Judging Someone Else’s Stuff


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Critique Wikihow

If you’re a writer, especially someone jumping into it as a newbie, eventually you find others who share the same experience.  Why? Well – it gets a little lonely in the writing cave. The one thing that drives us to others are strong messages that our work needs a second, third, maybe more set of eyes.

I participate in several writer communities.  From this network of fellow word smiths, I tested fresh pages of new work to a select few I’d grown comfortable with (by that, I mean established a degree of trust that I’d get a true, objective opinion).  I didn’t want to fall into that novice pothole by cringing from a no-holds-barred review, skulking back to my cave with ‘they don’t get my stuff’.  Kind of the point isn’t it?  Unless I planned to write stories, then bury them in a time capsule for aliens to find ten-thousand years from now, I needed feedback redolent of what the public might think.

As I built trust with others, they asked for reciprocation of services rendered by asking me to read their stuff.  I initially cringed with heavy doubt I was qualified to rate someone else’s stuff. It sent me to the archives of my groaning file of writer research for how to do a proper critique. Like everything else in this wacky art form we drudge through, how-to advice in writertopia is as varied as insect species on earth.  I chose a reviewing format in the same manner I use when purchasing new appliances, or looking for a plumber.  Which appliance (or plumber) is on most every one’s recommended list?  In this case, what pearls of reviewing wisdom floated to the top?

My take on a beta-reads, critiquing, #flyby, whatever you choose to call it, it’s like answering a neighbor’s question.  What do you think of my garden arrangement of pink flamingos, ceramic gnomes, and cartoonish poster boards of little old ladies bending over to pull weeds.  Most of us are sensitive enough to resist the urge to say ‘WTF’. I’ve been the recipient of reviewer vitriol that made my hair stand on end, and know intimately how that feels.  As a good neighbor, I attempt to feel out what the neighbor’s expectation was, maybe compliment the neighbor on the gaiety of color to offset dead bushes, followed by a recap of homeowner association rules, and positive-minded suggestions that may include placement and reduction in number of said yard art.  Hopefully, the neighbor has asked others living nearby of their opinion, and from this sampling, incorporated a modified vision that appeals to the public – or not.

Time passes, trust deepens, and I find myself on a new frontier. Would I judge someone else’s stuff in a contest?  Whoa!  The cliff of reviewer uncertainty just hit a canyon with an unseeable bottom.  Do I really want to do this?  It’s not the same as providing an individual opinion – key words here – of someone else’s stuff, knowing the writer can incorporate or trash suggestions at will.  Initial thoughts had me nail-biting in a corner.

Critique Preposition

I don’t have an English degree. I’m science educated guy with an MBA who fell asleep during high school World Literature class, and would have offered handsome sums of money, if I had any, for someone else to write my term papers in college.  Decades of corporate writing helped, but ain’t the same as literary writing. I didn’t remember what a dangling participle was until I decided some years ago to test the waters with a few stories I’d written.  I’ve a lovely collection of rejection letters, one addressed to ‘Dear Occupant’. Maturity and a science-like zeal to research for answers, I had to relearn basic creative writing skills that had atrophied, or never had in the first place.

You can do this, the muse encouraged. It’s short story stuff, and look, the contest organizers have a nice check list to follow.  Nobody’s life is hanging in the balance. You won’t be the only voice.


Fine. But I’ll have to create my own mental checklist to deal with a rating scale of 1-10 each for elements of mechanical, creativity, openers and ending, and overall satisfaction.

  1. To quote an editor friend’s advice, ‘it’s about the story, idiot’. Grammar faux-pas and poor paragraph structure are not to be completely ignored, but that’s easily laundered with regular editing detergent. Was the story compelling, or did it leave me saying bleh, or worse, WTF? The story is a roadmap, and a good story can mean the difference between well-defined topographical map, or an out-of date Garmin computer voice with a bad English accent.
  2. I have been the recipient of a several #flyby reads with comment boxes speckling the first pages like the measles, but taper off after page four, as if the reviewer gave up without finishing. It might have been a here’s-your-sign moment, but I think it’s only fair I read the entry more than once.
  3. I will do a read-through to get the overall flow, and resist the dark side of analyzing at the starting gun. Took me forever to learn that, which almost required a shock collar if I paused for more than sixty-seconds on one paragraph during the first read. Why? By the time I’m done, I get a sense of pacing, premise, beginning, and end, to manifest a first impression. It’s how actual readers read.
  4. However, first impressions can enhance or kill a first date, like wearing a ‘Go Cocks’ team shirt and backward-facing ball cap to meet an elegantly dressed woman at a restaurant. Time of day, current mood, a brain festering with undone chores, or state of alcohol infusion can influence the first impression. I’ve found the walk-away process an important criteria to a fair, objective review, like next morning when I’m fresh (versus the evening cocktail hour when my snarky evil twin arises).
  5. I must lock up the inner muse that orchestrates my own writer voice. It’s not my story. The muse doesn’t like to be locked up, but it can be a distractive, overly opinionated little shit. I need to feel for the author’s voice, if there is one.
  6. I am required by critiquing law to scrutinize the usual roster of suspects. Openers, hooks, data-dump, flow, use of active words, dialogue, scene paint, and the voice. Of this list, the opener is that first impression when entering someone’s house for the first time, like ‘wow – look at all these cats’. Writing like fifties novelist James Michener of ‘Hawaii’ fame, where stories began with a geology lesson, don’t cut it anymore.
  7. On that voice thing. I’ve read volumes from the writer how-to archives of what this means. To me, if the story is the map, the voice is a seasoned Sherpa who knows the way. If the Sherpa doesn’t establish a trusting presence from the get-go, the climber is going to pack up and walk away. If the Sherpa compels the climber – aka the reader – to take the risk of climbing to the next chapter, provided the Sherpa doesn’t fall down a bottomless chasm further up the trail, the climber will complete the journey.
  8. Still on that voice thing, dialogue in a short story must have a purpose. Story doesn’t have time for, Hey – Hey back – How’s it hangin’ – Not bad, you – Okay – you want fries with that? Short story word count is a merciless magistrate for the mundane, and I have the scarring from past manuscripts to prove it.
  9. When it comes to painting a scene, I’m quick to note when the writer gets carried away with wordy expositions of people, places, and things that take up word count, especially if served on a platter of characters or places that have no importance to the thread. That sensitivity comes from guilt, because I’m still susceptible to extensive prose for meaningless moments. Same applies for that white room editors speak of in an action scene, meant to explain the lack of description to tell us where the hell our character is, or what time it is.
  10. I’m not a professional editor, and never considered myself an expert on the mechanics of the craft. Years of practice brought me to where I’m at today with the established protocol, but I still need anxiety meds when pondering the use of single-or-double quotation marks with or without italics. Don’t even get me started on commas. That said, I’m not one of those – how many times did they use the word ‘was’ – kind of guys. Drives me nuts the steely-eyed reviewers who actually count them, as if it’s the only criteria of interest. Grammar and active-vs.-passive verbs are important in good write-menship, but number of times ‘was’, won’t be on my top three indicators for mechanical.
  11. Finally, I will be honest. To candy-coat a review for fear of a writer going Rambo, hiding in the attic with a box of tissues, or worse, giving up entirely, serves no purpose. I remember those early critiques very well. I almost gave up. It took a few days to let the five stages of grief manifest to acceptance that we writers can be blinded by the love of our own stuff, and influenced by a muse that might be a few tacos short of a combination plate.  Tough love in a critique is meant to encourage, not hinder.

Critique Punctuation

So, what’s my game plan?  Think it’s best if I make a few promises. If I accept the role of judge:

  • I will enter with an open mind, and let someone else’s stuff transport me into a new world.
  • I will do a flyby, jot first impressions, walk away, and return a while later for another read(s).
  • I will ignore the muse pounding in a locked closet of my personal style and voice.
  • I will judge less harshly of entries who slip occasionally on the black ice of grammatical correctness, if while immersed I forget that I was judging in the first place.
  • I will be honest, but not critical, a dictionary word initially defined as ‘inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily’.
  • That said – I will have expectations of sighing with content of a good tale told well.


In the words of my editor friend, ‘It’s about the story, idiot’.


Critiqued Desk


Now – entry number one …

Pantser – In Need of a Serious Intervention


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Photo by ©Drew Coffman via Flickr

If you’re a writer, you’ll immediately recognize the term, ‘pantser’, as in ‘by the seat of your pants’.  Translation, pantser is someone who writes without an outline, without plotting, and without a clue.  Smart writers are plotters – self-explanatory.

Guess that means I’m not very smart.

Oh – I have lots of files for the book I’m writing, ponderous files, enough to open my own library if ever I should print them, along with innumerable  internet shortcut links that takes a minute to scroll the entire alphabetic register.

It’s that irking process of plotting chapters that eludes me.

Trust me, I’ve tried to plot.  I have this lovely file folder with handwritten chapter notes, arrows drawn to connect to other pages, some of them with little post-it leafs for redirection, different color ink pens – you get the picture.  Even downloaded one of those cheat-sheets to help organize the chaos of my story-writing brain.

So – how’s that going DT? 

Have you ever tried to organize a card-carrying ADD writer? Oh yeah, I’m one those “squirrel” folks who is easily distracted by the slightest interruption.  Hell, I can’t even fart and not get distracted. The sign on my office door is “Man Cave – Enter at Your Own Risk”. That’s because it’s in the basement, with no windows, just me and the radon.


From Pinterest

We have a real nice office on the first floor, with windows on two sides, and views of the garden and bird feeders. I let my wife have it.  The last thing I need is to settle into a hypnotic stare at house wrens warbling for a mate. I can ponder a barren tree in winter for no reason at all. Why? Because it’s there. Not an issue in the basement office, only so much reflection one can do with grade school green walls (I didn’t choose the color).

And music? Forget it.  Writers love to share what music feeds the muse when writing.  Stephen King claimed in his early years, the muse operated best to ear-blistering rock tunes. I was never one of those kids who did homework with an album playing and the TV on.  Who can concentrate with all that racket?

Don’t even get me started on the internet, and that infernal necessity for all budding authors, Social Media.


From: Pinterest

I learned over the years to take notes, lots of notes.  It’s therapy to stay focused on the task at hand, keep from straying.  I should be a natural plotter and planner, right?  The problem is, I often forget I wrote them. Many of my author friends advocate programs like Scrivener.  I actually tried it, and found myself spending more time managing the program than actually writing.

Ever see the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, and the scene where concerned friends stumbled upon a place wallpapered with Dr. John Nash’s schizophrenic notes?  I don’t claim to have a beautiful mind, I’m more of a curious Bill Nye trapped in the mind of the Mad Hatter, but my desk looks a lot like that setting.


From the Movie: “A Beautiful Mind”

For me, I have it all in my the head, and what a meandering gauntlet that realm is. I always know how a story will start, and how it will end. Tying the two together is where the real work is. Think of it like planting a tree many miles away, then planning the shortest distance between two points to get home.  Should be simple. Yeah, right. For those familiar with the Sunday comic strip, “Family Circus“, think of my journey like Billy, sent out to get another log for the fire, and return a good hour later. It’s like taking a trip to visit relatives in Charlotte, via Canada.


Family Circus – Arcamax.com/thefunnies

Write a synopsis first, experts say.  Been there, done that.  I’ve spent hours, even days, crafting the perfect synopsis for a story line.  For ease of reference, let’s say the synopsis is to create a bird.  By the time I finish – behold – I have a monkey.

When I begin a new scene, I read aloud the previous chapters to get in the groove, jot-down a few notes, then start ‘dem engines.  Four to six hours later, I’ve got a mishmash of narrative, dialogue, and action that bears no resemblance to the original idea.

How did the train end up at a different station?  I fall deep into a scene. I embody the character, or protag. I am the dialogue. You talkin’ to me?  I move through a scene one way, maybe say “Nah”, then do a heel-spin a different way.  I experiment, sift through what fits best, and call it a day. Next morning, I re-read the new material, and either modify it, or toss it completely.  I swear, some days, I read the result of a prior session, and wonder if I’d forgotten to take my meds before I wrote it.

Believe me when I say that I will write 10K words, and trash seven.  It’s not very productive. My process is like rinsing chia seeds in a colander, and losing half the seeds.

I’m surprised I haven’t received an email from my extremely patient agent, that begins with “Hello – are you still alive?”  She’s offered kind words in the past, like “It’s important you stick with your writing process“, but even the proverbial Job had his limits. I fear if I call her, I’ll get the vintage AT&T voice still used by networks today, “The number you have reached, is no longer in service.”

What’s a hard core pantser to do?

First, don’t listen to me. I’m a creative car wreck that defies the hydraulic jaws-of-life intended to save me. In the categories below, I lurk between Pantser and Total Weirdo.


From: Thoughts Stained with Ink

I’ve no choice but to embrace the mess that is me, and keep on slogging. That’s really the point, isn’t it?  Keep writing, and try my best to “plan” as much as my synaptic spaghetti grid of a brain will allow.

It’s not like I can’t reach the goal line. I’ve finished several books. Believe it or not, I actually finished one in less than six months once (boy, did that one suck).  I write every day. I treat it like a job. Good thing I don’t get job reviews.

As for my current project, I can see the end in sight.

I will get to Charlotte. Might go by way of Norway, but I’ll get there.




PS: Dear Victoria. I’m on my way. Leave the light on.

Searching for Darkness


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The Mobius Arch Loop Trailhead, by ©Clarisse Meyer via Unsplash

Ah, January – that time of year when the nights are longer, and if you live in a northern clime, you might be able to wander out to a hilltop on a clear, cold night, and be mesmerized by the stars above.  I remember amazing nights on a fishing boat in the Philippines during my Peace Corps days, where it seemed I could reach up and take a handful of the cosmos, or hiking the Three Sisters Wilderness area under a moonless sky so bright with stars, we didn’t need flashlights. And nothing stirs the creative juices for a sci-fi story I’m writing like gazing at the heavens.

I miss the stars.

Last time I caught the majesty of the Milky Way with the naked eye, was a few years ago while visiting my park ranger daughter at Pipe Springs National Monument in Utah.  I now use a smart-phone app called Sky Guide, a handheld planetarium of sorts, to view the constellations in real time. As if standing on a remote hill a thousand years ago, the app displays what we should see if the sky wasn’t hazy with light scatter.

Most of my adult working life was in or near major metropolises.  It’s a little hard to stargaze with today’s countless malls, homes, and streetlamps. Though I’m fortunate to live in a small, eastern Pennsylvania town where I can stroll the streets and cul-de-sacs at night, there’s still too much light pollution to see constellations with any clarity.

How bad is it? Take a look at a before and after shot during a Northeast power outage in 2003.


Source: Darksky.org – Photo by ©Todd Carlson

It has me wondering why we need all that illumination.  Apparently, I’m not alone.

Since the late 1980s, IDA, International Dark-Sky Association, has been collecting information about the hazards of light pollution, and suggesting ways to counter it. As a former biologist, I’ve known for some time that excess light when it’s supposed to be dark, disrupts natural circadian rhythms. Our photoperiodism evolved with darkness a part of the daily cycle. In the US and Europe, nighttime light pollution affects 80% of the geography. Bet you didn’t know streetlights account for most of that light scatter.


Source: National Parks Service – Night Sky Growth

According to the IDA, “We are losing the dark of night, at the speed of light.”  No wonder I can’t see the stars.

I’d love to frequent a place where I can see the Milky Way without the need of a smart-phone app. Thankfully, my daughters live near Las Vegas, a top contender for light pollution capital of the world, but not that far from places that offer great starry views, like Death Valley, Red Rock Canyon, and the many National Parks within a day’s ride.

On the Top Ten Places in the World to Stargaze, imagine my surprise to see the first one listed right here in Pennsylvania, Cherry Springs State Park, but it’s three-plus hours away, not something I can head out the back door on a whim after dinner.

We’re starting to see a trend with small towns working to preserve a diminishing resource – darkness, by managing light. Streetlights can be modified to point light down, where it’s needed, not upward, where it pollutes. The IDA now has a certification process for Dark Sky Communities around the world.


Pondering the Heavens, by ©Ömür Kahveci via @500px

For now, I’ll have to endure that pesky ole city light scatter hogging the spotlight (pun intended), take a drive, find a nice hill, and search for some darkness where I can see the true light above my head.

Hopefully, I won’t need a flashlight to find it.


PS: I like pinning photographs of the stars above on my Pinterest Page, Searching for Light, if you’re interested in following.

And if you don’t have time to find a place of dark sky, I offer this excellent time lapse compilation of the Milky Way, by Peaceful Cuisine.



Still Pining for the Old Days?


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After surviving this past year’s extended edition of the Barnum & Bailey/Nintendo reality game, Jumbo the Elephant versus Donkey Kong, I decided to substitute my usual introspective, holiday missive with a festive infusion of humor.  I thought a trip down memory lane of what used be considered acceptable holiday advertising in days gone by might fit the bill.  I’m a big fan of vintage advertisements, and follow a few Pinterest pages dedicated to it. I was born in the early fifties, and some ads invoke warm flashbacks of when I was a tyke (and no, I didn’t ride horseback to school, we had cars). We had a different mindset inherited from the earliest days of the twentieth-century. Looking back, some of those ads now have me ROTFL.

Back in 2012, I was asked to guest post a holiday article to cheer folks up during difficult economic times. I blew the dust off it, and added a couple more graphics.

To quote a cigarette campaign from 1968, “We’ve come a long way baby.”  Enjoy.

Original Guest Blog Post – Blame it On The Muse, December 12, 2012



Many folks long for the good old days, especially holidays filled with nostalgic childhood memories of crackling hearth fires, and family gathered around a decorated, live-cut tree. Mom served eggnog in her new apron. Dad lit up a Lucky in his favorite chair. The kids wore their Sunday finest, jiggling with impatience for Santa to come.

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Happy Hallothanksgivingmas


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Woman with a Christmas Turkey thanksgiving

From: DepositPhotos.com

Did anybody notice I missed October?  Who could tell? When I went into Walmart a few weeks ago to get some Halloween treats, the seasonal aisles had Christmas decorations. I found broken bags of candy in a bin near the exit.  What’s that all about?

Hey, I’ve been chin-deep in a sci-fi story. Went upstairs the other day to refresh my caffeine drip and discovered October had come and gone. I didn’t even put out a pumpkin.  All those damn doorbell chimes a couple weeks back?  I thought they were church solicitors with an urgent need to save my soul. The Halloween candy I bought is still on the counter. I’m surprised my front door didn’t get egged.


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Writing Life


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Lots of old black-and-white photos

From: V. Niktenko – Depositphotos.com

A social group I belong asked a while back if I’d offer a few tips about writing an autobiography. Who me?  I’m more into making things up in fiction. Couldn’t think of a worse candidate for the job.

I have an elderly relative who loves to tell stories of his youthful escapades, over and over and over, infinitum. He’s not a bad story teller, and it isn’t the repetition that gets me. It’s an overwhelming fear that I will end up doing the same thing when I reach the golden years (or is it platinum, now that we’re all supposed to live thirty years on average after retirement?). Oh, and his epilogue after each tale, where he insists his life would make a great story. “I should write it”, he’d say. “My autobiography would make a great book.”


From: Pinterest

Cue in scene: Honey, it’s getting late.

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Still Trekking


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From: nerdist.com

Hard to believe the little sci-fi series that almost didn’t make it, turns 50 on September 8.  After a pilot with Jeffery Hunter was rejected in 1965, Gene Roddenberry’s space adventure, Star Trek, got the green light from Desilu Studios. Yes, that’s the “I Love Lucy” studio.  A network executive claimed Lucille Ball never actually read the script, she thought it was about movie stars on a trek to entertain U.S. Troops, a mistake that still resonates a half-century later.  Thank you, Lucy.

A recent WSJ Arena article by John Jurgenson, Still Boldly Going, recapped a short history of the first Star Trek, or “lowercase fantasia” as rated by Variety at the time.  Jurgenson cites William Shatner’s memory of the era, “We were always about to be cancelled, always a sword of Damocles hanging over us.” One actor quoted “No one had any idea that 50 years later, the story would have a heartbeat.”

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Song of Fire and Smoke


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From: Ampack - Depositphotos.com

From: Ampack – Depositphotos.com

It’s August, and that time of year when I walk away from the word processor, kick back, and spend quality time with my two grills and smoker.

Yo DT, shouldn’t you be adding pages to that sci-fi story you’re stuck on.

Damned muse. Always giving me shit when I’m not focused on important stuff – like finishing the book. Annoying little bastard, but easily silenced with a couple cocktails and fibbing that it’s world building research for a dystopian tale I’ve been trying to finish since last year. Or was it the year before?

Exactly when humans began to burn meat over fire remains controversial. Scientists originally believed the early meat eaters ate sushi style, fresh off the bone, and didn’t start barbequing until 800,000 years ago. Then in 2012, a South African Primatologist examined evidence from the Wonderwerk Cave, where sediments revealed presence of burned bone in a campfire over a million years old. Sure hope it wasn’t a fellow hominid.

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We All Have the Same Dream


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July Fourth is one of two holidays that are dear to my heart (can you guess what the other one is?). Our country’s independence is more than just fond childhood memories of BBQs and small town parades. It is the time when I take a moment to reflect how lucky I am to live in a place where I’m free to live as an individual. Not to say I don’t shake my head in befuddlement on occasion, but hey, who said life was perfect.

People ask what my fondest Fourth of July memory is. Was it a particular family event, fireworks on a small New Hampshire lakeshore, or my girls running around in the dark with sparklers when they were young?

Fresh out of college, when adulthood broadsided me, a biology degree didn’t offer much in the way of gainful employment at the time, so I chose a path less traveled and joined the Peace Corps. It promised adventure and a chance to do something special in a third world country. Being the impressionable young man with noble dreams and zero sense of reality, off I went to the Philippines as a Fisheries Biologist for a two-year, non-stop assignment without home leave. I left just after July 4, and returned two years later in mid July.

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