining away from you. That's good. But then you blow that draining away feeling by telling us it "burst away as autumn leaves." I don't know what that means. Autumn leaves don't burst where I come from. It sounds like you suddenly threw a tantrum or had an outburst.
“Okay.” Another sigh of exasperation. I’m sorry I’m putting you through such a trial.

“That’s good.” Sure, the way he phrased it is condescending, but I will say it’s helpful to let people know when you are complimenting them or insulting them. It’s not always obvious.

“But then you blow that draining away…” You made a mistake. Bad dog. What were you thinking, idiot?

Of course that’s not what he’s saying, but there’s a good chance that’s how the author will hear it. It’s the tone I heard, even, and I’m an objective third-party. (Okay, by this point, I wasn’t so objective, but still.)

“I don’t know what that means.” I follow a critique blog where the blogger uses it over and over again, and by the end—though I was on her side in the beginning—I started to truly consider that she might be stupid. Right now, I don’t really know what the author meant by “burst away as autumn leaves,” either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t speculate. By saying, "I'm picturing you mean, 'like leaves in the autumn wind," you clarify that he's not an idiot who doesn't know how leaves work, but that you feel the context the author's thinking of needs to be expanded.

“Autumn leaves don’t burst where I come from.” Oh, well, see, that’s clearly the problem here. He comes from a land of exploding leaves. It’s a cultural issue.

“It sounds like you suddenly threw a tantrum or hand an outburst.” By the critic’s phrasing, he clearly doesn’t really think it sounds like that. More like, “My first guess was…” Be specific, be honest. Don’t be condescending. Don't add in extraneous and insincere opinions to prove your point. You'll introduce competition, and the author will feel obligated to oblige you.

And then you've got this space you "built" between you. Is "built" the best verb? Because then you're left with "tearing [that space] all back down," and the image of tearing down a space is a little weird. Spaces get filled up, not torn down.
Alright, back to my personal tastes. Words like “best,” “better,” “good,” “bad,” “worse,” etc. mean different things to different people, especially different situations. The “best” verb to one person might be about the tension, the other might be about the magnitude of the action, another might be all about accuracy of the action itself. “Best” implies that quality is linear, and it isn’t. Subjectivity is a real thing, and it’s a curse. So the more the critic acknowledges it, the more the author can commit to listening to him, otherwise he has to figure out the critic’s perception and how that varies from other readers. If the critic, who is more aware of himself, does it, there is less speculation involved.

“Spaces get filled up, not torn down.” You—and I’m talking to my actual readers here—need to watch out for people who make literal statements like this. I’m not necessarily disagreeing that “tearing down a space is a little weird,” (not necessarily agreeing with it either) but the argument as to what “really happens,” rarely applies to hyperbole and metaphor. Yes, legs don’t scream when they’re tired, blood doesn’t boil, and cats don’t look at you like you’re an idiot (they don't notice you exist). Trying to argue that a metaphor is bad because it isn’t true to reality makes it more about the critic not understanding metaphor rather than addressing the real problem. Again, I know he’s not stupid, but I can’t be certain he isn’t pretending he is. (This is common when people are trying to give “harsh” criticism.)

I'd consider starting a new paragraph with "I'd broken her...", which is kind of the meat of the whole passage and deserves to be , and I'd remove the comma between "her" and "with my truth." Lose the half-quotes around "ok" and change it to "okay". Everyone knows what making something okay means. Change "cheekbone" to "cheek". Cheekbone sounds funny and you don't really want to feel her hair against your bones. And you have a tense mismatch between "I had broken her..." (past perfect) and "And yet all I wanted was.." (past tense). It should be, "And yet all I'd wanted was..." The way it's written now makes it sound like you'd been wanting to reach out and make her okay before you broke her.
Most of this information is fine, as long as the author has the confidence and experience to take it with a grain of salt. The advice seems solid, but it’s still rude. It’s extremely hard to look at an insult objectively. These little nitpicky notes are irritating, mostly because the critic has taken to telling the author how to write, not why he wants him to write that way.

The critic acts as though he knows he’s going to be argued with, making a lot of the hostility. He keeps explaining things which end with him putting his foot in his mouth. “I’d consider starting a new paragraph… which is the meat of the passage,” is enough. I think “deserves to be,” is supposed to be compliment, but I don’t take it that way.

When he starts to get demanding, he stops acknowledging it might be his opinion (and he might be the weird one in the situation), and sounds hostile again. “Lose the half-quotes… change it to okay… change cheekbone.” I’m a big fan of “okay” over “OK,” but they’re both technically correct, and implying that he’s just wrong expresses ignorance or closed-mindedness in the same way that telling someone the Oxford comma has to or should never be there. Now you’re just trying to be superior.

As for the tense mismatch, the last sentence is the most convincing and relevant part, the rest about how it “should” be falling back into the not-necessarily experienced grammar-Nazism.

But hey, it's good, and I don't mean to discourage you. I just happen to be a sonofabitch as a critic, which is kind of a curse. I'm even harder on my own stuff. My advice: Story, story, story. Tell the story first and worry about language and style and imagery later.

“But hey, it’s good.” End sandwich compliment. I’m not convinced. As I’ve told my friends, “I liked it, now here’s what’s wrong with it,” doesn't say to me you liked it.

This conclusion is the worst part of the whole piece. Establishing that you know something is wrong does not negate it. This is true for everything. I once read a book in which the character kept asking stupid things. (She knows magic exists, and yet says, “You’re drawing a picture?” when someone pulls out a piece of chalk to escape from a room.) Later on in the story, the other characters call her out on asking so many questions. It does not change the fact that she asks questions that either mean she’s stupid or the author’s bad at dialogue, all it does is tell me the author knows about them and chose not to fix them.

“I just happen to be a sonofabitch as a critic, which is kind of a curse.” You sound real banged up about it.

You are a sonofabtich. You recognize you’re a sonofabitch, but instead of taking the effort to go through and say things palatably (which does not take that much effort), you commit to the catharsis that is tearing other people apart. Your criticism could have been beneficial, but instead of thinking the most useful way to say them, you pride yourself on your willingness to not throw punches. You’re not one of those “nice” critics other people complain about. No, you’re an asshole. An asshole who led someone to take their work down instead of fixing it. Does that say a successful critique to you?

Sure, it is the author’s fault on some level. But that’s not the whole story. I’ve been in enough criticism sessions to know sometimes all it takes is for the critic to try to be nice, and suddenly the worst baby is enjoying himself. Yes, he should get thicker skin, but that doesn’t mean that the good Doctor shouldn’t put a base amount of consideration in his words.

I know there are people who believe “If you can be demoralized you should be.” I don’t. And while I think getting constructive criticism is vital to the process, it doesn’t have to hurt. Yes, he posted it on the internet, yes he wanted the feedback, and yes, that’s what assholes do. But just because the author should have expected it doesn’t make it okay to deliver.

Nothing in the comment was useful enough to necessitate the full-blown bluntness delivered. The useful part was about as specific as saying, “Simplify everything.” Well, you first, buddy.

Hopefully the writer will keep writing, hopefully he’ll use the criticism to improve his craft. But I see it far more likely that he’s going to stop for a while, never look at that story again, and every time someone uses the term, “purple prose,” or tells him he’s confusing, he’s going to put up walls, be defensive, and be unwilling to consider it. When Dr. Sonofabitch makes an enemy out of you, you’re going to work your ass off to prove him wrong, which does nothing for any party involved.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why to Give Advice in Your Own Words

In Good Will Hunting, a young Harvard student, Clark, comes up to the Will’s friend, Sean. Sean is trying to pick up some girls and Clark is trying to embarrass him. Will is quickly fed up and steps in.



Will: Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first year grad student. You just finished some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison prob’ly, and so naturally that’s what you believe until next month when you get to James Lemon and get convinced that Virginia and Pennsylvania were strongly entrepreneurial and capitalist back in 1740. That’ll last until sometime in your second year, then you’ll be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood about the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.

Clark: Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of—

Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Work in Essex County, page 421, right? Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you just gonna plagiarize the whole book for me?”



When I first sought out this quote, I was looking at it from a more “predictable” standpoint. My brother and I were talking about when people make book suggestions. I said I was always skeptical of what people tell me are “good books” because they tend to give me things they want to like over things they actually like. He cited this for me as an example that liars will be predictable.

But now that I’ve found the actual source, this ties in much more than what I was going to say. This is not just an example of predictability, but an example of the extreme reason why someone might go out of their way to not say something in their own words—they don’t have original thoughts.

My argument is not about why people tend to repeat age-old advice, but why it benefits everyone to say it in their own words.

1) If I’ve heard it many times before, I’m insulted, and I think you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Imagine if you were to ask me for a good fantasy novel, and I tell you to read Lord of the Rings. At best, you think I don’t know a lot of fantasy novels, at worst, you’re going to think I think you don’t know any fantasy novels.

If I’m seeking advice out and someone gives me something more common than a fair-weather cat, one of us has to be stupid. Lord of the Rings is a great book, but it’s not something that fantasy lovers will suggest to you when you’re looking for a new book. They’ll assume you’ve heard of it. People who know what they’re talking about will have more unique suggestions than the most obvious.

So when you say to me, “show, don’t tell,” or “don’t use passive-sentences,” I’m offended at how inexperienced you think I am. I know that, sometimes, there’s not always a way to tell what the other person knows—which is why it’s helpful to say it in your own words. You can tell me to “only use said,” in your own words, and I won’t feel like you’re saying something incredibly obvious; it will be new.

2) I probably already have passed judgment on it.

I can’t clarify enough how likely it is for people asking for writing advice to have heard the basics already. Typically it’s a lot of beginners who really seek out answers, but even still, most advice is given readily and repetitively.

Most people will have already decided whether or not something is true. And if I didn’t believe it when Stephen King said it, why would I change my mind when Professor Smith does? Unless he’s added something else to it.

Einstein claims insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Advice can’t be bludgeoned into someone by just repeating it. But a person can be convinced when shed in a different light.

The most commonly restated pieces of wisdom are liked for their snappy quotability, not for their clarity. “Don’t ever use adverbs.” What? Never? Why the hell not? There’s lots of problems to be solved by minimizing adverbs, but you’ll notice that the problems aren’t what people are spewing, just the solutions. And when considering a lot of these solutions are cover-up for chicken pox (they conceal the symptoms rather than fixing anything) the suggestions tend to look… well, stupid.

You’re telling me that if I delete every synonym for “said,” then my book will be a thousand times better? I’m going to go with bullshit. There’s a lot more problems than that, thank you. In fact, let’s talk about those:

3) Your own words will consider context.

The other day I read a short story that was hard to follow. The sentences were long with, honestly, a lot of “excessive words.” Now, I know damn well that if someone told me I should blanketly cut any extra words, I would be annoyed and ignore them, thinking that they were just looking for something else to say, so they fell back to a default.

Instead, I told him that before I knew what the sentence was going to say, I emphasized the wrong words, and had to go back and reread it every time I emphasized too soon. Because there were a lot of in-world inventions with more than one word in them (like “machine god”) there were a lot of adjectives functioning like nouns. He also had a lot of nouns functioning like adjectives (a “planet threatening” problem.) Then, on top of all that, he had words that weren’t “needed.”

In the English language, we cut out as many words as we can when we speak. “Go walk the dog,” versus “You go walk the dog.” So when we included words that aren’t “necessary,” it tells the audience to emphasis them. “He had had a big lunch yesterday.” Emphasis on “had.” “He stood out in the hot sun.” Emphasis on “out.”

Sometimes this is exactly what you want, and exactly why you should keep “extra” words even when people say you shouldn’t. But when a reader looks at a sentence for the first time, he needs be able to correctly assume which words to emphasize as he’s going, and when you have a sentence with a lot of propositional phrases, “that’s,” and “hads,” the reader can get mixed up. If that’s happening, by cutting down on the size of the sentence, they are less likely to error on which word is the most important.

Whether or not he agreed with me, it still seems like I put far more thought into his story, why he was doing what he was doing, and the options for how to fix my personal problem. I basically said, in a long way, to cut down on extra words, but because I explained what problem I had from these extra words, it is easier to find other solutions, if he doesn’t like mine, and he can better look at the problem that I am discussing and figure out if I’m wrong. If I’m the only person in the world not knowing which words to emphasize, then he doesn’t need to worry about it. An issue only manifests in one way, but solutions can solve thousands of problems. So there are a lot of reasons why I might want him to cut words, and just because someone else has another solution doesn’t mean that we’re not agreeing on the problem.

4) The saying doesn’t mean the same to everyone.

A while ago a man kept telling me I needed to “set-up the scene” more. Told me over and over again, and as I looked at it, I could not see what he was talking about. Finally, I told him, “I think that I set up the hut pretty well, that you know exactly where you are and what it looks like.”

He says, “Yeah, you did.”

I frowned.

“I want to know more about the world. Are we in outer space?”

Oooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhh. That’s different.

Just like most people have already passed judgment on whether or not something’s right or wrong, it also means something different to each and every person. After having made a correlation to what a phrase means, we start to ignore the actual words and make assumptions. So when someone is telling you something in the exact same way each time, it’s more likely you won’t get it. When they restate it in a contextual way, you’re more likely to understand what they’re talking about.

There’s a dependency on academics’ words, for many reasons, but I believe a big one is that the speaker has the support of reputation behind them. When you’re a no-name, you have to work damn hard to prove you’re right. It’s wrong until proven true. When you are an “expert,” you’re right unless proven otherwise. For some people more than others. So if I tell you I emphasized words wrong, it’s easier to say, “You’re an idiot,” then if I tell you, “Hemmingway says the best sentences are the short ones.” You could say, “Hemmingway’s an idiot,” but we all know how that would look.

So instead of talking about my personal reaction, I use someone else’s words to explain a solution to my personal reaction. But because a solution could solve so many different reactions, and because an author has his own established opinion as to what reactions it is trying to solve, there’s a fairly good chance he’ll look at his work and not know what the hell I’m talking about.

5) Quotes without citation perpetuate lies.

Hemmingway says, “Blank.” Freddy Smith repeats, “Blank.” Your professor is friends with Freddy Smith, and tells his students, “Blankety blank.” His students grow up to be teachers (because what else are writers going to do?) and they tell their students, “Blankety blank blank.”

Hemmingway is a specific writer, saying something in a specific context. Mr. Smith simplifies that context for the sake of the story. The professor snaps up the most witty line and uses it as absolute truth. Some of the students accept it as absolute truth, not really understanding why, and give it out to the next generation. Not only could many things be lost in translation, but you can’t discount the fact that Hemmingway could be wrong. Or lying. Or talking about his own personal tastes. Or Freddy Smith is telling his own opinion, but saying it was Hemmingway to give it more viability. (I’ve caught people doing this). Or the professor thinks it’s Hemmingway when really what Mr. Smith said was, “I want to be like Hemmingway, so I do blank,” which is actually Mr. Smith’s impression of what Hemmingway is doing. When you’re getting it five people down the line, all of whom respect experts unquestioningly, it’s a thousand times harder to determine if it’s true. When you’re being bombarded with information, and you don’t outright agree with something, it’s difficult to determine if you should be spending more time with it, or if is just wrong.

But, here’s the thing: Whenever someone tries to say what is true for them, using other people’s ideas as a jumping point, it is self-correcting. If Smith truly believes what he’s saying, and he’s made sense out of why it’s true, then it doesn’t matter that the idea started from miscommunication or even an outright lie. When he tries to be convincing and say why it’s true, as long as he’s honest with it, it resets the information, making the next person able to decipher what Mr. Smith feels, instead of trying to figure out what Hemmingway feels through a peephole of Mr. Smith’s interpretation.


Professionalism is about doing things for the sake of keeping up appearances. It is an important evil of making people take you seriously. But, as long as we accept expert’s twisted advice as law without questioning why, we’ll be forced to limit ourselves in stupid and unbeneficial ways. By thinking and interpreting advice for ourselves, we’re less likely to continuing lying about what makes a good book, and come up with new conclusions about what makes a good book.

Monday, February 3, 2014

I Just Want to Write

About two years ago I came to a cross road in my life. I took a good look at the signs—having known it was coming for a while—tweaked my mouth to the side, and plopped down. I’ve been camping out there since.

I have the ability. My life is set up in a way that I can’t go on like this forever, but I don’t have to change now. I don’t really want to do anything else. Why? I just want to write.

I don’t need things. I need a computer. To write. I need paper. To print. I need food. To live. So I can write. I need warmth. Because I have poor circulation. If I have a roof, moderate nourishment, and the ability to write, I’m happy.

Okay, so admittedly there’s a cat in there too.

I don’t always feel that way. Sometimes I want shoes or Dungeons and Dragons models. Every once in a while I emerge from my room, blinking into the light, and going, “Man, I wish I had some friends.”

But those are fleeting feelings.

I like my job. I like having my car paid off. I like being able to not work constantly to rent a room that I can’t afford. I want time off. So I can write.

I don’t play video games anymore. The television’s only on if I have my laptop in front of me. I still listen to music. I dance while listening to music. I dance while listening to music so I can act out fictional scenes in my head. Fictional scenes that I plan on writing later.

Even when I am reading “52 Images That Weren’t Clever in Context,” and my mother’s Facebook, and what shoes Stephenie Meyer wears, I can’t wait until I’m done so I can get back to writing.

I don’t sleep well the nights I haven’t written anything. The days I do, I think I can conquer the world. I might even do my laundry.

Or maybe I’ll just write more.

Going to work makes me write more. When I’m there, I just want to get off so I can write something. I crave the cookie more when I’m on a diet.

I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want a real job. I just want to write. All the time. Everyday. No interruptions.

Is that so much to ask?