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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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’.
Now – entry number one …