Good Manners May Kill Good Writing

August 23, 2012

 You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you.  And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.  ~Arthur Polotnik

Manners make the world go round.

Imagine how many fewer world crises there would be if the people in power would simply remember their manners. Imagine a political race where opponents focus on applicable content and not resort to abysmal mud-slinging. They are the poster children for bad manners and we lose opportunities to listen to any real debate on real issues. (This happens worldwide and not just here in the United States, so don’t think I’m singling out our race to the big vote in November.)

Merriam Webster defines manners as “social conduct or rules of conduct as shown in the prevalent customs”. Manners are no longer only applied to real life situations but to our virtual world as well. Being writers we live an awfully big part of our lives in this world. Prevalent customs are still being formed as these new neighborhoods and villages continue to evolve. There are distinct differences between this world and the one of brick and mortar. I was surprised to have some of these distinctions pointed out to me this week and the possible backlash it may have on writers.

A blog that I like to follow, The Passive Voice, offered a rebuttal to another article written by Jacob Silverman entitled “Against Enthusiasm”. Mr. Silverman has taken the stance that honest criticism in the literary world is a dying thing and we are not any better for its demise. Passive guy vehemently argues that point. Being the polite, mild mannered person that I believe myself to be, I was quite surprised at being able to see both sides, but leaning towards Jacob Silverman.

Mr. Silverman believes that we are in the middle of an epidemic of niceness in this new online book culture. He cites an example of an author who has her first book coming out soon, but already has a loyal following on Twitter running into the thousands. The author is funny, delightful and engaging in this arena of social media. Because of that, she is retweeted, liked, and plus 1ed. (I don’t even know how to write plus oned!) A well known literary website follows her and has already picked her book for their monthly book club without ever having read a single word!

So far I’m congratulating the author on being a brilliant and personable marketer, then I come to his point. What if you are a reviewer or critic and you are part of this vast web of writers and fans? Are you willing to honestly critique the author’s work after watching her life unfold for the last year or so? What if you had been the recipient of some of her attention? What if she had praised you or had mentioned you with affection in a tweet? How honest will you be? He goes on to state that if you spend any time on Twitter or wading through blogs, you will drown in the “relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing all books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.” Mr. Silverman believes that it is shallow, untrue, and will create an atmosphere where writers are more admired for their personal biographies or how they manage social media rather than standing on their own merits of being a good writer.

 

This made me stop and think.

 

He goes on to say that social media, which seems to be built largely on those retweets, likes, favorites etc., is akin to being a part of a worldwide slumber party. Anyone who doesn’t want to be on board the sugar train may be marked as unlikable or worse (gasp) unfollowable. So why is that positivity so bad? I like to be complemented. I like that my writing world is a warm fuzzy place to be. When I get published, I’d like my friends to toot my horn just like I’ve done for them. I don’t think anyone reading this blog would say differently. However, the constant applause makes it harder to hear any kind of dissent. While painful to hear, it is that voce of dissent that pushes us to be better and to make for a more “vibrant, useful literary culture”.

Passive Guy completely disagrees with this view point that was also shared by Dwight Garner in the Times. PG pulled a quote, “What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics- perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” Passive Guy believes this sounds like the strap wielding father who tells the kids they’re being beaten for their own good. He goes on to point out that this is the absolute menace of criticism- that it represents a hierarchy that lords over the unruly artists.

 

I understand and agree with his viewpoint as well.

 

As with most issues in life, the loudest voices are often those on both sides of the extreme. I believe cutting someone’s work to the bone is not necessary. I also think living in a world where only sweet fairies give kisses isn’t reality either. I think good, honest, constructive criticism is necessary (although painful, I’m the first to admit). This is what pushes us to dig deeper and write better because we all want to be praised. We all want people to find value in our work.

If we only have positive feedback, I would suggest two things. One- much of what you hear if a lie or a colored truth. Two- we believe the compliments and become complacent. What do you think?

 

 


Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give A Damn (…I Lie)

August 11, 2011

By: Stacey Purcell

“You’re beginning does not have a strong hook and I’m afraid you won’t draw your readers in as it stands.” Ouch.

Writers are gluttons for punishment. We pour our hearts upon the page, open our souls for all to see and then serve it up on a platter for human consumption. This is the wondrous glory and the bane of our existence. We cannot escape the inevitability of being critiqued. It is a part of the creative life. Unless we’re determined to never let our work see the light of day, then someone, somewhere will offer their opinion on what we’ve done.

Before we put our stuff up for sale or send it off to an agent, we need to have impartial eyes read over our pages. Critique partners are a writer’s secret weapon. When done correctly, they can help us avoid the type of comments at the top of this post. They can find holes in your plot, compliment your choice of words, and keep you from head hopping. The trick is to find just the right kind of help you need and to recognize you won’t need the same type of help at every stage.

I attended a workshop recently taught by my friend, Lorin Oberweger. She’s a professional free lance editor( www.free-expressions.com ) who I think is rather brilliant. The workshop was titled Working Smarter: Understanding What Kind of Feedback You Need and When You Need It She suggests that we break the process up into 3 phases.

Phase 1 is when you’re writing an early draft. Construct it more like a dialogue rather than a list of improvements. Ask questions like: What’s happening?- literally unfolding in the scene. What emotions are conjured for you? What is your impression of the protagonist? What is the viewpoint character trying to accomplish in the scene?

Phase 2 should be done during the middle drafts. Your partners should dig deeper into your characters and story. Ask questions like: Does the opposition seem clear and significant enough to pose a compelling obstacle in this scene? How am I handling the pacing of this scene? Do I understand what motivates the protagonist/ antagonist/viewpoint character in this scene?

Phase 3 is for the last drafts of your story. It’s almost ready to send out into the world. This is when giving concrete suggestions are the most valuable. Is the scene successful? What elements are eluding me? Is there a lack of credibility? Problems with grammar, formatting, flow? Are there issues of language/ voice?

This is a wonderful structure for helping a writer along without breaking their heart. Too much constructive criticism at the beginning may seem like an insurmountable blockade. Even though it is well meaning, it can be overwhelming. Start with the general and steadily move to the specific. Makes sense.

Of course, like most things in life, critiquing is not a one size fits all thing. While Lorin outlined this method, we also discussed that not every approach is necessarily for you. For instance, I’ve found that, for my personality, I need a combo of all three phases to help me feel like I’m truly moving forward. On our first pass, we focus more in on Phase 1 and 2 and only touch on 3. (Some things, you just can’t ignore!) After I’ve wrestled with it for awhile, we make another pass and that’s a combo 2 with a heavy dose of 3.

After you decide how and what you need from your critique partners, you may decide that you need help from a professional. There are many wonderful free lance editors and many awful money suckers. Be careful. Do your research. Get references. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lorin Oberweger and I think she’s amazing. She’s supportive and very insightful. That being said, after she suggested I cut two chapters even though they were “extremely well written”, I sent her an email back that looked something like this:

YOU SUCK!!! (Of course, she was 100% correct.)

She just smiles and tells me, “I suck so you don’t have to.”

Do you have critique partners? How do you structure your time with them? What have you found that really works? What doesn’t? Have you worked with a free lance editor before? Were you happy? Chime in and let us know!