Rules for Reviewers, Part 3: You’re Not the Author

Continuing my series of posts on how to participate effectively in a writing group. In addition to having the right focus and not giving empty praise, it’s also important to recognize who actually wrote the story or article you’re critiquing.

You’re the Reviewer, Not the Author

Every writer has their own style, and will not always make the choices you would have made. They’ll introduce plot developments you think are too extreme, or not extreme enough; their characters will speak in ways that don’t fit with their background; their language will be too pedestrian, or overly sentimental.

You don’t have to like it — and if you don’t, you should let them know, and explain why the writing doesn’t work for you. There’s nothing wrong with an honest, informed opinion.

But there’s a trap to avoid, one I’ve fallen for more times that I care to admit. Too many times I’ve written comments containing one of these phrases:

I would have…
Instead of doing this, why not…
What you really need to do here is…

By making these types of comments, I’m showing the choices I would have made as the author of the work being reviewed. They are similar to editorial changes, but editors make changes to maintain consistency with the style of their magazine or publishing house. In a writing group, comments like these actually usurp the role of the author — this is how you should have written this.

It’s hard for me to refrain from this type of criticism, because I often see simpler or more elegant alternatives in the work I review. But it’s not my role, and it doesn’t help the author. As a reviewer, I’m responsible for showing the author what does and does not work in the style they’ve chosen to write. It’s their story, not mine, and the different choices I might have made as the author are completely irrelevant.

When reviewing a story in a writing group, identify what the story is attempting. Focus on the execution, how well the story accomplishes its tasks. Praise where appropriate, criticize where necessary. But above all, acknowledge the authority of the author to write in their own style.



Rules for Reviewers, Part 2: Don’t Do Any Favors

A little over a month ago, I started what I hoped would become a series of posts on working with writing groups. Not sure how many posts constitute a series (two would be a couple, three a set — four, perhaps?), but at the very least, I don’t want to make an orphan of that first contribution.

Empty Praise Is Not A Favor

The writing groups I belong to are composed of novice writers, people with few if any publishing credits. Because we are passionate and generally well-educated, many of us will produce work of high quality, at least some of the time. But novices, by definition, are new to the craft. We make mistakes, and those mistakes are actually a good sign, as they show a willingness to experiment, to take risks. Our work will often be uneven, brilliant flowers of language sprouting in the midst of a dull field overflowing with platitude and cliche.

Some of the writing I review in these groups is great. Some, not so much. And while it’s important to emphasize what is good, it’s equally important, as a reviewer, to point out the weaknesses in each work.

I provided an anecdote in my first post, but this time, in order to avoid anyone stumbling across this blog and thinking I’m calling out their deficiencies, I’ll use a hypothetical. My imaginary friend Conrad is writing a historical fiction novel about the American Revolutionary War. He’s a good man, someone I enjoy seeing at each of our monthly meetings, and his writing is often good. Conrad also has been very complimentary of my own work, and has provided many suggestions which I have used to good effect. This month, Conrad submits a chapter on the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which his central character, colonial officer Wing Miller, is shot through the shoulder, and falls unconscious. As the chapter concludes, British soldiers advance against the colonials… but just before he is taken captive, Miller is wakened by the spirit of Constantine Goody, a comrade who had been killed two chapters earlier. “Run, Wing!” the spirit commands, as Miller staggers to his feet and joins the fleeing colonial soldiers. This is the first supernatural occurrence in the novel.

I have a variety of responses to choose from:

  1. “A ghost? Really? Sounds like you got stuck trying to figure out how to get Miller out of the battle, and pulled something out of your ass. This sucks — change it.”
  2. “This is chapter 14, and there have not been any supernatural beings in the preceding chapters. Having Constantine show up as a spirit here seems out of place in the world you’ve created for the reader. You risk confusing your reader here.”
  3. “This wouldn’t have been my first choice for concluding this scene, but good for you for taking a risk!”

The smart-ass in me, that over-educated voice of critique, would relish giving the first answer, but I try to keep that voice to myself (and most times, I succeed). And the person who enjoys Conrad’s friendship wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, and go with the third answer. He won’t be motivated to revise the ending of chapter 14, but he’ll feel good about himself — and we’re supposed to support each other in writing groups, right?

But here’s the problem. Conrad has only two more chapters to write, and is planning to send his manuscript to literary agents as soon as they’re complete. And my instincts tell me that if he has that ghost show up out of nowhere in chapter 14, agents are going to question his judgement. Somebody needs to urge Conrad to reconsider how he gets Miller out of his predicament — and honest criticism from a friend will be much better for his career than an impersonal rejection notice from an agent.

Yes, we need to support each other in our writing groups. But we also have a responsibility to provide useful criticism where it is warranted. Because in the end, we’re here to help each other.

Songs of Freedom

Last evening, I attended an outdoor concert and fireworks show in honor of Independence Day in the United States of America. During intermission of the concert, popular music was played through the loudspeakers, and among the songs played were John Mellancamp’s “Pink Houses” (with its refrain Ain’t that America, for you and me, ain’t that America, home of the free), the Lenny Kravitz cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony:

  • Mellancamp’s song is a bitter satire of the American dream, and implies that the reward for hard work in this country is little more than a little pink house with a freeway running through its front yard
  • Guess Who is a Canadian band, and their 1970 song is a protest against America’s military action in Vietnam (I don’t need your war machines)
  • Born down in a dead man’s town… The opening to Springstreen’s song is dark, and the lyrics get progressively bleaker, ending with Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.

While I wasn’t offended by the choice of these songs for the event, I did think it showed astonishingly poor judgement. At first, anyway. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m actually believing the playlist was brilliant.

There is a long history of dissent and protest in our country. The Constitution gives legal protection to citizens redressing their grievances. As the recent Broadway musical Hamilton demonstrates, Americans were arguing with each other, often violently, years before declaring its independence.

Internal conflict is part of our country. We argue in times of war, and peace. After engaging in a devastating civil war, we acted with haste to return the rebellious states to the union, all but guaranteeing they’d find some other way to disobey.

So as we celebrate America’s independence, it does seem right and good for us to think how our old crazy dreams just kinda came and went, to let our northern cousins tell us they don’t wanna see our face no more, to remember that many of our citizens have become long gone daddies. The freedom to give voice to our dissent is one of the aspects I admire most about my country.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Anyone reading a Raymond Carver story should be required to say “the end” at the conclusion. So little happens in his stories — plot summaries read like satires (the titular story of this collection could read, “four people talk around a dinner table while getting drunk on gin”) — and their climaxes so unspectacular, to give a listener a strong cue that the tale has ended. In addition to not featuring any exploding helicopters, Carver’s short fiction violates several established conventions. Many characters do not have names; hardly any backstory is revealed; very little is shown, and even less is told.

But partly because they are so sparse, Carver’s short stories are some of the most emotionally powerful I’ve ever read. I don’t intend to imitate his style, but it has inspired me to trust that, with words, sometimes less is more.

“Why Don’t You Dance?”, the first story in the volume, is a great example of his work. An unnamed man puts the entire contents of his house onto his driveway; some of the possessions had been on “her side” of the bedroom, although no information about “her” is provided. The man leaves to pick up food at a store, and a young couple, referred to as a boy and a girl (the boy does have a name, although you have to be paying attention to catch it), drive past the house and, believing a yard sale is in progress, stop to investigate. The man returns, and after agreeing to sell many items for bargain-basement prices, puts on a record (the setting is late 1970s) and invites the couple to dance. Weeks later, the girl grapples with understanding the man’s motivation. The End.

We simply can’t understand the man, because we are told so little about him. But when he puts on the record and asks the boy and girl to dance, we can sense this is somehow important to him, that’s he’s doing more than trying to offload the record player. Maybe the couple reminds him of the early days of his marriage, and he wants to draw out those memories; maybe the man wants the couple to connect in a way he wasn’t able with his wife; maybe he wants one last joyful moment before abandoning his home. It’s a poignant scene, memorable not for its details (since there are none) but for the way it shows a man searching for kindness as he struggles with some misfortune.

Since I’m overly fond of superhero movies, I have to mention Carver’s role in Birdman, the 2014 dark comedy that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Michael Keaton plays an actor made rich and famous for performing as the superhero Birdman on film. (Birdman does not exist as a character, but Keaton did appear as Batman in two films.) To demonstrate his legitimate acting talent, Keaton’s character produces a Broadway adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It is the perfect contrast, the sizzle and excess of the superhero genre against Carver’s minimalism, and if that is the closest this master of the short story ever gets to appearing in a blockbuster, I’ll be fine with that.

Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings

June 6 may no longer resonate with Americans in the way that July 4 always has, or September 11 will for some time, but among events taking place outside our borders, the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy is arguably the most significant event in our nation’s history. D-Day has justifiably become a well-documented event, and the challenge of a book like Craig L. Symonds’ Neptune is to shed light on an overlooked aspect of the operation, or recount the well-known tale in a captivating manner.

Symonds is an unassuming writer, never indulging in overwrought prose while also never taking any chances. His writing gets the job done, but is hardly memorable; the reader will never have to consult a thesaurus. Yet he makes up for his plainclothes rhetoric in his choice of subject matter. The book focuses on the years-long naval operations (code named Neptune) required to prepare the Allies for D-Day, and the author does an admirable job of demonstrating the daunting tasks faced in 1942, the impressive buildup of resources in 1943, and the triumph of logistical planning required to make the invasion successful.

A secondary focus of the book is just as fascinating: the tension between Britons and Americans, both militarily and politically, throughout the operation. Eisenhower and Roosevelt wanted to charge into Europe as early as 1942 while Montgomery and Churchill urged the patient buildup of resources, and if that sounds like a clash between impetuous Americans and British reserve, the cultural stereotypes seem to have rung true on this occasion.

While most of the book is more impressive when viewed as a whole, it does have some individual moments. One particular tale relates of a proposal to construct large landing strips made of pykrete, a frozen composite of water and wood pulp. To demonstrate the substance’s durability, a slab of pykrete was brought into a war planning meeting, and one British admiral decided to see how it would hold up under a gunshot. Quite well, in fact; the bullet bounced off the pykrete slab and ricocheted across the room, sending military leaders of two nations scrambling for cover.

The audiobook is also distinctive for being performed by the author, who actually does quite well — precise diction, clear voice, tone varying when appropriate. Overall, this book provided an interesting study of an event that should never lose its place in the history books.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Praising a novel nearly two decades after it won a Pulitzer Prize feels a bit irrelevant, like applauding with mittens after twenty thousand pairs of fleshy hands have ceased clapping. But since any review says as much about the writer as is does about the subject, let me declare, by way of explaining why I find Michael Chabon’s 2001 novel so exceptional, the type of fiction I aspire to in my own writing.

The novel is set during the late 1930s and early 1950s, almost entirely in New York city with a brief interlude in the most unlikely of World War II battlefields, and follows the careers of three comic book professionals in what is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Comics.” As an avid fan of the medium, I’ve always been uncomfortable with using precious metals to describe the various eras of comic book, as it proposes a hierarchy that in many ways isn’t justified. For all their innovation, the comics in the Golden Age were far inferior, in both their writing and artwork, to their Silver and Bronze age descendants. Yet the Golden Age was a time when comic book sales and their cultural impact (wonderfully depicted in David Hajdu’s excellent The Ten-Cent Plague) were at a height they would never reach again, even in today’s world of blockbuster superhero movie franchises. To his credit, Chabon hails the achievement of the era while acknowledging its inferior quality, writing comic books of this time were “like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory… larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant.”

The scope of the novel is ambitious, dealing with the immigrant experience of 1930s America, the global fight against fascism, and the crushing social conformity in post-war America. These large experiences are told through three main characters: Joe Kavalier, Sam Klayman, and Rosa Parks, who forms one of the oddest yet entirely believable love triangles in literature. Joe is the illustrator and Sammy the writer for the Escapist, a superhero who is part Superman, part Houdini. (The book cover image at the top of this post shows the Escapist socking the jaw of Hitler).

Chabon’s writing is excellent. What I like best are his paragraphs, which are long and meandering, sometimes containing a long passage of exposition between two lines of dialog — were I to attempt imitating this style, I’d need a much longer interruption than this (with several more variants in punctuation) — that somehow maintains grammatical cohesion. He has some great metaphors as well, such as “her eyes the pale gray of rainwater pooled in a dish left on the window ledge.”

I’ll conclude with a juicy quote from one of the minor characters, an editor named George Deasey, who subtly attempts to convince Joe and Sam to be more ambitious in their licensing negotiations for the Escapist:

“There is only one sure means in life,” Deasey said, “of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. Ad that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money.”

Deasey represents the cynicism which both Joe and Sammy attempt to overcome through their work in the comics. Although not entirely successful in their quest, their journey makes for a memorable adventure.

Rules for Reviewers, Part 1: Critique the Writing

I belong to a couple writer’s groups, informal gatherings of novice authors who share their work and critique the work of others. These groups have been where I’ve learned what I do well (dialog, and creating narrative tension) and where I need to sharpen my game (exposition, and resolving narrative tension). As a reader, I’ve developed a reputation as a tough but fair critic, someone who provides thoughtful analyses that are constructive, rather than destructive. It’s not easy being critical in a supportive way, and to help me succeed more often in reaching these goals I’ve developed some rules for working in a writer’s group. Over the course of several posts, I’ll discuss each of the articles in my code of conduct.

Critique the writing, not the writer

Some of the material I’ve read in these groups has been quite good. On more than one occasion, I’ve concluded my comments with these words: Get. This. Published.

But there’s also been a lot of sub-par, fair-to-middlin, not so great, and at times downright awful work as well, even from writers who had previously submitted very good stories to the group. And as I’ll explain further in a subsequent post, empty praise does little to service the writer. Yet as a reader, it’s important to remember that novice writers fail not because of some personal character flaw, but rather because their enthusiasm is a little ahead of their expertise. Readers need to focus on the words: here is the passage where the writing falls short, this is why it doesn’t work, and (where appropriate — more on this in a later post) here is how it could be improved.

I’ll illustrate this approach with an anecdote from the only session I will ever attend of one particular writer’s group. Authors in this group came with copies of their material, which were handed out to readers before the author gave an oral reading. One of the pieces delivered the evening I attended had a number of flaws, one of which was the second paragraph — five sentences long, each beginning with the words He then. When it came time for reader responses, I pointed out this repetition to the author, and suggested a few variant sentence beginnings would speed up the pace of the narrative. Critique the writing, not the reader. A few readers after me, however, took a far different approach. Slapping the manuscript onto the table, this reader leaned forward in his seat, glared at the author, and declared: “You’re a lazy writer!” A statement which revealed a lot about the character of the speaker than of his intended target.

Since writing is an intensely personal expression, this approach won’t work for some writers, who will take any critique of their writing as a personal attack. Readers can’t control how their analyses will be taken, but they can pay attention to how they deliver their messages. And if those messages focus on the writing, the people who compose those works will be far more likely to use these messages to their benefit.

Information Infestation

The twentieth anniversary of the Columbine school shooting will occur in a few days, and today I stumbled across an interesting series of essays on the incident’s aftermath from Denver-based 5280 magazine. Among those essays were two pieces of information I have known for years about the killers:

  • They were members of a brooding clique of social outcasts at the school known as the Trench Coat Mafia
  • They had created levels in the game Doom
  • What I didn’t know until today was that both of these items are pure bullshit. In the days after the massacre, these were among the many rumors that journalists scavanged from the ruins of the community’s shattered psyche, and they did as they were trained — run with the story, and get the scoop on your rivals.
  • Then ask questions.
  • And if the answers you get suggest your scoop may have relied on a falsehood… the falsehood you reported becomes urban legend despite numerous updates and corrections… your emphasis on the sensational and salacious inspires copy-cat atrocities…
  • Well, you were just doing your job.
  • Maybe I shouldn’t care so much about two trivial details of this horrific event. And yes, shame on me for not conducting the five minutes of Internet research that would have disproven these myths. But I can’t help thinking that information has become a disease, an infestation of deception that has crippled our ability to think critically. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but the way out of our predicament is not through more learning, but better discerning — sorting fact from rumor, no matter how appealing the fiction may be.
  • Technology’s Role in Driver Retention

    A former employer of mine, a software company for the trucking industry, has asked me to write occasional articles on their company blog. I’m hoping to use this opportunity to research topics and discover unique and interesting angles on them. And the pay is decent — that always helps.

    My first article is about the high level of driver turnover at many trucking companies, and how technology can either reduce or increase that problem.